How To Invest In Better Thinking

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I don’t like traveling. My mentor John Mauldin  and I are opposites in that respect. I could never fly around the world like he does, but he loves it.

Recently, I saw a Harvard Business Review article that suggests John is on to something important. It says that “People are often at their most creative and ‘cognitively flexible’ when spending time in a different setting. Encountering difference in a new place… can expand your mind and open you up to more possibilities.”

Better Thinking

John spends a big part of his life following this advice. I think it explains some of his boundless energy and creativity.

Luckily for me, I can do the same without traveling too far.

Cutting-Edge Creativity

I live in Austin, Texas, where some of the world’s most creative people will converge next month for the giant South by Southwest Festival. If you haven’t been there, I promise you’ve never seen anything like it.

SXSW is actually three overlapping events: Music, Film, and Interactive. The whole thing lasts two weeks. At the core, it’s not really about any of those subjects, though. SXSW draws people who have ideas.

Interesting things happen when you get thousands of creative personalities in one place. The artists, techies, and business people cross-pollinate each other’s ideas.

I like watching the sessions where start-up companies pitch their ideas to venture capital investors. Some of their plans are crazy; others leave me wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

A few (very few) make it big. Twitter launched at SXSW in 2007. I saw it and became one of the earliest users.

Unexpectedly useful connections are normal in the SXSW brew. One year, I met an IBM marketing executive while we both waited for a session to start. He worked on their “Watson” artificial intelligence system. We laughed because it’s my name, too.

That chance encounter was important twice over.

First, AI technology wasn’t yet in the daily news like it is now. It made me start watching IBM’s progress years before the media picked up the story.

The second point: Why was he there?

IBM sends him to South by Southwest every year simply to absorb ideas. They don’t ask him to write a report or find sales leads. They want him to go and learn because it makes him a more valuable asset to the company.

That kind of thinking is why IBM is still in business after so many years. We would all do well to copy it.

My experience is similar. SXSW isn’t directly about economics—but it shows me a critical part of the economy in its earliest stages. That makes me a better writer and analyst in ways I wouldn’t be if I just stayed in my office, reading the usual research.

Invest in Better Thinking

Last week in Connecting the Dots (subscribe here for free), I wrote about the need to constantly upgrade your skills. I can’t stress enough how critical this will be in the next decade.

The machines are relentless. They won’t stop improving, which means we can’t stop either. We’re all on a permanent treadmill now.

Too busy to take a break? Do it anyway.

If you work five days a week, less holidays, that’s 250 days a year. Take 10–20 of them and update your mental software. If the SXSW or SIC aren’t your thing, then do something else. But whatever you do, don’t stop.

If you’re an employer, do the same for your best workers. Give them time to reorient and recharge. Invest in making them better thinkers, like IBM does. I promise it will pay off—financially and otherwise.

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