5 Ways to Be Smarter in Life: Tips to Keep Yourself Learning and Your Mind Sharp

Pr9“Knowledge is power.” So proclaims one of the most famous quotes in history — a quote commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, the medieval English philosopher and statesman. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian diplomat who served as the Secretary-General of the United Nations from January 1997 to December 2006, expanded on Bacon’s wisdom by declaring: “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

It is indeed a fact that those with knowledge go further in life than those without knowledge. And those who add wisdom and discipline to their toolbox go even further! If you wish to become successful in life, you must lay a foundation for success. That foundation will be in your faith, mindset, and intelligence.

Here are five ways to keep yourself learning and your mind sharp:

1. Make Wisdom Your Top Priority

King Solomon, widely regarded as perhaps the richest man who ever lived, declared: “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7). Wisdom should be a higher priority to you than money, health, security, or anything else you may desire. Solomon wrote that wisdom’s proceeds “are better than the profits of silver and her gain than fine gold” (Proverbs 3:14).

While some may argue that relationships (particularly your relationship with God) are more important than wisdom, the truth is that you can better understand, appreciate, navigate, and enjoy your relationships with wisdom than you can without wisdom. Relationships without wisdom are doomed to frustration and failure.

2. Listen – and Listen Some More

It’s more important to understand others than it is for them to understand you. A person who only wants others to understand him or her is inherently a self-centered individual. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said it best: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

My mom used to say I was born with two ears and one mouth, which means I should listen twice as much as I speak. This is good, common sense wisdom. But…

It’s not enough to just hear somebody. You must focus and concentrate on what the other person is saying as well as what they are not saying. You need to read the lines and read in between the lines. You need to gauge the other person’s emotions and reactions as well as the words they are actually saying. Communication takes a lot of work and patience, but it pays off when it’s handled correctly.

3. Manage Your Anger

Those who fail to manage their emotions, especially their anger, will struggle in life. And they will often make life very difficult for those around them. If you want to be successful and if you care about those in your life, you MUST learn to manage your emotions.

Angry people don’t think straight. Their minds close (more on this in a moment). They start pointing fingers. They take verbal or physical shots at others. They want to strike back and vent their rage. And, in that angry state, people often do things they would never do otherwise.

4. Keep Your Mind Open

A closed jar can’t receive any more liquid. A closed refrigerator can’t receive any food items. A closed store can’t receive any customers. And a closed mind can’t receive (let alone process) new information. If your mind is closed, you will not learn anything new. Period.

Some believe that a closed mind is appropriate or they think that opening their mind will threaten long-held convictions. I can only speak concerning my own faith. The Apostle Paul says we should “test all things” and “hold fast what is good” (I Thessalonians 5:21). All things means…all things. Test everything. If it’s good, it stays. If it’s not, it goes. But in order to test, your mind must stay open.

This is the case especially when you’re upset about things. The other day I engaged a couple people in an online conversation about the role of a church pastor. Rather than respond to specific points I was making, the people with whom I was conversing could only talk about the frustration or anger they had experienced with their own pastors. Because of this, they completely brushed aside the article written by an expert on church life (the article I was defending) as well as the points I was offering.

A similar example came up many years ago when the country was transfixed with the allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas by his former colleague Anita Hill. To this day, we don’t know for sure what happened, but one of my college friends “knew.” We’ll call her “Bonnie.” Bonnie was convinced Clarence Thomas was guilty of sexual harassment. How was she convinced? What evidence did she have? Well…Bonnie herself had been sexually harassed.

Note that her assessment of Thomas’ guilt had nothing to do with Hill’s charges, any evidence, or any analysis of said evidence. Rather, Bonnie was judging Thomas guilty of sexually harassing Anita Hill because Bonnie had been sexually harassed. And her mind was made up.

Now, I’m not saying anything about the Hill-Thomas relationship. I don’t know what happened between them. My point isn’t to defend Thomas. It’s to point out that Bonnie’s mind was made up (based on NO facts of the case at hand — and only a personal, very unrelated experience) and her mind was closed to anything further.

