Why Knowledge Workers Should Train Knowledge Muscles
Why Knowledge Workers Should Train Knowledge Muscles

The more flexible someone's mind, the more multi-dimensional their view of every problem they encounter.

Pro athletes work out. I don't need to share a link to a "day in the life" video of an NBA player to prove it to you. Of course they do! Their entire professional careers depend upon them being at the pinnacle of physical conditioning.

Even during the middle of their season, athletes spend several hours every day pushing their bodies to perform better: lifting weights, stretching, yoga, Pilates, they do whatever it takes. This is in addition to the time they spend practicing as a team: learning the playbook, rehearsing plays, working on specific skills, studying their opponents and more.

None of this is in the slightest bit surprising to anyone. Of course they work out, because their physical performance is directly related to athletic performance. If you can't out-jump, out-push or out-run your opponent, your knowledge of the playbook probably won't be enough.

Here's where it gets weird, though. Take professional knowledge workers: product managers, developers, engineers, investment bankers, you name it. These are people whose success depends on their mental muscles. Yet in the white-collar knowledge world, those who follow a personal, systemic plan for training and stretching their mind remain outliers.

Imagine the world's best athletes just showing up to practice and games without working out obsessively in between. You can't, because no one would watch. It wouldn't be a thing. But in the knowledge-work world, it's the norm. Day after day, week after week, workers log on and jump straight into the immediate task at hand, rarely if ever deviating (at least productively).

Sure, they might pick up the latest "secrets of a high performer" paperback at the airport or listen to the Tim Ferriss podcast. Maybe they go to a conference or a seminar every other quarter. This is akin to LeBron James fitting in a 30-minute workout every couple weeks while still going to every practice and game. Why do so many elite knowledge workers take their minds less seriously than LeBron James takes his body (and, frankly, his mind)?

Perhaps because corporate America continues to dramatically undervalue anything it can't measure. It's inarguable that working out improves LeBron James' basketball performance. But direct attribution between a last-second shot to win a game and a specific workout, or him working out in general, is impossible. We all know his workouts are a critical component of his success, but we can't go much further than that in assigning credit.

In the same way, it's inarguable that enhancing the creativity of a workforce improves outcomes in all sorts of ways. The more flexible someone's mind, the more multi-dimensional their view of every problem they encounter. The only way you can see around corners, anticipate problems, recommend changes and iterate effectively is through consistent and focused interaction with a bigger (and different) world than the task in front of you.

Business leaders inherently understand this, but few act upon it. Because any deviation from short-term productivity is hard to justify. Because the results are hard to quantify, especially immediately. Because, because, because.

Meanwhile, the entire knowledge-work landscape evolves at breathtaking speed. The longer knowledge workers spend in intellectual silos, applying their minds in the same sorts of ways against the same sorts of problems without exercising those mental muscles, the more vulnerable they become.

Again, no different than a basketball player who eventually starts to decline. Just like the world is always producing taller, faster, stronger athletes, it's also always producing different people with different experiences who have different ways of solving problems. Businesses and knowledge workers can either embrace the world's dynamism by committing to evolving along with it, or wait to eventually be passed by. In this case, not necessarily because the next business or person was better, but because they offered the world something new. Static thinking and static operations simply don't last in today's world, no matter how solid.

It's why we developed the YDP Creative Fitness method for businesses. Without a system for exercising the mental flexibility of knowledge workers, your structure will lead to atrophy. The smartest and most antifragile businesses are actively facilitating mental exercise for their employees, not just linear upskilling, but nonlinear exploration of foreign ideas.

This will be one of the biggest shifts in the workplace over the next several years. As the effects of automation resonate throughout every business, what should be obvious finally will be: what makes employees valuable isn't their ability to simulate machines, but their ability to do what no machine can: create and explore in the unknown.

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