The Secrets to Improving
The importance of doing to sharpen ourselves as we age can hardly be overstated. Do crosswords or Sudoku. Go on walks. Work in the yard. Learn Russian. Do something. Do anything. But there is usually a missing piece of the advice offered. And it’s the thing that tips the cart toward improvement rather than just maintenance. That missing part is that what you are doing should be hard. Ouch.
Take crosswords, which I enjoy. There are plenty of crosswords that I can complete in ten minutes without mistakes. They’re fun and they help me maintain a level of mental acuity but they don’t improve my ability or mental state. To do that, I need to form new neural connections. Learn new words. See new associations. Neural connections are the nerve paths that connect one part of our brain to other parts of the brain or to our body. How do we form new neural connections? By doing things that are different or hard for us.
So how do we improve?
Do Hard Things
Let’s stick with crosswords. I can maintain my level of mental ability for crosswords by doing the same kind of puzzles over and over. I consider myself a Tuesday NYT puzzler. I have never in my life completed a Saturday NYT puzzle. (I read once that President Clinton finished the NYT puzzle each morning before breakfast. Forget Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarship. That Saturday puzzle is his crowning achievement.) If I want to get better, and by better, I mean strengthening existing ‘crossword neural paths’ and building new ones, then I have to do puzzles that make me wince. Puzzles that force me to expand my vocabulary and word associations and that require a dictionary. That make me see clues and answers from different perspectives. That make me think hard about who won Best Actress in1976 (Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). So take what you like and ramp it up to the next level. Learn to enjoy the angst of not knowing.
Do New Things
Learning new things is key to continued and improved mental acuity. I once planned to sign up for a voice-over acting class at our local college. I didn’t – we moved a few hundred miles away – but my thinking was that this is so far out of the realm of what I normally do that it would be a whole new world for me. I would meet an entirely different group of people, learn all kinds of new words, and stretch myself in ways that would make me squirm. Exactly the kind of things that cause us to grow.
Do Physical Things
Wayne Dyer, when he was a practicing therapist, said that when people come into his office complaining of depression, he would try to get them outside. “Let’s go shoot some hoops or ride bikes and get an ice cream,” he would suggest. His argument was that so much of our mental state is tied to our physical state and it’s hard to be depressed when you are shooting baskets. Part of why I like running is that it’s a healthy way for me to clear my head. Sometimes I write with my left hand. Odd because I’m right-handed. It’s hard for me to write left-handed, and my penmanship is sloppy and barely legible. But it’s that uncomfortable physical act that puts a whole raft of thinking in place that contributes to growth. I don’t think this will tip me over the edge into the genius realm but it’s a small thing that keeps my brain and body working.
You already enjoy something: now master it. Jump into it with both feet and become an expert. Engaging your mind or body like this heightens your experience and, by definition, improves your abilities. Start with something easy. If you do woodwork and build furniture learn to master a simple joint. Not just the sawing and chiseling but the whys. Why does it work this way? Why use it rather than another joint? If you cook learn to make the perfect macaroon. Learn to make a cookie so damned good that your neighbors make excuses to visit you. Then, when you master one rudiment, move onto another and build a repertoire. It makes whatever you do more enjoyable and puts you on a continued path of growth.
So go do something or learn something. Go ride a bike. Do anything. If you’re trying to improve, then doing is almost always the answer.
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