The Power of Purposeful Tangents

by Stephen Shapiro

The Power of Purposeful TangentsAccording to a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll 28% of Americans did not read a book last year. As an author, I find this both disappointing and yet not surprising.

Fortunately most people read.

But is what you are reading enhancing your creativity, or just furthering your intellect?

Most people who read for business purposes focus on deepening their expertise. They read books, business magazines, and trade journals about their topic. For example, if you are finance expert, you most likely read primarily about money. The training classes you take are also most likely financially focused. And professionally, you probably hang out with other people in your industry.

Of course this is valuable. Deepening one’s skills is critical.

However, if you want to be even more successful, try broadening your horizons.

I am a professional speaker on the topic of innovation. However, less than 50% of my personal development time is focused on speaking or innovation.

Learning from fellow speakers and innovators can only take me so far. There are countless studies that show that true breakthroughs rarely, if ever, come from the domain experts. In others words, if I want to be the same as other innovators, learning from them is fine. But if I want to be different/better than other innovators, I can’t learn from them.

I recently signed up for a 6 day magic master class. I’m partly interested in it for the performance aspect; it will improve my speaking skills. Most good magicians do an amazing job at holding the attention of an audience. I am also interested in magic from the “brain science” perspective. Magic exploits various quirks of the brain, and I believe that understanding these helps me be a better innovator. Magic is about making the impossible possible. Let’s face it, most innovation programs have difficulty making the possible possible.

Although I read Harvard Business Review, I spend even more time reading magazines about the brain/neuroscience (e.g., “Scientific American Mind” magazine), psychology, and sports performance. I learn from entrepreneurs who are not involved in either speaking or innovation. And for pleasure, I read mysteries as they seem to strengthen my problem solving abilities.

None of these topics were chosen at random.

In addition to being topics I enjoy, they are what I call “purposeful tangents.” They are related to my areas of expertise, but they not the same.

Do you work in the gas pipeline industry? Learning from others in that field can of course be valuable. But you may gain breakthrough level insights from cardiovascular experts as they too deal with the movement of fluids through a vessel. In fact, there is a group in Houston called Pumps & Pipes; cardiologists and gas pipeline experts who share insights from their respective fields. These are purposeful tangents. They are related.

What are your purposeful tangents? What could you read/study that is similar to your area of expertise, but different?

Of course there are valuable lessons to be learned anywhere. But looking for insights in random places may lead to random value. It is less predictable and may dissipate your energies.

But again, focusing too much on your area of expertise only leads to incremental improvements.

Purposeful tangents can lead to breakthrough learning with a high level of predictability.

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Stephen ShapiroStephen Shapiro is the author of five books including “Best Practices Are Stupid” and “Personality Poker” (both published by Penguin). He is also a popular innovation speaker and business advisor.

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