The other day I was reading an essay on ambitious start up ideas by Paul Graham. If you don’t know Paul Graham, he’s an Internet millionaire and investor in start ups. Because of his constant exposure to new ideas and talented people, he has a lot to say on them, and he’s an insightful guy.
This article led me to think of the topic of brain training.
That’s because when I read through this list of “frighteningly ambitious” start up ideas, I had wheels clicking on how to execute each one. I found myself excited at the challenge each presented, and immediately having pieces fall into place on how to execute each. “Replacing universities? Oh, fun! I’ve got a million ideas on how to do those better!” Then, “A replacement for email? That’s brilliant!” I thought, and quickly jotted down notes. It’s already become a project I’d like to start focusing on later this year once I’ve got a handle on my existing projects. I’m pretty satisfied with the outline I have for a new protocol to replace email, too.
The reason all this led me to brain training was that I realized most people’s minds do not operate this way… and mind didn’t always, either. By that I mean operating in a way that, rather than shrink fearfully from challenges, instead approaches them with zeal and fervor.
“Where there’s challenge, there’s opportunity!” is what runs through my brain these days… and this mentality has been one of the main contributing factors in most of my successes.
But how do you develop a mindset that relishes challenges, embraces them – and rapidly, readily breaks down solutions to nearly any obstacle?
That’s what this article is about, because the answer to that question is to train your brain.
How the Brain Works
Your brain is a massively powerful organ that we’re only just beginning to understand. These days we’re wont to compare the brain to a computer, but there’s really no comparison. The most powerful computer in the world as of late 2011 had all the computing power of the brain of a flatworm. And you and I are a little more advanced than that.
But there’s an even larger difference between the brain and a computer, and that’s the way the brain links together. You see, your brain has between 15 billion and 33 billion neurons (brain cells) in it – and each of those neurons has connections to its neighbors. Through the splitting of its axon and dendrites, a neuron may have over 1000 branches reaching out of it – including some up to 3 feet in length, believe it or not – and tens of thousands of connections with other neurons. Even neurons that have only a pair of dendrites will still tend to have thousands of connections, simply from other neurons connecting with them.
Your brain works by forming and strengthening neural pathways. The more often a pathway is used, the more connections the neurons along that pathway create, and the stronger the tendency for the brain to use that pathway becomes. Pathways that are largely unused, conversely, undergo a process called “pruning” – this is where connections are sheared away from lack of use.
As an analogy, think of a path in the forest. The one that’s tread more often gets worn and easy to follow; the one that’s tread far less so grows over and eventually effectively disappears.
What happens to most people’s minds as they grow up? Well, for most, they:
- Learn how they think the world works, and stop questioning it
- Learn what their place in the world is, and stop trying to define it
- Learn who and what they are, and stop wondering about that
- Learn everything they think they need to know, and largely stop learning
Now imagine the impact this has on the brain’s ability to solve new problems and crack tough cases usually.
It ain’t pretty.
Writers, prophets, and inventors disagree on a lot of things, but one of the few things they all agree on universally is that one should retain the mind of a child.
What does this mean?
It means that people should stay curious, and stay trying to figure things out.
The reason why is because it is the curious among us who determine how others should think the world works, who open up new places in the world for others to inhabit, who define who and what people can be, and who reveal the new information that others incorporate into their understanding.
In other words, if you want success, and you want to be at the forefront of anything, you need to be the one figuring things out, solving problems, and deconstructing mysteries – not one of the ones waiting around for someone else to do that for him.
And if you’re not, the ability dries up fast.
The Good News About Brain Training
Once you’ve lost those pathways in the brain to pruning and lack of use, are they gone forever?
No more so than muscle is lost when it’s gone.
If you know anything about muscle, it’s that you can build it up through exercise: running, swimming, lifting weights, that sort of thing. If you quit exercising, your muscle goes away. If you start exercising again though, it comes back – faster if you were already in shape before.
The hardest part is building up your muscle for the first time.
If you can’t remember a time in your life when you had a great deal of curiosity and you had success solving difficult problems, then this is going to be like building your muscle for the first time: difficult, a little slow, but very doable. The better news is, if you can think back and remember a time that your brain was a veritable puzzle-solving machine, this is going to be a lot more like rebuilding muscle you formerly had but lost – it’s going to take about 25% of the time for you to get it back than it will take for someone building it up for the first time.
Regardless of your previous history though, rebuild it you can.
I have a confession to make: I think intelligence is overrated.
I mean, I’m a smart guy. I score about 152 on most IQ tests, which puts me in the top 1% or 2% intellectually. But there are plenty of people a lot smarter than me out there who could run circles around me intellectually. And there are also people a lot less intelligent than me who can run laps around me in applied knowledge. How’s this so? It’s because their ability to break things down and apply their knowledge is honed to a sharper edge than mine.
I’ve worked with plenty of people of average intelligence to whom I’ve taught the ability to break things down and solve problems, and watched their eyes light up with awareness and recognition. “Ohhhhh…” they say, “I get it!”
The ability to come up with great ideas, solve problems, and make things work isn’t in-born.
It’s a skill.
And like all skills, it can be trained. So can just about everything else you want to do with your brain.
Want to be more compassionate? Brain training.
Want to have more success in everyday life? Brain training.
