7 Ways to Get Smart(er)

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In the marketplace of products, services, and content, life is like a crowded New York City street … your prospect is one of seven million people stiff-arming thousands of messages competing for her attention.

She has her own agenda … and that agenda doesn’t include you, your product, idea, or your latest dumb link-bait article.

To earn her attention you need to get drastic. And the best way to do that is with a seductive hook.

What are some of the best tips for finding those incredible hooks (and becoming a lot smarter in the process)?

A couple weeks ago Brian Clark and I covered this topic in an Authority webinar called How to Find the Seductive Hook.

We explained that the best way to find a hook is simply to be relentlessly curious about everything. Then someone asked if it was better to be a generalist or a specialist.

In order to answer that question, we had to back up a bit and eat our words. See, we’d just gotten done telling everyone that you needed to be a generalist. What we should’ve said — specifically — is that you need to be a specialist in your field of expertise.

Get specific, then get free

Nobody is going to listen to Matt Frazier (The No Meat Athlete) unless he is an authority in exercise and plant-based diets.

Nobody is going to listen to Marcus Sheridan unless he is an authority on swimming pools.

And nobody is going to listen to Pam Slim unless she knows early stage entrepreneurship.

Outside the boundaries of your specialty, however, all the world becomes (and should be) your oyster. Satisfy your curiosity until the cows come home, building that bank of creative ideas. Be a generalist with everything except your area of expertise. Just go where your interests take you. Learn about what you love.

And to help you get started on that path, allow me to show you exactly how I do it.

1. Obsess about one subject once a year

Each year I try to buckle down and master a topic outside of my field (I use the word “master” loosely).

This year I chose classical music. I even went as far as vowing never to listen to any other type of music except classical (no half-measures with me).

I’m also reading three pages a day out of a classical music textbook. And plan on reading five or six books about classical composers. I’ve already unearthed one idea from the book The First Four Notes, which I used as an opening for a recent Copyblogger article titled How to Nail the Opening of Your Blog Post.

In the past, I’ve spent a year studying the American Civil War, the Spanish Flu of 1917, Theodore Roosevelt, and science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.

2. Listen to podcasts

Whether you are moving the lawn, sitting by the pool, or humming along the subway, pop in some ear buds and catch up with the latest podcasts that pique your interest.

Here are some of my personal favorites …

This is all about the accumulation of facts. Strange and curious facts. Facts that will inform your fascination headlines, and separate them from the clutter.

3. Follow clever people on Google+

Anybody who tells you that Google+ is a ghost town has simply not put in the effort.

Like Chris Brogan said:

It’s like your refrigerator. If it’s empty, that’s your fault.

In fact, there are lots of really smart and clever people to follow (or, put in your refrigerator).

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (the guy who sung “Space Oddity” in space) is the poster child for content marketing on Google+. And astrophysicist and professor Brian Koberlein recently wrote a five-part series on how the universe has changed.

Then there are philosophers, economists, and psychologists on Google+ … people sharing substantial and intriguing ideas.

For free.

4. Take an online class

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) offered by prestigious universities like Yale, Oxford, and MIT have changed the face of education.

You can sit in on Paul Hunt’s Hannibal lectures at Stanford. Or experience  Hubert Dreyfus’ UC Berkeley seminar on Existentialism in Literature & Film. You can even learn intermediate Chinese.

For free.

Whatever suits your fancy. There are over 725 free online courses to choose from.

5. Watch NOVA

Or Discovery … or the History Channel.

Amazing documentaries on topics as far-ranging as the ghosts of Machu Piccu to using robots on farms abound on these channels.

There are endless opportunities to satisfy your curiosity.

6. Run a TV series marathon

No, you don’t have to get off your couch, this kind of marathon can be done from the comfort of your rear.

Scratch out four hours a night for an entire week, choose a TV series you’ve always talked about watching from a provider like Netflix or Amazon … and then veg.

Don’t just pick the latest and popular series like Mad Men (have not seen one single episode by the way) or Breaking Bad.

Reach back into the archives and bone up on Arrested Development or Twin Peaks (David Lynch FTW!).

7. Create unique music playlists

Spotify has completely changed the way I listen to music.

What is it … ten million songs available … free? And while it can be time-consuming, culling certain songs or albums into a particular playlist can really boost your creativity.

This is another passive approach, but I’ve found the sheer experience of new and esoteric music changes the way I think about things. And you can always try to put a playlist together that tells a story.

Your turn …

This post is not unlike one I wrote a couple of years ago called 10 Surprising Books That Can Transform Your Writing. My goal wasn’t so much to convince you to read those particular books, as it was to get you to expand your mind. To wade into some strange dimensions … by reading wide.

