Mental Resources: How Successful People Stay “Sharp”

Those who have been lucky enough to experience clear and consistent success throughout their careers, may not actually have “luck” to thank after all. Professional victories and accomplishments must be accompanied by quick wit, creativity, follow-through, and exceptional decision-making abilities; which, of course, require a steady plane of superlative mental capacity. Yet, for most successful people who wish to maintain a sharp intellect, certain physiological factors must be in order.

Mental Resources - Lightbulb on Chalkboard


Science Behind the Facts

There is an opportunity, every single day, to learn something new; failure to take advantage of that means that the day was wasted.  What some people refer to as status quo, other’s recognize as stagnation.

The whole objective, if we’re being honest, for the existence of life is to grow.  In the grand scheme of things, the universe tends towards greater disorder—something which is known as entropy—ending up with everything in the Universe being in the lowest energy state possible.  Life, although ultimately destined to increase entropy seems, for a brief span, to defy it by taking disordered random substances and creating higher order matter, such as cells and “intelligence”.

Those with a more philosophical leaning may describe the existence of life as an attempt by the Universe to understand its own purpose.  That is potentially profound, as well as interesting (and you just learned something).


Reduce your negative stress

The body ordinarily uses inflammation to fight off invaders by increasing blood flow, to allow repair mechanisms better access.  This is why there is always a small, reddish circle surrounding an injury, and why swelling takes place until the lymphatic system carries away wastes.

However, did you know that high levels of stress cause increased brain inflammation?  Reportedly, this can cause a weakening of the neural connections for memories, and can make it more difficult to create new ones.

Try meditating for a few minutes when your stress levels are high; go for a quick walk around the block; at the very least, stand up and walk away from the computer screen periodically.

Limit sugar intake

study was recently conducted to ascertain the effects of blood glucose-levels on memory performance.  Two groups were created: One with relatively high blood sugar; the other with normal or slightly lower than average.  They were all asked to memorize a list of 15 words, and then recite them after 30 minutes had passed.  The high blood sugar group recalled 13—28% fewer words than the “normal” group.

We know that our North American diet has far too much sugar in it already.  Now we know that it’s not only making us overweight, but that it is affecting our intelligence, too.  If you’re reasonably conscientious about avoiding sugar and develop a preference for carbohydrates with a low-glycemic index, you will be doing your memory and thought processes a great big favor.


When you are “foggy” from lack of sleep you’re not doing yourself or your company any favors.  It sabotages your ability to remember, to solve problems, and even to learn new things.  You think slower, handle emotions poorly (too much or too little), and in one recent study there was pretty clear evidence that after 19 hours without sleep, mental performance was equal to or worse than a blood alcohol content of 0.05.

Depending on your personal physiology, you need between seven and nine hours of sleep daily.  Being young may allow you to cope with the stress for a few days, but there will be a cost, and you will pay the price.

Don’t smoke

It hardly needs to be said nowadays, since all but 16.8% of us have given up the habit, but carbon monoxide and oxygen deprivation are a significant burden on mental faculties.

If you’re a holdout, however, there are highly effective drug therapies such as bupropion hydrochloride which allows you to temporarily keep smoking.  After a week or two you start to lose interest in smoking and after three weeks you can stop with practically no cravings.  Using the lowest dose nicotine patch for a couple of additional weeks solves even that problem, and then you’re free.

Of course, the benefits of ceasing a smoking habit are endless; both personally, and physiologically.

Mental Resources - Textbook with black-rimmed glasses


Learn a new skill

Learning a new language is a stunningly effective way to increase the neuroplasticity of your brain.  Unlike learning a language as a child, learning a new language as an adult involves large areas of the brain outside of the language center.  Adult learning is a “horse of a different color”, and it doesn’t need to be confined to languages to be beneficial.

Buy a guitar, a saxophone, a piano, or a tin flute—the choice doesn’t matter as long as you’re interested in it—and learn to play it well.  Make it a point to read a new book every week, or start writing a novel.  One of the primary therapies for rehabilitation after a stroke is to play the game Tetris™, which significantly shortens recovery time and enhances the outcome.

Teach a new skill

As we all know, there’s no better way to learn than by trying to teach something to another person.  Consider the example of a science teacher “boiling water” in a vacuum bell jar as a demonstration.  After removing it from the contraption he picked it up and offered it to some students to see if they were willing to put their finger in the recently boiling water.  There were no volunteers.

As class ended, one student quietly spoke up, and said “If you wish to maintain the illusion that the water is hot, you should use tongs to pick it up, rather than your bare hand”.

“Ah, yes.  I hadn’t thought about that!” he said.  “Thank you.”

Cultivate friends

Nothing keeps you on track like having to explain to a friend or coworker why you gave up on your goal. Better yet, when you have troubles, you can talk to those in your inner circle for a broader perspective, helpful suggestions, or simply for emotional support.

Get some exercise

If you bought a treadmill three years ago (now dusty and still sitting in your garage), friends can also be useful to inspire you meet fitness goals.  A jogging buddy or squash partner can be a real inspiration, with the added benefit that virtually any form of exercise, in any quantity, enhances your brain’s acuity and function.

If you can’t make the time, new data suggests that doing something intense for 20 seconds, three times within a 10 minute period can actually be equivalent to 45 minutes of physical activity.  If you’re unsure, consult with your physician to decide upon a suitable exercise plan.

Seek out low-key conflict

Go on YouTube and watch a video containing commentary which defies one of your cherished beliefs or absolute certainties (“The Moon Landings were a Hollywood Stunt”; “The Earth is Flat”; or any example applicable to your own propensities).  Perhaps, try reading an article written by, or involving, a politician with whom you disagree, or whose ideas you do not respect.

What benefit could this possibly have, you ask? It can actually stimulate your thought-process by compelling you to identify the fallacies in the argument.  Better yet, it persists for quite a while after viewing, making you a more effective and insightful thinker.

Mental Resources - IDEA written on pad with pen


The Takeaway

Within the last decade or two, we have become increasingly dependent on PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), smart phones, GPS navigation tools and other memory replacements.  Nowadays, most people don’t know their parents’ or siblings’ home phone number.  If they lost their Smartphone, it’s possible the only number they could recall would be 911…

Worse yet, we used to be able to drive to a distant location, halfway across the city, without consulting a map.  Now we use GPS so consistently that to get to a pizza shop five blocks away, with two turns en route, without our technology we make at least one wrong turn on the way.

Technology is a convenience, but it shouldn’t be a replacement.  Memory, and the general functioning of our minds, strongly resembles muscles.  They atrophy and fail when they’re not exercised.

It has never been more relevant or true: Use it… or lose it! Your future (successful) self will thank you.

Further Reading:  How Successful People Find Balance and Fulfillment


Fred Coon, CEO

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