Exploring the Connections Between Your Intellectual Life and Your Financial Life

This is the third entry in an eight part series exploring the connections between your finances and other areas of your life.

A few weeks ago, I started a series exploring the connections between personal finance and the other “spheres” of my life. The first entry covered the connections between one’s physical life and financial life, the second entry covered the connections between one’s mental and spiritual life and financial life, and today we’re looking at one’s intellectual life and financial life.

As noted in the first entry, I tend to view life as a bunch of “spheres,” or areas of focus. I really like Michael Hyatt’s list of nine such “spheres”: physical, mental/spiritual, intellectual, social, marital, parental, avocational (hobbies), vocational, and financial – they cover much of what life is all about. I’ve come to view these spheres as deeply interconnected, in that success in one sphere is usually linked in some significant ways to success in other spheres (and failures are similarly connected) and that knowing the connections can help people figure out how to succeed in both areas at once.

Today, we’re going to look at the intellectual sphere.

What Is the “Intellectual Life”?

Intellectual life refers to the thoughts, knowledge, ideas, and problem solving that run through your mind. Much of the time, our intellectual life is shallow – we’re thinking about our appointment later today or the game we watched last night. However, when we actually engage with difficult topics and difficult problems that really challenge and push us, we deepen our intellectual life and achieve a better understanding of the world and of ourselves.

The benefits of a robust intellectual life are many. The world seems less mysterious. You understand your own viewpoints better and can explain them better. It’s easier to hold down conversations on all kinds of topics. It’s much easier to solve problems of all kinds. You’re less afraid to tackle projects that you might not fully understand at the start. Not only are those things true, but I find that really stretching one’s intellect leads to a “flow state” where you lose track of time and place and, for me, that is one of the most profound sources of happiness in life.

In the modern information economy, a robust intellectual life often helps a person with their career, so there is some overlap with one’s professional life. However, our thoughts and ideas stretch far beyond what we do in our careers, so there is only an overlap between one’s professional life and one’s intellectual life.

For me, one’s intellectual life comes down to a positive answer to one key question: do I have a robust understanding of the world around me which I can use to solve problems and relate to others?

Having a robust intellectual life offers a bunch of financial benefits.

First, you’re much more likely to be able to find work and to be flexible enough in their work to always find employment. A person with a wide knowledge base and a strong ability to solve problems is generally going to be a valuable asset in most workplaces (provided it’s combined with reasonable interpersonal skills). Such people are typically able to find high paying jobs, retain them, and easily move to new ones should their situation change.

Second, you’re more open to taking on intellectually challenging tasks, which can help both professionally and at home. This is why a person with a robust intellectual life usually finds employment with ease – they’re able to solve problems and take on challenging tasks. This is also true at home, where the ability to take on difficult tasks (such as home repairs) generally saves quite a lot of money.

Third, you have a much wider field of topics to converse about, which makes building professional (and personal) relationships much easier. A person with a healthy intellectual life can carry on a conversation with anyone, finding some sort of common ground for meaningful and worthwhile conversation. This aids greatly in the building of professional and personal relationships.

Finally, you have a much greater capacity for analyzing your own financial situation and developing your own solutions and plans. A person who is adept at self-learning and problem solving can typically figure out almost any personal finance situation on their own, come up with a strong solution, and implement that solution.

Here are five low cost strategies I use for maintaining and improving my own intellectual life.

Strategy #1 – Read Genuinely Challenging Things and Work to Understand Them

I make it a point to devote at least one solid hour a day to reading something that challenges my mind and forces me to think. This usually forces me to read slowly and consider new ideas carefully. I often take notes as I’m reading so I have a track of thoughts to take up later on.

I often choose reading that is at least professionally adjacent, meaning that there’s at least some connection to the topics I write about, but many of the books I choose have no seeming connection at all to personal finance or personal development. The purpose is to read about something that I don’t understand well and to improve my understanding of that topic.

This is hard. It’s much easier to read a page-turning novel or more material on topics that are very familiar to me. Reading something difficult is mentally taxing and forces me to think in new ways, but that’s part of the value of it.

Reading is my primary way of absorbing information, but everyone learns in different ways. The key thing is to find an avenue of learning that works for you, then use that avenue to take on things that are difficult for you to understand, but that you can work through if you take it slowly. If you find that watching videos is best for you, don’t be afraid to pause videos to look up words or to work out something for yourself. The same is true with audiobooks – pause them and think about the material as you go.

What topics should you dig into? Dig into ones that you’re personally curious about. Dig into topics that people you associate with might know about, so you can converse with them about it. Dig into topics that relate to your career in some fashion. Those three areas alone should provide a wealth of ideas.

How do you know what to read? Try reading something that’s difficult but not impossible to understand. You should be stopping regularly to consider new ideas or to look up words, but it shouldn’t be overwhelming. If you’re completely lost, look for a simpler book or video or other material to start with; there’s nothing wrong with starting with a very introductory book.

Strategy #2 – Explain Things You Think You Understand to a Novice

When you think you understand an idea thoroughly, try explaining it to an eight year old.

