Monthly Archives: March 2011

feeling brain dead?

This just in! A new thought-filled find from some recent research around the blogosphere. Created by Mark Shead, who authored the article inspiring this share, is a treasure chest of interesting tips, thoughts, and articles.

After reading these ideas, I certainly plan to strive to not only continue exercising my body and spirit – but also my often unintentionally neglected and routine-ridden brain! I encourage you to do the same!

7 Ways To Upgrade Your Brain

2011 by Mark Shead

“A person’s mind is their most powerful tool. Yet very few people take intentional steps toward “upgrading” their brain and trying to become smarter. Here are some scary statistics from an article in The Economist:

In 1991 a worker with a bachelors degree earned 2.5 times as much as a high-school drop out.

In 2010 a worker with a bachelors degree earned 3 times as much as a high-school drop out.

There is an obvious trend toward paying people who have “upgraded their brain” more money. This probably isn’t too surprising, but consider this:

42% of people who graduate from college never read another book.

Wow! 42%!? To me that says that a good number of people get out of college and just assume they have arrived–no need to work on getting any smarter. Obviously there are ways to learn other than reading books, but books have traditionally been and still are one of the main ways you acquire formal knowledge. If you aren’t reading, it is very unlikely you are growing. It is even less likely that you are actually getting smarter in ways that have value outside of the tasks you do on a weekly basis.

In this post, we are going to look at seven ways to upgrade your brain. They are:

Get a degree
Seek out new experiences
Do things that are hard


Reading is the primary way we educate ourselves. If you aren’t reading, you are doing yourself a huge dis-service. With only a few exceptions, I’d go as far as to say that if you aren’t reading your brain is dying. Reading is the fundamental bedrock of upgrading your brain and becoming smarter. You have to read regularly.

Not all reading methods and not all reading contents are equal. There is a very big difference between reading on a computer and reading a physical book. A few months ago I read a study that compared reading on an iPad or Nook to reading a book and the researchers found that people remembered less when reading from the iPad. It had something to do with the way we perceive a lighted surface vs. a reflective one. Perhaps because we associate lighted surfaces with TV and are less engaged.

Reading on the Internet is also quite different from reading a book. A book presents a clear start and end point. There are also more barriers to publishing a physical book than getting something up on the web. Chances are a book will have more thought behind it than an article published on a web page. In addition, it is much easier to jump from place to place on the web so Internet articles don’t typically require or inspire the same level of concentration as what you might need for an intense book.

I’m not saying that reading from the Internet is bad. The web is an incredible tool and gives us access to information that would have been impossible in the past. However, we need to take care to not let it crowd out our traditional reading. We also need to be careful to use the Internet for things that the Internet is good for and use books for things books are good for. The Internet is great for looking up a single fact–something that can take a very long time with a book. Books are great for deeply studying a subject. (Obviously there are exceptions depending on what you are researching, but this is still true in general.)

So what should you read? Here are some suggested categories:
Classic books
Books related to your area of your current expertise.
Books related to the expertise you will need to be competitive in 10 years.
Books on topics from a completely different field.
For example, a computer programmer might read The Scarlet Letter for category 1. A book on advanced features of their programming language for category 2. A book on business management for category 3 and a book on neuroscience or physics for category 4.

An entry level accountant might read:
Moby Dick
A book on best accounting practices
A book about preparing for the CPA exam
A book on social media

This type of approach will help make sure you are getting a well rounded reading experience that helps prepare you for today AND tomorrow. Obviously there is nothing to keep you from reading other books like current fiction, etc. However, if all of your reading falls outside of these four categories, you probably are reading more for entertainment than for upgrading your brain.

Get a(nother) degree

If you don’t have a college degree, get one. However, keep in mind that not every degree is equal. You can get a diploma without necessarily learning very much just like you can become very smart without getting a diploma. You need two things from a degree:

You need the recognition that comes from having a formal college degree.
You need the knowledge that comes from having worked hard at an academic pursuit.

Society has decided that everyone should go to college. Because of this people without a degree have a much harder time at getting jobs. Colleges have responded by lowering standards so a degree doesn’t mean as much as it use to–particularly from some institutions. This is why it is worth putting the extra effort into getting a degree that is well recognized and that will give you the best educational experience. We will discuss choosing a good school later on.

