It took me a long time to accept that failure was a good thing. Maybe not the massive, knocking you off your feet type of failures, (although, few and far between, those have their value too), but the little failures we encounter in the course of our every day activities. Failures force us to correct our course, change our approach and find different solutions. Above all, they push us out of our comfort zone.
Comfort zones and routines don’t help our brain cells. Literally. Challenging ourselves keeps us sharp. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association:
“Consistent mental challenge by novel stimuli increases production and interconnectivity of neurons and nerve growth factor, as well as prevents loss of connections and cell death.”
The problem is that, as we age, trying new things and seeking challenges becomes increasingly difficult. Think of some elderly relative who will resist your invitation to a new restaurant, preferring the same old digs, or of all the people deeply set in their ways who become more and more unbending as time goes by. Maybe that is us and we don’t even know.
Learning new skills gets harder the older we get, no doubt – plus, our memory banks get cramped with all the knowledge accumulated during our lifetime – but some people embrace new opportunities no matter their age, while others resist veering an inch off course early on. Why? I am convinced curiosity plays a large role. People who are instinctively curious are more prone to poke their noses into new ventures, big and small. In a 1996 study published in Psychology and Aging, more than 1,000 older adults aged 60 to 86 were carefully observed over a five-year period, and researchers found that those who were rated as being more curious at the beginning of the study were more likely to be alive at its conclusion, even after taking into account age, whether they smoked, the presence of cancer or cardiovascular disease, and so on.
Apparently, education also plays a part. Dr. Marilyn Albert, associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Harvard and director of gerontology research at Massachusetts General Hospital, in an interview to the Chicago Tribune, stated that “The more levels of education you have, the more likely you are to engage in mentally stimulating activities, and that’s actually good for your brain”.
So, should we all learn how to solve Sudoku puzzles and unravel the Sunday New York Times crossword to ensure mental longevity? In my very unscientific opinion, I think all we need is to stay curious and not worry about failures. One of the best assets of getting old is that we have finally shed the need to project an image of perfection and absolute competence. I, for one, am much more comfortable saying “I don’t know” and then research the question, whether in life or in the workplace. Not having all the answers, in the age of smart phones and tablets, can be quite fun.
My mother, my personal source of wisdom, once again provides the perfect example. She started reading books in earnest at age 72. Until then, it was newspapers and magazines but, finding herself with more time on her hands and sick of the stupidity of Italian tv, she picked up a book a friend gave her. And never looked back. She doesn’t quite discriminate in her tastes: history, romance, crime, biographies – she will give anything a try. As long as it’s a good story, she will keep on reading.
That very first book was “The Silk Road” by Alessandro Baricco. An unlikely choice, I thought. When I asked her what she thought of it, her critique, simple in her words but to the point, was spot on. And then she added: “Sometimes he takes a bit too long to get there”. I couldn’t have said it better myself about a sweet and elegant book with not much of a plot. And my mother, at heart, is an intensely curious person and the living example that an inquisitive and curious mind keeps your brain in shape.