How To Be Curious
Cognitive Fitness for Planners
April & May 2018 | Ian Leslie
At the start of this year, you probably paid a little more attention than usual to your health. You may have challenged yourself to go running more often, or to eat more vegetables. But how much you think about keeping your mind in shape?
As strategists, our careers, our livelihoods depend on our intellectual contributions. That’s what we get paid for. Not just that, of course. We also need to be great at collaboration, a skill-set in itself. But then, so does everyone else. Our comparative advantage, our specialism, is being smart (not smartarse).
Being smart is not about having an advanced maths degree or dropping the names of French philosophers in creative briefings. It’s not even about intelligence, in the narrow sense.
It is about being able to bring a range of different perspectives to any problem.
It’s less about having the right answers than it is being able to ask penetrating questions.
It’s less about being right than being productively wrong.
To perform these functions at a high level, your mind needs to be a diverse ecosystem. It needs a deep stock of knowledge of brands and marketing. It also needs to be able to range confidently across related fields, like popular culture, business, technology, and psychology.
Crucially, it needs to be constantly replenished with new information and insights from the world beyond your office walls.
In other words, strategists need to be curious and stay curious. That’s not as straightforward as it sounds. It requires us to think strategically about our own cognitive habits.
In my book on curiosity, I explain a fundamental distinction made by psychologists. There is diversive curiosity: the desire for new information. Then there is epistemic curiosity: the ability to accumulate and combine knowledge.
The internet is a machine for stimulating diversive curiosity. It is always feeding us new distractions. But it doesn’t necessarily help us with epistemic curiosity. That requires effort and focus. And a strategy.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring tips and methods for building your epistemic curiosity, and optimizing your cognitive performance. What constitutes a healthy information diet? Should I specialise or generalise? What are the best places to go for new insights and ideas? How should I organise my reading and listening?
How can I get smarter?
One important aspect of fitness is diet. In the next few weeks we’ll be giving you a look at the information diets of different strategists, via a Q&A. To kick off, here’s mine
1 May 2018 | By: Ian Leslie There’s so much stuff to know and learn about. How do you choose where to start – or where to end?
1 May 2018 Raquel, CSO at M&C Saatchi London, shares what makes her curious and keeps her mind in shape.
24 April 2018 | By: Faris Yakob How can we organise our intellectual lives - our information diets, our mental habits - in a way maximises our brain power?
24 April 2018 Faris, Co-founder of Genius Steals, shares what makes him curious and keeps his mind in shape.
17 April 2018 | By: Ian Leslie This week Ian shares 6 tips for how to manage your mental inbox. You can also check out 'Information Diets' from Katie Mackay-Sinclair and Kevin Chesters.
Managing Your Mental In-Box
17 April 2018
1. Make time for inputs
At work, there’s a constant pressure on you to show outputs – to write emails and presentations and talk a lot in meetings. That pressure is extended and intensified by social media. Everyone is meant to be communicating all the time. Everything is content. If you’re not careful, your mind, however brilliant, can end up like a field that has been over-farmed. When it’s all yield, all the time, the soil becomes drained of nutrients. The quality of yield goes down. So you need to deliberately and consciously make time for those nutrients –for quality inputs. Make time for reading, for listening, for viewing, for absorbing. Put aside time in your day or week for intellectual nourishment. Don’t treat it as a ‘nice to have’. Think of it as essential to your future productivity – much more essential, in fact, than clearing a few emails from your in-box.
2. Plan your inputs strategically
Diversive curiosity describes a kind of chasing after novelty. It’s the thrill of the new. It’s great, but it’s only a start. Epistemic curiosity is the conscious cultivation of knowledge. It’s building on what you know and combining it with other stuff you know. In today’s world we have before us such a dazzling, infinite array of possible inputs that it’s difficult to know where to start or where to end. We can easily allow ourselves to be driven solely by diversive curiosity, clicking on whatever link comes up, reading any articles or books, watching any videos, without any strategic goals. The more random our inputs, the less likely they are to stick, and the less likely you are to learn. You’ll be better off identifying a few areas you really want to learn more about - quite possibly areas you already know quite well - and focus on those.