This kind of thing happens all the time. People see or hear things. They have an initial reaction, often based on their background or personal experience. They often personalize what they’ve seen or heard – and, depending on the situation, their emotions kick in. And then they’re off to the races (so to speak) with their minds closed tight!

I’ve spent a lot of time on this point, because I believe it’s among the most important reasons why many people don’t get smarter and don’t keep their minds sharp. If you want to be smart and successful…you MUST keep your mind OPEN.

5. Spend Time With Smart People

Solomon said: “He who walks with wise men will be wise” (Proverbs 13:20a). If you want to be smart, hang out with smart people. It’s quite simple. And yet how many people actually do this?

There are a few ways to invest time with smart people. You can directly spend time with them (going to lunch, hanging out after work, networking, etc). You can also closely observe smart people. You can read what smart people write. You can listen to what smart people say.

Don’t know any smart people? Go to your library. There are plenty of books penned by some really, really smart people over the years. Read them. Take notes. You can also go on YouTube or Vimeo and watch speeches or lectures by smart people. And, again, take notes as you listen to them. You can listen to smart people on your CD or mp3 player as you drive to and from work. There are many ways to connect with smart people. You just have to do it!

Getting smarter is not going to happen by accident. It takes work. It takes commitment. It takes time. But it’s very much worth it. You’ll be a more successful person as a result.

Don’t Let Politics Ruin a Friendship

Politics and friendship. Politics and family. These things don’t always mix. The other day, I had lunch with a dear friend. We talked about the election and he pointed out that this election season is ruining a lot of friendships. He’s right, and I wish he wasn’t. A week ago, a friend of mine sent an email out to a bunch of her friends talking about how she had worked up the courage to wear a T-shirt to the store for her particular candidate — and the various reactions she got as a result. According to her email, her neighbor shrieked when she saw the T-shirt and asked her never to speak with her…again, ever!

It’s truly a shame that friends and families allow differences over politics to undermine and even ruin their relationships. In this election cycle, let me say it plainly: No politician is worth ending a friendship over. They certainly aren’t worth severing family ties.

I recognize that politics are important. And I know the issues matter. But we have to not lose sight of the forest for the trees. We need to step back and ask ourselves why politics matter. Why do elections matter? We care about politics – or at least we should – because we care about each other. And if that’s the case, why would we let political differences jeopardize the very relationships we care about?

What’s more, given that we (meaning myself and most of my readers) live within a democratic republic, isn’t working through our differences the nature of our system of government? When we allow civility to break down and relationships to be destroyed, we undercut the very foundations upon which a democracy rests. If we aren’t willing to talk with one another and LISTEN to one another, democracy is doomed.

Politics and friendship don’t often mix. But they should. Politics and family don’t always go well together. But they should. If we can’t discuss our political differences in a spirit of civility, then much more is at stake than simply one election.

Whatever Happened to Personal Responsibility?

Recently, a Pittsburgh teenager crossed a street while playing our society’s latest obsession Pokemon Go. Unfortunately, she didn’t look both ways (as most parents teach their kids) and was hit by a car. And who does she blame? Herself? Not a chance. She blames the makers of Pokemon Go. Oh, and her mom does too!

The human race has always had its share of people who pointed fingers of blame at others for their mishaps, setbacks, and failures. But the refusal to accept personal responsibility seems to have reached critical mass in recent years. Denying personal responsibility is frankly becoming the norm. That’s not just sad. It’s dangerous.

Embracing personal responsibility is a crucial cornerstone of maturity, health, introspection, mutually rewarding relationships, wealth or at least financial stability, and an orderly society. When parents don’t teach personal responsibility to their kids, they rob them of an indispensable ingredient of success. They also foist upon society kids who will likely weigh their communities down as opposed to helping build them up.

It’s true that life isn’t fair and that the world is full of bad people. It’s true that we all face obstacles in life — some more than others. It’s likewise true that much of the misfortune and many of the calamities that befall us are brought on by people or circumstances beyond our control. All that is true. But the answer isn’t to jettison personal responsibility. The answer is to cling to it.

