Mental Walks and Marathons

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On a recent morning, I surpassed my previous Wordle win streak with my 63rd consecutive win.

My recent Wordle streak of 63 games.

Wordle is part of my morning metal warm-up routine. When I wake up, usually between 5 and 6 am depending on the time of year, the first thing I do is tackle the day’s puzzles: the New York Times mini crossword, which I try to solve as fast as I can. (My personal record is 35 seconds), then Wordle, and more recently, the daily Connections puzzle. I think of these exercises as a good way to wake up my brain, in the same way that my morning walk helps to wake up my body. Moreover, with all that is being written about “second brains” (including some of my own writing about Evernote and Obsidian), I find myself wanting exercise my “first” brain more and more while I still can.

In centuries past, memorization was a primary mental exercise. Time and technology has eroded this–the whole purpose of a “second brain” is to store stuff outside your head. For a long time, I was skeptical of the usefulness of rote memorization. What purpose does it serve to memorize the state capitals for instance? In my personal and professional life, I’ve never needed to pull a state capital out of my memory. And yet, I’ve become convinced that there is value in memorization as a simple function of mental exercise. Clive Thompson recently wrote about this in the context of memorizing poems.

As it happens, the two biggest workouts I give my brain each day are split between my avocation and vocation. I think of the former as a form of mental walks and the latter as mental marathons.

Mental walks

Reading and writing is my avocation. I see the activities as mental versions of walks. I can take shorts walks or long walks, and I frequently walk multiple times in the day. The same is true with my reading. I get through about 100 books a year, which is about a book every 3 days. In doing this, I try more and more to maintain a diverse mix of subjects in my reading. I’ve illustrated this for the 69 books I’ve read so far this year in the word cloud below. The words are taken from my descriptions of the subjects of the books that I read that I keep in a spreadsheet.

Word cloud of subjects for the books I've read so far in 2023.
Word cloud of subjects for the books I’ve read so far in 2023.

In addition to books, I try to read a feature article each day from the magazines that I subscribe to. To take some of the decision fatigue out of my day, I’ve written a script that emails me a random article title from the list of current magazines I have. That adds a little bit mystery to the day as well.

I can read for hours on end without feeling tired. I can also sit down and read an article for fifteen minutes and feel refreshed. It is my mental version of taking a walk.

Mental marathons

In my day job, I lead software projects. In doing this work, I find intellectual challenges in managing projects, in working on the design and architecture of the software, and also, in diving into the various types of code (.net, SQL, Groovy, JavaScript, Wolfram Language, to name a few). Then there is the challenge of problem-solving. I’ve written before of long days spent writing code, and coming out of this “code coma” at the end of the day, feeling mentally exhausted. For me, this type of the work is the equivalent of a mental marathon. I can rarely sustain this beyond a day, and if I try to do the same thing the following day, things start to go downhill quickly.

If I could have a superpower…

When the kids ask, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” I know they are thinking about things like flying, or turning invisible, or being able to teleport anywhere in the world. But for years now, my answer has been the same: “I wish I could have John von Neumann’s mind.” I’m always impressed by incredibly intelligent people. I wish that I had a superpower like that. In some ways, it is like wishing to be a great baseball player or soccer star, with all of the native skill that comes with the role. Mental walks and marathon are how I train for a goal that I will probably never achieve, but that I keep striving for.

It is hard to objectively judge the result of this these walks and marathons. But there are some things that I have noticed over the years that may be a result of these workout. Most noticeable, to me, is an ability to draw connections between the various things that I have read over the years. If I am talking about a book or article with someone, it almost always reminds me of some other book or article I’ve read, with some connective tissue, however tenuous, between them. This wasn’t always the case. It seems to me that at some point in my reading, I hit a “critical mass” after which these connections started becoming more frequent and obvious. I can’t say precisely when this was, but I think it was sometime in the early 2010s, after I’d been maintaining my reading list for 15 years or so–probably around the time I read my 500th book since 1996.

I’ve felt results in my day job as well. It seems to me that my ability to see more quickly into the underlying cause of some problem, or to see creative solutions where I may not have seen them in the past. What is hard to say is if this is due to the mental workouts, or to experience gathered over decades of working with computers and software.

Meanwhile, my Wordle streak continues.

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