You know the old saying:
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
First of all, we’re nowhere near “old” yet. Secondly, yes you can. I’ll also add that we’re not dogs (in case that part wasn’t clear).
We know now that adult brains contain stem cells, which allow us to generate new brain cells. These newborn brain cells have the capacity to develop into mature functional neurons to aid in memory and learning, and when we put them to work, we benefit from neuroplasticity.
The experience of neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity simply means change in the nervous system. Contrary to the popular belief of days gone by, the brain has an intrinsic and dynamic ability to change in structure and function throughout our lives in response to new experiences.
“New experiences” means getting outside your comfort zone:
Our brain functions in a nonlinear (inverted-U shaped) relationship with stress level, such that optimal performance is achieved at moderate levels of stress. Too little or too much arousal impairs functioning. It is important that we push and challenge ourselves to moderate levels of stress, past our natural comfort zone, to promote neuroplasticity in favor of growth and resilience.
This is the key to behavioral change and the formation of new, beneficial habits. Create new pathways through repetition of novel tasks, and abandon old pathways by no longer indulging in the behavior you want to leave behind.
Simple, but not necessarily easy. But it’s definitely worth pursuing.
The actual goal is mental wellness
Mental wellness refers to your psychological and emotional health. Interestingly, the starting point for mental wellness is your physical health, and with that physical baseline in place, people of any age are primed to evolve and grow.
Yes, it’s harder to learn new things as we age. But the goal is not (for example) to become perfectly fluent in a brand new language at midlife. Instead, enjoy the mental wellness and improved cognition that comes with the process of learning a new language.
Don’t get hung up on achieving goals. There is no destination, just new vantage points as the journey continues.
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Use geographic arbitrage to live large
The internet and technology in general allow more people than ever to work from anywhere, which opens up new opportunities for geographic arbitrage. What is that, exactly?
Geographic arbitrage means taking advantage of the differences in prices between various locations. You earn money in a stronger economy (San Francisco, maybe, or the U.S. in general) and spend it in a weaker economy (South Dakota or Ecuador, for instance).
If you’ve ever chosen a vacation spot based on the relative strength of your native currency, you’ve engaged in a form of geographic arbitrage. In fact, I’m doing that right now, spending U.S. dollars in Australia.
Digital expats rather than nomads
The fantasy of “work from anywhere” generally involves a laptop-wielding digital nomad who hops from locale to locale across the globe. Those people certainly exist, but most online entrepreneurs I know who have left their home countries simply live and work in a cheaper and safe place that they enjoy.
For example, I know a diverse group of internet entrepreneurs who have settled in Medellin, Colombia. These folks sell their products and services in lucrative western markets, while enjoying the temperate weather and low cost of living of Medellin, all while contributing to the local economy.
Taking it to the Heartland
A less exotic trend is for people working on the expensive coasts of the U.S. to work remotely (or go freelance), which allows them to live somewhere vastly less expensive than Silicon Valley or New York.
Cities like Denver, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis are highly attractive places to live, especially if you’re making a salary (or charging fees) appropriate for expensive coastal markets. Tech talent in particular now realizes that the current environment allows for innovation from anywhere.
This in turn is causing the money to follow the talent inland. My home of Boulder, Colorado has had a thriving venture capital scene for quite a while, and now cities like Cincinnati and Nashville and being staked out by VCs who recognize how to succeed with their own form of geographic arbitrage.
This escape from the “tyranny of geography” used to be fanciful. Now it just takes the willingness to make it happen, and a plan.
When positive thinking works
Blame silly books like The Secret. Or blame Oprah for promoting silly books like The Secret.
Whichever way you go, the result remains the same — spending your time thinking positively about the things you’d like to happen in your life is a waste of time.
Creating a viable plan of action will serve you much better than silly wishing. And realistic optimism certainly can’t hurt, as long as you’re also taking the required steps toward getting where you want to be.
But are there times when positive thoughts alone can help you? Actually, yes.
Your brain is a negative creep
All thoughts are not created equally. For some evolutionary reason, we tend to focus much more on negative thoughts than positive ones.
In Dr. Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness, the neuropsychologist explains that our brains are wired toward the negative. For example, if we have ten experiences during the day, five neutral everyday experiences, four positive experiences, and one negative experience, we are probably going to think about that one negative experience before going to bed that night.
This tendency can have real consequences, thanks to the very neuroplasticity that can help us change our brains for the better. The key is to take time to savor the good experiences that strengthens those neural pathways in your brain.
Taking in the good
Not all negative thoughts are bad — in fact they can be quite useful for dealing appropriately with reality. On the other hand, suppressing negative thoughts can lead to even worse situations when the associated emotions resurface.
Negative material has negative consequences. It darkens your mood, increases anxiety and irritability, and gives you a background sense of inadequacy. The desires and inclinations in it take you to bad places.
The idea is that taking the time to “take in the good” (in Dr. Hanson’s terminology) generally changes your brain to focus more on the positive aspects of your life. In other words, you form more positive neural pathways.
For more entrenched and damaging negative thoughts, you can perform “neutralization” exercises to work through it. More on that here:
Sugar – Helpless
Copper Blue, 1992
After two solo albums following the demise of the legendary Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould formed a new power trio called Sugar. Helpless became an MTV hit from their debut Copper Blue, which was named 1992 Album of the Year by NME. (YouTube)
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