Sometimes I like to imagine what life would have been like if I had become a professional football player. Now, don't get too excited, there was little chance of that ever happening, but I find it an interesting thought exercise. Call it Monday morning quarterback with life. What kind of player would I have been? What position would I play, and how would I improve myself? I like the strategy of the game, so think about what it would be like to compete with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Or perhaps I'd play the other side of the ball, a la Troy Polamalu and analyze the attack, looking for a way to defend against it. On second thought, I'm afraid I just don't have the hair for that.
I've decided that if I were an NFL receiver, my first step to improvement would be to go rock climbing. This is just the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that is hard to do if you actually are a football player, but thankfully I don't have that restriction holding me back! The first season after I had begun rock climbing, I discovered something amazing. I found myself with Spiderman-like hands. You could throw a football as hard as you wanted and if it hit even one of my hands, it would stick! Bam! It was like an instant football superpower. I didn't train for football, but suddenly I was a whole lot better at it just from doing something unrelated (or so I thought) that I found I really enjoyed. As it turns out, the muscles and tendons that you strengthen in rock climbing are the same ones that catch a football. Who knew!
These same things are true in the business world as well. You might even find rock climbing helps your business acumen. In that case, think of it more as an alternative to golf. You're sitting around talking with a group of young, energetic people who have all sorts of professional careers. Or, think about something completely sideways to your professional career and think about how it could help.
I just recently completed a course from Coursera called "Imagining Other Earths". Though it is a science class that focuses on astronomy, biology, physics and several other mathematical disciplines, the course seemed to be mostly populated by writers. Yeah, like fiction writers. They all flocked to the course to find out how the actual science worked so that they could draw on creative ideas for their next book or story. What a fantastic idea! Here I was, taking the class to learn about exoplanets, while my classmates were focusing on the "imagining". What a novel idea! (Some puns just can't be avoided, I'm afraid.) There are several places online where you can take college-like courses, some of which are even free. Check out Coursera, The Great Courses, or iTunes U.
Read a book
Another great resource is called Barnes and Noble. You might have heard of it, it's like Amazon.com, but with bricks. And coffee. Grab a coffee at B&N and take a walk through the store, except walk to a section you don't usually spend time in. Take your time and pick up a few books on the history of the Ottoman Empire, or how to learn Python in 24 hours, maybe even children's books. You may go there with the thought that you want to learn about the Hubble Space Telescope, but end up with an idea for a great new product. The world's best business minds are constantly stressing the importance of reading, so if you're not already a reader it's a good idea to make the time for it. The important part is that you keep learning, forcing your brain to be elastic, to handle new types of tasks.
Exercise your brain
Speaking of working your brain, check out a site like Lumosity.com, where you can exercise your brain and practice memorization techniques. We could all use a little better memorization ability (well, except for maybe this guy). There are obviously a lot of things you can do online, but another of my favorites is Meetup where you can find all sorts of people doing all sorts of things near you. The groups have such diversity that it is easy to find something that would be fun and interesting, but outside of your normal routine. There are groups learning languages, playing Frisbee or just hanging out.
One way you may not have thought of is leaving a comment on this post! Seriously, leave your favorite new thing that you're doing to be out-of-the-box in your learning and read the comments to see suggestions from other users that are doing the same. It's like "Leave a penny, take a penny", except we'll just keep adding pennies! Grab some ideas, get into something new and send your brain sideways into a new adventure!
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Brian is a life-long software developer who loves to help others succeed. A frequent source for media outlets, such as BBC, Entrepreneur and Bloomberg, Brian also frequently speaks at universities, conferences and the like. His new book, "Unravelling the Internet of Things" will be available soon on Amazon.com.