Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The importance of staying mentally agile

I am a software engineer, and I get paid to write software and design software systems. In my spare time I write other code: Arduino and microcontroller code and Android code for my phone. Over the past few days, I have been modifying my site's CSS and HTML to ensure it looks just right. Forget just right, I wanted it to look darn near perfect, even if it meant knowing everything about CSS layout.

After a few days of not writing software or constructing anything, I get itchy. At the very least, I find reading technical documentation and learning about the innards of systems very liberating.

I didn't understand why this is so until I was discussing mental agility with a friend. He mentioned that, in his job, he felt his skills were wasting away. He felt that he was getting slower. He thought he was taking longer to learn new systems. After this discussion, I realised that I am scared of losing mental agility. A lot of my home-hacking is done for fun: I love playing with an Arduino and electronics. But I suspect that deep down, I am also motivated by a fear of slowing down. I don't want to reach a point when I cannot learn something new, because my livelihood depends on learning new things quickly and in sufficient detail.

Intelligence is more than just mental agility. Intelligence includes quick learning, and also requires good communication and abstract thought.  But the ability to quickly learn a new area is critical.  Even if I wasn't an engineer, I would be working in a profession that required quick mental thinking.  Learning an arcane instruction set won't make me smarter (more intelligent). However, I will get the mental rush of learning something new. And I'll know that I have the mental agility to learn something new to sufficient depth. In the future when I'm required to learn something completely new, I will be prepared for it.

In the case of my friend, his fears are unfounded. The guy is a talented engineer and a quick learner. He is certainly faster than I am at learning new things.

Ironically, the people who are worried about slowing down are the ones that never slow down. They drive harder, keep picking up new skills and keep sharpening their powers of learning.

The people slowing down are the ones that aren't worried about slowing down. If you're worried about slowing down: you're probably doing fine.