There’s a chance you could become a multi-millionaire after repeatedly slamming your head into other people and suffering through the resulting mini-concussions and minor brain damage, but not everyone can be a professional football player in the NFL. There’s a safer and less harmful path toward financial independence.
Cognitive ability is an important part of your human capital, and your human capital measures, among other things, how likely you’ll be able to support yourself financially, particularly through difficult economic times. Cognitive ability is important because many jobs requiring intricate skills and the best careers that offer opportunities for advancement require the ability to learn and adapt, and that’s the core of cognition.
The ability for the brain to process information changes throughout one’s lifetime, and without stimulation, cognitive ability can decline. When companies like Google or SAS ask puzzling interview questions, they’re testing, among other things, cognitive ability. To be hired as a software engineer, you would need to show that you have a strong command of whatever primary programming language is popular at the time, but in an industry that changes so quickly, strong cognitive ability will show that you can learn and adapt to the changing environment.
The key is instilling cognitive ability in children at an early enough age. As we get older, we can continue to refine cognitive ability, but only to a small extent. These tactics may no longer work for me; the best adults can generally do to keep cognitive skills sharp is to get enough sleep and exercise, and eat nutritious food.
If you’re interested in helping your child prepare for a life full of challenges, there are some tactics you can employ.
Learning a new language
As a child, I enjoyed learning languages. I never became fluent in anything other than English, but I enjoyed the process of learning the rules. As a kid, I was fascinated by languages, and spent time learning a little bit of as many as possible. Like many kids, I learned a little Spanish from Sesame Street. I learned Hebrew and tried to teach myself Yiddish. I studied Latin in middle school, was taken out of usual classes to study Greek independently, and took five years of German. I learned programming languages like BASIC, Pascal, lisp, and C. And as a younger kid, I dabbled with creating my own languages and codes.
Music and mathematics have features in common with languages, as well. Music, particularly learning to play an instrument instead of just listening to Mozart, has been shown to improve cognitive ability.
As an adult, learning a new language or a musical instrument is a time-consuming task. There are programs that help frequent travelers learn languages quickly, but you could get a bigger cognitive benefit by learning a language through a more academic curriculum or through immersion. Rather than focusing on key phrases that help you get by in a foreign land, incorporating a new language into the way you think can help keep your brain active. On the other hand, young children, even those learning their first language or languages, can often learn multiple languages concurrently without being confused. Language skills not only improve cognitive ability, but they can make someone a more marketable employee around the world or increase the chance of international success in their own businesses.
Elementary school is a great time to focus on solving puzzles whose solutions require thinking “outside the box.” I seem to remember this being called “lateral thinking” when I was younger, but I don’t know if that term is widely used today. These are the types of puzzles that stymie job applicants at companies like Google. But puzzle solving as an adult won’t have the same impact as puzzle solving when the brain is at its most impressionable.
- Logic puzzles are kind of like the game Clue. You often have two or more dimensions to work with, and the goal is to pair each of the dimensions together based on a limited number of clues. A grid helps eliminate incorrect pairings to discover what’s correct. The more dimensions included in the puzzle, the more brain power necessary to solve the puzzle.
- For a child, a Rubik’s Cube can be an engaging puzzle. While the answer now comes packaged with the toy, and there are numerous Youtube videos describing how to solve the puzzle in about twenty moves, the cognitive challenge is in working to find patterns of movement that move closer to the result.
- Text adventure games open up a child’s mind to being able to control their environment. Video games have changed since I was a kid, but I enjoyed the early text adventure computer games like Scott Adams’ Adventureland. (Classic game lovers can play Adventureland here.)
Reading and writing
Reading and writing help develop important cognitive skills focused on processing information the same way they’ll need to make sense of problems as adults. Writing, particularly creative writing, improves the command of language and can help children find clarity when expressing their ideas. Writing is a skill that will easily set someone apart from the competition, as might be necessary in tough job markets. I’ve personally seen atrocious written communication among co-workers throughout the many jobs I’ve had. I will never say I’m a great writer, but these skills are lacking in my former non-profit and corporate environments.
When I compose a well-worded communication, the supervisors shouldn’t be surprised. Every employee with a college education should be able to express himself or herself somewhat eloquently.
These cognitive skills nurtured at an early age can help prepare children for financial success in life. The best careers need smart and flexible employees to take on unforeseen challenges. People often predict what the hottest careers may be one generation from now, but the specific opportunities are irrelevant if children are prepared today to handle any problem that presents itself.
What did you do as a child to improve your cognitive ability? If you have children, how are you helping them prepare for the future?
Photo: Don Wright
Published or updated January 26, 2012.