Want to cure depression? Brain training. (I did this myself, for the record)
Want to change anything about the way you think, feel, or interact with the world? Brain training!
“You” are not some absolute, unchanging entity. Your body is constantly changing, replacing cells, and adapting itself. While it isn’t true that every cell in your body is replaced every 7 years, large parts of your tissues are indeed replaced at a regular rate – e.g., your muscle cells are replaced on average every 15 years; while red blood cells are replaced every 120 days, and epidermal cells – your outermost layer of skin – last for all of 2 weeks.
Even your skeleton is completely rebuilt from scratch once a decade.
(For the record, your neurons, retinas, and possibly heart muscle cells appear to last a lifetime)
All this raises the question: if the rest of your body can change itself so much, why can’t the way you think?
How to Train Your Brain
So great, you’d like to have some special neural abilities to rival the top minds you know (or know of) – how do you begin?
I’ve prepared here for you a series of steps to follow in order to enable yourself to train your brain to do whatever you’d like for it to do:
- Be curious. If you aren’t interested in learning, this really is one I don’t know how to solve. But, the fact that you’re here and reading this in the first place means that, most likely, this isn’t something you need to worry about. So, you can give yourself a checkmark in the first box of “steps to complete” on the brain training list.
- Know where you want to get to. Would you like to have an astute mind capable of teasing out a solution to nearly any scenario and breaking down anything to its parts to analyze it, understand it, and build a better version of it? Or, would you more rather learn to steer your emotions in a more productive direction than they previously have gone, or perhaps you’d like to create some emotion in a place there wasn’t much of one? Before you can begin to work toward a specific goal, you should know what it is – and why you want to achieve it.
- Force yourself to learn this new skill. The reason I advanced my ability to solve problems to the point it is today was because I put myself in situations where I was constantly forced to solve difficult problems for other people. Social problems, career problems, technical problems of all types – when someone had a problem, I’d do my best to help them. Eventually, with some of the websites I began, I expanded this out to larger and larger groups of people. Soon I found myself breaking things down to explain them to people at a level that few people do. This website is an example of that – I’m using this site as a vehicle not only to teach and aid others, and not only as a vehicle for self-promotion further on down the line once I begin committing serious time to establishing it – but rather, I’m using this site to break down and understand the things I most want to understand – namely, success, leadership, and business. You know the saying: “If you want to learn, teach.” Teach the thing you want to learn – there is no better teacher than forcing yourself to have to break something down to its nuts and bolts in order to explain it to others.
- Take time to mediate and visualize. Every morning when you first wake up, and every night before you go to sleep – these are the times of the day when your brain is at its most susceptible to suggestion – meditate and visualize on achieving or becoming what you want to achieve or become. You must see the entire process – how you act, how you behave; feel the way you feel throughout the entire event; go through every motion. As you do this, you are walking those pathways in your brain, and you are clearing the path a little more every single time.
- Become aware of your thoughts and feelings. You’ll need this to snap yourself out of obsessive thought and destructive emotions. If you start getting worked up, or running in place, or angry, or depressed, or feeling like a problem is utterly intractable, you need to break yourself out of this. The first way to do that is to yell “STOP!” inside your head (not aloud, of course, for decorum’s sake), to startle your brain off that channel. The next step is to then force your thoughts onto a productive alternative – thinking about some project or undertaking you’re beginning for the future, instead. Repeat this process as many times as is necessary; you may have to yell “STOP!” mentally a few times at first. After a month or two of doing this consistently, this process becomes automated, and you automatically break yourself out of bad emotions and thought patterns; the act of doing so becomes a thought pattern itself that your brain religiously starts to follow.
- Recognize it takes time. You’re going to be incredibly discouraged if you go to the gym a couple times this week expecting to come out looking like Mr. Universe only to find your muscles don’t seem to have improved a bit. It’s only over the course of weeks and months that you can see improvement, and the biggest improvements are the ones that you view over the course of a year or more. Brain training works the same way – if you’re expecting overnight success you’ll be disappointed. You’ll be required to have a focus on methodical, systematic improvement – and the good news is, it won’t take up a great deal of your time. A little time spent on it a day leads to massive returns down the road. This is something you need to put time in now to reap later – like planting seeds in the ground and watering them daily. They won’t feed you now, but when harvest comes you’ll be happy you planted those seeds and watered them and kept the pests away.
Training your brain is perhaps the most significant thing you will ever do for yourself. Everything else in your life comes out of whatever you’ve trained your brain to do. If you exercise, it’s because your brain is trained to believe in exercising and want to do that. If you build your business one way or another, ditto. How you interact with friends, family, lovers, and children? The same.
Why is it that people fall into the patterns of behavior they were exposed to by their parents as children? Well, part of it’s heredity. But the other part – the part you can control – is the neural pathways that have been carved by those around them.
You become like the things you are exposed to.
So, if you want to be different, just change your exposures.
If you’re ready to start changing the way you think about things and see the world, you need to check out Yamjac. It’s not running just yet, but it’s only a few months away – you can head here and get on the waiting list to be among the first people to get invited in. It’s going to change the way the world does business, shares ideas, forms teams, and interacts – this is one boat you’re not going to want to miss. Check it out here if you haven’t already:
Catch you again soon.