Exercising The Mind

meditation

Almost six years ago I took the initiative to learn Mandarin by signing up for online one-on-one video conference courses. For about $120/month, Each week I had anywhere between four to five sessions of class, each lasting one hour. At the time I didn’t know if what I was doing had any practical application. My Mandarin was only improving enough to speak as a foreigner. It would take a long time to learn enough to use it in business or at work, but even then I wasn’t making any plans to change my career. I started learning Mandarin out of pure interest and enjoyment.

An ex-girlfriend of mine, one that was fluent in Mandarin, bluntly said to me if I didn’t have a practical use for learning Mandarin, such as for work, I was wasting my time. She also said it in a condescending tone. I didn’t really care, but her reaction was typical of most. It’s common to only take action and learn certain things because we have a clear use for it in the future. We learn math because it’s a life long needed skill. We learn our local language so that we can communicate effectively with others and enter the work force. We learn about history so that we don’t make mistakes from the past. We learn science so that we understand why our environment is the way it is. But sometimes, it’s just because we need to pass this class to move onto another class. Either way, there is usually a clear reason as to why we learn something, regardless of whether we agree with it or not.

I continued studying Mandarin after work despite the comments, positive or negative from my peers, for about another two years. Flash forward six years later, as I am driving back to my parents, this past memory surfaced again (hence I am writing this blog post) – and it hit me. It’s clear and simple: mental exercise. Irregardless of surface reasons, the reason for any kind of learning, is to exercise our mind so that it doesn’t become stagnant and dull. A stagnant and dull mind leads to one dreadful result: complacency.

Our mind works just like our body. Getting started with physical exercise is the challenge. Many of us have trouble starting. When you get home, it’s much easier to turn on the TV, open a bag of potato chips, and vegetate on the sofa for several hours before taking a shower and getting ready for bed. But when you do get started, i.e., arrive at the gym or suit up and go outside, its not so difficult to continue and finish the workout. Likewise, our mind works the same way. Thinking about doing homework, or learning something brand new, seems like such a mountain to climb. Wouldn’t it just be easier to turn on the high definition TV and PlayStation 3?  Opening up a book to learn about financial derivatives seems like such a daunting task.

But here lies the problem. Just like exercising, the longer we put off learning (the equivalent of exercising the mind), the harder it is later to start, and the easier it is to use the same or similar excuse to justify why it’s OK to start next next time. When we stop physical exercise, our body starts to slow down. Our heart beat changes. Our legs get tired faster. We start preferring the elevator instead of the stairs. We end up wanting to drive instead of walk even though the destination is only a few blocks away. When we stop learning, we start thinking slower. We prefer old methods out of habit instead of doing things better. Reading becomes harder to comprehend. Our conversations are no longer as sharp. Our writing starts lacking real depth. And for older folks, our skills become outdated and we are less relevant in the work force.

What we learn is not as important as the process of learning. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying learn something that you find intolerable. What I am saying is, fundamentally speaking, the action of learning is what keeps our mind sharp. Physical exercise works in a similar manner. We don’t have to do the same exercise as our friends, just as long as you do exercise. Some prefer jogging instead of biking and vice versa. Either way, both will help you burn calories. So with learning, learn what you want to learn, but always remember that the process of learning is the key idea. What you choose to learn is entirely up to you.

This hit me hard, because during all of 2011 and more than half of 2012, I had essentially stopped learning in my job. I even stopped enriching my investment skills – I was only re-using methodologies I learned in previous years that worked, but given the current economic situation, my methods could be outdated. I noticed I wasn’t as effective in planning for projects. I couldn’t analyze problems as quickly as I used to. My solutions were not nearly as clever as they once were. My decisions started to lack real conviction.

But I had quit my job last year, found a new one, and realized how far behind at I had fell. However, because the new job pushed me to work smarter, now I realize how quickly I am picking myself up again. I worked and worked to get myself up to speed. That’s when this memory of Mandarin crept up in my mind. During the years in which I was learning Mandarin, I had done many other things. Some were unexpected, and some were planned. But I recall that when I was exercising my mind the most, that was when my life felt very fulfilling and confident. I wasn’t scared. I was brave in doing new things even if I risked falling flat on my face. In other words, I felt invincible and saw failure as only a small bump on the road.

So my major resolution for this year is to keep learning. That means reading books. Writing more blogs and carefully proofreading each one. Change my routine tasks by finding new ways to do the same thing. Fix things around the house myself instead of hiring someone (when reasonable). Continue practicing Vipassana. Plus much more. You get the idea 🙂

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