Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Whose Cubicle Is It?

The New York Times website was down last week forcing East Coast wannabes to find other sources of brain candy to start their days.  One thing that popped up was a brief profile of serial innovator and serial disrupter Elon Musk who has taken on banking, electric cars, rocketry and a couple of other industries.  Musk is interesting because he is not an expert at any one thing and perhaps his lack of deep expertise keeps him from being a prisoner of the conventional wisdom about most things.


Musk is also a controversial figure, but perhaps his example raises a few questions for us all about how we can avoid being prisoners of the conventional wisdom.


Here are a few:

  1. How many of us routinely get out of our comfort zone a try something new? In addition to being fun and challenging novelty helps us keep growing new brain cells and connections as we age.
  2. How often do you do things without your smartphone, GPS device, tablet, heart rate monitor or some other electronic gizmo?  Many techie execs are sending their kids to electronic free schools.  Is there something they know that the rest of us don’t?  Does every human activity including working out require tracking?
  3. If your work world is a part of a passive Dilbert style cubicle culture are you simply giving in or doing something different?  There is actually a lot of research on workplace culture and (no surprise here) those who work for supportive organizations and managers do better and it is possible to make your workplace more creative.
  4. When was the last time you gave a presentation without Power Point?   A lot of discussion is taking place about how power point and the internet are shaping cognition.  There is probably not a lot we can do about this except beware of the risk and get out of the box and avoid power point once in awhile.   Old time track and field athletes and swimmers routinely complain that “the kids can’t do math in their head anymore” because they did not grow up calculating splits off an analog stop watch.  Ask a younger person how many phone numbers they have memorized and the answer is who cares I have them on my speed dial.   Will anyone be able to give or follow verbal directions to a restaurant in the age of GPS?
  5. Everyone is yapping about strength training and high intensity training.   When was the last time you did pushups, sit-ups, burpees, or jumped rope?   It is always interesting to look at basic military fitness standards and see how you compare.  Talk is cheap, pushups are free.
  6. How many of us are afraid to ask questions about or provide input on things where we have little or no expertise?  A lot of times experts become experts by mastering what is known and not what is unknown.  They then work in an environment that reinforces their expertise and prevents them from seeking a broader perspective or wider solutions.  It can be intimidating to challenge a self-assured expert, but in fields like medicine about 30-40% of the facts behind the expertise are proven wrong or at least subject to serious challenge and revision every 10 years or so.   What would Elon Musk do in the face of that much uncertainly masquerading as truth or expertise?


Not everyone can start building electric cars or shooting rockets into space.  However, most of us can spend a few minutes every day or perhaps a few hours every week doing something different and taking a few chances.   We can also spend at least some time untethered to the electronic environment.  Do this routinely and the odds are you will get smarter, healthier, enjoy your work more, and perhaps make a few discoveries along the way.


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