Same holds true here.

You don’t have to follow precisely in my footsteps to get smarter. My point is that you should explore — and explore widely. Who knows where you might find a powerful metaphor to illuminate your current project? Or an incredible angle for your book launch?

You won’t know if you don’t go looking.

P.S.

If you’re interested in becoming a smarter online marketer, grab your free MyCopyblogger membership right now.

About the author

Demian Farnworth


Demian Farnworth is Copyblogger Media's Chief Copywriter. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.

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  1. Interesting post.. I like to follow all the big IM marketers by optin in to there list and learning their strategies. Good luck with the classical music project and Hey.. Breaking Bad was a brilliant concept..

  2. I liked this post. It was different.

    “Each year I try to buckle down and master a topic outside of my field (I use the word “master” loosely).” I always wanted to learn:

    – How to play the piano. I don’t own a piano, but I guess I could rent one so I could practice. I also need to find a piano teacher.

    – How to speak in a foreign language. I’m on the fence about purchasing Rosetta Stone. A part of me wants to enroll in classes; however, I’m not sure which option is best for me. I tried reserving Rosetta Stone from our library, but the wait list was too long, and my request was canceled.

    I haven’t started following anyone on Google+, but I do follow people on LinkedIn. Perhaps it’s time I started learning more about Google+ so I can use it wisely. ;)

    • I took French in college and wouldn’t have passed it without Rosetta Stone. I didn’t have to pay for it though since I could use it at the lab … but I’ve toyed with the idea of learning German and RS would be the place that I would start.

    • If you’re interested in learning a new language, you could check out duolingo.com. It’s a free site that’s meant to be kind of similar to Rosetta Stone (though I’ve never used the latter, so I can’t confirm that as fact!).

    • Great idea on learning a new language. I found an awesome app called MindSnacks that helps you learn languages easily and its a lot of fun. Also, there is a free podcast that I found called Coffee Break from the Radio Lingua network. They teach you how to learn languages by understanding how to say common phrases, its the best one I’ve used so far and listen to on the way to work.

  3. Hi Demian, as a writer interested in classical music, you’d enjoy “The Unanswered Question,” a series of lectures Leonard Bernstein recorded while serving as a Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University; (yes, same guy who conducted the NY Philharmonic and wrote West Side Story.)

    In the (11- hour!) lecture series, Bernstein relates the syntax of music to the syntax of spoken language. I’ve listed to my DVD set about 4 times and get something new out of it every time. It’s now available free on Youtube.

    Enjoyed your post, as always.

    Jack

  4. I like this Demain. We all want to be smarter right?

    I think traveling is another way to really expand your knowledge on a topic. It’s not as easy to accomplish as picking up a book or going to a class but you experience things when you travel and that’s a great way to really learn something.

    Liz :-)

  5. Demian,

    Great stuff as usual. When you’re starting a business, it’s so hard to justify finding time for other interests. Thanks for the permission.

    Mike Leach is one of the most innovative college football coaches out there. He obsesses over one thing a year. One year it was pirates, and he’s now known as the chief pirate.

    • So he learned all he could about pirates? Like the fictional type or the modern? Or both? And did he use that knowledge in any particular way? That would be interesting to see.

      • Here’s an article on Leach by Michael Lewis, the bard of sports. It’s a great read.

        http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/04/magazine/04coach.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

        He found that a pirate ship was a good metaphor for a football team.

        If you search for “pirate”, you’ll go straight to the paragraph that discusses how he learns something new each year.

        Sorry to be so long winded, but let’s update the Mike Leach story. He got fired at Texas Tech for supposedly putting a punk player in a dark closet. He got hired at Washington State last year and managed to have his worst season as a head coach. I’m wondering if pirates might influence how he motivates his team this year.

  6. Nice, thought-provoking post, Demian. As a new blogger, I’ve been running a shorter timetable, focusing on learning as much as possible about one aspect of blogging each week.

    But I do like the idea of an annual, ongoing project in a wider topic. I had started, but put aside (for blogging) a brilliant course on songwriting, from Coursera which, as a completely unmusical person, I would thoroughly recommend.

    Andrew

  7. Awesome post!

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this myself. In fact, I just started a new blog called http://www.breakingthebubble.com that’s all about pushing human potential and driving ourselves to learn more.

    I love the idea of mastering one topic each year. If you did that, you could really become prolific in so many things.

    Thanks again!

  8. I think some us have the insatiable learning bug. I know I can’t live without reading a book per week, and that does include fiction but I feel like I learn as much from fiction as I do from non-fiction.