3. Take your time
I'd like to see a "slow information" movement, parallel to the "slow food" movement. This is my stab at it. Read whole articles, don't skim. Read whole books, one at a time. Books are still the only medium that can do “thick description” – a detail-oriented, deep exploration of a subject. Read a good book slowly, absorbing and filtering every page, every thought; let it seep gently through the strata of your mind. Don’t substitute video for books. Trying to get by only on TED talks (much as I love TED talks) is like kidding yourself that you can skip vegetables if you take vitamin pills. Opinion-led polemics can be great fun to read but they’re not real sustenance either – we can enjoy the sugar rush of a hot take without relying on them. In short: more protein, more fibre, easy on the cake, and take your time over meals.
4. Seek out different inputs to everyone else
It’s good to be into what everyone else is into – to see the big movie or read the hot book. At the very least, it means you can come up with an annoyingly contrarian opinion on it. But you’ll be a much more valuable strategist if you’re getting inputs from places other people aren’t looking. There’s a huge presentist bias on Google and in our media generally. New information is given much more prominence than old information. Fashion and groupthink play big roles too in what is deemed “essential” to know about. To get away from that, you need to keep striving to turn up stones nobody else is looking under. Search out odd or obscure corners of the web. Read old books or articles that offer fresh insights on the now. Get to know esoteric fields of knowledge. In the much pithier words of Richard Huntingdon: read weird shit.
5. Collate your inputs
However you do it, take notes – notes of links, articles, ideas, quotes, talks. Given the range and variety of inputs available, your memory needs help – you need an outbrain. You can take notes by hand, of course (and there are advantages to doing that) but you won’t always be able to do so, and of course you need a way of storing and organising your notes. There are many good apps and services that help with this. Personally I’m not as diligent or efficient at note-taking as I’d like to be. I rely on a brilliant bookmarking service called Pinboard. I make a lot of notes in Gmail drafts. I keep a Tumblr of quotes I like. Once in a while I run through all my links and notes and see what new connections spring up; once you have enough of them, the notes start to speak to each other.
6. Stay curious
A few years ago a Reddit user posted the following question: "If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about today?" The most popular answer was this: “I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.” It’s funny because it’s true. The internet’s power to push our dopamine buttons can distract us from even the smallest effort to enrich our minds. It can absorb our attention, without us absorbing anything from it in return. Don’t let your curiosity be killed by cats.
One important aspect of fitness is diet, which is why we’re giving you a look at the information diets of senior planners. This week: two of the industry’s most colourful and creative strategists, Katie Mackay-Sinclair of Mother, and Kevin Chesters of Ogilvy & Mather.
What You Think Is A Function Of The Ideas You Consume - Faris Yakob
24 April 2018
Within our industry, Faris Yakob is well known as a high performance cognitive athlete. He is one of the most consistently interesting, stimulating, provocative thinkers around. His work draws an eclectic variety of sources, from evolutionary psychology to poetry to pop culture. He’s also given a lot of thought to what makes a healthy information diet. So I’m delighted he’s agreed to contribute a post to this series – and to answer our Info Diet Q&A. Enjoy!
- Ian Leslie, APG Guest Editor
I recently wrote a series of articles trying to establish a framework for a balanced media diet. It is one of the most popular concepts I have developed, based on coverage and readership in just a couple of weeks.
In order to save time, instead of recapping a bunch of existing thinking, here they are, go read them, I’ll wait…
Probably not, that’s fine, read them at your leisure. Or don’t. You just need to know that research shows that some media makes you feel bad, some makes you feel better. Some makes you smarter, some fill your head with falsehoods. Like the food pyramid I stole the framework from, stuff at the top is bad for you and should be limited, stuff at the bottom is good and should be increased.
I had just finished writing them when I got this brief:
"Cognitive Fitness for Planners". How can we organise our intellectual lives - our information diets, our mental habits - in a way maximises our brain power?”
Synchronicity strikes when you are exploring an idea whose time has come.
