The following exercises ("try this") and book recommendations ("gateways") are from my 2001 book. These were taken from the first section of the book, which essentially "teaches" curiosity. The entire text of that section of the book, but without these exercises, is given on my Monday posts over the last few months.
GATEWAYS FOR THE OPEN MIND
Read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times as often as you can. These papers provide a broader perspective on life than most other dailies. What are the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? is a great book by Peter D’Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish that has brief entries on lots of different topics throughout history. Each can serve as a springboard to further research and thinking. Other books that are great for spurring curiosity and exploration are How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci by Michael J. Gelb and Flatland by A.E. Abbott.
I have over 40,000 non-fiction books. I could never assimilate their lessons if I read every page. Here are the steps I usually use:
1. Read the covers and inside jacket.
2. Look at the copyright page (usually right after the title page) to see when the book was published.
3. Read “About the Author” to see where he or she is coming from.
4. Read the table of contents and think about what it says about the book.
5. Read the first paragraphs of the first chapter and the last paragraphs of the last.
6. If this is not enough to understand the premise of the book, read the first paragraph of each chapter.
7. Look through the book for tables, charts, maps, and graphs. Study each one and see what conclusions you can draw from it; then read what the author says about it.
8. Scan the index for people, places, and subjects that you already know something about, and which will therefore help you weave this book into your mind.
Every evening, ask yourself, “What have I learned today?”
My favorite thesaurus is the Bloomsbury Thesaurus, edited by Betty Kirkpatrick. Unfortunately, it is not sold in the US, but can be ordered online at www.waterstones.co.uk. Of the thesauruses readily available in the US, the one most similar to the Bloomsbury are Roget’s Bartlett’s Thesaurus and the classic bestseller Roget’s International Thesaurus (edited by Robert L. Chapman).
There are several computer programs available to boost your creative thinking. Idea Fisher (www.ideafisher.com) is a computer thesaurus which will readily give you lots of ideas. If you have your own ideas and want to draw them into diagrams, one of the most interesting pieces of software is Inspiration (www.inspiration.com). A very advanced “idea processor” called Axon 2002 contains elements of both, and is available at (web.singnet.com.sg/~axon2000/index.htm).
· Go to a large newsstand and select $50 worth of magazines you’ve never heard of — the more diverse and the more unappealing to you, the better. Take them home and scan them. Think about the people who read these magazines. What are they interested in? Why? What are the similarities and differences (between audiences and between magazines)? Who advertises in these magazines, and what does that tell you?
· Do the same exercise with books in a bookstore or a library. Find the section you are least likely to visit.
· Focus on a subject that you have superficially touched upon — something you don’t know much about but think you might like to know more about. Maybe it’s something you saw in a movie, magazine, or museum — World War II history, steam locomotives, dinosaurs. Go deeper into this subject; start perhaps with an encyclopedia, find references to three or four books, then read or scan them. Search the Internet. Write a summary of what you learn. Always seek links to other things you know.
· Do the same exercise with some famous person in history. You can start by looking through a biographical dictionary until you find someone who seems interesting. Find out who his friends were, his enemies, his competition, his students, his teachers, his passions.
· Contact some living famous person in an area that interests you. Many are more accessible than you might think. I had never done this but thought I should follow my own advice, so I called up Stanley Marcus, the visionary retailer who built Neiman-Marcus. I ended up visiting him in his office and learning a great deal.
· Pick something unusual that is of potential interest to you and include it in your next trip to New York or another major city. It could be anything — a collectible, unusual cameras, old maps, retro dresses — but it should not be something you can find at the mall. When you go to the city, ferret out places that sell the item. This exercise may take you to a neighborhood you’ve never even heard of.
TOSS IT UP
Play a game with yourself — I call it “Toss It Up” — in which you break out of your normal patterns of living and thinking. Here are some ways to get started:
¨ If you always eat out, try eating frozen dinners at home for a week. If you usually eat at home, eat out every day for a week.
¨ When you eat out, try restaurants that are radically different from the ones where you usually go.
¨ If you go to church but not night clubs, or vice versa, reverse them.
¨ If you usually stay at Hiltons or Hyatts, try a Days Inn.
¨ Go three days with no TV, or watch TV several hours in a row.
¨ Explore performing arts you’ve never experienced before — opera, symphony, ballet, country music, polka dancing, or a gospel choir.
¨ Hang out at the mall or a hotel lobby on a Saturday afternoon or at a downtown intersection from five to six PM. Watch people.
¨ If you like the Rolling Stones, sample another musical revolutionary: Stravinsky.
¨ If you like Barbra Streisand, try another great set of female lungs: the Le Mystere de Voix Bulgare (Bulgarian Women’s Choir).
CHECK OUT THESE
Here are some things that will help you think in unusual ways:
¨ Art by Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali, M. C. Escher, and Jeffrey Smart
¨ Music by John Adams, Afro Celt Sound System, Henryk Górecki, Astor Piazzolla
¨ Movies by Terry Gilliam, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris
¨ Nonfiction films Koyaanisqatsi and Microcosmos
¨ When in Chicago, visit the Seminary Co-Op bookstore at 58th Street and University Avenue near the University of Chicago and browse the books, most of which you will not find in other bookstores. The store also has one of the most unusual entrances of the world’s great bookstores.
Seek out the eccentrics around you. The folks in school or at the office who are a little different — who are obsessed with physics, with steam engines, with the tribes of New Guinea, with rugby, with the violin. Find out what drives their passion. When you run into someone like this, take them out to lunch.
People are writing more books about the history of the things that are all around us. Some of my favorites include any book by John Jakle and colleagues. They include The Motel in America, The Gas Station in America, and Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. Other good books include Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States by Kenneth T. Jackson; Ranches, Row Houses, and Railroad Flats: American Homes—How They Shape Our Landscape and Neighborhoods by Christine Hunter; The Way Things Work and The New Way Things Work by David Macaulay (now available on CD-ROM); The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman, and two out-of-print classics, The Americans: A Social History of the United States, 1587-1914 and Great Times: An Informal Social History of the United States, 1914-1929, both by J. C. Furnas. (My favorite source for out-of-print books is www.abebooks.com.)
Pick something from your everyday life, such as your pantry or workshop, and research it. Usually the best place to start is with an encyclopedia. (The Columbia Encyclopedia is a great one-volume work that I keep on my desk). What is the history of toothpaste? Of ketchup? When was the phonograph invented?
Pick any consumer business – a store, airport counter, restaurant – and do a review of it as if you owned it or were competing with it. Pick a business that you would not normally study. Spend time there observing people on both sides of the “counter.” List what is done well and what is done poorly. Come up with lessons (good and bad) for your enterprise.