Our brain is a sponge. Letting it dry out creates this hard, crusty network of cells, but soaking in knowledge keeps it moist, pliable and useful. There is no reason why our brains should dry out, but unless we are actively and continually seeking knowledge, it will happen. Don't let it happen.
Fiction is great for reinforcing your imagination and offering a world to escape to, but non-fiction is where the knowledge is to be had.
I'm a book buyer, and others are book borrowers. No matter how you get your hands on a book (let's just hope it supports a local indie bookstore), commit to reading at least 30 minutes out of every day. Any less time and you can't get into the material deep enough to keep your interest. And if you're a busy person like me, any more time cuts into all the other tasks for the day.
Thirty minutes is the sweet spot for me, and I'm often amazed at how quickly I can go through a book at that rate. I use my lunch period at work for my dedicated reading time. It breaks me away from work thinking and forces me to use that half hour to be productive instead of idly chatting with co-workers about work stuff or playing on my phone.
Keep a running list of books you want to read. I discover that a lot of books that are quoted or cited in whatever I'm reading pique my interest enough to add them to my list. If you don't know an exact title, make a list of subjects that you'd like to read up on and do a little searching on your local library's database or on Amazon.
TIP: Use a web-based service like GoodReads.com or join/start a book club that focuses on non-fiction to make reading social.
There may be something to be said for specialization, but I'm definitely a fan of expanding your horizons. Why would we want to only read about small business growth? Or cheese molds? Or caves in France? Narrowing a knowledge focus is stifling to your brain.
Yes, you should become an expert in your field, but you should also expand your knowledge base and round out your personal education. Start by looking at adjacent topics to your speciality, then move one step further. You'd be amazed at what kinds of things are two or three steps removed from a topic you know a lot about.
Embrace Your Inner Nerd
Everyone has that passion topic that makes their closest friends roll their eyes and say, "Oh, there goes Isaac again ranting about [insert passion topic here]." I say embrace it. Just make sure you aren't ranting about the same thing to the same people all the time, because that's just a broken record. Learn all you can about the topic and become your own authority. Keep up to date on developments and new findings so your knowledge doesn't go stale.
I nerd out on urban planning and transit development, specifically that of the Portland metropolitan area. It helps that I've lived here all my life and have a personal interest in it. I could talk for hours about the down-voted Westside Bypass, the ousted freeway network proposed by Robert Moses, streetcar and light rail development, and much, much more. And because of that, one of the books on my reading list is about New York in the shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.
You might nerd out on current politics, freakonomics, non-lethal weapons, plastic canvas, graphic novels or the historical trend in degrading quality of number two pencil erasers. Whatever your passion topic, own it. Your closest friends may roll their eyes, but that's just because they understand how much you care for the subject matter and have heard you talk about it before. Newcomers to your diatribes will appreciate you more for it (though, fair warning, initial restraint can be exercised to keep from scaring strangers off and becoming that crazy woman on the bus).
We all do this: we decide we want to learn more about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald that sank in Lake Superior, and before we know it, it's two hours later and we emerge from an article that details the transfer of the remains of Alexandre Dumas to their new resting place in the Panthéon in Paris, forgetting about the sunken ship in the process entirely. True story.
This kind of knowledge rabbit hole is the perfect way to learn about something you never even imagined you hungered for. I recommend doing this at least once a month. Bonus points for tracking where you started and how you got to where you ended up. You might be amazed at the route you took.
TIP: Wikipedia randomly features one article on its homepage every day or so. If you ever want to dive into something completely new, just visit the homepage and start reading.
Pay Attention to the News
I know a lot of people get really frustrated with the quality, quantity, or sensationalism of a lot of journalism these days, and I'm right there with you. But if I don't keep up at least at a base level with the daily news, I feel out of touch with the world. I don't listen actively to radio or watch television in that way, so I subscribe to a daily five-minute news summary from National Public Radio. It's just enough to keep me up to speed and I can sync it to my phone and listen to it while I wait for the bus each morning.
Keeping current on current events helps you contribute as a global citizen. Increasing your awareness of events happening around the world develops a sense of global community and keeps you thinking beyond your immediate influence.
Push Your Limits
When it comes to learning, get out of your comfort zone. I recently started watching at least one TEDtalk each day. While I consider myself a pretty tech-savvy individual, I often find that the topics discussed are way out of my league. But I watch them anyway.