If you already have a degree, the same thing applies. Get another one. To be competitive in todays job market, most people are going to need the training and recognition that comes from studies beyond the bachelors level. Usually a master’s degree is a good choice, but there are graduate certificate and citation programs that can be excellent options. Even if you are pursuing a master’s degree, a graduate citation can be an excellent stepping stone that gives you a way to quantify your education as you pursue your master’s degree. A resume that shows a graduate citation in X is better than a resume that shows you took some random classes.

When you get a degree, you are taking on the reputation of the school where you studied. The expectations that people have from a Yale graduate are different than the expectations of someone from a small community college. These expectations can strongly influence how people perceive you. If people think you are smart you will appear smart and they will think your ideas are good. (See this experiment for a better explanation of this phenomenon.)

This means that where you go to school can determine your ability to get interesting work. Having interesting work can be one of the best ways to upgrade your brain because it keeps you mentally active. So choosing a school is about more than just the academics and the educational experience. It is also about what type of opportunities it will give you and how rich those opportunities will be.

In the same spirit, you need to choose a school based on what type of academic experiences you will have. Generally you want to attend somewhere that you will be in the middle to top 75%. If you are the best student, you won’t have the same push toward your maximum capabilities. It is very healthy to have at least a few people in every class who can outperform you if you don’t try very hard. However, you don’t want to go to a school where everyone is so far above you that you can’t take advantage of the special opportunities that surround the academic environment.

If you are getting your first degree and just starting college, I’d suggest getting it in person at a traditional university–especially if you are a recent high school graduate. State schools offer reasonable tuition and can be very affordable.
There is a local school here where one can pay for everything without loans while working full time during the summer and part time during the school year making minimum wage.

For your second degree, you may find that online degrees or some of the programs like an executive MBA are more suited to your social, family, career and employment situation. You have to be a bit more careful in selecting a school for an online degree as their reputation can vary much more than that of established traditional institutions. I would highly recommend pursuing something like my Master’s Degree from Harvard. It was very cost effective, fairly flexible and Harvard generally keeps a good academic reputation particularly compared with the reputation of some other online schools.

The real “brain upgrade” value of a degree is the way that it will force you diversify. You can’t just study the stuff that comes easy to you. A degree from a good academic institution is a well designed package to give you a well rounded education including studying things that you might not study on your own. My undergrad degree is in music composition, but I had to take a lot of classes outside of the topic of music. At my school I even had to take a physical education class and run three miles each semester in less than 21 minutes. To graduate you also had to prove you knew how to swim well enough that you wouldn’t drown should you accidentally fall in a lake. Obviously making sure I could swim wasn’t directly related to music composition, but it is part of what the college decided a well rounded person should know how to do.

At Harvard, I was studying software engineering. One of the required classes was on computational theory. It studies the theoretical aspects of what type of problems can be solved by a computer and what type of problems can’t. For the most part, it isn’t something you need to know to write typical software. However, the real value is in the way it changed my thinking. It forced me to learn a different area of mathematics. I can point to turning point insights I’ve had in areas unrelated to software engineering that were only possible because of the different way of thinking I learned in that class.

Seek out new experiences

Our brains grow when we do something new with them. If you aren’t doing anything new, your brain is not growing. Reading new books, studying new topics, going back to get another degree are all things that can help give your brain new experiences. But what about more mundane things? Here are some ideas of simple things you can do that will help give you new experiences.

Brush your teeth with your non-dominate hand a few times each week.
Read a section of the newspaper or a magazine that you’d normally never touch.
Go into a store that you’ve never had any desire to visit.
Draw pictures
Draw pictures with your non-dominate hand
Drive to work a different way.
Cook a type of food you’ve never had before.
Watch a few movies that are in a different language.
Attend a lecture on a topic you know nothing about.
Spend a few hours in municipal court as an observer.
Attend a city commission meeting.
Go to a restaurant that is primarily frequented by people who aren’t in your age group.
Learn to juggle. (I highly recommend this.)
Do your work outside for a few hours.
Strike up conversations with people you normally wouldn’t talk to.
Visit a library you’ve never been in.
Browse a section of a library that you’ve never been in.
Attend an art display in a style you don’t particularly care for.
Attend musical recitals for different instruments and a modern composer.
Take the stairs in a building where you’ve only taken the elevator.
Listen to a different radio station.
Spend some time reading in the room in your house where you spend the least amount of time.
If you have land or a yard, go stand in part of it where you don’t think you’ve ever been before.
Try out a different operating system. (Many can run from a CD. See Haiku and Ubuntu)
Go to a school board meeting.
Go star gazing.
Write a letter to someone you’ve never written to before.
Ask an older relative about the things they remember when they were your age.

