“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
– Pablo Picasso
What do we mean by “intellectual activity”? The keywords here are critical thinking, stimulating curiosity, problem-solving, and creativity. The simplest way to evaluate your intellectual side is by asking – am I constantly learning something new? And then — do the things I learn inspire me, revive me, and move something in me? What intellectual activity is for the brain, physical activity is for the body (during physical activity and exercise, the same brain areas that are responsible for cognitive thinking activate and develop).
The whole point of nurturing every area of your life and keeping a healthy balance is to enable you to counteract temporary issues in other spheres. Reading professional literature before bed is work rather than enjoyable intellectual activity and it will likely fail to help you keep your balance if you lose a customer, your job, or have a fight with your co-workers.
In some ways, we learn something new every day without trying (for example, we notice that if we do X, others will react by doing Y); the question is how consciously do we invest in expanding our horizons, knowledge, talents, and opportunities? You can just go and play tennis in the evenings, or you can purposefully train, watch analyses and lessons online, and read books about different techniques. Alternatively, you can make a kite at home (maybe even with your children), try out curling (in combination with the area of physical wellbeing), or simply read a Wikipedia article on a conflict that is regularly mentioned on the news. And if, after a full day of work, you feel bitter about conflict with your colleagues, perhaps this can be an opportunity to read some psychological literature about personality types?
Finally, apart from the fact that intellectual interests make us more interesting people, more diverse personalities, and professionals, enable us to get our balance back, it also helps us, to some extent, to live longer. You may have already reached the age when you start wondering: why do the years seem to be passing faster as one gets older? One of the answers is the lack of new experiences. When we are children, we learn something new almost every day, and that’s how our years go by – the first broken toy, the first-time swimming in the sea, the first pair of shorts, the first bus trip. Let’s compare it to: “I get up at 7, have breakfast, then I get to work, I get out of work at 5, go to the store, I come back, I eat, I clean the house, I watch a film, and I fall asleep”. Some repeat this scenario 365 times a year. What if every day you tried to take a different route to work? Get out at the next bus stop and walk down another street? As you go, carefully inspect the balconies of any five-story house and their contents – you will have something to talk to your colleagues about at lunch. Listen to a podcast while you’re walking, in a car, or public transport. But do it actively – don’t limit yourself to whatever is on the radio. Try to decide on your own what you would like to learn about today and find information about it.
How to find the time, and where do I start?
Find time. You may be thinking: “It’s easy to say….”. We each have 24 hours a day, 168 hours a week, and 8,760 hours a year – this is an objective fact of human life; how we use them and who we dedicate them to is an entirely different issue. You can start by auditing your time (by noting in your calendar what you’re doing every half hour and installing apps that track how much time you spend on your phone or computer and which apps consume the most of your time). If there is a person you look up to, look for information about how they handle their time. If you know someone who seems to manage everything on their plate on time, ask how they handle it. Everything is a matter of prioritising. If you hope that some time will be left for intellectual activity once everything else is addressed and in order, you will most likely be left with nothing.
Start something new. Come up with it yourself. A new magazine? A recipe? To this day, the author of these lines remembers buying a carton of feijoa compote decades ago in a supermarket. Well, because, why not? Not knowing what it is, is an excellent opportunity to find out. While this is not exactly a lifestyle, intellectual stimulation should be included in the agenda. For example, “I will do/try/read something new every week (or Thursday after work)”. Fiction books and artistic films allow you to disconnect from everyday concerns but try watching documentaries about nature or reading a biographical, historical, or scientific book.
Discover podcasts and find time for them (you can find some links in the “Useful Resources” section). You can listen while driving to work, coming home, walking, exercising, cycling, using public transport, on a plane, cleaning at home, or gardening.
Write a diary, secretly or openly, write down your thoughts and attitudes, and learn how to formulate your ideas better than “I am against …” or “I am pro ….”. Talk and discuss things with yourself. If you can’t find the time to understand yourself, how will you find time to understand others? Write either once it’s silent (before you go to bed) or when it’s still silent (in the early morning). Writing in a diary is both an intellectual activity and an interrupted time just for yourself when nothing else bothers you.
Try reviving a childhood interest – does it still graze somewhere at the corner of your mind, behind the noise of the everyday? Why did you quit it in the first place? Could this be an opportunity to see someone from childhood?
Try fixing a broken appliance or a piece of clothing yourself, even if you can afford to buy a new one for cheaper. Both your brain and nature will thank you.
Learn a new language. A new language is not just new words, it’s a new culture and unexplored perception of the world. Knowing a new language automatically draws you to explore the country where it is spoken (travel!) and its cinema, music, literature, and traditions.
Play board games. Chess is nice, but there are also plenty of other board games you can try with your family or a group of friends, thus multiplying your intellectual well-being with that of your family and friends.
Debate, discuss. Meet your friends and talk about something you’re interested in, not just the weather. Don’t be of the same mind all the time. Choose to defend positions that are truly alien to you and explore what supporters of that position might think and why. Don’t forget that whether you’re debating with your friends or enemies, jokingly or seriously, respect is always the most important thing. If you feel the need to raise your voice or even fists, you have lost the debate.
Visit a theatre, museum, exhibition, new restaurant, or poetry evening. Go with your friends or loved ones. Agree upon taking turns organising these outings – once you’ve organised a cultural activity to your liking, pass the honours to someone else.
Move team-building activities to unusual locations – yoga studios, museums, galleries, and massage studios and ask someone to be your teacher or guru of new experiences.
Enrol in a course that has nothing to do with your professional activity. Visit a seminar or conference.
Read for your pleasure. Sometimes it’s hard to start or come back from the reading world, so be smart and start slowly. Choose a book of manageable size. Each time you seem to have no time for a book, tell yourself: “Two minutes, only two minutes” (everyone can find 2 minutes). If in two minutes you feel like you’re done – that is okay, you can be done. When starting something new, it’s important to make it a part of your routine (in the best way possible), a habit. New practices develop when they are repeated multiple times. Today it may be 2 minutes, tomorrow it may be 10 minutes, and a year later… The most important thing is to discover the pleasure of reading, both to learn something new and as an opportunity to get away from things that run circles in your mind and stop you from relaxing.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (David Epstein, 2020). Plenty of experts argue that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument, or lead their field should start early, focus intensely, and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. If you dabble or delay, you’ll never catch up to the people who got a head start. But a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule.
David Epstein examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters, and scientists. He discovered that in most fields–especially those that are complex and unpredictable–generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.
As David Epstein says, our professional interests and personal leanings change the same way we change over time. The idea that our personalities are set in stone once we reach 30, 40, or 50 is a myth. The person you are right now is neither the best nor the final version of the person you can become.
https://www.ted.com/, whose slogan reads “Ideas worth spreading”, updates its library with new speakers and topics regularly.
https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/best-nonfiction – „Goodreads“ is a great place for a book lover to find something. This link leads to non-fiction books.