How to Cultivate an Intellectual Life (8 Practices of Serious Thinkers)

You don’t need to be a professor to lead an intellectual life.

Anyone with the right dose of motivation and curiosity can study hard, think critically, discuss openly, and write clearly about their thoughts and opinions. 

Anyone, from an 87-year old shepherd on the Isle of Man to a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, can spend a bit of time each day engaging with the world of ideas and books, growing their body of knowledge, and sharpening their intellectual faculties.

This lifestyle is not confined to the ivory tower. Everyone has access to its pleasures. 

That said, today I’ll cover eight useful practices to lead a more intellectual and contemplative life.

Hopefully you’ll find a few to steal that will help you bring more learning into your own life, while also making you a stronger, more confident, thinker. 

Note: I’m trying something new here, giving you some music to listen to while reading this article. I hope it’ll set the right ambience and make you feel like you are in a beautiful old library, preparing to embark on a journey of intellectual adventure:

Set Aside Time Each Day to Study a Subject You Find Interesting  

Focus is the key to success in most disciplines, including self-directed study. 

If you study consistently, you will not only grow your knowledge at a steady rate. Through ongoing practice, you’ll also become better at the acts of thinking, reading, or whatever other intellectual activity you’re doing. 

Therefore, it’s crucial that you set aside time each day to participate in this way of life. It doesn’t have to be hours (though such a duration would produce profound results). It could be 20-30 minutes per day.

If this is new for you, start small and increase your study time as you gain experience. What you’re trying to do is build a sustainable habit. 

How I Study Each Day

I like to do my reading in 25-minute bursts, followed by a few minutes of reflection, then a short break, which I usually spend in the shower, on a walk, or looking through the freezer to see if there’s any dark chocolate left.

And I do it in the evening, when my curiosity is at its highest.

But that’s just me. 

Many people like to do their reading first thing in the morning, when they’re at their most alert. 

Honestly, I would do this if writing didn’t take priority. The two both require a similar type of concentration, and I’d rather save that fresh morning concentration for my writing.

Action Item: Figure out a time of day and duration that works for you, and start making self-education a daily habit. Put it in a habit tracker and track your results.

Embrace & Seek Out Solitude 

Every great thinker, from Emerson and Plato to the latest breakout essayist, has prioritized solitude, knowing it to be the ideal environment for focus, learning, and creation.  

“Emerson proclaimed himself a ‘savage.’ Descartes shut himself up in his ‘heated room.’ Plato declared that he used ‘more oil in his lamp than wine in his goblet.’ Bossuet [a theologian] would get up at night to find the genius of silence and inspiration; great thoughts came to him only when he was far from futile noises and preoccupations.”

— A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods

As I wrote in my article, Why Solitude is Essential for Autodidacts, solitude is also where you discover your authentic interests.

It’s often when you are lost in your own world that you realize that you are fascinated by political philosophy or giraffes or whatever it is that calls to you.

Free from the influence of others, who love to tell you what to find interesting, you’re able to truly discover your curiosities, and pursue them! You have some fields of knowledge you want to explore for no other reason than it being interesting to you. 

And this self-knowledge gives you direction. You know what books to order and which lectures to watch. You know what DIY curriculum to create.

Don’t Become a Total Shut-in

As much as solitude is important for the intellectual, it is still something that must be done in moderation. 

Do not become a complete hermit. 

In addition to growing strange and timid, you’ll also miss out on the knowledge hiding in social life: 

“In the inexhaustible wealth of the real, too, we can find much to learn; we must move in it in a spirit of contemplation not keep away from it.”

A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods

Read Classics Paired With Secondary Sources  

The classics, those great deep books that have stood the test of time, are full of wisdom and ideas that have influenced many great thinkers, and so they are worth reading.

But, if I’ve learned one thing over four years of self-education, it’s that reading old and difficult books like The Republic or Ulysses is often more satisfying and impactful when you have some guidance.

In my article One Piece of Advice Killing Your Ability to Enjoy the Classics, I explained why it is often beneficial to read classic works with the assistance of secondary sources.