None of those activities are likely to be life changing. However, each one will change you just a little bit and each one will give you brain something new to think about and process.


We think all the time, but most of us don’t spend any structured, intentional time just thinking. We think just enough to start our next action. There is great value in taking the time to deliberately sit and think. One of the reasons we don’t do this is because it usually just becomes day dreaming. Day dreaming isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t as directed as what we are trying to achieve by sitting and thinking.

The funny thing about thinking is that there really isn’t that much information on how to go about doing it. There are books like How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci that are interesting but tend to focus on how to be creative less than on how to just think. On one hand this is disappointing, but on the other it makes sense. Thinking is a huge category and it is going to be very difficult for one person to explain how they think to someone else. What I’m going to do here is to try to give you some guidelines for productive thinking that work well for me. Obviously you’ll have to find what works for you and adjust things to fit your personal needs, but these should give you a start.

1. Decide what you are going to think about
To be really productive your thinking needs to be directed. Here are some things you might want to spend some time thinking about:
Your career plans and how to get the most out of your current job.
A business idea.
Personal goals – clarifying what you want to achieve and life and how to reach those achievements.

2. Find a quiet place without a lot of distractions
What qualifies as a distraction is going to be different for different people and may vary depending on what you are thinking about. A distraction free environment for clarifying your personal goals might be a coffee shop, but if you are working on coming up with a mathematical theorem, the same coffee shop might be full of distractions.

3. Write down what you hope to accomplish
Without a plan you won’t know if you accomplished what you set out to do. Get it down on paper to make sure you are clear what you want to get out of this “thinking session.” Your goal can be as specific or as general as necessary, but try to choose something that you can tell if you succeeded or not. Writing down “think about businesses” isn’t something that you can really quantify as having done or not–or at least it is hard to tell if you really accomplished anything. ”Come up with 3 ideas for a business I can run from home” is a bit easier to claim success.

4. Take notes
This may sound funny. Why would you take notes of your thinking? Getting something down on paper lets you see your though process much more easily than when it is just in your mind. Thinking is the process of interacting with information and getting some of that information out in front of you is a great way to focus and be creative. These don’t need to be formal notes. You can jot ideas, draw diagrams, doodle pictures or create mind maps to help clarify what you are thinking.

Musicians and sports figures constantly practice, but most other people never practice. If you can find a way to practice your skills, you can become better at what you do. Practice can make you faster, more efficient and better at your job. The trick is to find a small unit that you can repeat in a way that will increase your skill.

Here are some ideas of things you might be able to practice:
If you are slow at typing, practicing typing for 15 minutes per day can have a great return on investment.
Public speaking is something that can be practiced and good presentation skills are essential to many careers.
Writing is a skill that can be practiced. Few people wouldn’t benefit from being able to write a bit better.
Some fields even have competitions setup to help you practice. For example, TopCoder lets programmers compete to solve short programming challenges. Other disciplines have competitions or other ways that you can potentially practice.

Writing is underrated. The discipline of getting thoughts from your head onto paper is very valuable and you can learn a lot simply by writing down your ideas and observations. Writing is the process of making your thoughts concrete and visible. it allows you to clarify what you are thinking and refine your ideas. Writing makes you smarter because it forces you deeper into a topic and shows you areas of your topic that you don’t fully understand. For example, I recently wrote a post about finite state machines to help clarify my understanding and make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything in the 5 years since I took a class on the topic. Not only was the exercise good for me by forcing me to think deeply about the topic again, but the interactions with people who read it and had suggestions, corrections or disagreements was personally rewarding.

I started Productivity501 in 2005 and the practice of writing on a regular basis has been extremely valuable to my career. I highly recommend starting at least a personal blog. A personal blog can cover pretty much any topic and gives you a way to get your content up where others can benefit from it and interact with you. It is a lot easier to have the motivation to write when you know someone might/will read it and a blog gives you that type of exposure without needing to do any type of extensive setup or expensive publishing.

