The Vigorous Mind - Book Review and Book Tour

A number of years ago I made a list of 20 things I wanted to manifest in my life. Only one or two of them were material things; the rest involved learning a new skill or increasing my knowledge of a subject or expanding on a skill I was already using. I won't list all of them here, but it included drama classes, writing and joining a choir.

I still have this list and have checked off about half of the items. They are what Ingrid E. Cummings would call "cross training" my brain. And after reading her book, The Vigorous Mind: Cross Train Your Brain to Break Through Mental, Emotional and Professional Boundaries, I realize that my list could use some updating.

Lisa from TLC Book Tours asked me if I'd be interested in hosting a stop on the Vigorous Mind tour. She knew I'd recently retired and thought some of the information in the book might resonate.

I started this book with, I will admit, a bit of an attitude. I was determined not to like it. Another program for self improvement? Puh-leeeeze. And though there are some things in the book I passed over, there really is a lot of good information here. And it's very well written and accessible.

The basic premise of the book is threefold:
  • that most of us could benefit emotionally, physically and mentally from learning skills that seem contrary to our vocation or avocation
  • that learning new skills can be done in very small steps - 20 minutes a day, several days a week
  • that the world can benefit from having more of us become Renaissance people - or generalists rather than specialists.
The one-step-at-a-time idea certainly isn't new. Cummings refers to an ancient Japanese philosophy known as kaizen that "advocates taking small steps to accomplish large goals." This isn't new in Western thought either - for example, it is the foundation of 12 step programs of recovery.

Cummings lists seven imperatives that Renaissance persons make a point of cultivating. Each of these imperatives gets a chapter. They are:
  • curiosity
  • individuality
  • selectivity
  • empathy
  • stretch or risk
  • spirituality
  • courage
Cummings wins me over when she takes issue with The Secret - the cultural phenomenon that asserts that we can get whatever we desire just by thinking good thoughts. Says Cummings:
No one can just sit around on the back porch thinking a whole slew of happy thoughts and then expect the universe to open its purse strings and let fly with the good stuff. That's called wishful thinking. It's a fine thing to do; in fact, thinking that you want a new car or a new job or a new boyfriend or a new outlook is the necessary first step, as we've seen in kaizen. But you can't stop with that first baby step, as we've also seen in kaizen. You've got to go forth and make it happen. It's like they say: Pray hard to catch the bus--then run like hell. (page 70)

I am so on board with her! That whole Secret thing really bugs me. And it's way too material oriented for my tastes.

One thing I take issue with in The Vigorous Mind: there is a glaring lack of women role models. They're not totally absent - she talks about Condoleeza Rice, for example, being a Renaissance woman as a concert pianist in addition to her government roles. But a quick look through the index shows a big gap between women and men listed. Very few, if any, of the historical figures she cited were women. I always notice these things.

Cummings includes some great resources, most of which are online - blogs, podcasts, feeds - and she even gives hints of how to make the internet work for you rather than going off on endless loops and links. One resource that made me chuckle: When looking for topics to select for cross training your brain, she suggests the Boy Scout handbook "where ideas for more than 100 merit badges are listed - everything from atomic energy to bugling to insect study to cinematography to Indian lore to crime prevention to salesmanship to plumbing."

The Vigorous Mind is sprinkled with useful and inspiring quotes from Einstein, Helen Keller, Thoreau, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and many more. There are exercises and suggestions at the end of each chapter, and throughout the book are "Neuro Nuggets" - sidebars with brain and neuro research information.

I wanted a bibliography or suggested further reading at the back of the book, but neither were there. Oh and one more thing: I hope they give this book a more enticing cover in the next edition.

Cummings quotes Parker Palmer in what I think summarizes the need for this sort of program or thought process:
We arrive in this world with birthright gifts - then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disabuse us of them. As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. ...if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss we spend the second half [of our lives] trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed. (page 116)
The Vigorous Mind is a good guide for anyone who wants to expand their skills and knowledge and who may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of learning a new language or to play an instrument or about astronomy or chemistry. It's also validation for those of us who feel concerns about being spread out too thin with our interests or who feel the need to multi-task or worry about having ADD.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to practice my choir music for 20 minutes and then read up on night photography.

Do you have questions for the author? Leave them in the comments below and I'll make sure she gets them.

Ingrid E. Cummings' website

I think this is the last stop on this tour, but here's the schedule; you can check out what others had to say about The Vigorous Mind. The tour schedule

Contact TLC Book Tours



gwenlyn said...

I'm eager to add this one to my "Terri recommned books" list!
Nice write up.

Diane said...

I've never heard of this book but I'm going to look for it. It sounds like something I VERY MUCH need to read at this moment in my life. My post today is sort of related to the whole concept you described in your review. Thanks for this!!

Tiffin said...

Maybe I will learn to play the bagpipes after all!

Terri said...

Oh not in the Berkshires though! ;o)

ingrid said...

I was delighted to see that you read my book with such care. Do you think I rankled readers with my broadside on The Secret? Honestly, it's rather insipid! Whatever happened to critical thinking?

lisamm said...

Terri, great review!! Thanks so much for participating in Ingrid's tour. I love that line from page 7- - Pray hard to catch the bus- then run like hell. LOL! The Secret is so ridiculous- wishful thinking indeed!

Hey I wanted to let you know that I'm giving away a copy of this book (along with a bunch of others!) on my blog. Here's the link:

Have fun with the choir music and night photography!

lisamm said...

Ooops it doesn't appear that the link will work. Well if anyone is interested in a chance to win a copy of THe Vigorous Mind, click on my name and the contest is listed under HCI BOoks Giveaway in my left sidebar!