    I’m also a fan of Wikipedia and letting my curiosity lead me down the rabbit hole from link to link. I can’t say I love movie documentaries, but when I get a recommendation I generally get into it!

  9. I’ve got to write for all kinds of people each week so I usually get quite the crash course on lots of different topics. Some of my favorites to write involve exotic locales and travel.

    One thing that people can always blog about are places they’ve been. Try typing up a list of 10 killer spots you’ve been to. Pull up Google Maps and get real detailed on distances, nearby places, and all the other little things that can set your ‘travel blog’ apart from the others.

    Making it a once a month thing could really give you a wonderful break from the ordinary, and you might even see more interest than you thought possible.

  10. hi Demian

    I love your idea of getting obsessed about one subject a year…

    So it’s like getting to know a new topic from A to Z, and become a master on it… and it’d be crazy not to, as we’re spending about 10,000 hours on studying it, isn’t it?

    This reminds me of a top copywriter who was using short and clever headlines more than a hundred years ago to sell magazine subscriptions through snail mail…

    Just an example…

    “Free Money”

    Could you guess who was he? :)

  11. Have you seen the book “Red Thread Thinking: Weaving Together Connections for Brilliant Ideas”?

    It covers the same ideas.

    I love the one about studying one topic and finding connections.

  12. This makes me feel much better about taking hours to research a random topic on the Internet. Thank you! :)

  13. Demian, excellent post, and thanks so much for the link to White Horse Inn; Jack Price, I, too, have already bookmarked the Leonard Bernstein site. Great inspiration, both of you!

  14. To No. 5, I would add “listen to public radio.” I get innumerable facts and thought-provoking ideas crammed into my head while listening to The Jefferson Hour, Travel with Rick Steves, The Animal House, and even You Bet Your Garden. And all while having my hands free to do other things.

  15. Hi Demian,

    I especially love 2. Listen to Podcasts. This American Life and Freakanomics are great places to start. A few others that are pretty amazing outside of our little blog bubble: Star Talk Radio with Neil deGrasse Tyson: A gifted communicator, who popularizes science and astronomy as well (or maybe even better) than the late Carl Sagan.

    For great interviews, Terry Gross (NPR’s Fresh Air) might just be the best interviewer on the planet, but I love comedian Marc Maron and his WTF podcast.

    All great shows: you might learn something new and/or come up with a blog post idea you never would have thought of on your own.

    By the way, thanks for the great writing in the Google Authorship eBook. We could all learn a thing or two from Hunter S. Thompson ;)

  16. Hi Demian,

    Great post! You made a lot of great suggestions here–and I am using a few of these myself, specifically the podcasts and Spotify. I get inspiration from my playlists all the time. I wrote two posts for two different clients based on content marketing: one was based on The Rolling Stones; the other was based on Daft Punk. Music also relaxes you and stimulates dopamine, to get your creative juices going, so it makes sense.

    Podcasts give you great ideas for posts too, and fun to listen to. My current obsessions are Aisha Tyler’s girlonguy (it’s a cross between Inside the Actors Studio, Spike TV and Comedy Central) and the Joe Rogan Experience.

  17. Archan Mehta :

    That photo you included alongside this post appears to be inspired: is that Don Adams of “Get Smart” fame? Where’s agent 99, I wonder?

    On a more serious note, however, thanks for sharing your thoughts here: I really enjoyed reading about your ideas.

    Learning does not stop once you have acquired credentials, such as diplomas, certificates and degrees. Every day you start nursery school: that is zen, the beginner’s mind.

    The important thing is to remain curious and to spread your horizons far and wide. And to travel to exotic lands, to explore the world. Travel really opens up your mind, because it teaches you that your paradigm is relative.

    Same is the case with cultural anthropology, a fascinating subject that teaches you about the diversity of our world. Not everybody thinks like you and I and that is an important lesson that we should learn.

    Reading about such topics and subjects can enable us to make new connections and the synthesis can produce an integration and a wholistic perspective. And that is valuable in any walk of life. Cheers.

  18. As a copywriter who suffers TMI (too much information) I must admit I was quite inspired by this post. One thing per year sounds just perfect. But as a student of all things interesting, I’m going to have serious trouble trying to knuckle down to ONE subject for a WHOLE year. So this is what I’ll do – as a relatively newcomer to the blogging department, I’ll focus on just that: Blogging. As a copywriter, it is the most excellent of mediums for practicing my chops (between paid gigs). Meanwhile, I’d really appreciate it if any of you more advanced bloggers had a look at my blog and say what you think … http://ditempora.com/

    • Hey, trust me, Nicolas, I even have trouble staying on task like that. I might go a few days without studying the topic, but then I get a reminder and jump back in. And yes, blogging is a perfect field for a new copywriter. Take care, and let us know how things are going.