History is full of people who were dealt a bad hand, and yet who achieved extraordinary things in their lives. The toughest and most honorable men and women in our history were those who refused to accept defeat and who refused to succumb to bitterness and cynicism. They pressed on – and made the world a better place.

Be a man or woman who embraces personal responsibility. And when things get tough, be the person who looks for solutions, opportunities, and important lessons.

How to Stop the Hate and Heal Our Nation

With all the violence in the news, we are seeing the catastrophic consequences of group identity politics. When you allow yourself to believe (and/or encourage others to believe) lies such as all (or most) blacks are ‘thugs,’ all (or most) whites are racist, all (or most) Muslims are terrorists, all (or most) evangelical Christians are haters, all (or most) police officers are trigger-happy and abusive, and so forth….you get the divided, polarized society we have today. We need to stop dividing ourselves up by groups and start loving and appreciating one another as individuals. We need to love one another, forgive one another, be gracious to one another, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and treat everyone (to the very best of our ability) with kindness, civility, and respect.

Don’t Give Up on America

Don’t give up on America. Whether it’s corrupt high-ranking officials getting off scot free or heart-wrenching police shootings or the decline of our civil rights and basic freedoms, too many people want to take the “easy way out” and just give up on America. Some will even cite the Founding Fathers as inspiration, forgetting or ignoring the fact that the Founders took many YEARS (and multiple resolutions, at the continental and colonial level, calling for prayer and fasting) before finally taking up arms against the British Crown.

No country is perfect. And this nation will always have problems and challenges. But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, not eternal cynicism. Humanly speaking, the solution to our problems is civil, constructive, and informed ENGAGEMENT – not rebellion. And spiritually speaking, the ultimate answer is prayer. If people of faith spent more time praying than we do complaining or worrying, I imagine we’d see much greater progress.

The men and women who gave us our great nation and have helped preserve it for now 240 years didn’t give up. We shouldn’t either.

5 Reasons Why George Washington Was a Great Leader

496952669_63c8d2f127_bGeorge Washington was the most beloved American of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and is still regarded as one of our greatest leaders. There were specific qualities that defined Washington and that enabled him to become such a monumental figure in not only American, but also world history. What made George Washington a great leader? Here are five reasons why George Washington was a great leader:

  1. George Washington was passionate. When Washington committed himself to a task or mission, he was “all in.” There were no half measures with Washington. And even when things got rough, Washington remained committed because of his deep-seated passion. The Revolutionary War is a perfect example. Washington considered the American cause a “sacred cause,” and put his entire heart and soul into the fight. Great leaders are men and women of passion….just like Washington.
  2. George Washington was morally upright and trustworthy. While the “I cannot tell a lie” cherry tree legend is regarded as a myth by most historians, there is no dispute that Washington’s contemporaries regarded him as an honest and moral man. Thomas Jefferson would later write of Washington: “His integrity was pure…He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man.” Washington’s greatest act of integrity was his refusal to become king or dictator after the war and to instead resign his commission and go home. Even when called out of retirement to serve as President, Washington served only two terms and retired once again to Mount Vernon. Washington was, as King George III exclaimed, “the greatest man in the world.”
  3. George Washington was prudent. Jefferson considered this Washington’s strongest feature of leadership, writing that Washington never acted “until every circumstance, every consideration was maturely weighed.” Certainly there are situations where slow, deliberate decision-making isn’t always possible. As a battlefield commander, Washington understood this. But more often that not, leaders get themselves into trouble by saying or doing things before or without thinking those things through. Washington was careful and intentional as a leader. And America was better for it.
  4. George Washington was courageous. If more people knew of Washington’s bravery under fire during the French and Indian War and later the American Revolution, they would be in a state of perpetual awe. Washington defied danger. When one reads of his exploits, which included recklessly riding in between lines of British and colonial soldiers firing on each other by accident during the French and Indian War as well as deliberately exposing himself repeatedly to enemy fire during the Revolution, it’s amazing the man lived as long as he did! One might even argue that he was too brave with his life, but no one can question his courage. And it was a courage that inspired his men and won the respect and admiration of his country.
  5. George Washington was a man of prayer. While not all of my readers are people of faith (and I respect that), it would be unfair to not recognize that George Washington was a man of faith. Whatever the specifics of his faith (and there has been much debate on that subject), Washington believed in the power of prayer – and regularly practiced it. This shaped his view of the world, influenced his character, and made him recognize there was an Authority outside of himself.

