Nothing beats swimming outside on a summer’s day with the sunshine warming your back. That’s one of the reasons I got back into the swing of swimming at my local lido. I swim lengths and it feels like my technique is decent but it’s frustrating how quickly I puff-out, so I decided to invest £100 into having my stroke filmed by a swim coach. On film, I looked like a drowning rat! The issues with my stroke were ingrained in my brain after that one-hour session so I was eager to start the assigned homework. What struck me most, was how this £100 investment was money well spent. It was making a better version of me, I was upgrading my brain; analogous to a software update. It got me thinking about how I invest my time, am I doing enough to upgrade my brain to the next, best version?
The brain as software analogy
If you stopped updating your computer’s operating system it would become slow and unreliable, no different to humans that give up improving themselves. Computers malfunction with malware installed and so do humans, malware for humans is too much social media, news media and empty entertainment. Computers don’t work properly with adware, adware for humans is the constant bombardment of online and offline advertising.
Too much bad data will corrupt your internal operating system and make you behave in an unexpected manner, side-effects include being glued to your phone, anxiety, stupidity, and anger. The toxic nature of social media and fear-mongering of the news media is malware for the brain. It’s just like junk food; it’s accessible, tasty and cheap but void of nutritional value and leaves you needing more. The all-consuming and addictive nature prevents you from upgrading your brain with positive updates. It’s what Nicholas Carr refers to in his book The Shallows as ‘technological dehumanization’.
We know by age 25 our brain has so many existing neural pathways it becomes harder to break free and create new ones. Our brains are designed to conserve energy and use existing pathways. This isn’t to say you can’t keep learning and building new pathways, it just requires more conscious effort. Otherwise, by adopting the path of least resistance (like most) it becomes a slippery slope of decline.
“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”Einstein
There are a plethora of ways to upgrade your brain. Just as your computer is more useful with a new program installed, so are you with new skills or knowledge. Books are an obvious positive data source, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Elon Musk are avid readers and don’t waste time on brain decaying activities. New skills can take time to acquire and it’s why the instant-gratification industry normally wins in the battle for attention. But those that feed their brains with healthy information and learn an instrument or sport instead of video games, Netflix and Instagram end up winning. Learning, pursuing and processing information is what made us (humans) the dominant species for the past ~70,000 years. It’s the single most distinguishable feature that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Being okay is good enough
Not being good at something isn’t fun but how long does it take to get good enough? Malcolm Gladwell makes references to the 10,000 hours of practice rule in his book Outliers. To become an expert in a given field, you need to spend 10,000 hours of practice. More often than not though, you’re not trying to compete in the Olympics or become a professional musician. So getting good enough is a much shorter period of time. According to Josh Kaufman in his book “…How to Learn Anything…Fast” it’s 20 hours. Kaufman’s principle is that there are rapid improvement gains in the early stages of learning and those returns diminish after 20 hours.
The word “learn” often sounds like effort or a chore but it’s synonymous to improve. And who doesn’t want to improve and become a more competent and purposeful person? In my early career days, I lived by the saying ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ which suggests it’s better to be a specialist. But I’ve grown to realise this is a false principle, especially outside the workplace. I’m talking about becoming a polymath but having a broad understanding and a desire to continually improve (or upgrade your brain) will lead to a content existence.