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How to Constantly Educate Yourself

I’m asked all the time how I stay abreast of things in a constantly changing world, and how I have the basis to challenge fads and unsubstantiated claims. (The other day an authority in our field told me that “the entire face of consulting is changing” and I told him he was spewing bromides, not facts. Be careful out there.)

I educate myself continually, and I’d like to share some sources with you. I don’t claim that you should do what I do, only that these work for me and you might be able to adopt some. This business is about intellectual breadth, not narrow specialties, no matter what your expertise. High-level buyers aren’t looking for technicians, whom they would normally delegate to their own specialists, in any case. They are looking for potential partners, who possess and demonstrate business acumen and sophistication. Here, then, are my tools:

  1. The Wall Street Journal every day. You don’t have to read it from cover-to-cover. Simply scan the headlines and then read articles of interest which they reflect. But do read the editorials, op ed page, letters to the editor, and arts section. Also, look up your clients’ and your prospects’ stock prices.
  2. The local paper every day. That applies if you’re traveling, as well, since you’ll have an opportunity to read The Cleveland Plain Dealer or the Denver Post. I’ve found that USA Today is too superficial and much too vanilla.
  3. Listen to television news once or twice a day. I do it while shaving in the morning, and usually try to catch one of the evening network anchors.
  4. Read one business book a month. Don’t choose it for ease, choose it for knowledge. There are great biographies written recently of people such as Frederick Winslow Taylor and Peter Drucker, as well as fabulous historical works such as “The Capitalist Philosophers” (by Andrea Gabor).
  5. Read at least two other books every month, be they biographies, fiction, histories, detective stories, science fiction, or whatever. It also helps to read everything that an author or two turn out (so I read all of Updike, Stephen Jay Gould, and I’m working through all of the seafaring works of the late Patrick O’Brien).
  6. See the latest movies, whether comedy, drama, “art” house, foreign, or whatever. It’s perfectly fine to watch them on cable or rent them. Beyond the potential for entertainment, you’ll get a glimpse of what society is valuing in that art form.
  7. If possible, attend the theater (even regional theater or amateur productions will do) and find out what Chekhov, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Moliere were talking about. And bite the bullet and go see some Shakespeare. (It’s easiest if you read the play, first.)
  8. Actively debate issues with family members, friends, and colleagues. Take an unpopular position, or swim against the tide. Test your grasp of both the issue and the language. Force yourself to validate your beliefs, both personally and professionally.
  9. When you encounter a word you don’t know, write it down, look it up later, and keep it on file somewhere with the definition. Make no mistake about it: A wide-ranging vocabulary is a highly potent force, and a clear sign of high intelligence.
  10. Write articles and position papers, even if they’re never published. Force yourself to express your views in writing.
  11. Pursue a hobby-any hobby-with passion. Let yourself become immersed in something which is pleasurable and in which you can become adept. If all you know is your craft, you don’t know very much.
  12. Develop acquaintances and friendships with those who will force you to stretch. Don’t be the big fish in the tiny pond. Join associations and activities whose members will challenge you. You grow by running to catch up, not by sitting complacently in place.