If you’re a leader or wish to be one some day, there’s much you can learn from George Washington. The father of the United States is indeed one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world.

**For more on George Washington, check out The Religion of George Washington by Brian Tubbs

10 Best Leadership Books for New Leaders: Must-Have Leadership Books for Your Bookshelf

Those new to leadership or looking to get into leadership positions should grab the following ten leadership books as soon as possible. Add them to your library and read them. These leadership books are excellent and are must-reads for new and experienced leaders alike.

  1. The Book of Proverbs by King Solomon and others — Featured in the Bible, this collection of ancient biblical proverbs is something no leader should be without. Most of the Proverbs are attributed to King Solomon, but others (including Moses, Lemuel, etc) contributed to the collection. No matter the particulars of your faith, don’t even try being a leader without availing yourself of the wisdom from Proverbs.
  2. The Art of War by Sun Tzu — Every leader should read this classic ancient text on military leadership. Much of the wisdom contained in Art of War applies not only to war, but also to politics and business.
  3. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie — Leaders must deal effectively with people. Dale Carnegie’s classic is the best book on people skills ever written. If you want to better understand people and develop productive and mutually beneficial human relations, then read Carnegie.
  4. The Success Principles by Jack Canfield — This is one of the most personal development books I’ve ever read. Canfield, co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, knocks it out of the park with this comprehensive and systematic take on personal success.
  5. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey — A leader must be a master of effective habits. That’s what Covey’s classic is all about.
  6. Winning With People by John C. Maxwell — Maxwell’s Winning With People is probably the second best book on people skills ever written.
  7. Lincoln on Leadership by Donald T. Phillips — There have been many biographies written on our sixteenth President. Among the best are Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. I highly recommend each of those, but this book focuses specifically on Lincoln as a leader. No question that Lincoln is among the most effective leaders in history. The more you study him, the better off you’ll be.
  8. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell — Maxwell explores all the key principles and facets of leadership in this well-renowned classic. Definitely a must read.
  9. See You at the Top by Zig Ziglar — This is probably the late, great Zig Ziglar’s magnum opus. It’s one of the best self-help books written in the 20th century and is something any leader (especially new leader) can benefit from.
  10. The Art of a Leader by William A. Cohen — A retired Air Force general and former student of the great Peter Drucker, Cohen authored over 50 books and textbooks, including The Art of a Leader. While some may not agree with my including it on this “Top 10” list, it was one of the first leadership books I read after college and was helpful in getting me started on the path to leadership. I believe you’ll find it a very influential and helpful addition to your library.

There are many other great leadership books, including biographies of and autobiographies by famous leaders from our past, but the above ten are must-haves for any would-be leader’s library. Get them and read them as soon as you can. You’ll be a better leader as a result.

Leadership Characteristics: Learn to Accept Correction if you want to be a Good Leader

Good leadership requires humility.

Good leadership requires humility.

One of the most important leadership characteristics is the willingness to accept correction. Solomon, the great Israelite king, said as much when he wrote: “Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1). Truer words cannot be spoken. The acquisition of knowledge requires humility, the desire to learn, and the willingness to accept correction from others. Those who resist such correction, including those who never admit they are wrong, are (in the words of Solomon) “stupid.”

History is full of leaders who became casualties to their pride and stubbornness. And if they somehow escaped much of the consequences of their stupidity, their followers and those around them weren’t as fortunate. Few people are more dangerous than a stubborn, proud, narcissistic leader who rarely listens to the counsel of others and seems unwilling (if not incapable) of admitting when he or she has made a mistake.

