Alright, cards on the table, I don’t have a literal elixir of immortality.
But the category of old is more than just wrinkled skin and receding hairlines. It includes behaviors and beliefs that we commonly ascribe to the process of aging.
None of us want to be a stereotype of advancing age in which we become stubborn and stuck in our ways, closed off to new ideas and experiences.
We all fear that one day we will become just as confused by new technology as our grandparents are.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, as they say.
The key to a youthful mindset seems to be the ability to learn new ideas, skills, and perspectives, even as your birthdays pass you by.
Many people describe the solution to this problem as, “keeping an open mind.”
Unfortunately, this does nothing to instruct us in how we go about keeping an open mind.
So, what is it that causes us to grow more close-minded in the first place?
Well, as with most things, it would be an over-simplification to attribute the change to just one factor. I could talk about identity, the sunk-cost fallacy, our instincts for consistency, and more.
Instead, I want to focus on what I believe is the primary factor that causes close-mindedness.
Now, I’m not going to launch into a speech on pessimism or the cruelty of life here. I don’t think, as some people do, that experience inherently breeds disappointment, suffering, and a hardening of our childlike innocence.
The issue here isn’t steadily growing cynicism.
As we have more experiences, going about our lives for more and more years, we collect an increasing amount of information. We use this information to inform our future decisions.
As we take on more information, our internal ‘Handbook of Life’ becomes larger and larger. More pages are added, with reference numbers, interlocking ideas, and even contradictory sub-rules.
We essentially become the walking embodiment of Da Rulez from Fairly Odd Parents (a comically complex and confusing magical rulebook, for those unfamiliar with the show).
The problem is that as something becomes more complex, it becomes more difficult to change.
Think of a skyscraper.
While it’s just a sketch, it’s pretty easy to make changes and adjustments.
In the blueprint stage, it’s a bit tougher, requiring a bit of redrawing.
It becomes yet more difficult during construction, as the bits above the change have to be taken down and rebuilt.
Finally, it becomes almost impossible to make structural changes once the building is complete. In this state, the entire building must be closed down for weeks or months before even minor alterations can be made.
This is the progression from simple to complex — fluid to solid.
This phenomenon occurs in business as well.
Small businesses are known for being flexible — able to pivot at a moment’s notice.
Massive mega-corporations, however, have trouble making even small changes to their systems or products. They have thousands of employees to retrain, billions in bookkeeping to rebalance, and delicate supply chains to renegotiate.
This rule is no less true when it comes to the structure of ourselves. As our experiences pile one onto the other into an ever-growing mountain of knowledge and wisdom, we become increasingly complex creatures.
As children, on the other hand, we are remarkably simple. We know very little, do even less, and have barely any experience at all. Change is eminently easy in this state.
It’s so easy, it’s dangerous! This is why we constantly worry about our children getting the wrong impression from bad role models or traumatic experiences.
The child is an empty vessel, ready to be filled with experiences. The elder is an overflowing vessel that can‘t fit another drop.
Is it even desirable to be simpler and more changeable?
Think back to our examples from earlier.
First, the skyscraper. We don’t want buildings to be very changeable. We need them to stand tall and firm against all attempts to change them. The more resistant to alteration they are, the better we consider them to be.
When it comes to businesses, on the other hand, adaptability is necessary. If a company isn’t able to shift and pivot as the market changes, it will inevitably die.
So, it would seem that, as with most things, a balance must be struck.
An individual must maintain a certain degree of consistency in their beliefs and actions to continue living.
They must also be adaptable to new circumstances and willing to take new positions when justly prompted to do so.
The key is to keep your ideas and opinions simple yet firm. Plant your feet in a few core principles and let those guide you in the many complexities of life.
In doing this, you can remain reliable yet open-minded, even as you begin to gray.