The Importance of Doing
The importance of doing can hardly be overstated. It sharpens the mind and works the body. It opens us to new ideas. It works muscles in new ways. It often brings us together with other people in meaningful ways. So do crosswords. Go on walks. Work in the yard. Learn Russian. Do something. But doing is only part of the equation. The missing part that tips the cart in your favor is doing something unfamiliar or hard or doing something to the level of mastery. These are things that we tend to avoid as we age.
As an example, take crosswords. It’s easy to find puzzles that can be completed in ten minutes without mistakes. They’re enjoyable and help maintain a level of mental acuity. But they don’t improve your ability or your mental state. To improve my thinking, I need to form new neural connections. These are the nerve paths that connect one part of our brain to other parts of the brain or to our body. It’s kind of like string-art with each nail a node. The more strings you have the more nails are connected. (This is why babies crawl before they walk. Crawling builds a scaffold of connections between brain and body that finally allows the child to move their legs and balance themselves with control.) How do we form new neural connections? By doing things that are different or hard to us.
I’ll stick with crosswords but you can insert your hobby or activity here. I maintain the level of ability I have for crosswords by doing the same kinds of puzzles over and over. It’s the same if you can do five push-ups: you can maintain that ability by doing five push-ups a day. I consider myself a Monday/Tuesday New York Times puzzler. The easy stuff. 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 need to do puzzles that make me wince. That help me see clues and answers from different perspectives. That make me think hard about who won Best Actress in 1976 (Louise Fetcher, 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.
Learning new things is key to continued and improved mental acuity. What is something you’ve always wanted to try but never have? Learning a language? Making wine? Bonsai? A few years ago, I was going to sign-up for a voice over acting class at our local college. I didn’t – we moved a few hundred miles away – but I thought that this was 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.
Wayne Dyer said that when he was a practicing therapist and people would 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 is that our mental and physical states are intertwined and that it’s hard to be depressed when you are shooting baskets. I run a lot and read testimonials in every running magazine from people who run to ‘clear their head’ or to reorient thoughts. It sounds silly but I write with my left hand sometimes. It’s hard and sloppy and my wrist never holds quite right but that uncomfortable physical act puts a whole raft of thinking in place that contributes to growth. Probably won’t lead me to a Nobel Prize but, as in all things healthy, it all adds up.
You already enjoy something – now master it. Jump into it with both feet and become an expert. Engaging your mind like this – or your body – 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 they whys. Why does it work this way? Why use this joint 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.
What To Do?
Not sure what to do? Not a problem. Do anything. Michael Michalko addressed this at the site Think Jar Collective in his A Lesson In Creative Thinking From Vincent Van Gogh:
- Do something. Just start. Do. In the words of Van Gogh, “Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile.”
- Commit even if you don’t know where you are going. It’s the doing that’s important. Goals will emerge from the doing.
- Do your own work. Explore from your own experience. Maybe no one else will put these three flowers in a vase but so what?
- Eschew perfection. Do.
Not Sure What To Do? Ten Things To Stir You
- Write haiku
- Do a plank
- Catch a fish
- Make macaroons
- Cut dovetails
- Become a yoga pretzel
- Talk to a stranger
- Collect stamps
- Mow your lawn with stripes
- Master Russian with Tolstoy
There’s a starter list. When you’re done with that, come back for more!
What things interest you? What have you always wanted to do? What will you start doing today to put one foot on the ground toward better health and happiness?