That could be any of the following: 

  • A YouTube video summarizing its key concepts.
  • A scholarly book or article analyzing and interpreting the book. 
  • A lecture series about the author and the book. 
  • An introduction that gives you helpful context and tells you what to pay attention to. 

This is how scholars approach texts. They don’t just become experts on the Iliad or Hobbes Leviathan by reading it really well. 

They have assistance from guides, from people who have read the book closely, thought about it a lot, and have written down those thoughts. 

I’m currently taking a DIY Nietzsche course and am employing the majority of the sources listed in the bullets above. 

These materials have helped me make sense of some tricky parts, retain and understand the most important concepts, and, ultimately, enjoy the reading process far more. 

The reason can be summed up in this formula:

Understanding => appreciation and satisfaction => motivation to keep reading. 

Listen to Online Debates (& Practice Participating)

Sometimes when I’m listening to a debate or discussion about a topic I’ll pause it and whisper my thoughts, as if I’m in the conversation with these experts who are far smarter than me. 

Just yesterday I was listening to an interview of a political economist and former finance minister. 

The man was mainly critiquing financialization, and calling banking in general a large-scale gambling system where the financiers always win, because even if they lose they pass their losses onto the general public. 

While I can’t begin to tell you whether he’s right or wrong, there were a few assumptions in his argument I definitely disagreed with or felt were exaggerated, as well as some others I felt matched what I’d read about in my economics and political theory books, and so I paused and thought out what I’d add to the conversation if I were there. 

This method definitely isn’t as effective as actually talking to an expert, since for all you know your ideas could be a pile of absolute garbage that would be laughed out of the room (I’m sure many of mine have been!)

But the simulation, one-sided as it is, does help you form the habit of thinking on a deeper and more critical level. And attempting to contribute is far more productive for your education than just watching passively like it’s television.

As an added benefit, trying to think of something useful to say also serves as a freestyle form of retrieval practice, the learning method of trying to remember something you’ve learned. 

As the authors of Make it Stick write, retrieval practice is one of the best, and most neglected, methods for retaining what you learn. 

So fitting it into your studies in any way possible will help you strengthen those memories you want to keep. This is one way to do so in a fun and engaging activity, much more fun than flashcards at least.

Create Idea Documents

This tip I got from Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown and Author of plenty of general public books that have transformed my views on work, mastery, and productivity, most of all his book Deep Work.

In a podcast episode about how to think, which very much inspired me to write this article, he talks about his method for maintaining his knowledge about stuff he wants to remember.

It’s called Idea Documents, and it’s somewhat similar to a digital brain. 

An Idea Document is an online Google or Word doc about one specific topic, where you write the main points you want to remember about it. That’s it. Simple.

You could do this for anything:

  • The major events of the American Revolution. 
  • Nietzsche’s concept of Slave Morality. 
  • The ideas of the world’s 50 greatest philosophers.  
  • How photosynthesis works. 

For example, the major events of the American Revolution you might write the name of each event, the date it happened, a brief description of it, and its overall impact (why it was important). 

Now you have essentially a study guide, and whenever you learn something new about the topic you can add that to the document. 

The act of creating the document also helps you organize your thinking around it. 

After reading a book on the US revolution, I might have a lot of disorganized dates, names, and events floating around in my head. 

By sitting down to turn them into an Idea Document, I actively organize it in my brain. I also clarify things for myself, making it much easier to communicate this topic to other people in conversation or in writing. 

The process also enables you to identify any gaps in your understanding of the concepts, arguments, or events in the document. This protects you from the illusion of knowing, which has plagued many students who realize their gaps only on test day .

With this self-awareness, you can return to the text or go to Wikipedia to fill the holes of your comprehension.

Additional Idea: Lecture to Empty Chairs

Go a step further and practice verbally explaining the idea, concept, story, or whatever it is that you’ve captured. 

Stand up and pretend you’re lecturing to a class, or teaching a friend about it. This is essentially a variation of the Feynman technique, where you try to explain a concept in the simplest way possible as if you’re teaching it.

This is one of the best ways to improve retention and comprehension.

Do Deep Dives Into One Topic  

You know how knowledgeable you feel about a topic after reading one well-written book about it? 

“Wow, I’m an expert in AI now! My opinions matter!” 

