Cross-Train Your Brain: The Benefit of Being a Mile Wide

My friend Auren Hoffman pointed me to this excellent Fortune article on cross-training your brain with multiple hobbies.

I have a variety of interests and hobbies, many non-business related, and it’s often hard for me to coherently justify the time I spend on these pursuits to outsiders who are "focused" on their professional life. I’ve always believed, however, that "being a mile wide" — that is, knowing (ok, pretending to know) a little about a lot of things — is a competitive advantage.

Being a mile wide also produces an "expert effect," another concept Auren has taught me. To be an expert to somebody you simply need to know more than them. I’m no expert on publishing, but since I now know a little about the publishing world with my forthcoming book, I have become an "expert" to many of my friends who are thinking about writing.

As Fabrice Grinda says on his blog on the benefits of intellectual curiosity:

To some extent, this is counter-intuitive – you might expect to perform best by putting 100% of our efforts into a single pursuit. However, recent evidence suggests that is not the case. Your behavior shapes your brain and the benefits of practicing one skill are not limited to that skill alone, they can be transferred, and the more things you know something about the more there is to transfer. As Alvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School says: “If you practice multiple things you actually get better at any one of those things.”

4 comments on “Cross-Train Your Brain: The Benefit of Being a Mile Wide
  • Fascinating stuff…Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings addressed this (pre-study?) in his book Brainiac, and basically came to the same conclusion: that “shallow” knowledge of many things makes tying different bits of information together easier.

    He pretty much acknowledges that he isn’t an expert on anything, and was able to answer a lot of the questions based on his shallow knowledge of many topics, which gave viewers the impression that he was this brilliant person who is an expert on everything!

  • Those who go a “mile wide” are naturally insatiable in their quest for knowledge. They are so driven and so ravenously hungry to learn new things. In the process, they end up exercising their neural network unwittingly and it opens up all the more. This rigorous cerebral workout hones their adaptability instincts and sharpens their heuristics. Thus they are able to resonate with almost every topic with equal poise. I guess this could explain the “expert effect”.

  • I spent years trying to “justify” my interests in many things. Although the results described here are encouraging, they miss the points that (a) we should not have to justify doing things we find intrinsically interesting, (b) those who don’t find a variety of things intrinsically interesting will not do them even if it “improves their performance.”

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