Do things that are hard

I’ve talked about the importance of reading things that are hard, but the same concept applies to doing things that are hard. Doing things that are difficult raises your ceiling and increases your capabilities.
I’ve heard of basketball coaches that put a smaller ring inside of the basketball hoop during practice. This makes it a lot harder for players to make baskets during practice, but when the game comes and they are practicing on a normal sized hoop it seems much easier to make shots. They make practice harder in order to raise the bar on their performance when it really matters.

In some ways, this suggestion sounds like the suggestion to find things to practice and there is some overlap. However, doing things that are hard can involve doing big projects and larger scale work than finding something small that you can practice over and over again. If tackle writing a 100 page research paper, the 5 page papers you are subsequently assigned will seem trivial in comparison. A builder who completes a 10,000 sq. foot luxury home is probably going to find managing the construction of smaller sized homes much easier after they have stretched themselves to manage the larger construction project.

If you want your brain to be operating at its peak capabilities, you need to constantly be asking yourself, “When was the last time I did something where I felt truly challenged? When was the last time where I was seriously worried that I might fail?” If you haven’t had any of those experiences recently, you may need to seek out a difficult assignment or project in oder to make sure your brain isn’t becoming stagnant.


Your brain is your most valuable asset. Many people leave their brain’s development up to chance. If you want to safeguard against becoming stale and irrelevant you need to make a conscious effort to upgrade your brain, develop your skills and insure that you are moving forward–not backwards.”

*Note: Full credit for this article goes to Mark Shead creator and author for See hyperlink of article title for original article and his full site.


lost and found (via Lost Things Photography)

Get….lost…in this beautiful work!

“Welcome to Lost Things Photography.

Lost Things Photography was born from collective conversations with various friends about importance. Many things have been given importance over others in todays world. People are obsessed with celebrity gossip and the latest fad clothing, we have overlooked the things of true importance. These things are lost. I feel the world is infinity beautiful with a hint of sorrow. This sorrow is the lost things.”

lost and found

via Lost Things Photography

Léna Roy, author of the fabulous EDGES, in RVA (via River City Fiction)

Check this out and support local bookstores, River City Fiction, and this amazing author who recently graced Richmond with her kindness!

Léna Roy, author of the fabulous EDGES, in RVA This week I was thrilled to meet Léna Roy, author of EDGES. A big thank you goes to Fountain Bookstore for hosting Léna's reading and writing workshop, Mining Your Life For Your Fiction. And, of course, I cannot thank Léna enough for coming all the way to Virginia and for forming a new friendship. After Léna's appearance on Virginia This Morning and signing stock at Books-A-Million, we toured Richmond with stops for coffee, lunch, and obsessive c … Read More

via River City Fiction

surround yourself with good

I must confess that this post has been a difficult one to put into words. It comes to you from several recent life experiences as well as a recommended read that i have been working through called “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff with Your Family” by Richard Carlson, Ph.D. Despite the title, this book elaborates on not only helpful ways to be at peace with your family and friends – but also in your everyday life.

Carlson begins one of the many poignant chapters (Keep Good Company) by explaining, “Most people acknowledge the fact that we are affected positively and negatively by the people we spend the most time around. Kids are affected by their parents and vice versa, and spouses are affected by one another, as are siblings. We are also affected by the people we work with and by our friends and neighbors.”

He goes on to say an obvious but often forgotten thought, “Your time and energy are among your most precious and most important assets. Therefore, it’s extremely important to make wise and well-thought-out choices about who you spend your time with. Do you spend your time with people who are truly nourishing to you (and your family), or do you choose your company much more randomly? If you’re honest, you might be surprised by your answer.”

The same way we must strive to control our own negative and positive thoughts and energies – we must remember that we are in control of the positive and negative environments we place ourselves in (within reason of course – there will always be difficult people and places you must power through and it will undoubtably make you stronger). But, if you find yourself coming home from a group meeting feeling highly self-conscious, stressed, and annoyed – perhaps you should re-evaluate whether that is the best environment for you to continue to put yourself in. If you are surrounded by gossip, negative attitudes, and situations that seem to be dragging you down – if you find that you have the luxury of removing yourself – then by all means take advantage of this wise decision! Again – what a novel idea – if people make you feel like crap, get away from them if you can. “Light bulb!!”

