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You 2.0

It's never too late to reinvent yourself.

Imagine someone holds a gun to your head and demands that you tell him what you really wish you were doing in your life. Now imagine he tells you that if you don't start taking steps toward making that happen, he'll kill you. He knows where you live, and he'll be watching.

That scenario is one my favorite scenes in Fight Club.

And thanks to the overwhelming new brain research, we now know that it's virtually never too late to reinvent yourself. To start something totally new. To learn, even master, something completely different from what you've been doing for the past five, ten, forty years.

From my current favorite brain book,The New Brain, Richard Restak puts it this way:

"As recently as only a few years ago, most neuroscientists believed that brain plasticity largely ceased by adolescence or by early adulthood at the latest. At this point the brain became fixed in its structure and function--at least that was the prevailing assumption. But this assumption, too, turned out to be wrong."

He goes on to talk about how people--regardless of age--can still achieve superior, even expert-level performance in things they haven't done before.

The more we learn about the brain, the more we learn about learning, and learning is the key. Not just as something to get better at (i.e. learning to learn), but learning as exercise for the brain. In other words, learning virtually anything makes your brain better, and a better brain makes your learning better. All nicely recursive : )

My sister Sherry knows a couple, both brain surgeons, who've decided that the way to keep their brains in shape is to take up a completely new (and sometimes randomly-selected) hobby every two years. And not just a tinkering every now and then kind of hobby, but a full-fledged, throw yourself into it, take classes and spend money kind of hobby.

Sherry met them on a learning vacation, in this case a photography workshop from Horizons Artistic Travel. But she said that by then the couple, already in their 60's, had explored a wide range of artistic, athletic, and intellectural adventures in their quest to keep their brains in top shape.

NPR had an interview (but I can't remember who it was!) with a 100-year old woman who when asked about regrets, had a quote that went something like this, "If I'd known I was going to live to be 100, I would have taken up the violin at 60. I'd have been playing for 40 years by now."

How many times have you wished that you started something as a child? Why? Usually it's so that you could look back at age 30 and say, "I've been playing the guitar for 20 years". No big deal. Start now. Let's say you're 30... at 50 you can say you've been playing for 20 years. Even ten years is a really long time. You can get pretty damn good at most things in less than a year, if you really focus. (There's a lot about that in The New Brain).

No, you probably won't make it into the Olympics, if that was your goal (although there are some sports, like archery and some of the equestrian events, where it's not that uncommon to find competitors in their forties).

But the implications of the adult-brain-has-plasticity findings aren't just for new hobbies. Just like the guy in Fight Club, there's no physiological reason why most people can't just up and change careers. Of course, there are certainly a TON of psychological and especially social reasons to not make a switch (with unsupportive family members taking the top slot there). But your brainis up for the challenge, and everyone else will have to deal with You 2.0.

One of my favorite reinvention stories is geek/artist Bill Atkinson. Mac-heads known him as one of the original Macintosh creators--a guy who designed not just a lot of the original UI, but two of the most ground-breaking software apps of all time: MacPaint and HyperCard. But after years of helping the rest of us be more creative, he's now making a name for himself as a nature photographer. His new book, Within the Stone is breathtaking. It's the first photography coffee-table book I've ever seen that I HAD to have.

I'd actually been looking for a really nice book on fractals, but it turns out the most gorgeous fractal patterns I can imagine are right there in these photos of sliced polished stone. (This book also forged new ground in the techniques used for digital color correction, and as a result this book is a stunning example of what an art/photo book should be.)

I've lived through so many reinventions I stopped counting. Some involved moves to a new city, state, and in one case--a new country. One time I decided to change my name to go with it--"Sierra" is not the name I was born with (and not a name I married into). I finally decided one day that something as important as my name should be something I had a say in, so I held a months-long contest and asked my friends to help pick a name "that would make me happy every time I heard it."

I grew up in the Sierras (spending most of time at this place), so when someone added that to the growing list of possible last names for me, I knew I had the winner. (It was actually Bert that submitted the winning entry.)

There's another Kathy Sierra I met online, who's a fabulous fiddle/violin player. It turns out hers is a made-up last name as well... in this case her and her husband picked it as their new "married" last name because their relationship bloomed in the Sierra Madres. OK, that's the end of my romantic stories for 2005.

Anyway, I think the point I'm trying to make is that learning is as crucial to your brain as exercise is to your body. And outside of real brain damage, there's very little reason you can't learn something--regardless of how difficult--no matter when you start. You always have time to become even an expert at new things, if you choose to go that far and put in the time.

And thanks to all the new info about how the brain learns (and encodes to long-term memory), learning new things doesn't have to be as slow or painful as it often has been in the past for most people (especially if you were brought up in the U.S. brain-unfriendly education system). There are a million things you can do to make it easier and quicker to learn new things--and that includes both physical and mental learning.

(FYI for skiers -- if you want to transition quickly and safely from intermediate to expert, Breakthrough on Skis is a fantastic example of instruction that tells your brain what to do with your body, and gets through to both. I can't say enough about it, although make sure you get the latest version of his book, because it's not only been updated for sidecut skis, it also changed from line drawings to still shots pulled from his DVDs. So the new edition is a lot better for really seeing the subtle shifts you need to make. Yet another demonstration of how important the visuals are... I tried to read this book 15 years ago and without the right pictures, I just wasn't getting it.)

So what hobby--or profession--do YOU wish you'd taken up earlier? (Besides getting in and out of the tech stocks at the right time.) Your brain is hoping you're still up for a lifetime of continuous learning challenges.

Check the December archives for learning tips, and I'll have a lot more to say in the future about ways in which you can speed up your learning.

(I just wanted to hear myself type "archives", now that the blog has been here, like, ten days? In another few weeks I'll start referring to earlier posts as "legacy blogs".)

Posted by Kathy on January 2, 2005 | Permalink


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The disaster in Asia has really affected me in a big way. I did not feel like planning / looking forward to anything for 2005, this blog however is starting to let me re-think my "position", thanks.

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Jan 2, 2005 10:43:15 PM

For the last couple of years I've been frustrated and confused with my life and career. Being a Gemini I've many interests, AI, Cryptography, Operating Systems etc. I've always been very confused as to which field I should master, due to which I've always been in a state of disarray. Reading your blog I've being able to make up my mind. Things are starting to clear now.

Posted by: sameer borate | Jan 4, 2005 10:39:09 PM


I've spent Fourth of July weekend reading the blog, and have had many WOW moments. Thanks for another I CAN do it moment.

During the dot-com years, it seemed the new tech was coming out so fast only the few could keep up with it all. Us mere mortals stuck with incremental improvements -- and sane housing markets.

In Februrary, I took off three months for the birth of my son. While nursing, I needed someyhing to read -- he was a slow eater. I pulled out my copy of Head First Java, determined to download the JDE and actually get through it this time, Then, um, I read that the JDE is pre-installed on my PowerBook. Ooops. I'm half-way through, with a detour for XML which I'll be discussing at a Perl Mongers meeting this month -- my first presentation. At 37. Because HFJ got me excited about programming and new tech again.

Thank you!

Posted by: SusieJ | Jul 4, 2005 10:15:15 AM

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