A PLANNER’S MEDIA DIET
The thesis behind our creative consultancy is that one cannot invent without inventory. That’s what Genius Steals means. We took the name from a fauxtation ascribed to Picasso but actually derived from T.S Elliot discussing how one can judge creativity without relying on subjectivity. Good poets draw from diverse inspiration, borrowing from authors “remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
That’s the rule of thumb. Diversity and breadth, because seeing patterns in different things is abstraction, the basis of creative thinking. The more diverse the inputs combined together, the more creative the idea. Your job as a planner is to provide the right inputs.
So what you should you consume and how much?
I think about media across various vectors, speed and effort especially. Easy, fast media is useful for consuming the now but slow, harder to consume media is better for building the structural foundations of your thinking.
For planners, fast media is our trade press. If one wants to work in an industry, it behooves one to know how the industry is talking about itself. It is also, of course, social media, because it’s our job to understand the mediascape. The Planning Pyramid recommends limiting fast media consumption for your psychological wellbeing.
On occasion an uber-planner will be asked on Twitter what to read to get up to speed by a young or hoping-to-be planner and will receive the snappy “anything except a planning or advertising book” in response. As the author of one, I simply cannot agree. One must read closely for the accumulated insights of those who came before, lest we make the same mistakes and discoveries every generation. Then we must consume more widely.
I do not believe a strategist can ignore either side of the planning equation, brand or comms, regardless of specialism but there is far more to it than that. Craft skills alone are hollow without humanity to inform them. So read more advertising books than trade press but not as much as other books.
Click here to read Faris' Info Diet
Staying Curious; You Should Be T-Shaped
1 May 2018
There’s so much stuff to know and learn about. How do you choose where to start – or where to end?
You know how you read a book about, say, evolutionary psychology, and find it really super-interesting, and then three months later someone asks you about it and you can’t remember a bloody thing? OK, glad it’s not just me. In fact, it’s most of us. Scientists who study the “forgetting curve” have found that it is steepest in the 24 hours after we have consumed information.
One way to mitigate this problem, and to speed up and maximise your learning, is to triangulate. In social sciences, triangulation means researching a question using several different methodologies at once. When I really want to learn about something I try and do so using different kinds of media all at once, or at least in quick succession. So if I want to learn about AI, say, I’ll read a book, read an interview, watch a video, do a Coursera, watch a TED talk, read an article…and, crucially, do it all in the same month. You’ll learn a lot more when you cluster like this because all these different inputs start colliding in your mind, merging and multiplying, and strengthening the neural networks that constitute your memories.
The bigger point here is that you’ll retain more memories of new information if you already know something about the subject. The most important thing to know about learning is this: knowledge is compound. For some context, read this fantastic post on the magic of compounding in nature, finance and branding. The same logic applies to knowledge.
Your brain is not like a hard drive; it does not slow down the more data it stores. Quite the opposite: it speeds up. Taking on board information is one thing, but to understand it – to turn it into knowledge - the brain needs to integrate it, and it finds it much easier to integrate new information when it can attach it to existing neural networks, or maps of knowledge. The bigger, varied and more detailed those already-existing maps, the more quickly new information is transformed into insight and new ideas. In short, the more you know, the easier it is to know more, and better you get at thinking and creativity.
For a very simple illustration of my point, give yourself five seconds to memorise the following strings of symbols:
X%99 $7 402 @£! 3175 #€RPU8U3
You can’t do it. Of course you can’t – who the hell can memorise six strings of symbols in five seconds?
OK now memorise this:
LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS
It’s exactly the same problem, but you probably didn’t even need one second this time. The difference is knowledge. For the second example you brought to bear to the problem all your maps of prior knowledge, learned over years: maps of how they letters fit together into words, maps of how sentences work, and maps of popular music. It all comes together (no Beatles pun intended) to turn an impossible memory task into one that gets done in a flash.
Over time, the knowledge-rich get richer and the knowledge-poor get poorer. This why early learning is such a big deal for children; once a kid gets a head-start on knowledge over another, it’s incredibly hard for the knowledge-poor kid to catch up, even when she puts in the same effort as the kid with a cognitive trust fund.
This dynamic makes a powerful argument for generalising – learning broadly – because when you have a wide base of knowledge about the world you are going to pick up new information on any new topic much more quickly than someone with a narrow base. You will not only seem smarter when any new topic comes up in conversation – you will actually be smarter.
