I’ve found over the years, my life has been much more fulfilled through growth in myself, and contributing to others. This has been fundamental to my happiness and is why depression, and negative thoughts, don’t enter my life. The past few months have been littered with high profile suicides. Anthony Bourdain, chef and travel journalist extraordinaire, ended his life recently. He had it all – fun, adventure, money, travel, great food and drink – what else could he want? Kate Spade was at the top of her career and was named as one of the Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company magazine before her life ended. I remember when Robin Williams, one of my most favorite actors, ended his life after bouts of depression. He accomplished so much, received a ton of accolades, but he still felt a need to not continue living. It is so sad.
What’s surprising about all of this is that these individuals reached the top of their game – so much so that it was tough to top what they’ve already done, or improve on their existing capabilities. They have worked so hard on being the best in their fields but in the end, it wasn’t enough. Dealing with depression and anxiety affected them because their model of the world isn’t what they expected. They needed fulfillment and couldn’t get it. One of the main methods for fulfillment is growth, and my belief, is for many of these successful people, it gets harder and harder to achieve the levels of growth they are accustomed to.
Since you were born, you learned skills as you went along. You learned how to walk, how to throw a ball, how to read, and how to play games. You were growing, and growing felt good. You can also see it in nature. A redwood tree will continue to grow, and continue to get more rings of bark, but when it stops, you know something is wrong. It starts turning from growing to dying.
Human skill, whether it’s playing guitar, or sailing a sailboat, is directly related to neural fibers in your brain and body, and the speed at which they function. The Talent Code
, a book by Daniel Coyle, describes how the electrical pulses that send signals through your neurons and eventually into your muscles (when performing an activity) can strength and quicken by orders of magnitude, through deliberate practice and training. These nerve fibers (neurons), that originate in the brain, are wrapped in myelin. The myelin acts similar to insulation in a copper wire – it prevents the electrical impulses from leaking out. The more you practice and grow a skill, the more layers of myelin are created, and the faster and stronger the signals are transmitted (the layers grow like rings on the redwood tree). This is why when you concentrate on developing a skill, you get better at it.
In children, your neurons get wrapped in myelin in waves, all the way until your 30’s. You keep gaining myelin until age 50 or so, at which point you might start losing a net total of myelin. However, you still retain your ability to myelinate throughout the rest of your life. This is why it is so important for us as we age, to continue working on our skills and increase myelination – if you don’t use it, you will lose it.
For me, I want to always keep growing, and getting smarter, better, and healthier as I age. I am always trying to get 1% better through reading, writing, learning and improving my skills (whether it’s guitar, sailing, languages, public speaking, etc.). There is a scientific concept called homeostasis – which is the tendency for a system (any system in general – but often a living system) to maintain its own balance and stability. The typical example is a thermostat which maintains a certain temperature in a room. If it gets too hot, the air conditioner turns on to regain balance. Your body also acts to maintain stability. If you’re lacking enough water, you get thirsty so you drink more water to regain the balance. If your blood glucose level (aka blood sugar level) gets high due to high carb intake, our bodies release the insulin hormone into our bloodstream from our pancreas. To maintain the glucose balance, the insulin tells your body to create more fat cells, ultimately from the glucose, and to stop using fat cells for energy (i.e. you get fatter) – yay, homeostasis!
You can also use the homeostasis principle to make yourself stronger. If you push your body hard enough and long enough, your body changes by increasing capillaries to handle more blood flow, it builds more muscle fibers, and your body can then handle the additional stresses in the future to maintain homeostasis. You have to keep pushing yourself harder to keep improving.
Like muscles, your brain improves, mostly through development of new connections and increased myelin. This is better done through skill building rather than practicing skills that you already know. So get better, practice, and build up new skills. Because if you’re not growing, you’re dying. Do you spend your time watching TV, taking in information that pollutes your mind (like obsessively watching the news or social media), and playing games on your phone?
Or are you getting better by learning a skill, building a business, writing a book or improving your fitness?
You only have a certain amount of time on this planet. Don’t spend it dying. Spend it growing. You’ll end up happier, more fulfilled, and able to contribute more to society, your family, and friends.