Your Healthy Diet of Content

I talked about Todd Henry’s, Accidental Creative in a post about defining your work style not that long ago.  Having completed the book, I am now going back to indentify the areas in my own creative, strategic and on-going learning process that need the most work.

A section that I found to be particularly useful was Henry’s chapter on “Stimuli”. It goes about the way you’d expect. You are what you consume.  If you read and watch garbage, your mind will be filled with the same.

So, given the overwhelming flow of fantastic books, articles, blog posts and research studies baiting the curious mind, how do we sift through it all to ensure optimal inspiration and benefit across a variety of disciplines, relevant both to our professional and personal interests? Furthermore, how do knowledge workers consume the material that will benefit them the most at solving the critical problems they’re faced with everyday?

Ultimately we’re looking to expand the mental framework with which we use to understand and interpret the world. So, as Henry points out, make the box bigger, and you’ll be more likely to synthesize information from disparate reaches of our world in your own problem solving.

Henry offers some helpful recommendations which I’ll supplement with some of what I’ve come across during my own research and personal experience.

First, what’s the basic blocking and tackling you need to do to stay up to date in your field?  Henry refers to this as the mental vegetables in your content diet. These are the websites, magazines and writers that you need to be following weekly or even daily to ensure you’ve got all the information you need. For me, being a strategist in marketing, these are sites like PSFK, Harvard Business Review, Ad Age, Mashable, etc.  This should account for around 25% of your reading.

Second, address areas where you may be lacking information. We often avoid that with which we are unfamilar or uncomfortable, frequently without even knowing it. Take some time to identify areas of weakness and find books, blogs or subscribe to newsletters that will start you on the path to more comprehensive mastery of your industry. This should also take up around 25% of your reading or study time.

Next, read material that pertains to what you’re curious about right now.  For me personally, I’ve been extremely interested in Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology work around the ‘hero’ archetype.  As a result, I’ve been watching films, reading books, and naturally analyzing the world through this unique lens, not for a moment feeling like a chore. You’re most likely to incorporate information that you’re deeply passionate about into solving everyday challenges. This category, according to Henry, should account for roughly half of your study time.

Henry’s final suggestion, comes from Stephen Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, in which he makes the point that we should focus our studying on “supertexts”. Sample argues that everything we create today is really just a derivative of some supertext, like Plato’s Republic or John Smith’s Wealth of Nations, for example.  So, Sample says go right to the source and while I see value in this, supertexts often involve a great deal of time and effort, so I would say choose them wisely.

An additional suggestion involves embracing the seemingly irrelevant and just reading good fiction.  Learning, above all else, shouldn’t feel like a chore and a recent HBR blog post by Anne Kreamer, called, The Business Case For Reading Novels, highlights research that shows reading fiction significantly improves one’s ability to empathize with others, a crucial skill in today’s work place.  So, go ahead, pick up The Fire and Ice series (if medieval fantasy is your thing) and enjoy every minute of it.

I think Henry’s best point in this area is that we must be purposeful about our areas of study. And, if we have personal growth-related goals that we’re clear about, it’s easy to stay on track with this work. Secondly, from my own personal experience, I’ve found that when we’re interested in a given subject, we tend to start discovering resources in a variety of unexpected places.  So, allow yourself some freedom, especially when cruising the web to discover. That’s what its built for: to lead you down a series of rabbit holes only to come out the other side a more informed individual.

[Image from: The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers]

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