Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Exercising Your Mind

I am confident that all professionals run into this problem at one time or another. They give what they know to be expert advice, advice that, given their understanding of the client's situation, is unimpeachable, only to find that said client is not prepared to follow it.

Whether a physician, a therapist, a lawyer, or a coach... anyone who is in the business of giving advice has often run into resistance, intransigence, or even downright defiance. And I am not talking about petulant teenagers who are flexing their independence muscles.

I hope it does not feel like too much of a tangent, but I have noticed that many people find it much easier to take offense than to take advice. In fact, one of the reasons that they cannot take advice is that they find it offensive that anyone would ever give them advice.

Perhaps the therapy culture has taught us to be quick to take offense. The offense may be trivial; the person giving it may be of no importance whatever; but many people believe that they are morally obligated to defend their sacred self-esteem in the face of any and all offenses.

Does it make them feel any better? For an instant, they might feel that they have gotten something off of their chests, but in the end they always arrive at the unhappy realization, the gut check, that tells them that they have overreacted. By trying to defend their honor they have made fools of themselves, thus have produced the opposite of the desired effect.

And yet they persist, doggedly, in defending themselves against any and all offenses, to their detriment.

You would not expect such people to be capable of taking advice. Lacking the requisite humility, they believe that anyone who is offering them advice is looking down on them, trying to make them emotionally dependent, and questioning their autonomy.

Instead of taking advice, they take offense.

By now everyone knows that exercise is a good thing, that it will make a positive contribution to your mental and physical health, and that, assuming that you have been cleared by a physician, it has very little downside. Your physician, your therapist, or your coach has undoubtedly told you to undertake an exercise regimen.

We might even say that this advice is all the more persuasive because said physician, therapist, or coach does not have a financial stake in exercise. He does have an interest in your well-being, so he recommends exercise. And he may even go further, cajoling you, begging you, pleading on bended knee for you to do some exercise.

Different people have different reasons for ignoring this advice. Some people suffer from the sin of sloth. They are contented with their laziness and have a visceral dislike of energetic exertion. Lately, they have been called couch potatoes. They spend their time lying about, watching television, and eating chips.

Of course, the world of psychotherapy has, for a century now, sent out the message that the road to mental health involved lying down on a couch. And it has also, lest we forget, told everyone that it was bad for a therapist to give advice.

More recent studies have suggested that if you have a choice between four hours on the couch and four hours at the gym, the latter will, perhaps ironically, be far more beneficial for both your mental and physical health.

Today I am more concerned with a different group, the best and the brightest, the most brilliant among us, people who work with their superior minds. And who therefore believe that physical exertion is beneath their dignity.

If ever you have dealings with a representative of this group, you will notice that when you recommend exercise, he or she looks at you as though your advice has seriously missed the mark. Do you not understand whom you are talking to? Do you not recognize their superior intellect? How can you be make such a mistake?

Such people do not necessarily argue with you. They do not bother to repudiate the advice. They simply pretend that it has no relevance to them. You can repeat it all you like; they will listen politely and ignore it.

Admittedly, a goodly number of our greatest thinkers have gotten the message. Some of them have been persuaded by the accumulation of scientific evidence. Others have been forced into it by their deteriorating health. And yet, there are still holdouts, a small subset of brilliant people who cannot wrap their minds around the fact that they need to do more exercise.

Some of them refuse because they feel that if they follow anyone's advice this will compromise their independent spirit and make them feel like slaves or automatons.

Others believe that since their minds are the instruments whereby they earn their living, they must engage in constant mental activity. For them going to the health club means giving up the mental exercise of reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, and playing Go.

It makes sense that they can improve their minds by playing mind games; it does not make any sense that they can improve their mental functioning by sweating on the Stairmaster.

I suspect that in some other part of their brilliant minds, they believe that physical exercise is for rubes and proles. If every idiot knows that exercise is good for you, well then, they will reply that they are not just any idiot. How dare you offer no-brainer advice to someone who has such manifestly superior brain power?

All of this to introduce an article that appeared today on the New York Times site. Link here. The article reports on research that has shown that exercise produces new brain cells. Once people acquire these new brain cells, they have can think better too.

Will this research impel the last holdouts to get themselves off the couch and into the gym? Will it persuade them that ignoring scientific research is really not a very smart thing to do? We can always hope...


Anonymous said...

In fact, one of the reasons that they cannot take advice is that they find it offensive that anyone would ever give them advice.

After years of relentless criticism by music directors, coaches and "leaders" who have proven they cannot compete at my level, I am nearly incapable of taking instruction or advice.

I take offense at "advice" because, with rare exceptions, most people are dishonestly offering offense as advice.

My first reaction to advice is usually "Go %^$# yourself." It's a learned response.


Anonymous said...

It is not lost on me that everyone who gave me career advice is out of work or passed over for promotion now.

Very nearly all the advice I've ever gotten in athletics, leadership, child raising, music, and investing was completely wrong, wrong, wrong.

Fortunately, I don't take advice well and I've not suffered as they have.