So you get the gist – but to some it up in the words of the author who inspired this post – “This strategy has the potential to have a major influence on the quality of your life. The people around you, particularly those you choose to spend time with, have a great deal of influence on your attitude and state of well-being. If you choose to keep good company, your life will be easier and far less stressful.”

As always, thanks for reading – and remember to surround yourself with good!

when the ‘block’ don’t rock

After staring at my blank ‘new post’ screen for much too long, I left my page for a bit in search of some inspirational research. Thanks to and the author of the post and compilation of quotes below, Richard Nordquist, I finally feel like I’ve broken down the block wall for the evening.

Here’s hoping you find this helpful as well…. happy reading!

” Writers on Writing: Overcoming Writer’s Block ” (see original link at the end of this post)

‘What’s the hardest part of writing? Or, to put it another way, what stage of the writing process gives you the most difficulty? Is it drafting? revising? editing? proofreading?

For many of us, the hardest part of all is getting started. Sitting down in front of a computer screen or a blank sheet of paper, rolling up our sleeves, and–and nothing.

We want to write. We may be facing a deadline that should compel us to write. But instead of feeling motivated or inspired, we grow anxious and frustrated. And those negative feelings can make it even harder to get started. That’s what we call “writer’s block.”

If it’s any consolation, we’re not alone. Many professional writers–of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose–have also had frustrating encounters with the empty page.

When asked about the most frightening thing he had ever encountered, novelist Ernest Hemingway said, “A blank sheet of paper.” And none other than the Master of Terror himself, Stephen King, said that the “scariest moment is always just before you start [writing]. After that, things can only get better.”

But just as professional writers have found various ways to overcome writer’s block, we, too, can learn how to meet the challenge of the empty screen. Here’s some advice from the pros.

1. Get Started

“The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.”
(William Goldman)

“Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.”
(Paul Rudnick)

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
(Mary Heaton Vorse)

“One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily.”
(Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
(Mark Twain)

2. Capture Ideas

“I carry a notebook with me everywhere. But that’s only the first step. Ideas are easy. It’s the execution of ideas that really separates the sheep from the goats.”
(Sue Grafton)

“In writing, there is first a creating stage–a time you look for ideas, you explore, you cast around for what you want to say. Like the first phase of building, this creating stage is full of possibilities.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

“Actually ideas are everywhere. It’s the paperwork, that is, sitting down and thinking them into a coherent story, trying to find just the right words, that can and usually does get to be labor.”
(Fred Saberhagen)

“Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written.”
(Walter Benjamin)

“I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block. When I find myself frozen–whether I’m working on a brief passage in a novel or brainstorming about an entire book–it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place.”
(Jeffery Deaver)

3. Cope with the Badness

“We can’t be as good as we’d want to, so the question then becomes, how do we cope with our own badness?”
(Nick Hornby)

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
(Octavia Butler)

“People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently.”
(Anna Quindlen)

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
(Margaret Atwood)

“Don’t get it right, just get it written.”
(James Thurber)

“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'”
(Maya Angelou)

“I think writer’s block is simply the dread that you are going to write something horrible. But as a writer, I believe that if you sit down at the keys long enough, sooner or later something will come out.”
(Roy Blount, Jr.)

“Lower your standards and keep writing.”
(William Stafford)

4. Establish a Routine

“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
(William Faulkner)

“And I’m a slow writer: five, six hundred words is a good day. That’s the reason it took me 20 years to write those million and a half words of the Civil War.”
(Shelby Foote)

“I set myself 600 words a day as a minimum output, regardless of the weather, my state of mind or if I’m sick or well.”
(Arthur Hailey)

“All through my career I’ve written 1,000 words a day–even if I’ve got a hangover. You’ve got to discipline yourself if you’re professional. There’s no other way.”
(J.G. Ballard)

“I write 2,000 words a day when I write. It sometimes takes three hours, it sometimes takes five.”
(Nicholas Sparks)

“I have to get into a sort of zone. It has something to do with an inability to concentrate, which is the absolute bottom line of writing.”
(Stephen Fry)

“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”
(Barbara Kingsolver)

5. Write!

“If you want to write, write it. That’s the first rule.”
(Robert Parker)

“My block was due to two overlapping factors: laziness and lack of discipline.”
(Mary Garden)

Original Article:

I hope these have helped get you gears turning!! Go forth and write my friends!

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