February 13, 2013

Aging Into a Stronger Mind...Real or Fantasy?

Last month's post on the book, Wisdom Paradox, made the point that our brain works differently as we age. Our mind has the potential to get stronger as the brain itself actually deteriorates in a physical sense. We gain the ability to more effectively analyze information and come to helpful conclusions to help us during our satisfying retirement. Many of the neurons in our brain do die, but are replaced by other neurons that keep pace. The key point of the post was that we can gain wisdom and insight as we age.

Let's assume the author is correct: our mind can be stronger at 65 than 25 because we have gathered life experiences, both good and bad, for decades. Our brain sorts and connects all the electrical impulses in such a way that we are left with the ability to make better choices and decisions.

So, today I'd like your input. Can you share an example of how failures in your past taught you an important lesson that has helped you as you have aged? Do you find your earlier life experiences have resulted in an extra dose of wisdom now?

Or, do you have a story to tell that seems to run counter to the Wisdom Paradox....that your younger mind reacted more quickly to a problem or seemed to generate lots of solutions? Now, you seem to fall back on the safe and customary responses rather than plot a fresh course.

I think it will be interesting for us to share stories how the effects of our aging brain and mind have served us during our retirement. To get the process started I'll share an example.

Would you take advice from this man?
For most of my life I have been quite controlling. There are those that would claim I still am, and they are probably correct. Yet, this condition used to be much worse.  By my 34th birthday I was advising the ABC Radio networks. I had helped write a ground-breaking study for the Associated Press that changed the face of radio news. Radio stations were competing for my services. I was unstoppable. I was convinced I was smarter than most. I owned the golden goose.

Not so fast.  This attitude threatened my relationship with my wife and kids. It harmed my business because I rarely accepted someone else's fresh ideas. I didn't work to live, I simply lived to work. Ultimately, within 16 years I either became much dumber or I was never that smart to begin with: my business went into the toilet along with my invincible attitude. The illusion of control turned out to be just that: an illusion.

Fast forward about six years from that point and I had that proverbial slap upside the head. I finally was able to analyze the decisions I had made on how I had lived my life. I could see the flaws in my world view. Quite clearly I was able to put together all the pieces of my life. I could see that where I had ended up should not have been a surprise. It was a direct result of my lack of life experiences and inflated ego. I had achieved success too easily and at too young an age.

Luckily, for me and those around me, over the last several years my mind has become much better at processing information and experiences. I know what it takes to live a life worth living. I understand a bit better the consequences of actions and attitudes. I am much quicker to listen to others and throttle my control gene. I have a better grasp of the difference between needs and wants.

I am not lamenting that I screwed up badly in my earlier days. The Wisdom Paradox makes the point that the experiences we have when we are younger are necessary for us to be "smarter" as we age. But, I am quite thankful that my (soon to be ) 64 year old mind is able to use my life experiences to help me live a life much more satisfying and complete and it has given me enough discernment to chart a more productive path.

OK...enough of my dirty linen flapping in the breeze. Can you think of a situation where your aging brain is actually stronger now than it was at some point in your youth? Or, can you cite an example where those youthful neurons zipping around inside your head gave you an advantage you'd like to have back?


  1. Good morning Bob. When I was younger I was very much an introvert. People for the most part intimidated me. I also had a sense of inferiority. Even though I found that I had an IQ of 134 it didn't help. I think a big part of it was a lack of female guidance in my life. There was only Dad and he was very much a stoic person much like many in his generation. Looking back I did accomplish some pretty good things but I never had a sense of accomplishment.

    It wasn't until I was in my late thirties that I finally overcame these two conditions. I have grown a lot since mentally and socially since then and of course now that I am in my sixties I have an ever growing sense of altruism. I wish I had discovered that and the words via my blog to push others in that direction.

    I continue to grow every day now.....

    1. Isn't it amazing how much effect one missing parent can have? I worry about the high divorce rate as much for its effect on any children as well as the two adults. There are plenty of studies that show a missing male presence in a girl's life and a mom's influence in a son's life can be huge.I n your case a stoic dad left you missing two supports. But, things have turned out well for you.

