Blog Post

How to Optimize the Founder's Mind

Research shows that your brain function is both broadened and improved by “interdisciplinary exercise.” What does this mean? Be eccentric. Use your brain to think about lots of different things, even things that have nothing to do with one another. This builds new synapses, exercises existing ones, and simply makes you smarter.

OK, you’re thinking, but I’m founding a company. I don’t have time to think about anything other than cash flow and customer acquisition, much less take up new hobbies. But here’s one quick way to do become interdisciplinary: When you read, read stuff that has nothing to do with what your company does. (You can make time to read.)

Life Optimizer had a great post last week that explained three reasons why diversifying your reading is a shortcut to brains-building.

1. Avoid boredom
I don’t know about you, but reading the same topics again and again makes me bored. Even for topics I’m passionate about, I will be more refreshed if I also read other topics once in a while.

2. Arbitrage knowledge
The art of arbitrage is important for living smart, and diversifying your reading allows you to do knowledge arbitrage. Knowledge arbitrage means taking ideas from one field to be applied to another field. If you read only one or two topics, it’s difficult to do that.
3. Cross-pollinate ideas
Continuing the idea of arbitrage, not only can you borrow ideas from other fields, you can also combine ideas from different fields. Often it will give you “original” ideas since nobody has seen such combination before. Of course, you can only cross-pollinate idea if you have different kinds of idea to begin with, and that’s why you should diversify your reading.

It turns out this is a tried and true method, used by some of your business icons — like VC Michael Moritz and Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Last July,
the New York Times revealed what several hyper-successful business leaders read — and it ain’t business books.

For example, Moritz, the Sequoia VC who funded Google, Yahoo!, PayPal, and others, said:

“I try to vary my reading diet and ensure that I read more fiction than nonfiction,” Mr. Moritz said. “I rarely read business books, except for Andy Grove’s ‘Swimming Across,’ which has nothing to do with business but describes the emotional foundation of a remarkable man. I re-read from time to time T. E. Lawrence’s ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom,’ an exquisite lyric of derring-do, the navigation of strange places and the imaginative ruses of a peculiar character. It has to be the best book ever written about leading people from atop a camel.”

The Times also reports that Apple founder Steve Jobs once had “an ‘inexhaustible interest’ in the books of William Blake — the mad visionary 18th-century mystic poet and artist.”

We wrote yesterday about burnout, and the risks associated with it for overworked entrepreneurs. Our authors recommended sleep to avoid burnout. But diversifying your reading list with recreational (or at least non-business) books, may be an even more flexible way of forcing yourself to take time out from the day job because you can do it in the waking hours that might already take you away from proper work: e.g., while you’re in transit, on the train, plane or bus; while working out; or over your lunch break.

Whenever you do it, reading is just another means of resting, while at the same time a means of sharpening those mental tools. So try a novel!

What do you do to sharpen your mind, or to avoid burnout?

6 Responses to “How to Optimize the Founder's Mind”

  1. The Mental Fitness Workouts in “Age Smart – How to Age Well, Stay Fit and Be Happy” contain effective, stimulating, fun-to-do exercises that sharpen mental acuity. Many can be done any time, any where.

    Readers learn how to exert their power to control the way they live, work and play longer.

  2. Yes! successful business people read a diversity of books – and magazines (those that are completely outside their domain or niche) to expand their perspectives, see the trends – create their own brain gym if you will. Gaming is another way to expand and sharpen new mind connections.

    Great tips, thanks for sharing.

  3. I think it’s all about getting your mind in a place where you can tackle problems from a different angle / mindset.

    I like a good couple of hours out with a camera to do the trick. Being outside and searching for unique shots has been a great way to open up my curiosity and imagination.

    When I’m back in front of the computer, ideas for how to solve problems I left seem to be bolder, come much quicker, and my excitement to solve them is turned way up.

  4. I find that exercise is a critical (and often ignored) part of staying fresh mentally. I see too many startups spending every waking hour writing code and ignoring the chance to get outside on a nice day. Very early on in my company we actually held our daily status meeting during a run in Golden Gate Park. When the company got bigger we had regular company soccer games and rock climbing expeditions.

    Your ability to deal with stress (and avoid burn out) is directly proportional to your physical fitness. Too many people fail to realize that exercise is an investment and not just a hobby.