Most historians agree that the two greatest Presidents in U.S. history were George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Some put Franklin Roosevelt in that camp as well, but it’s hard to top Washington and Lincoln. And one of the greatest attributes each man had was the willingness to seek counsel and accept correction. President Washington surrounded himself with aides who were arguably much smarter than him. His first Cabinet included such intellectual giants as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. A lesser man would have been intimidated by such men and would’ve wanted to avoid anyone else taking attention. Consider the jealousy President Richard Nixon often had with Henry Kissinger. Not so with Washington. Perhaps an even more commendable example is President Lincoln who invited political rivals onto his Cabinet. Lincoln was more than willing to humble himself to accept advice, counsel, and even correction from those whose wisdom he valued.

To be a leader requires that you are constantly learning and growing — even as (one might say “especially as”) you actually occupy a position of leadership. Many years ago, my mother bought my paternal grandfather a mug that read “Don’t bother me with the facts. My mind is already made up.” A funny mug, and my grandfather was actually a very well-read and well-studied individual. But there was some truth to my mom’s jab. Grandot (that’s what I called him) could be quite stubborn at times. And stubbornness is not always a good trait for a leader. Not when it comes to receiving counsel and accepting correction, that is.

It is of course refreshing to see a leader stand on conviction. I’m not suggesting that leaders shouldn’t, when appropriate, draw lines in the sand and refuse to surrender. What I’m saying is that leaders should never stop seeking out and receiving information. And they should always learn from their mistakes. A true leader keeps himself or herself humble. Good leaders know they always have something more to learn.

How to Discover Your Purpose in Life

Finding a worthy purpose in life is key to one's success.

Finding a worthy purpose in life is key to one’s success.

The late Zig Ziglar said people were either “wandering generalities” or “meaningful specifics.” Those who wander aimlessly through life with little to no sense of purpose or commitment fall into the first group, and those who know what they want and are heading in that direction comprise the second. You want to be in the second group. You want to be a “meaningful specific.”

Self-help guru Anthony Robbins writes: “There are people…who seem constantly lost in a fog of confusion. They go one way, then another. They try one thing, then shift to another. They move down one path and then retreat in the opposite direction. Their problem is simple: They don’t know what they want. You can’t hit a target if you don’t know what it is.”

You want to be in the group that knows where it’s headed. You want to be in a group that knows for what it’s aiming. You want to be the kind of person sets goals – or “targets” as Mr. Robbins says – and who can measure his or her success by hitting a target and moving onto the next one.

The best way to accomplish this is by identifying a general story arc for your life and then setting a series of incremental goals to move you along that arc. It may seem awkward or even corny to think of your life as a story, but that’s essentially what it is. Several years ago, I taught high school history, and I would challenge my students to see history not as a collection of names, dates, and facts to memorize, but rather as a collection of stories to enjoy and learn from. When I think of the American Revolution, I don’t see a bunch of dates, names, and places. I see a story of ordinary people embracing a “glorious cause” (as George Washington described it), facing incredible odds, and emerging in triumph to start the greatest nation the world has ever seen! The same dynamic is at play in any era of American history, whether we’re talking about the Civil War, the fight against slavery and segregation, the struggle for women’s suffrage, or America’s victory in the Cold War. And in the midst of all these exciting time periods are people — heroes and villains, activists and spectators, human beings all. These are people with individual stories of achievement and adversity — of mistakes and setbacks. Some of them, like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, completed their journey to become great statesmen and heroes. Others, like Benedict Arnold, Aaron Burr, John Wilkes Booth, and Lee Harvey Oswald, went the other direction.

Knowing one’s overall purpose and direction in life helps keep a person honest and on track. While people may compromise and will certainly make mistakes, if they have a definite purpose in life, they can get back on the path and resume their trek to success and fulfillment.

The first step then in creating your story arc is to determine your major, definite, overall purpose in life. You can accomplish this by asking yourself a series of questions:

  • What do you want to be known for or remembered as?
  • What kind of mark do you want to leave?
  • What kind of difference do you want to make in the world around you and in the lives of those you care about?
  • What do you want to be, do, or have in life?

