From Age to Achievement, it’s Mind Over Matter

I’m 40, that age at which the phrase “it sucks to get older” becomes a more frequent refrain. Aches and pains are more prevalent. You don’t bounce back quite so easily. You can’t do the same things you did in the “old days.”

Or can you?

Satchel Paige was one of the most overpowering and successful pitchers in baseball history. He pitched in the Negro leagues during the 1920s and 1930s, and finally got a chance to pitch in the major leagues in 1948 at the age of 42 after Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier. Despite his advanced age (in baseball terms), he remained a dominant pitcher well into his 40s, winning a World Series title with the Cleveland Indians and earning two All-Star Game selections. His last appearance in the majors was, remarkably, at the age of 59 for the Oakland Athletics – he pitched three shutout innings.

To Satchel Paige, age was clearly but a number. Pondering the issue of getting older, Paige famously asked, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”. He then answered his own question, explaining that “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

In so many ways, Satchel Paige defied his age and was ahead of his time. In fact, subsequent social psychology studies and research confirmed what Paige hit on long before: Age really is just a state of mind.

In the 1970s, renowned Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer set out to answer an age-old (pun intended) question: Is getting old an inevitability, or do we have the power to fight back? Put differently, while time machines and fountains of youth are fiction, is there a way to feel and act younger despite advancing age? The answer, Langer found, is emphatically “yes,” and the key resides in the human mind.

The Counterclockwise Study

Langer embarked on what would become known as the “Counterclockwise Study.” It consisted of two groups. First, a control group of older men who attended a retreat during which they “reminisced” about the past. The experimental group, on the other hand, spent a week in an environment surrounded by paraphernalia from 1959 – twenty years prior – while listening to radio shows and discussing news and events from the earlier era. They were instructed to only discuss events that occurred prior to 1959, and to refer to themselves as they were at that time.

The results were startling. By “acting as if” they were twenty years younger, members of the experimental group experienced significant improvements in attributes such as hearing, eyesight, memory and physical dexterity. For example, some who arrived using canes walked out under their own power while carrying their own suitcases.

Langer’s conclusion: A simple change in mindset had a dramatic physical and biological impact.

Thinking that we are old and frail or young and vibrant, therefore, can each be their own self-fulfilling prophecy.


The Implications of Mind Control

While the Counterclockwise Study is remarkable for what it revealed – that mental attitude can have such a significant impact over physical well-being – it also underscores the fact that we are firmly in control of our mental well-being as well. If the mind governs the body and its aging process, then it surely governs itself.

That’s significant because, for most of us, we face mental challenges far more frequently (daily for those of us who are not Buddhist monks) than we do physical challenges.

Feelings of inadequacy. Anxiety. Stress. Overwhelm. Hopelessness. Self-pity. Depression.

While we all face these challenges, how we deal with them is, to a great extent, determinative of our success, happiness and overall mental well-being. And how we deal with them is largely dependent on the habits of our minds.

Psychologists believe that people fall into two camps – those who have either an external or internal “locus of control.” These are not immutable characteristics. People can go from one camp to another.

Someone who has an external locus of control believes that factors outside of his control affect what happens in his life. He feels like he is a victim of his circumstances. He worries more about what others may think than what his heart and mind desires.

Someone who has an internal locus of control is not oblivious to outside factors, but she believes that she alone is responsible for the outcome of her life. She overcomes her circumstances rather than falling victim to them.

She doesn’t let the actions of others define her reality. She recognizes the criticism of others for what it is – weakness – and pushes forward relentlessly. She’s impacted, sure, but undeterred.

In his essential book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield distinguishes between “professionals” and “amateurs.” An amateur is someone who hopes and dreams, but never does. A professional “commits full-time.”

According to Pressfield, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” Resistance comes in many forms, and it’s omnipresent, but those who have an internal locus of control learn to overcome it.

Pressfield identifies criticism as one of the most powerful and pernicious forms of Resistance. He explains that those who succeed in pursuing their goals don’t need validation from others. In fact, they leverage criticism to their benefit. “The professional learns to recognize envy-driven criticism and to take it for what it is: the supreme compliment. The critic hates most that which he would have done himself if he had had the guts.”

The point is that, whatever you desire, the only thing that stands between you and your dream is your mind. The question we must all ask ourselves, therefore, is “What price am I willing to pay?”.

Successful entrepreneurs, renowned artists and champion athletes all pay a high price. Muhammad Ali, who passed away over the weekend, knew the cost of turning pro. According to Ali, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”

Yes, Ali was a gifted athlete. But it was his mental toughness that allowed him to rise to the top. He was willing to pay the price.

Each day I confront my own demons. I face off against the Resistance. Some days I win, others I don’t. I want to finish my new book, but get distracted by social media. I want to get up early to work out, but at times cannot leave the comfort of my bed. I want to cook and eat more healthy meals, but often choose convenience instead.

I get discouraged by how easily I succumb to the Resistance. I’m comforted, however, that each day presents a new opportunity to pay the price that I may not have been willing pay the day prior. I take solace in the fact that the obstacles I face are of my own construct, and thus are within my own power to overcome. Success, like failure, is a choice. Like age, it’s a state of mind. {tweet that}

Jay Harrington