In reality, some people feel this way after one article these days…

Here’s an idea: try three, or five, or ten books and see what happens.

You’ll be blown away by the level of your expertise and the nuance of your opinions. You’ll be astounded at how naturally you can draw connections between different theories and concepts and then build new insights on top of those connections.

How I’m Bringing This Strategy Into my Self-Education

This Spring, as I start hiking again, I’m planning to read seven books on the topics of Nature and Spirituality. Some books will be about both topics, while others will just be about nature. 

Hopefully by the end of the DIY course I’ll have a stronger connection with the outdoors, a broader vocabulary to use to explain my experience in the woods, and a more sophisticated understanding of humanity’s relationship to nature. 

Perhaps this deep dive into nature literature will also allow me to write outdoors and nature articles of my own. 

One thing’s for sure — it’ll definitely make hiking more fun and interesting. 

Is there some topic you want to become an expert in? Do what the commentators, thinkers, and authors d. Read up on the topic. Go deep.

Find a Person to Discuss Ideas & Books With

Although the great thinkers spent a lot of time in solitude, many of them also spent a fair amount of time talking with other philosophers, writers, and experts about their ideas.

They knew that the thinking of others often helped them sharpen and develop their thinking.

Even if you aren’t trying to become a thought leader in some space, finding a friend or peer to talk with about ideas and books is a great way to enhance your learning and become conversant in your subjects. 

As Francis Bacon said, “conference maketh a ready man.” 

It’s also just a lot of fun. Last week my buddy Ted and I talked about our favorite parts of Beyond Good and Evil in detail. We weren’t scholars by any means, just passionate readers, drawing connections between the concepts in the book to aspects of our own lives and personal philosophies.

More importantly, we spent some time chatting with an old friend who lives across the country. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the power of books, it’s that they’re often one of the best instigators of deep, real conversations.

I write more about the benefits of discussing the books you read in my article The Value of a Reading Buddy for Your Self-Education. Check it out. 

Write About Your Subjects of Study

Whether it’s just for yourself or posted in public, writing about what you’re learning is satisfying and empowering.

When you write about a subject, be it philosophy, literature, or cognitive science, you get to see the fruits of your labors right there on the page in the form of unique insights and sound explanations. 

If you write in public, you also get to see people react to your ideas, and over time can position yourself as an expert in whatever topics you find most interesting. 

Somehow, I’ve done this for self-education. It’s a bit of a weird topic to fall into, but satisfying nonetheless! 

If you want to learn how to write stuff online that gets attention, check out The Art and Business of Writing Online. I read it the other week and it totally changed my idea of what’s possible as a digital writer. 

But Who Would Listen to Me? I Have no Degree in This… 

The best test of whether or not you’re qualified to write about your topic is the quality of your writing. 

If it’s accurate, thoughtful, and clear, you are allowed to write about it. 

The great thing about writing on the internet, especially social platforms like Twitter or Medium, is that people will be quick to inform you of your errors. 

They love pointing out mistakes, sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes as a “gotcha!”

Either way, this is to your benefit. 

And then you can correct the mistake, raise your standards, and try to do better research and writing next time. 

One thing to note…

Do be more careful about writing on topics that may affect someone’s health or livelihood, such as medicine or personal finance. 

Most of All, Follow Your Curiosity

The best way to stay motivated in your self-directed studies is to let your curiosity take the lead. 

Whatever calls to you should receive your attention, whether that’s Jungian psychology, global politics, or mechanical engineering. 

If instead you spend time studying what you believe other people will think is cool, then you’ll lose steam. 

And that’s not what you want. 

Sustainability — learning over the long term — is what causes people to rise to the status of intellectuals in their space. So pick topics you find intriguing, and stick with them, with of course the occasional forays into whatever interests you this week.

“Our liking, if correlated to our fundamental tendencies and to our aptitudes, is an excellent judge.”

— A.G. Sertillanges

If you want to learn how to balance breadth and depth in your intellectual pursuits, check out my article How to Get a Well-Rounded Education Outside of School. Inside you’ll learn my 4-pronged framework for prioritizing and planning my studies over the long term.  


After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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