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Monday, January 19, 2009

The Vigorous Mind by Ingrid E. Cummings

Cummings, Ingrid E. The Vigorous Mind: Cross-Train Your Brain to Break Through Mental, Emotional, and Professional Boundaries.

I accepted the opportunity to read this book when it was offered by Lisa for the TLC Book Tour. The chance to "break through boundaries" sounded great, and I knew I wanted a vigorous mind. Especially after looking back over my last year's reading--an overabundance of fiction (much of it poor fiction) and a dearth of good nonfiction.

When The Vigorous Mind really came through and provided motivation to improve the quality of my reading (and much more), I was delighted! Yes, I know that I've hinted about it on several posts; I simply couldn't resist. It has been difficult to wait until my appointed date to review the book, and I've been busy applying the philosophy to my own life and reading.

Cummings begins by saying that our society has come to value the specialist over the generalist; she protests this dichotomy throughout the book. She advocates cross-training the brain, developing diverse interests, "curiosities, and enthusiasms," and maintains that individuals who have done so are best able to fight the blahs and even career burnout.

I find it hard to debate that outlook. Cummings, moreover, wants to show us how to become more well-rounded. She encourages looking beyond career and finding activities "that have no apparent connection to your professional specialty." New experiences encourage neuroplasticity, changes in the brain, and these changes can bring surprising advantages to your approach to your profession.

Who wouldn't want to engage in activities that not only broaden their horizons and make them more satisfied human beings, but might also aid them in their career paths?

So how do you accomplish such a thing, a vigorous mind, a Renaissance Mind? Cummings has two techniques that will help us reach our goals:

  • "Triumph in Twenty" - devoting 20 or fewer minutes a day to your activity of choice, several times a week (knitting, photography, learning to play an instrument, tennis, palm reading, growing orchids, etc.)
  • Kaizen - "consistent, incremental baby steps" - cutting goals down to size and consistently moving toward them one step at a time.
With the third chapter, things began to snowball. The book is immensely readable, full of inspiring anecdotes concerning not just the Renaissance Men of the past, but our contemporaries, an odd assortment including businessmen, employees, scientists, comedians, academics, and actors. Among the group: Richard Feynman (yes, this is why I read Surely, You're Joking Mr. Feynman), Ben Stein, Steve Martin, John Malkovich....

I've taken the author's advice and have composed a curriculum for myself and several beginning courses that I'm in the midst of undertaking. Specific to my interests and subject to change if I so decide. I'm having a ball doing it. I've composed a lift-list of things I'd like to learn or learn about, have made additions to my fitness activities, and have made some personal commitments to myself.

My first and foremost goal at the moment is to increase my reading of nonfiction and to read outside my comfort zone. I'm supplementing books with new magazine subscriptions to The Smithsonian and Mental Floss, among others, and I'm watching documentaries from Netflix on a variety of subjects.

Book Overview:

Part One (chapters 1-3) gives some of the reasons that Cummings came to write the book.

Part Two (chapters 4-10) gives the seven imperatives, "global attributes," you might want to cultivate. They include curiosity, individuality, selectivity, empathy, stretch, spirituality, and courage. (I particularly enjoyed these chapters.)
Part Three (chapters 11-13) examines choice and provides insight into way we actually live our lives.

The Vigorous Mind - Ingrid E. Cummings
I'm almost embarrassed by how much I'm enjoying myself! I do need to be aware of what Cummings calls The Law of Unintended Consequences. This weekend I kept talking about the books I'm reading, and not even my family can endure that indefinitely.

Nonfiction. 2009. 316 pages.


  1. I know this one will be popping up in Korea...Koreans are relentless self-improvers. I'm intrigued by the 2 approaches to branching yourself out.

  2. What a great review! I love the Triumph in Twenty idea- so simple but unless you make goals like this it's so easy to let those creative parts of you take a backseat to the busy-ness of life.

    Thanks so much for participating in the tour, Jenclair!

  3. Nice review! I love the idea of 20 minutes a few times a week. I think that trying to apply the entire book to my life right now would be overwhelming, but I can take that 20 minutes and tweak it. Maybe 20 minutes of sewing twice a week (which would certainly turn into much longer- it's getting started that's the hard part!)

    The book sounds great even though I'd never pick it up with that cover. Yeah, I know, don't judge...

  4. This sounds fantastic!! I'm going to look for it. Even though I agree with Lisa, the cover isn't very appealing; but your focused review of the contents is very convincing. Thanks!

  5. Great review, Jenclair. I bought a copy of this book but it's going to be a race to see who reads it first - my husband or I.

  6. Bybee - For me, the most important thing was that it reminded me about how much I enjoy learning and that my scope had become narrower. It was like being a kid and looking at all of the Girl Scout badges and trying to decide what I wanted to do first!

    lisamm - Yes, it is so easy to the "busy-ness of life" dictate the terms!

    Lisa - :) The book inspires you to look at your life and your TIME differently. It has encouraged me to look at both my reading and my sewing differently. If I can make myself get into the studio and even think about creating, things seem to happen.

    I agree about the cover. It doesn't grab your attention or interest, does it?

    Melanie - The book has provided me with nearly a month of pleasure in the reading and the implementing so far. The effects are farther reaching than might be first apparent because you have more to talk about, always more to be curious about, and more connections to follow!

    Booklogged - It would be nice to see how people are going to apply some of the ideas! I mean--who will decide to take up an instrument or a new sport; who will decide to visit a museum or an art exhibit; who will develop a reading itinerary; or grow herbs or paint or learn to quilt or learn to carve, or pursue genealogy...?

  7. Hi Jenclair,

    I am delighted and proud to read your words concerning my new book, The Vigorous Mind. What a pleasure to see my work of so many years digested through an agile mind. A writer wants nothing more than to *connect*, and I think I have.

    Plus, we both love Feynman!

    Ingrid Cummings

  8. Great review! This book isn't available in my library system yet...I may just have to go out and buy it.

  9. Ingrid - Thanks for stopping by! A Vigorous Mind has helped renew my love of learning.

    JoAnn - I hope you get a copy soon!

  10. I really enjoyed your review because I love hearing how you are taking the author's advice for yourself. How exciting!

    I hope you'll share with us how your curriculum goes.

  11. Iliana - I'm sticking to most of my "courses" pretty well and still finding the learning a joy.

  12. This book sounds fascinating and it speaks volumes that you've embraced it in such a thorough way. I've been reading a lot about the brain lately (The Brain that Changes Itself and Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain among others) and it sounds like The Vigorous Mind would be a nice complement to that. I must track down a copy!