Upgrade and become a member of Medium to listen to an audio version of this story.
Learn more

Think Like No One Else

Working and Thinking at a Higher Level, No Matter What Your Work Is

There’s a phrase that I have heard a lot in discussions about money management:

“If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.”

It is attributed to well-known financial writer, speaker, and radio host Dave Ramsey. The gist of the quote is that in order to have the kind of bountiful and secure lifestyle that very few have, you have to be willing to take steps that few others take, in order to make sure it comes to fruition.

It’s not an analysis of the only way to become fabulously independently wealthy — there are those who strike it rich without having to learn hardcore money management. But it is a simple piece of advice that is not unique to the world of finances — it’s advice that extends to many arenas where you might be trying to make progress. In order to progress further than most others, you have to be willing to do things in a way that most others are not.

In my experience, the following maxim has served me well:

If you are willing to think like no one else, later you can think like no one else.

Why thinking? Because thinking is the most important skill you can have. Being able to think of things that no one else thinks of, anticipate things that others don’t, and gain perspectives that few have — those aspects of skillful thinking translate to nearly any job you might want.

So how do you do it? How do you think better than everyone else? Well, it involves thinking like no one else — if you’ll pardon my repetition. You have to be willing to do the kind of cognitive work that very few others are willing to do.

  • Be willing to always be looking for new ideas.
    During your working hours, stay in a mode of curiosity. Stay hungry for new ideas to get into. Record them for later research. Make the list of ideas to learn about a focal point of your daily/weekly/monthly ritual.
  • Do the work to figure out what you don’t know.
    The best way to learn is to admit what you don’t know. But a lot of people assume they know things that they really don’t. It actually takes some work to figure out what you don’t know. The best way to do this is to ask yourself how you would explain it to a group of elementary school children. If you find it impossible to do, you don’t know the subject well enough. So get to work learning more about it!
  • Study and appreciate ideas for their own sake, not for what you think you can do with them.
    Plenty of people pay lip service to ideas these days. Plenty of people are looking to learn about things because their job necessitates it, or because they already know what they’re going to do with the knowledge. But if you really want to have the kind of ideas that others don’t, you need to pursue new ideas for their own sake — not because there’s already a use for them. If you want to make a totally new dish, you can’t use a recipe that already exists.
  • Be willing to entertain opinions and ideas that others dismiss as silly, wrong, or idiotic.
    One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. There are ideas that others toss away because they don’t want to work with them. Nearly every silly idea can be useful in one of two ways: either understanding the underlying principle of it, or understanding what other ideas might be connected to it. There is fertile ground in disassembling and re-assembling ideas to cultivate new ways of thinking.
  • Be willing to write — a lot — about your thoughts, feelings, and random things floating in your mind.
    One of the most effective ways to clarify and cultivate thoughts is to write. Just sit and write. Mind-map, free-write, journal, outline, etc. Just get all the ideas out on paper, and push yourself to see if more are hanging around in the background of your mind. Come back to them later to see if anything jumps out at you.
  • Be willing to do the work of making connections between things that seem unconnected.
    True intelligence and creativity come from being able to connect things that others haven’t thought to connect. And the great thing is that connections are there between pretty much any two ideas. It’s just that some of those connections are interesting and useful, while some are not. 
     
    A great exercise to do is to take a piece of paper laid out in landscape orientation. On each side of the paper, write an idea or concept that seems completely unrelated to the other, and then try to write down things to connect them to each other.
  • Be willing to ask a lot of questions — even to the point of annoying people.
    There are few better ways to stumble upon more ideas and gain more insight than by asking questions. Some people are receptive to this, some people aren’t. You obviously don’t want to seem as if you just don’t care about others’ time or about making progress at all, but you do want to push others to address your questions, and push yourself to find out as much information as you can.
  • Be willing to be slow to action.
    These days, people demand quick action. People want to be quick to market, early adopters, beta testers, etc. That’s fine, but that’s where you will have to be willing to really act like no one else. You have to resist the trend to act quickly, especially when it seems like the action is merely reactive, as opposed to coming from a place of new and interesting ideas. I’m not saying there’s no virtue in quick action, it’s just that enough people are acting quickly — you don’t need to be another one, especially when you could be cultivating a better way of thinking.
  • Be willing to set aside time for just thinking — sitting or walking and thinking.
    When George Shultz was Secretary of State in the US during the 1980s, he had a habit of regularly taking time to just think. As David Leonhardt writes:
Shultz, who’s now 96, told me that his hour of solitude was the only way he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of his job. Otherwise, he would be constantly pulled into moment-to-moment tactical issues, never able to focus on larger questions of the national interest. And the only way to do great work, in any field, is to find time to consider the larger questions.

A mentor of mine is always telling me that I need to be out of the office for several hours each week “just to step back and think”. It’s something he does regularly, and as successful as he is, it seems to be wildly beneficial.

There are likely more aspects to thinking like no one else, but this gives you the basic outline. It’s difficult work, but after a while, it becomes very rewarding.

Did you find value in this piece? Consider subscribing to my weekly newsletter — Woolgathering. It’s one email per week, with great ideas to add value to your life and work.