If you’re a person of faith, this story arc creation process should be (to steal a phrase from a former pastor of mine) “bathed in prayer.” You will never be happy if you’re not congruent, and to be congruent, you must act in accordance with your deep values and convictions. A person of faith must tie this process in with his or her faith.

If you’re not at present a person of faith, this is a time for you to really confront the highest questions of existence and reality. Don’t go through life as a “wandering generality.” If America’s Founders were correct and there is a Creator, the most important connection or relationship for any person to pursue is with that Creator.

Whatever your faith perspective, being clear on your core convictions, deep passions, and personal aspirations is critical. Don’t skip this step. All others flow from it. The clearer you are on your purpose, the clearer you will be about life.

Why Presidents Day is Celebrated (and Why it Shouldn’t Be!)

720px-US-WhiteHouse-Logo.svgWant to know why Presidents’ Day is celebrated? Well, the generally understood (though not official) purpose of “Presidents Day” (alternately spelled President’s Day, Presidents’ Day, or Presidents Day) is to celebrate the American presidency and remember all those who served as President of the United States. This, however, is not the actual, legal purpose of the holiday.

The Origin of Presidents Day

In 1885, Congress officially set aside February 22 as a national holiday to honor the birth of America’s first President, George Washington. Thus, the holiday we know as “Presidents Day” began as a day to celebrate only one President. And, legally, it is still (at least at the federal level) a day exclusive to George Washington.

In the decades following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, there began a movement to honor the 16th President as well as our first one. Since Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) fell so close to Washington’s birthday (February 22 by the modern calendar), it became popular and fashionable to celebrate both birthdays. (Those readers who have birthdays on or close to December 25 understand how this kind of thing happens). Some states began doing this.

In the 1960s, Congress considered officially re-naming Washington’s holiday to “Presidents Day” to honor both men. That was shot down, but Congress did pass the Monday Holidays Act, taking Washington’s birthday holiday away from his actual birthday and moving it to the third Monday in February.

By the late 1980s, thanks to several states and (most significantly) retail establishments advertising “Presidents Day” sales on TV, the name “Presidents’ Day” stuck in popular culture.

Most businesses, calendars, and individuals now say “Presidents Day” rather than “George Washington’s Birthday Observed” (even though the latter is the federally designated, official name for the February holiday).

The Legacy of Presidents Day

Though the original intent behind the “Presidents Day” concept was to honor both Lincoln and Washington, the day has lost much of its significance. It now stands as a weak celebration of all our Presidents.
1789_97_George_Washington
And, most people pass by the holiday with little regard for its meaning anyway. They simply see it as a day off work. An extra day to travel, visit family, or shop.

The Monday Holidays Act may be good for the economy and convenient for families, but it’s terrible for holiday celebrations. After all, the root concept behind “holiday” is “holy day” – a day to set someone or something aside as sacred and worthy of celebration.

Of course, I’m not saying that George Washington was holy. He was a flesh-and-blood human being — one flawed in many areas. But the original dream (carried out in 1885 by federal law) to honor the Father of our Country with a day set aside for esteem and celebration has long vanished.

And, for that matter, those who wish to honor Abraham Lincoln by hijacking Washington’s day have fared little better. Their man has also been lost in the ambiguous, meaningless “Presidents Day.”

Moving Forward

At this point, the term “Presidents Day” is deeply entrenched in American culture and in popular lexicon. Eradicating it will be nigh unto impossible, unless we move “Presidents Day” to another date (say January 20 when we inaugurate Presidents?) or return Washington’s birthday holiday to the actual day of his birth. As for honoring Lincoln, the expensive solution (expensive in terms of cost to the federal government, but perhaps good for the economy) is to have two holidays in February. Give both Washington and Lincoln their own individual day.

Whatever our society decides, the status quo is unacceptable. At a time when the American people repeatedly demonstrate a pathetic ignorance of basic history and civics, we should be holding up our nation’s father, not relegating him to irrelevancy. Maybe some day enough Americans will recognize that, without George Washington, they likely wouldn’t have a nation to live in, let alone a holiday in February to appreciate. It will be great day for America if that awakening ever occurs.