Use It or Lose It: a Terrifying Concept for Multipotentialites?

Use It or Lose It: a Terrifying Concept for Multipotentialites?

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Learning

In the last few years I’ve developed a much better exercise habit.

But it’s not a consistent habit. There are times when I stay disciplined and push myself for months on end. And then there are the weeks when energy and discipline are harder to come by, and I let it slide.

After one of these undisciplined times, I’m always amazed at how difficult it is to get back into the swing of exercise. Just a few days of laziness and my body apparently regresses, like a chubby elastic band snapping back into place.

Luckily, it works both ways: a few days of exercise and I snap back quicker than last time.

It seems that, when it comes to muscle, the old saying is true: use it or lose it.

But… That’s True For Everything

Our brains work on similar principles to the rest of our bodies, optimizing themselves to be better at whatever we’re currently making them do.

This is great for learning new things, but it’s terrible for holding onto the things we already know.

Anyone who’s learned another language will recognise that feeling of mental rustiness when you haven’t used it in a while: I know I know this word, but I can’t think what it is

It feels like the brain connections for switching between languages fade, without frequently refreshing them.

And this is true of all knowledge. My degree was in physics, so there was a time when you could throw a bunch of partial differential equations at me and I’d merrily solve them and be on my way.

Of course, I might be slightly aggrieved you were making me solve equations for no reason – but I could have managed it.

Today, some years later, it’s not quite so easy. The skill is buried a little deeper in my brain than it once was.

Is This Bad for Multipods?!

For multipotentialites, this might seem like terrible news, as if our brains are optimised for using the same knowledge over and over, honing abilities in one or two particular areas.

How are you supposed to maintain diverse skills in crafts, programming, dancing, languages, history and cookery all at once, if they fade if you don’t keep regularly using them?!

As I see it, there are only two options:

Option One: A Complex Series of Optimal Skill Refreshment

In theory, I could design a routine to keep all of my skills perfectly topped up. Maybe I’d practice languages for a few minutes each day, maths and programming for a few hours a week, exercise regularly, plus build in time for whatever other skills I want to keep fresh.

Oh, and at some point I’d need to work and stay on top of all the necessary life admin, too.

Or…

Option Two: The Ancient Art of Just Not Worrying About It

… I could just accept that this is simply how humans work.

My natural temptation is to beat myself up for daring to forget things. Part of me apparently believes I’m a failure if I can’t constantly do everything I was once able to do.

But I can’t be at peak performance in every discipline, all the time.

(The very definition of “peak” performance is a hint – it’s something we achieve only with great effort.)

I’m not making excuses for failure. I’m just choosing not to pick a fight with reality over this. Especially since…

There Is Also Some Good News

My inexpert understanding of neuroscience is that our brains don’t exactly delete information we haven’t been using. It’s just that the connection to the information becomes trickier to access.

In other words, once we pick something back up, there’s an initial period of rustiness, and then things suddenly click into place as the connections reform.

This chimes with my experience, in both physical exercise and mental work like languages. Those foreign words aren’t entirely forgotten, they just need unpacking from storage. Or, if you prefer, having built the muscle once, it’s much easier to rebuild it next time.

Not only is there no point getting upset about inevitable skill depletion – in reality, it’s not as bad as it sounds. We don’t exactly slip back to zero. If there are skills we want to keep fresh, we just need to occasionally brush the rust off and keep those connections fresh.

Your Turn

How do you maintain old skills and interests? Or do you just let them fade and move to the next thing? Share your thoughts with the community!

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

25 Comments

  1. Yeah, this is a great take on a classic problem! I’ve also wrestled with these two options, Neil. My training is in music (I’m a trumpet player), but I work in a different field now. I’ve vacillated between “not worrying about it” and trying to stay in tip-top shape, and I’ve settled on something in the middle: I practice every day, without exception, but often only for only 5-10 minutes. This is just long enough to keep music a part of my life without requiring much time.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks for sharing such a perfect example, Jonathan! It’s NOT about the fact that you are keeping up your skills (which is obviously good, of course!), it’s about the fact you thought about it and came to a solution which works for YOU. For some people, perhaps it’d be okay to let the trumpet slide, for you, this is the happy solution :) and I’m glad you found it!

  2. Silvia says:

    I have made the same experience of unpacking / rebuilding in different areas: horse-riding and playing the bassoon. You do get rusty, but then it needs a lot less effort to get at a comparable (or in my case rather satisfying level). And I completely agree with Jonathan: 10 minutes of practice even for just a few times a week of playing the bassoon keeps me ready to participate in any project I might be offered at short notice. And even if I can’t keep this up, I know how to get into shape again in a few weeks (this knowledge /confidence keeps me from getting frustrated).

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yes, exactly! You can be confident in your ability to pick it back up again, should you need to. I also like that you pointed out the “satisfying” level you’ve reached – that’s what it’s all about, and everyone’s satisfaction will be at a different level :)

  3. A. Julie says:

    Haha, yes, I played piano for years and now my left hand is stupid.

