Imagine for a moment that you were born with a car that was magically linked with you. Only you can use this particular vehicle, and it will be with you for your entire life. This applies to you, and everyone else that is alive.
To some, it’s a box that runs on pure magic. They don’t know nor care how it works. When it comes to repairs they play catch-up, addressing problems when they happen, and never taking protective measures.
So long as it does what it’s supposed to do, they leave it alone. For ease of use, this strategy works well for them.
There’s another group, too. They know a little bit about how their vehicle works, and pay attention to proper maintenance schedules. To them it’s not magic, but something they think is far beyond their ability to understand. They’ll probably screw it up, so they leave everything to the professionals.
The final group are car enthusiasts. They’re well acquainted with the inner workings of their baby. They’ve tweaked a little here, and tested some there. They weren’t born knowing it all, but dared to learn. They tested for optimal performance through experimentation, finding what works best for their situation. Their cars not only work as advertised – it’s even better.
The car, of course, is your brain and body.
Law of Diminishing Returns
If you look at how we learn, you’ll see that it progresses like a logarithmic curve. That is, we make huge strides in the very beginning. As we gain skill, it takes increasingly greater efforts to get increasingly little advances – returns.
In other words, it could be in your best interest to expand your hobbies or expertise into dissimilar areas instead of doubling down on your favourite, best area.
Instead, we commonly find people sticking to their “comfort zone.” They study the things they already know well, while ignoring what could greatly benefit them. This is known as specializing, and what’s wrong with that? Here’s a quote from Robert A. Heinlein:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
The emphasis is my own at the end there, but that is a major point. It may seem like what I’m suggesting will require more work, but I’m actually suggesting that putting effort into new areas will give you more for less.
Yes, this means that you can’t continue doing only Sudoku and expect it to keep your mind sharp. If you want a brain exercise, do anything that’s a little uncomfortable, or novel – even silly things. For instance, you could learn to read upside down, to write with your off-hand, or to get dressed without using your thumbs. It’s ridiculous, but it forces your brain to work. This is what you want.
The Beauty, The Jock, and The Nerd
Let’s walk down memory lane and talk about high school stereotypes. There’s the Beauty, the Jock, and the Nerd. Each heavily invested in one area. The Beauty focuses on everything to do with appearance, the Jock is all about physical performance, and the Nerd loves accumulating knowledge.
This arrangement could lead to the Beauty becoming a vapid idiot, the Jock devolves into a smelly dummy, and the Nerd acting like an off-putting clutz. Yet, each will continue to focus entirely on their area, stubbornly refusing to branch out. Hell, they’ll even rationalize why their approach is the best approach, and discredit the others.
How much would the Beauty or Jock gain from reading even a single book?
What would the Jock or Nerd gain from paying more attention to their appearance?
How will the Beauty or Nerd round out from some regular exercise?
The answer should be clear: Each would be greatly improved.
The Hedgehog and The Fox
In an essay written by Isaiah Berlin back in the 50’s, he described two approaches to knowledge. The essay’s “big idea” can be summed up like this:
Hedgehogs know a lot about one important area and tend to view the world through the lens of one main idea.
Foxes know a something about a large number of topics, and are hard to pin down with one major theme.
Clearly, both have their merits, and I wouldn’t suggest that there should be no hedgehogs.
Instead, I am saying that hedgehogs should introduce information or skills from varied fields. Mixed perspectives can and will shed new light on your work. You never know what will help with your next breakthrough!
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