But it’s also an argument for specialisation. When you start getting really deep into a domain of knowledge, your learning curve becomes exponential. So when it comes to the old question about whether you should specialise or generalise, I say, do both. Be T-shaped. The vertical line of the T makes you valuable in the marketplace for talent, as few people will bother to learn as much as you do about your speciality. The horizontal line – learning, if only a little, about other domains, other disciplines – make you a quick learner and a better collaborator.
It doesn’t have to be just one thing, of course. But it’s important sink a few drills deeply into the earth even as you roam wide and far around the world of knowledge. As the eighteenth century dandy Horace Walpole put it, “The whole secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and a thousand things well.”
One important aspect of fitness is diet, which is why we’re giving you a look at the information diets of senior planners. This week we have a brilliant example of a rich and varied diet from one our industry’s strategic stars, Raquel Chicourel of M&C Saatchi.
How Technology Can Feed Curiosity - Tom Chatfield
Throughout this series, we’ve emphasised the need to be open to insights and stimuli from outside the industry. For this final chapter in our series, I’ve decided to invite a non-planner into the fold to share with us his thoughts on curiosity, creativity and technology. Tom Chatfield is a thinker and writer that you should be following closely if you’re not already. He’s one of our most perceptive and erudite commentators on technology. If you want to understand technology’s relationship with our minds and our culture, you should read Tom. Also, read Tom if you want to get better at thinking: you can watch a video of his Ten Commandments for Critical Thinking here. I’m delighted that he’s agreed to round out this series with some thoughts on our theme.
9 May 2018
Just before bedtime, my four-year-old son and I talk about his day. What are the happiest and saddest things that have happened, I ask? What is the kindest thing he has done? We only started doing this recently—and I was slightly caught out when, after a few days, he asked the same questions back to me.
Explaining how I felt about my day to a four-year-old was an impressively demanding discipline. I had cooked breakfast for mummy. I felt both sad and happy about my work, I tried to explain—although this idea required a great deal more unpacking. It’s okay to feel lots of different things about something, I said, or not to know exactly what you feel.
We talked about whether I work too much, and then about why people work at all. Eventually, I realised he was saying pretty much anything he could to delay the moment when I would switch off the lights and go downstairs—so we talked about that too.
This isn’t a parable about learning from the wisdom or innocence of children—or even about their curiosity (which, in my son’s case, sometimes feels not so much insatiable as opportunistic). For me, it’s a story about time.
I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk typing on a computer, and quite a lot of time checking my smartphone, but during bedtime routine with our two young children I try to give them my undivided attention. My bedtime conversations with my son are vivid in my mind—and have led me down unexpected avenues of self-examination—in part because they occupy a very particular kind of time: one in which I am both undistracted and open to change. There isn’t a lot of this kind of time around, either in my life or the world.
In the year 2018 (and counting), we are surrounded as never before by serendipitous possibilities: glimpses into art, information and others’ lives. But for any of this to become meaningful, we also need a time to make it our own—to allow ourselves to be changed. Otherwise, it’s little better than background noise: grist to the mill of whatever we already happen to believe, feel, wish or fear.
Neither creativity nor curiosity can be pinned down to a single definition, but each entails a shift of momentum: something that deflects us from the predictable and the already-known. One of the ironies of living in an age of algorithmic suffusion is that everything we need and care about is constantly, instantly available at the touch of a handheld screen—and thus, amid bottomless variety, all our time risks becomes the same kind of time, no matter where we are or who we are with.
I’ve already said that this isn’t a parable about children—and I should add that it isn’t a whinge about smartphones, either. The tools and resources at our fingertips should be the envy of history. Yet this exquisite superfluity of options counts for little if we lack the time to let it work upon us—to allow ourselves to be transformed.
Here, then, is the moral—for me at least. A full life requires different types and textures of time; spaces and registers within which curiosity can breed change. If we don’t cultivate the habits, environments and encounters that allow this—and this means thinking hard about how and when technology can get in the way—we may end up mistaking a cacophony of confirmations for all that we need to know.
One important aspect of fitness is diet, and for this final installment I asked Tom to give us a snapshot of his information intake.