    I’m learning a new program will be professionally useful… and feel much better about it when I slog for half an hour each day, so as to keep and build what I have.

    Ditto yoga… I’m better off showing up almost every day, even if some days I know I’m going to half ass it and get a good stretch more than a good burn.

    My ceramic knowledge is rusty. There is so much in there, I accessed for years.

    It’s been three and a half years since the end of grad school. It hurts to see my art and theory knowledge fading… I feel like I’m getting stupider, to be honest.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      “My left hand is stupid” made me laugh. I feel the same – I still play piano, but I’m sure my teacher would incinerate me if she saw my ‘technique’ these days :O but it’s okay, because it does what I want to do: have fun, release emotion, and occasionally bang out a few tunes for people’s entertainment :)

      Sounds like you’ve found a good balance between discipline and relaxation – letting things slide, but also recognising when you have to keep pushing, like with yoga. And I doubt you’re getting stupider – I’m sure you’re just keeping other things closer to the front of your brain. All those other facts are back there somewhere :)

  4. Theo says:

    This is all too familiar to me! I studied French, Russian and Spanish at school and became pretty fluent in all three. Then at uni I dropped the French and Russian and took up Portuguese. 10 years later, my French is pretty rusty and my Russian is all but forgotten. BUT I do know that I can get them back if I want to! I know this because after studying abroad in Brazil and dating a Brazilian for a couple of years, my Portuguese was excellent but my Spanish was getting ropey. I moved to El Salvador for a year and although I did get tongue tied for a few weeks I eventually got back to my normal level of fluency, probably even more fluent. I then moved to Brazil and experienced pretty much the same thing, this time in Portuguese! Now, I’m sure I will have the same kind of experience if I go back to live in a Spanish speaking country. But I don’t worry so much any more because I know that although there will be a period of transition, those skills are still tucked away somewhere at the back of my mind and ready to spring into action when I need them. It just takes a bit of adjustment. The fear of ‘forgetting’ used to hold me back from taking up other languages but now I’m studying Italian because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It would be a shame to lose or forget old skills but at the same time it’s a waste to forfeit new ones just out of fear or a feeling of obligation to keep up what you had before.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I love this comment so much, Theo, it’s EXACTLY what I was thinking about as I wrote the post! I’ve had the same experience of going back to countries and feeling the language return as my brain reactivates those rusty parts. Thank you so much for sharing :)

  5. Claire Nyles says:

    Here’s something I learned from my psych degree, that may be interesting for folks when you are brushing up on old skills (or learning new ones!):

    The best way to study a piece of info, vocab word, etc. is to recall it, i.e., pull it back from memory. This strengthens the neural pathway you need to remember it next time, much more than re-reading your notes, which only strengthens the neural pathway you used to learn it. If you picture your memory as a box with some roads going in and out, you want to focus on strengthening the “out” path.

    So if you can’t remember a vocab word from another language, it’s good to look it up — but then make sure you practice just thinking of it, recalling it, several times over the next day or so. It’ll flow out of your head much easier next time you need to use it!

    TL;DR flashcards are better than reading over notes.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ooh, great tip, thanks Claire. I love reading about neuroscience… I think having even a basic understanding of how memory works is so helpful when considering how to handle the inevitability of forgetting things :)

  6. Sienna says:

    I worry about this ALL THE TIME. In fact it gets to the point where I worry that if I let something slide for long enough, I won’t WANT to pick it up by the time there is room in my life to pick it up again. (Of course, logically, if I end up the sort of person who doesn’t want to pursue X or Y skill anymore, then it won’t be sad then, because hypothetical future me won’t care. But me now cares. It’s very confusing!)

    But I am also comforted by the fact that it does, indeed, seem that skills reconnect with a little extra effort. I hadn’t done any illustration for over half a year until I did some work for the Puttycomp comic, and it only took one or two tries to arrive at something with the quality of my earlier work. (I do wonder at how much you need to have a skill already ingrained before that elasticity comes into play, though… if you dabble in something but don’t master any aspect of it, will the dabbling remain in the brain?)

    Thanks for giving me something to mull over this morning!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Happy to have contributed to some mulling! I love that I was about to say “logically if you don’t want to pursue it, that’s not a problem” but you beat me to it :p

  7. J'aime says:

    This is such a tough one, and if the skill has a physical component like exercise or playing an instrument (guitar calluses or embouchure muscles for a wind instrument) it is doubly tough. I am still working out a balance between doing a little bit of practice “often enough” and just not worrying about it.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Exactly, j’aime (is that a play in the name? if so, I love it!) – and you’re right about the physical side being an additional challenge. Hope you find a balance which makes you happiest :)