  19. To learn many things is one of the best realizations in life.

  20. Take a math class or learn programming (in C++ or Lisp). You will at least feel smarter.

    • This is true. I’ve tried both (on such a superficial level that it is pathetic) and wanted to shoot myself about three days in. Just no love there for me. So I moved on. :D

  21. Hey Demian,

    It sounds cool. Awesome. Really creative. I liked this post very much.

    I liked the idea to choose one subject in a year to be master. I’m doing that unconsciously so far. What I do – I keep learning my professional subjects which is civil engineering and construction and choose another new subject to learn. For example, this year I’m learning about self improvement for being a better person. I have read some books on this topic and now reading “7 habits of highly effective people”.

  22. Sheetal Sharma :

    Interesting Post.

  23. Great post. I keep getting impressed if not blown away by what I’m reading here on Copyblogger. Honestly, I was not expecting so much great content. I expected platitudes and regurgitation of other sites–but no sir.

    I’d like to follow interesting and influential people either on G+ or Twitter, but having been under rocks for so long–I really don’t know who they are. 0_0

  24. I’m a firm believer in learning all you can about something outside of your ‘given’ area. I use the Open University in the UK to do their short courses as a taster before I immerse myself in something. It’s always good to apply something new to a tried and tested field.

  25. This is a wonderful article. I especially like #1 about concentrating on 1 subject for a year. We tend to think that’s a long time, but when a year has come and gone, we realize how short a period it really is. I intend to start today! Thanks for posting!

  26. Thiago Valadares Noleto Damasceno :

    Audible (audiobooks tool) + ebook is a great tool for reading books faster and learn about the theme that you got obsessed.

  27. These are such great ideas! I’ve never really thought about sitting down and being a ‘master’ at something other than what’s in my expertise. I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the harp but those things are so large and expensive. It’s hard to find a place to put something that large in a room. Thanks for the insightful post.

    • We are the same way with a piano (grand, in this case). Not sure where to put it. Not sure I want to commit to it hogging up the main floor. Maybe some day because it would be nice to play. :D

  28. These days, if you aren’t getting smarter you are getting dumber. Good suggestions.

    I would add – read some biographies of people who have accomplished what you want for yourself. Good way to skip some of the pain points.

    • Love that advice. I know that when I’m feeling quite lackluster and lazy reading a biography on someone like Theodore Roosevelt (who seemed to do anything and everything) will get me moving again.

  29. One of the great things about classical music is that much of the great classical composers (Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Chopin, etc) are not Americans. I think global awareness is one field many Americans could use some improvement in. As a film buff, I like to watch a good amount of world cinema–especially the likes of Kurosawa and Wong Kar-Wai.

  30. Great article (and I “tripped” over a Nova piece on Dogs – totally fascinating, so now every new program by Nova appears on my DVR).

    Here’s another way to get smarter to add to your list: Use Meetup.com. I go to several Meetups a month and I run one. I ALWAYS walk away with a new idea.

    Suggestion: With SO much going on around you, select all the subject areas you might be interested in, select a 50-mile radius, and get all the emails sent to you. After a while, you can narrow that (but seriously: for the RIGHT gathering of the RIGHT people, you’d travel an hour or so, right?).

    Amazing way to get to know more people AND open your brain to some great new ideas.

    Charlie Seymour Jr
    http://DrMarcAndCharlie.com

  31. This has to be one of my all times favorite here. My friends sometimes make fun of me for all the different stuff I want to learn and read, and random facts I know, but I wish I could know everything in this world and then some. So two things that are absolutely my favorites in this post is the idea of mastering one thing in one year and the open source classes (had no idea something like this exists).
    Thanks so much for this one, Demian!

  32. I liked #3 the most.

    I’ve been working really hard to ‘fill my refrigerator’ recently and I’ve found a few gems.

    Check out Brain Pickings and Farnam Street

    http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/
    http://www.brainpickings.org/

    Who do you guys suggest?

  33. While I totally agree with your premise about specializing and being the SME for a particular topic I would have titled this 7 Ways to Get More Interesting. I know, I know it doesn’t have the pizazz of Get Smarter.

    Really the web is full of smart people (or at least those that think they are). We got tons of SMEs on different topics. The ones that hold readers are those that are interesting. That’s what I mean by your 7 ways. Really they are ways to broaden your vocabulary, your experience so that you can talk about your subject in an interesting way.

    Overall great post.