      Of course, now you are dealing with the issue of being a deaf person in a sound-driven world. You have shared how difficult that is in feeling in control and reaching out to make friends. Luckily, your blogs allow you to influence so many people and make "friends" over the Internet.

  2. Like many, as a young man starting out in life, I thought I had all the answers. Now, in looking back in perspective, I remember so many of the utterly stupid and/or tactless things that I said, personally and professionally. I like to think that now i work more to ask good questions and/or to simply listen attentively - whether it be with my wife, kids, friends, acquaintances or complete strangers. Speaking metaphorically, I've learned to keep my foot out of my mouth much better. :)

    1. Youth is often a combination of excitement and tremendous growth coupled with massive amounts of insensitivity and dumbness. Luckily, most of us grow out of it as we age!

      I have a size 12 foot and it still fits comfortably in my mouth on a regular basis!

  3. I, too, was a person who felt that I needed to control the world, which included my kids and husband. Little did I know back then that I really had no control at all. Now that I'm pushing 63, I look back and realize that everything I tried to control, really didn't matter all that much. I do think I skipped the pleasure of seeing my kids grow on their own - without my controlling nature. Now, as a grandma, I can see the world through my grandkid's eyes, which is wonderful. But, no sense lamenting on what was...now I'm trying to enjoy the here and now, which is a much easier way to live.

    1. You make a vital point: our sense of control is often just an illusion. We fool ourselves while others nod politely and do whatever they were going to do anyway!

      What I did for most of my career really contributed to my control problem. I was paid to tell others what I thought they should do. Because I was an "expert" they did what I said. Problems developed when I tried the same technique on my family and wife.

  4. There will be more comments, of course, but I already sense a theme. When we are young we think we are in control and we have all the answers. When we get older, we realize that we really have very little control and we don't know very much. The amazing thing is that we treat this as good news!

    When I was teaching, I saw younger self in many of my students--eager, smart, quick. I also saw myself in their lack of judgment. They were adept at making connections and processing lots of information, but they weren't so skilled at evaluating issues at a deeper level. They are hesitant to venture into this realm because they don't trust their judgment.

    This was true for me in my personal life. I can look back at choices I made in relationships based on what I thought I should do, or what other people wanted me to do, because I did not trust myself to make good decisions for myself. I also placed all my self value on things outside of myself--things (and people) simply had to be a certain way or my life would be ruined.

    Well, of course, people and things were not always the way they "had" to be, and my life went on. I quit competing with my shadow. I began to trust myself. And to trust the universe, or God, in the sense of having faith that everything was fine.

    Great post. I'll be back to read more stories!

    1. Part of my youth was spent doing what boys my age in my social circle did: become a camp counselor for the summer and join a sports team. In both cases I failed miserably. I came home after one week of being a counselor at an 8 week long summer camp and I quit the track team after it was obvious that every time I ran around the track I got sick.

      Unwise expectations and what is considered "normal" can cause a lot of problems. Luckily, as we age we begin to become a bit more discerning.

  5. When I was young I couldn't see beyond the nose on my face. I had no understanding of consequences, of how things might play out, no idea how to put things into purposeful motion. Now with age, I can see more clearly what's happening, and what's going to happen. I can see the future.

    1. People used to joke that I was born 40 years old..always more serious and restrained than my peers. Maybe that is why I got into radio so I could let my deeply hidden party side run wild.

      When I started to see my future if I continued with the rather risky behavior that was part of being a rock DJ I moved into management consulting. Much less physical risk but a tremendous increase in stress and pressure. Looking back I'm not sure which was worse!


  6. Don't you think life brings one full circle?
    I am learning the lessons that I knew when I was six---Family is the center of our earthly existence and without God, I am nothing. My mission is to help, in any way, my family to see those are the values. All else- like the awards and accomplishments that I received- means little in the end.

    1. Exactly true, Janette. You have stated the goal of earthly wisdom very nicely.

      It is too bad too many of us take the better part of our lifetime to figure that out!


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