Are Your Intellectual Muscles Strong or Getting Flabby?

Don’t let your intellectual muscles get flabby!

Your intellectual image comes from how well you’ve developed what’s inside your skull. This is your intellectual self. I’m not talking about a high IQ or your ability to win at Trivial Pursuit. I’m referring to the depth and breadth of your knowledge, your mental fitness. Most of us were given plenty of basic intelligence. We alone decide whether we’ll use it to capacity or let it get flabby or stiff from disuse.

Can your mind lift abstract concepts from The Wall Street Journal, or from the professional journal in your field? Can you grasp the intricacies of a problem explained by someone in a field completely different from your own?

Can you see an issue from a perspective that’s 180-degrees from your own feelings? Can you entertain ideas that come from a different culture, or from people you don’t like? Can you hang in there when it’s going to take a lot of convincing to get people to see things your way, or when it’s going to mean clearing seven committees and the CEO?

Training your mind to take on longer-term and more demanding tasks gives you the stamina you need when mental marathons come up. Other ways to strengthen your mind might include:

– Taking some classes in a subject you’ve always wondered about — art history, acting, geology — but never studied.

– Learning to play a musical instrument. Or, if you prefer, learning to scuba dive.

– Committing to teaching yourself a new and difficult skill: celestial navigation perhaps, or gourmet cooking, or origami, or winemaking.

– Joining a foreign-affairs group, or investment club, or reading circle, where new issues and speakers abound.

– Buying an expensive subscription to a weighty series of books or musical performances. Paying so much, you’ll probably feel compelled to get your money’s worth.

– Here’s a real test of mental discipline: Listening to a daytime TV talk show without making judgments about the intelligence of the participants!

Another intellect-strengthening exercise is to get in the habit of not assigning labels to people. When you’re at a party and another guest is introduced to you as “a life-insurance salesperson,” don’t you, mentally at least, take a couple of steps backward? Ditto, perhaps, for “IRS auditor,” “debutante,” “parole officer,” or “yachtsman,” depending on your mind-set?

Thus, the hidden assumptions of language can control your behavior. Your preconceived notions of accountants, say, as bland and boring, or of professors as tweedy and reserved, probably does you and them a disservice and may prematurely kill what could be a valuable relationship.

To maximize your intellectual image, attempt to get past the labels. Don’t overlook, for instance, the opinions of a mere “clerk” while perhaps overvaluing those of a “consultant.” It takes intellectual strength to avoid the trap of confusing the specific for the general. But if you can get into the habit of appreciating people’s unique, human side and not judging them generically, you’ll win their respect — and you may learn something, too.