Consider going big

This is no time for false modesty. You’re a successful person in your line of work. You’re highly motivated, you know how to get things done, and you’re always looking for avenues for self improvement.

You’ve faced plenty of challenges before, but by golly this global pandemic is a big one. So you may find that even after attending to your immediate practical concerns you have more spare time than you’re used to. What to do with that time? Well, many people are taking the opportunity to upgrade existing skills or obtain entirely new ones via online courses.

If this sounds like you, you are probably thinking in terms of skills that can be picked up relatively quickly, so you’ll be ready to dazzle your colleagues with them as soon as more normal conditions resume.

In this blog I want try to persuade you to consider going big. Consider taking on a new skill or course of learning that will truly challenge you, and will take more than a few weeks or months to acquire.

Benefits of taking on a major challenge

  1. Anyone can take on a small challenge, so taking that approach won’t set you apart from those around you.
  2. More importantly, a more profound challenge will yield equally profound cognitive benefits that will have wide-ranging benefits for years to come.

OK I’m listening, tell me more about that second aspect…

Some people – let’s call them “superagers” – retain their mental faculties well into old age, when so many others simply don’t. A common factor among observed superagers is believed to be regularly taking on demanding mental exercise, challenges that take them well out of their comfort zone.

The analogy with physical exercise is obvious. Build your mental muscle and all that. Regular readers will be able to fill in the rest.

By the way, click on that link in previous paragraph if you haven’t already. It’s a good article, with lots more detail than I’m giving you here.

Sometimes more is more

My hot tip for anyone who selects to take on a major mental challenge is that they should take note of a powerful but obscure learning technique called interleaving. The counterintuitive premise of this technique is that studying multiple closely related skills can significantly boost your capacity for learning. In other words, if you’re struggling to learn something, consider taking a break and learning something closely related for a while. You may find that this will in turn enhance your ability to learn the original skill you set out to acquire.

What was that again?

Let me illustrate this idea with a little story about how I stumbled across this technique.

I had earlier decided to learn how to become a group fitness instructor, and frankly, I was struggling. Being behind the microphone is a completely different experience to being in front of it. Maintaining correct timing is absolutely fundamental to leading a successful fitness class, and this skill seemed to completely elude me. I watched other trainee instructors progress rapidly while I struggled for many months with acquiring the most basic skills. My brain just didn’t seem to work that way!

In the midst of this, I went on a tour of Cuba, and somehow had noticeably better timing after returning from the trip. What had happened? Had the mojitos and sultry ocean breezes somehow rewired my brain?

Not quite. The credit for this transformation would seem to belong to the night of salsa lessons that our tour group nervously attempted in Havana. Any form of dance will focus on timing and execution of technique, just as a group fitness instructor does. But the music is different, the moves are different, and so on. So the two sets of skills are similar in some respects, but different in all the details. Similar but different.

I had inadvertently stumbled across the technique of interleaving, and my group fitness instruction skills developed much more rapidly as I continued with salsa lessons after my return to Sydney.

Much more recently, I’ve learned another group fitness program with a completely different tempo, moves and overall focus. My existing experience assisted the acquisition of a new program of course, but thanks to the magic of interleaving, my skills in my first program noticeably improved as a result. It’s a win-win situation, to coin a phrase.

I’ve benefited personally from NEP coaching, and consider it a privilege to add my perspectives to their collection of blogs. The current circumstances have (rightly) forced us to recognise how much we rely on one another, and all that that entails. Amidst those considerations, investing in yourself remains one of the best things you can do, not just for yourself, but for those around you as well.

Andrew Westcombe PhD is a communications account manager and group fitness instructor who insists that studying philosophy – when it is done well – is a thoroughly practical pursuit.


If you’d like to find out more, join the conversation in our next open workshop.