How to Use This Book,
and How I Came to Write It
Life itself is the proper binge.
—Julia Child (1912–2004), chef
The Proper Binge
Doesn't it make sense that we should all feel pretty good about ourselves?
After all, we've acquired so much of what we've always desired: spouses, kids, careers, friends, homes, cars, education, electronics, shoes galore, and microwave ovens with innards that twirl around and around. It's scary almost, how well we're doing, even when you factor in economic frazzles and the volatility in so many sectors of our lives. So of course, things aren't exactly perfect, but we never counted on perfect. We did somehow expect, though, that we'd feel a little better about things. Instead, around midlife (your mileage may vary), almost without fail, burnout sets in. Maybe severely, maybe mildly. The blahs.
Stagnation. Just at the point in life when we should feel proud and accomplished and something approaching happy, we begin to feel . . . flat. There's no mystery why the haunting song 'Is That All There Is?' was a hit. It oozed ennui, that corrosive disillusionment so many adults experience. We feel it, most of us, but we try to deny it. And our culture offers up lots of ways to tamp it down, things that are quite contrary to Julia Child's proper binge noted above. 'Improper binges' could include drink, drug, demon chocolate, antidepressants, shopping for more shoes, or buying microwaves that are even fancier in their ability to spin the food around yet still leave cold spots in it. No, the problem isn't that things aren't perfect. The problem is that we've lost our ability to be seduced by the world. Children are enthralled by everything, because it's all new. As adults, though, we believe we've been there, been everywhere; done that, done everything; bought the T-shirt, bought the iPod. We've become blasé. We've started to flatline. And we don't know how to fix it.
Is it any wonder so many of us experience burnout and low-grade depression in midlife? Sit up, because this is the big reveal: we are starved for mental stimulation. A core belief of mine is that we all simply want to feel better about ourselves. Becoming just a little smarter, a little more well-rounded, a little more engaged with the underappreciated treasures of this wide, wide world—that will do the trick very nicely, thank you. Yet, for the most part, we deride ourselves, noting our failings, our shortcomings, our underachieving smallness. But it's absolutely possible to feel better about ourselves without resorting to antidepressants or antianxiety medications. Just as the world offers up plenty to be disheartened about, so does it offer up all the raw materials to cross-train our brains.
What does it mean to 'cross-train' your brain? At the most basic level, it means to make a point of exercising all of your brain, not just the comparatively small part you take out for a spin every day in your job as a chemist, organic farmer, or automotive designer. When you visit a personal trainer for purposes of physical fitness, you generally exercise every major muscle group in your body before you consider yourself to have 'worked out.' Yet, on the mental side of the equation, we let scads of our precious brain bandwidth lie dormant with nary a thought as to the damage that chronic inactivity is doing to us. Just as we should be cross-training our bodies (swimming, if we're primarily a runner; lifting weights, if we're primarily a gymnast), so should we be cross-training our brains (working crosswords if we're primarily a social worker; gardening if we're primarily an aesthetician).
'Brain exercise' is a vital function that has unfortunately been relegated to a secondary role—playing second fiddle to the universally hailed imperative for physical exercise. We all know that an agile, well-stimulated brain is better conditioned to fend off the ravages of mental dementia and Alzheimer's disease than a sluggish, understimulated brain. We know it, but we don't do enough about it.
Cross-training our brains leads to becoming a generalist. A generalist is a gloriously restless person whose penchant for a variety of diverse interests allows him or her to acquire all kinds of skills, curiosities, and enthusiasms. And, generally speaking, generalists are the people who are best positioned to fight back the blahs that come a-callin' on almost everybody eventually. Cross-training your brain—adopting the habits and worldview of a generalist even as you continue to pursue your career as a specialist—is the antidote to mental malnutrition. Plus, complementing your professional specialty with a series of unrelated pursuits will trigger a higher skill level at your profession—I know that sounds paradoxical. Cross-training will also put the brakes on the midlife melancholies and career burnout. Better health and improved joie de vivre will result.
This book is for people who suspect they've become cognitively malnourished and want to reverse course. It's written for those who feel strangely flat and don't have an inkling why. It's for anyone who wants to broaden his or her horizons by building a more vigorous mind. I have in mind the reader who can hear Peggy Lee crooning 'Is That All There Is?' and wants to lash out in resistance—but doesn't quite know where to start.
©2008. Ingrid E. Cummings. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The Vigorous Mind. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442
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