CIBs and F1Ys often ask me, “Where do brilliant insights come from?”

My first reaction was… geez, that’s a good questions. I have to think about that one.    

Certainly at a basic level, insights come from asking the right questions to elicit the most useful data — but in my experience that’s where EXPECTED insights come from. Brilliant insights are often unexpected.

In pondering this question for quite some time, I realized that insightful observations come from equal parts analysis and previous exposure to comparable situations — in short experience.

In looking at my own career, I’ve become more insightful with time. It’s not so much that age = experience (a major fallacy), it is the [deliberate and intentional exposure to other ideas] = experience.

I was driving my oldest daughter to her scheduled activity for today, and she asked me (since I home school her) how come I know so much about so many things. I told her it’s because I keep choosing to learn new things. Some people learn one thing and repeat it for their entire career. Others learn new things all the time. I explained to her that I was in the latter category (Hint, hint: she should be too! But I digress..).

It is also this on-going learning and exposure to different ideas, situations and concepts that has allowed me to be increasingly “insightful” because I have a deeper and deeper well of actual and synthetic (learned from others’ experiences) to draw from.

BUT, there are two twists to this approach that I personally use that’s different from a lot of MBB consultants and those in industry.

Sure I learn from Porter, Christensen, Collins, Welch, Buffet & Munger like the rest of the MBB crowd, but I also learn from reading materials, people, and ideas OUTSIDE my “industry” and very much outside the “norm”. I’m not afraid to learn from controversial, non “prestigious” people.

For example, though I have two degrees from Stanford, I count several high school drop outs as my teachers. Most people with elite educations would not deem this kind of activity worth their time. They are foolish to think this way. If you’re astute enough, you can learn something from just about anybody.

Of the early teachers and mentors in my career, one was a former crack cocaine addict in NYC turned entrepreneur who built a $8 million a year business inside of 18 months.

Another was an entrepreneur who built a company from 30 employees to 30,000 employees in 10 years — creating Fortune 500 company from scratch in less than a decade…. who is now in prison due to an enormous multi-billion dollar accounting scandal (needless to say, I chose not to learn accounting and finance from him! But I learned a lot about scaling operations and people management from him).

It has been my experience that the interesting lessons often come from interesting people, with interesting backgrounds, working in interesting situations.

The hard part about learning from unusual sources is often times the core lesson they have to offer is wrapped in a “package” that’s socially unacceptable, hard to justify to others, and in many cases outright disagreeable.

The trick isn’t to avoid the exposure, but rather to seek out such knowledge and FILTER that which is useful to you, and discard that which is not. When you’re willing to do THAT, you get access to a body of knowledge that others refuse to seek (to their own detriment).

The other thing about learning from multiple disciplines and industries is often the immediate application of this knowledge is not obvious. But, over time this aggregate knowledge provides a mental database from which to compare every situation against.

So the big lesson here is to reserve a portion of your time and energy devoted to learning things that are outside the norm for you — things that broaden your perspective over time.

I get a lot of questions from CIBs asking me what I reading now. I’m in the middle of several books — one on the US tax system, another on writing Hollywood movie scripts, and another on the mathematics of human emotion.

However, the book I’ve been most anticipated reading is a book that has just come out called Trust Me, I’m Lying – Confessions of a Media Manipulator.

It’s a book written by Ryan Holiday who I’ve gotten to know a little over the past year. Ryan dropped out of college (oh the horror to mothers everywhere!) at 19 years old and has had a meteoric career in industry — specifically in marketing and publicity.

By day he is the Director of Marketing for American Apparel – the large retail chain in the United States. It is a position he obtained in his early 20’s (I think 23 years of age) which is definitely NOT the norm in industry.

By night he works as a public relations (aka publicity stunt) consultant to best-selling (and absurdly controversial) authors like Tim Ferriss (author of The Four Hour Work Week) and others so controversial I don’t even dare write their names for fear of even being remotely associated with them in any way, shape or form.

In his book, Ryan reveals the unethical underside of today’s modern news media — and exposes how he has systematically exploited the unethical practices of others for his client’s own gain.

This of course begs the question is it wrong to exploit someone else’s (predictable) unethical-ness, for your own gain?

For example, this is an excerpt from the first paragraph of the book:

“If you were being kind, you would say my job is in marketing and publications, or online strategy and advertising. But, that’s a polite veneer to hide the harsh truth. I am, to put it bluntly, a media manipulator–I’m paid to deceive. My job is to lie to the media so they can lie to you. I cheat, bribe, and connive for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands and abuse my understanding of the Internet to do it.”

Needless to say, they do NOT teach this stuff at HBS! (Now that’s an understatement).

Do I endorse all of Ryan’s marketing practices? I highly doubt it.

Do I think that by understand HOW his practices work and WHY they work, I’ll better understand how the “game” of news work? Absolutely.

Will this knowledge help me advise my clients in defending against some unfair PR attack or to use the underlying principles with above-board practices to achieve my clients’ goals? Possibly.

Will this insight help protect myself (and enable me to teach my kids to protect themselves) from being tricked by news that’s “engineered”? Definitely.

Is Ryan a superstar at what he does (even if I don’t approve of everything or even anything of what he’s done in the past)? Most definitely.

Do I like learning from superstars who are the top of their fields (filtering out that which isn’t appropriate to me, but finding them gems that ARE appropriate for me)? Absolutely, positively Y-E-S.

This is just one (of many) example of how and from whom I add to my on-going base of knowledge (that then become the raw materials for my insights). I did say it is NOT what most people do. And hopefully now you understand my point about “filtering”.

It’s an overall practice that might not be for you — but at least I’ve made you aware of it so you can decide for yourself.

To get unique and novel insights, you have to be willing to go to unique and novel sources of learning that are overlooked or ignored by the majority. The example above, is just that – an example — of an overall approach to learning that I’ve found useful. You might too.

Also, if the topics of advertising, tactical marketing, or media manipulation happen to be of personal or professional interest to you, you can click here to get a copy of Ryan’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator or watch the 2 minute video commercial below (which actually includes a few insights of its own).

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