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The Real Secret To Becoming Smart and Staying Smart

The three elements we'll cover are:
  1. Learning all you can in your own field
  2. Learning all you can in an area where you have no expertise
  3. Working with limits

Part 1: Learning all you can in your own field 

While I was in university, I decided to earn some money by selling my cartoons to newspapers. A newspaper called the "Indian Post" had just started up in Mumbai, and I was encouraged to meet the features editor, Reena Kamath. Reena, or "Chips" as she was called, was this incredibly kind and educated person. I was, in my own head a cartoonist, but not a very confident one.

What Chips did was to give me enough confidence to push my art a lot more. She encouraged me to learn how to cartoon even better, so much so that I soon published my work in other magazines and newspapers. By the time I was headed to graduation day, I had two daily comic strips in two big newspapers. 

"Yes, you're really good at cartoons," said the creative director at the Leo Burnett agency, "but you realise that advertising and cartooning are completely different, right?" Once again I was back in newbie land. I didn't know enough to get going in the world of copywriting.

Fortunately for me, I was given the honorary title of junior copywriter, a small stipend and left alone to do pretty much anything I wanted. 

So what makes a person better? It's constant learning. 

I was an aspiring copywriter, an aspiring marketer, an aspiring-everything you can think of. And this is the first piece of advice I gave the start ups. What makes you great at your skill isn't some bolt of lightning coming down from the heavens.

What makes you stand out is being super-knowledgeable in your field. Learning the pros and the cons of your profession instead of fluffing around trying to impress everyone else.   

Part 2: Why You Need To Learn In Areas Where You Have No Expertise (And Have No Intention of Having Any Expertise)

In July 2013, I went through a life-changing experience.

My niece Marsha wasn't doing too well at school and as usual, everyone blames the student. I'm not a fan of that school of thought. I don't believe in bad students; I believe the responsibility of the student lies with the teacher. It's one thing to make a statement and quite another to work through the problem. In this case, my goal was to make Marsha as good as, or better than any of the students in her year. 

What I hadn't counted on was the fact that she was going to give me the lesson of my life

Before I started working with Marsha, I knew a lot about copywriting, about marketing etc. What I didn't know didn't bother me because I was in that tunnel focus trying to learn more about the things that affected my business. When Marsha came along, she brought a thousand questions along with her. How are clouds formed?

What are the names of all the types of clouds? Why can we see Venus so clearly at night? These questions led me down a road from which I have never recovered. 

As a cartoonist, as a comedian or artist, this something you learn quickly or you're doomed to failure. You can't just go around connecting the dots on your sheet of paper. The dots have to join from another sheet or even no sheet at all. To be creative means stepping into a world that's not your own.

When we look at hundreds of inventions, we see this creative streak of the disconnect showing up time and time again. Velcro, the rubber tyre, popsicles, microwave ovens, Post-it even matches were the result of random accidents.

Being smart involves knowing the world around you

History, geography, culture, geology—it all makes a huge difference to your work. Instead of just showing up in Egypt and losing yourself in the Pyramids, you might well notice that almost every block on the Giza pyramid has marine creatures. There also happen to be sea creatures at the top of Mt.Everest.

While this random stuff may seem to make no sense in isolation, you can quickly map the sequence of how things unfold. 

Over time you get far more confidence and your brain becomes somewhat like a walking Internet

You realise you can see "shallow oceans" and "tectonic plate movements" where others just see "blocks of stone" at Giza. If that's all you could see and experience it would be fabulous. For me it's amazing to look up at a sunny sky and know, based on the number of cirrus clouds that it's going to get cold and rainy in 24 hours.

Just the confidence it brings you, knowing the world around you is fabulous, but it also brings connections to your work in ways you can't imagine until you start to learn about things that are widely divergent from your business. 

Part 3: Working with limits: the real secret to becoming smart 
Put limits on your schedule—that's it

The most frequently asked question I get is: how do you manage to take three months off in a year? The answer is: we assume our year is nine months long. Yes, read that again: we assume our year is nine months long. Now imagine you've finally started up a business or let's assume you've been in business for a while. How long is your year?

The concept of limits is what makes you smart

If you look around the Internet today, you get two sets of people. People who seem to be working like maniacs to keep doubling their income or those who are supposedly living the Internet lifestyle but still check e-mail, do work at the beach etc while on vacation.

To each their own, I suppose, but hear me out. What makes your brain smart is downtime. Having time to rest allows all that connected and unconnected stuff come together. The brain works best when it's at rest. The way to give the brain a rest is to enforce limits.

Imagine you have only 90 minutes to write an article. What can you do in those 90 minutes? 

Imagine you have only a limited number of ingredients in your pantry. How do you whip up a delicious meal? And imagine you have only 9 months in a year. How do you finish all your work (and a lot more sometimes) without working every single day of the year? If you put limits on yourself, you start to become a lot smarter. 

How's that possible, you say? Same as the three-month vacation, isn't it? 

You think a three-month vacation would be impossible but we've done it almost year after year since 2004. The garbage situation takes a little planning. We take our own cloth bags everywhere. We take a container box when we dine out for takeaways (you may call it food to go).

We refuse all coffee in paper cups and have our own glass/plastic cups or we use the ceramic cups at the cafe. We don't take straws, plastic bags and will not buy stupid cucumbers wrapped in cling wrap. Ergo, little or no garbage. The rest of the stuff goes in the compost bin. Impossible? Of course not. 

The key is to have a mind that imposes limits

If you really want to change your world, you have to believe you really have no time. Instead of a seven day week, make it a five day week and refuse to work on weekends. Instead of a 12 month year, nine months should do nicely.

Instead of trying to double your income all the time like some senseless woodpecker, try fixing your income to one that allows for tax, savings and a comfortable life.
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