This might seem like a strange way to enhance your intellectual life, but hear me out. If you can explain an idea to an eight year old, it likely means that you have a thorough understanding of the topic. If you can’t explain it well without relying on shorthand concepts or ideas or words that an eight year old wouldn’t understand, your own understanding is probably somewhat limited.

The approach I like to use is this: after I read a chapter or a section in a hard book, I let that section float around in my head for a while, then I try to summarize it out of my head in my own words in the simplest language I can while still making it clear. If I find that I can’t do this well, then I know I need to back up (and backing up to read something again is fine).

This actual process is hard, and doing this makes me appreciate the task that elementary school teachers have when they’re explaining a new idea to an elementary aged student. You simply have to know an idea very well to be able to explain it to a child.

Strategy #3 – Engage in Difficult Puzzles and Games

Games and puzzles are powerful ways to encourage intellectual growth. They help with logic. They help with interpreting situations. They help with coming up with strategies and plans. They help you deal with plans that are undone. They can help with skills like negotiation and trading. Plus, they can often be purely fun.

There are an infinite variety of games and puzzles out there. Puzzles don’t begin and end with mazes and crossword puzzles and word finds and Sudoku. Games don’t begin and end with Fortnite and chess. There are an infinite variety of both and they’re well worth exploring, because they scratch all kinds of different intellectual and thematic itches.

If you want to try out a variety of puzzles, look at acrostic puzzles, logic puzzles, or cryptic crosswords. Try taking on chess problems or go problems. If you want to try out a variety of games, don’t just turn to your smartphone or a computer or video game console; look for a community board game night and go with an open mind, or check out a chess club.

The goal is to find something that makes you think in a pleasurable way, where you’re figuring out a solution or evaluating odds and coming up with strategies and plans, but having fun doing it. Any game or puzzle that does that is well worth incorporating into your regular life.

Strategy #4 – Take on “Think-y” Projects and Challenges That Are Just Beyond What You Think You Can Do

One of the best things you can do to stimulate your intellectual life is to take on a challenge that’s just a little bit beyond what you think you can handle. Often, you don’t know exactly how to get to the end product you want, but you feel like the steps should be something you can figure out.

This usually requires a burst of self-learning followed by trying out different techniques you’ve never done before (and often an alternation between the two), coupled with some careful thought and planning about how to proceed.

Often, such a project results in going into a “flow state,” which is a state in which you’re so engaged with a project that you lose track of time and place and are simply absorbed into the task. For me, this is one of life’s peak experiences, and I most frequently attain it when I engage with a challenging project that demands my full thinking and focus.

Want some examples? Home repair projects are often like this, especially when the project is complex enough that you’re not quite sure how to do it. Computer programming tasks are often like this. Really complex meal preparation can be like this.

So, if you want to try this, take on a home improvement project that seems simple but you don’t know how to do it. Figure out how to do it by watching videos. Make a meal or a food item that you don’t immediately know how to make. Figure out how to do it, then do it. Push yourself a little bit beyond what you think you can do.

Strategy #5 – Have a Deep Conversation with Someone Where You’re Willing To Have Your Ideas Challenged and Changed

This is another powerful way to really stretch your thinking capacity in a fun way, but it requires a few things to be true. First, everyone participating has to be willing to not hold onto a particular viewpoint with emotion, because when emotion gets involved, you’re no longer trying to understand, but trying to win by any means necessary. Second, you need to be discussing an issue with someone who has at least somewhat different knowledge and understanding of an issue than you, although you are bringing some knowledge and understanding of your own. Third, everyone involved must be willing and able to keep their emotions in check. Finally, everyone involved must be willing to question their own viewpoints seriously.

If you have all of those elements in place, sit down with those people and simply talk through whatever it is you’re curious about. Try to understand all sides, and do that by giving a good faith argument on behalf of that viewpoint, even if none of you agree with it. Be willing to hear criticism of the ideas you support without getting angry or defensive about it. Remember, the goal is for everyone to understand all sides better.

Again, this is often very challenging. It forces you to look at a complex matter from a lot of angles, with people sharing perspectives and often introducing angles you haven’t thought of before. It absolutely requires respect and a lack of defensiveness about ideas, but if you can get past that, such conversations can be deeply enlightening.

I usually find that when I have conversations like this, I end up with more respect for the other viewpoints on an issue or an idea than I had before I started. Furthermore, doing it once makes it easier to do in the future, and you’ll often reach a point where you start trying to understand other sides of issues in a genuine way even without having such conversations. The key is to put forth genuine effort to understand other perspectives without just locking down and being defensive.

As a further benefit, I often find that this is a great way to build a social bond with someone. If you can have this kind of conversation successfully with someone, you end up bonding with them.

Final Thoughts

Making room in your life for deep stimulation of your mind plays a powerful role in improving your problem solving skills, which applies powerfully to your professional and financial spheres, as well as to many other areas of your life.

If I can suggest one single thing, it’s that you take some time each day to either read a book or watch a video or listen to an audiobook on a topic you don’t understand well but you wish to, and focus on that material with intensity. Block off that time and make it a scheduled event that can’t be broken unless absolutely necessary.

You’ll find that the benefits from doing this go far beyond just understanding a new idea or two.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.