I fail, frequently and enthusiastically. When I stopped embarrassing myself as a competitive swimmer, I started failing as a triathlete—and as a rock climber, snowboarder, and mountain biker.
Several years ago, while not struggling as a senior editor at Outside and stumbling along as a novice skier, I pitched an idea that became our first Zero to Hero package. The idea: Take writers who define themselves, at least in part, as experts at some Outside pursuit and force them to become complete beginners in something else. We were big at dishing out advice on how to get started in various active pursuits, but we spent our free time excelling at things we’d done since we were kids. I wanted to see what would happen if we turned a bunch of alphas into Lambda Lambda Lambdas.
So we sent a guy with no skateboarding experience off to camp to master the half pipe. Associate managing editor Ali Troxell tried the same on a snowboard. Research editor Ryan Krogh did what any North Dakota native would do if he found himself living in New Mexico without a girlfriend: He volunteered to fight in a cage match. Totally won the first two rounds before getting taken out in the third.
Associate editor/professional photographer/expedition kayaker/world-class skier/master hunter Grayson Schaffer, who gets the whole polymath thing but somehow seems to skip the failing part every time, traveled to Mississippi to learn how to train dogs. (He’s now an expert. And a senior editor. We hate that guy.)
It was all good fun, but an expanding body of research suggests that we were onto something more important than face-plants: Growth doesn’t happen in the comfort zone. And while we’ve long known the physical benefits of changing up our workouts (see: cross-training, plyometrics, CrossFit), we’re increasingly finding out that just as “muscle confusion” delivers a better body, actual confusion builds a better brain.
A 2013 study at the University of Texas at Dallas bore this out. Researchers divided 221 subjects between the ages of 60 and 90 into three groups. The first group was tasked with learning new skills: digital photography, quilting, or both—activities chosen because they involve high-level thinking and long- and short-term memory. The second group was assigned stimulating hobbies with which they were already familiar, in this case doing crossword puzzles or listening to classical music. The third group was asked to participate in social activities like field trips.
You can guess where this is going. After three months, the first group showed a greater overall improvement in memory than the other two.
“The change was significant, about half a standard deviation,” says neuroscientist Denise Park, PhD, who led the study and is a specialist in the mechanisms of age-related cognitive decline. “I don’t want to oversell the results, but they were meaningful.”
The question is whether the members of the first group physically altered their brains or, by virtue of solving new problems, developed strategies that made them better at the memory tests. Park is hoping subsequent studies using MRIs to map neural connections will answer that. But for now, she’s guessing it’s the former. “They were still better even a year out, which would suggest that something changed physically,” Park says.
When a new skill starts to feel less awkward, it’s because repetition has made the brain better at connecting the different regions involved in completing the task. Scientists are discovering that repeated signals along new paths spur the brain to product more myelin, a fatty substance that, in basic terms, speeds up the signals between neurons. The more novel and complex the skill, the more regions get activated and the more myelin is produced.
Bonus if it also makes you sweat.
While research like Park’s is still fairly new, multiple studies have established the connection between exercise and healthier brains. So the question is whether the combination of physical activity and complicated skills would provide an extra kick. “Does the addition of a high cognitive load in something like rock climbing—which involves special skills, geometric problem solving, mathematical calculations, constant risk-reward evaluations—have extra benefits for the brain?” Park says. “I don’t think we know that yet, but I suspect that it would.”
So: Complexity, physical exertion, and novelty. If you’re a great skier, more skiing isn’t going to deliver as much of a cognitive boost as taking up kayaking or spending weekends falling on your ass at the skate park (assuming you don’t know how to kayak or skate).
But that falling-on-your-ass part can really get in the way.
If you pride yourself on your ability to on-sight a 5.12 or rip technical singletrack, you know how things are supposed to work. Even if you’ve never surfed, you appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a good bottom turn. The flip side: Bad form hurts your soul—especially if you’re the one struggling. So when you paddle out for your first surf class and flail just as horribly as that accountant from Des Moines who’s never heard of Kelly Slater, the temptation to quit and go for a bike ride will be strong.
Don’t give in. Paddle back out there and embrace the fail.