Just the other day I was caught up in a presentation on protocells and the way that simple chemical combinations can mimic basic living cells, calling into question our definition of life and how we look at synthesizing it. This is a subject I would have never imagined would be interesting to me, and I didn't understand a whole lot of the deeper concepts or technical terms, but the great thing about TEDtalks is they're usually delivered in a way that most people can at least grasp the basic point.
TIP: You can subscribe to daily TEDtalks podcasts via iTunes, or even subscribe to talks in certain categories, like Business, Science, etc.
If something strikes you as interesting or important in your knowledge quest, write it down. I keep a little Scout Book on me at all times and use it to collect my thoughts, important quotes, or revelations I have while reading or talking to other people.
Writing something down anchors it in your brain as important, and unless you have a photographic memory, you'll likely forget most of what stands out to you unless you physically record it. Tying a memory of something you read to the memory of something you wrote makes that memory twice as powerful. Plus, it frees up your mind to continue learning things and be less concerned about retaining that information all the time. Review your notes often, and expand on them when more thoughts start coming to you.
TIP: If you're super-tech-centric, use an app like Evernote to record notes and thoughts, as well as more complicated information, like links, quotes, images, and more. It will even sync your notes with any devices or computers that have Evernote installed on them.
Talk About It
Bottling up all the knowledge for ourselves doesn't help anyone. The whole point that a book or article is written is to spread the knowledge around, so be sure to share what you're learning with others. Find other nerds that share the same or similar passion topics. Seek out new perspectives from peers or aspirants (those you aspire to join as peers). Find an opposing view and exercise keeping an open mind.
I manage two designers at work who sit in the same desk area as I, and the other day I was listening to a lecture about The End of Growth and peak oil at my desk with my headphones on. After the lecture, I tweeted about something that I learned, and one of my designers replied with, "...in the future, ditch the headphones, we'll get educated while workin'." I've since been listening to other lectures without headphones and the three of us have had some great conversations as we work.
I've been part of a study group this month focused on the Better, Smarter, Richer workbook by Jackie B Peterson, and I'm so glad I joined. The seven of us, facilitated by Jackie, have had some amazing two-hour conversations as we each work through her principles for business success and work out our fears, concerns and excitements.
The other night my friend Andrea and I started what we're affectionately calling "group therapy," a small group of like-minded individuals who will gather once a month to talk about a particular subject. It's a fantastic way to put heads together salon-style and have great conversation. The same goes for my weekly-ish twitterdates, where I find a Twitter follower or three to have lunch/coffee/drinks with and have a little mutual brain-pickin' session.
Find News Ways of Learning
I alluded to it above, but it's worth restating that there are many ways to gain knowledge through non-traditional media like blogs, podcasts, lectures, or videos.
Check with your local art college or even a state university for a lecture series that is almost always offered free and open to the public. Leading thinkers, artists, scholars, and thinking minds will come to visit and lecture about their work, their recent findings, or topics that align with the graduate programs at that institution. In the case of Pacific Northwest College of Art here in Portland, nearly all lectures are recorded and posted as audio or video podcasts after the fact.
Subscribe to blogs that you find interesting and keep up on them through an RSS aggregator like Google Reader. Create a routine around when you read the blogs, as you might with a daily newspaper subscription, then share those articles you find most interesting through social media or directly email them to people you think might also find them pertinent.
(Disclosure: I work for PNCA and manage the production of multimedia, so I have a personal investment in their audience.)
"Yes, Isaac, but I don't have time to do all of this!" I know, knowledge is hard. But answer me this. Could you sign onto Facebook for 30 minutes less each day and divert that time to reading [informative] blogs or listening to podcasts? Do you have idle time during your commute or waiting for your kids to be done with soccer practice when you can listen to a podcast, read a book, or watch a video on your favorite mobile device (obviously the latter two not happening while driving)?
Even if you can't break away, make a commitment to spend a little bit of time each day to one of these methods of expanding your knowledge base. I have a feeling that once you do, your brain will hunger for more and you'll find the time to learn more.
Your quest should never cease. You can never obtain all the knowledge in the world, so keep pushing for more. Your brain won't fill up. I promise. Besides, nerds are sexy these days, right?
In what ways you do you actively expand your knowledge? Have you found other awesome alternative methods to assimilate information? Please share!