  8. Dale says:

    I found this a fascinating article and very pertinent to my life. I am a writer and writing teacher by profession. But I started out as a linguist (I speak French and Spanish and some Italian) and language teacher. I also play piano and guitar and have written a number of songs. Recently, when I needed to perform a piece of music on the guitar I picked up my Martin, and my fingers were so stiff around the frets (not to speak of no longer having any callouses left) that I wondered if I would ever get back my ability. But, as you mentioned, it actually didn’t take that long (a couple of weeks) to get back to my usual playing. With languages I know from experience that they remain in your brain, if sometimes shoved a little to the back, and will re-emerge with use. In my life, I vacillate between being hyper involved in only one or two activities, and trying to keep them all up to at least a minimum degree.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thank you for sharing this, Dale – it’s always a relief to hear that others experience picking things back up relatively quickly, it means that those options ARE still open :)

  9. Janet says:

    I’ve never really thought about it this way. For example, I’ve not written poems consistently for almost a decade. I recently started again , but it wasn’t till some weeks ago that inspiration came back. However, now trying new ways of writing and exploring other forms. So maybe the key is to return to skills or talents from a new perspective in order to build on the skill. This time everytime one returns it will be new again. Guessing this would also increase the connection in the brain, since old memories would bring back the lost connections and then be rebuilt by the added focus and perspective. I think maybe DiVinci always returned to sculpting till he achieved it ( regardless if it was melted down due to war times ). I’m guessing working on skills through ones life, as one changes might bring more depth to ones goals.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This is interesting, Janet… I think you’re right that the new perspective on an old skill adds a huge amount, both to our abilities and to the ability to learn. Fascinating. Will have to think about this more :)

  10. Joshua says:

    It’s a tough situation, but it’s inevitable. I try as much as possible to review/practice skills I don’t want to loose yet, to keep them fresh.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      “Tough but inevitable” – I like that, as I’m trying to spend less time picking a fight with things that ARE inevitable. Might as well accept it and do my best :) The way you put it is pretty inspiring. Thanks Joshua!

  11. Cassaundra James says:

    Neil,

    I find the following use of language in your article interesting:

    “My natural temptation is to beat myself up for daring to forget things. Part of me apparently believes I’m a failure if I can’t constantly do everything I was once able to do.”

    and…

    “I’m not making excuses for failure. I’m just choosing not to pick a fight with reality over this.”

    The term “failure” was used.

    Why do we beat ourselves over the head with the term “failure” – labeling ourselves a “failure”…when we are falling into normal physical limitations as humans? I do this repeatedly.

    Oh…and there is the concept that only 24 hours exist in a day..

    And it may not be physical limitations. It may be about life choices, relationship choices, choosing to pursue something different.

    By not staying on an original “path” we consider ourselves a “failure”? By not being “perfect” or at the “top of our game” in everything…we are a failure?

    We sure inflict a tremendous amount of pressure and stress on ourselves!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Precisely, and thanks for highlighting this, Cassaundra :) it IS an unreasonable amount of pressure and stress – of course we can’t always be perfect, and we can’t transcend our physical limits either. It’s surprising how difficult it is to accept this, but I’m working on it…! :D

  12. Maryske says:

    I’ve been experiencing this lately with my languages, too. Having worked this past year in a non-English environment for the first time in years, it seems my active English vocabulary has shrunk considerably. I still have no trouble expressing myself, but my vocabulary seems to lack the variety I’m used to.
    At the same time, I’m doing my best to find a job in this country, which means I need to write my applications in Swedish. If I’d done so before the summer when I still had a (Swedish speaking) job, it wouldn’t have been a problem, for after 10 years in the country, I’m quite proficient in the language. Or at least I should be. But right now, it seems I simply don’t have enough exposure to the language to write (and speak) it fluently. Doubts about the grammar that I ought to be able to use without even thinking about it. I probably should get out more, get books from the library (and ignore the English section for a change) and have more regular contact with the natives.
    Additionally, I’ve noticed this shrinking of my active vocabulary happening for years already in my native language. Right now, it feels as if I’m not fluent in *any* of my five supposedly fluent languages…

    Fortunately, like Theo, I know by experience that it’s not really gone.

  13. April says:

    I’ve realized that there are things I tend to go back to in certain seasons (either literal or figurative). While I would love to keep up on every skill and interest all the time, it just isn’t feasible. So when I find myself feeling wistful for past creative/skillful times, or envious of others, I try to focus on the season I’m in instead. No season lasts forever!

  14. Nicole says:

    I think there’s a third option, that would be perfect for multipods: refreshing your skills in a slightly different way.

    As a kid untill I was 17 or 18, I played chess at quite a high level. After not playing for twenty years I didn’t feel like going back to studying all that stuff I knew I once knew well, so instead of taking up chess again I went to Go, an ancient Asian board game (weiqi in Chinese, Baduk in Korean). Turns out Go is much more fun than chess, and Go players are more fun than chess players :-).

    Similar thing happened with my musical skills: I played flute for thirty years, again at quite a high level, but for various reasons I stopped. Ten years later I tried picking it up again, but couldn’t physically. Then a friend suggested I try recorder (“blockflöte”), which is less physically demanding. Recorder is similar enough to flute so that I learn quickly, but different enough that it’s an interesting challenge without becoming discouraging.

    Right now I’m trying to do a similar thing in my work, but I haven’t found the right angle yet…

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