How to grow your brain

I’ve been a fan of the Khan Academy for a long time now. The website was set up by Salman “Sal” Khan after he began tutoring his cousin, and has developed into an international organisation with the aim of providing a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere. There are tutorial videos on a mind-boggling array of topics – great for revision or just for pushing yourself and understanding something new. 

What’s particularly great, though, is the philosophy behind the Khan Academy – You Can Learn Anything. Khan explains: 

Most people are held back not by their innate ability, but by their mindset. They think intelligence is fixed, but it isn’t. Your brain is like a muscle. The more you use it and struggle, the more it grows. New research shows we can take control of our ability to learn. We can all become better learners. We just need to build our brains in the right way.

Khan Academy

Helpfully, the Academy has provided a couple of videos explaining exactly how the brain grows when we learn something new. Here’s the short version: 

And for those with a real appetite for it, here’s the detail: 

Finally, Sal Khan himself met with Carol Dweck to explore the ideas behind a growth mindset approach: 

Remember: if you set your mind to it, you can learn anything. 

Anything is possible

 

John F Kennedy, September 12th 1962

 
On September 12th 1962, John F Kennedy stood up at Rice Stadium near Houston in Texas and declared his intention to put a man on the moon before the decade was out. I’ve always found this speech inspiring as Kennedy set out the goal without understanding how it was to be achieved. As he said at the time: 

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

John F Kennedy, Rice Stadium, September 12th 1962

I love this kind of ambitious thinking. The kind of thinking that sets the goal and then works out how to do it, or even if it is possible. The kind of thinking that is about challenging yourself to push beyond what others think is possible. Of course, hindsight gives Kennedy’s words even more resonance, as we know that on 20th July 1969 Neil Armstrong stepped down from Apollo 11’s Lunar Module as the first human being to set foot on the surface of another world.  

Neil Armstrong reflected in Buzz Aldrin’s visor on the surface of the moon in 1969

 

Would we still admire Kennedy’s words if the lunar missions had been unsuccessful? Is it only success that makes the ambition so inspiring? I don’t think so. Setting ourselves ambitious goals and pushing ourselves beyond what we believe be to possible is the only sure way to make progress. Even if we fail, we will have learned much from trying and come so much further than we would have done otherwise. 

Michelangelo didn’t paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel beacuse it was easy

 

Taking the easy option is ultimately unsatisfying. If you get a set a questions to do and you find them all easy and get 100% right, you won’t have learned very much. You will have wasted your time. If you really have to work at it, and it’s so difficult that you make a couple of mistakes, then you’ll have learned something. Taking on hard challenges if how we grow. 

It’s little wonder, then, that Google adopted “moonshot thinking” as part of its Project X approach to developing new products. They’re currently working on self-driving cars and balloon powered Internet. Are these things impossible? I’m sure that even a few years ago to working 3D photographic maps of the whole world were impossible, but we use them every day – and we have them for Mars and the Moon as well. 

Moonshot thinking in action – climbing the “unclimbable” Dawn Wall of El Capitan

 Climbers Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell remind us that, if you set your mind to it, anything is possible. Eight years of planning and nineteen days of climbing saw them ascend the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in January 2015 using nothing but their fingers and feet to climb with.

The pair suffered bruising falls, when their grip slipped, and they would bounce off the mountain face. Only their safety ropes saved them from further harm. At one point on the climb, Jorgeson had posted online: “As disappointing as this is, I’m learning new levels of patience, perseverance and desire. I’m not giving up. I will rest. I will try again. I will succeed.”

If you set your mind to it, you can accomplish incredible things – things that we don’t currently believe are possible. What will you achieve?