Why a midlife crisis is actually good for your brain

Companies are expected to innovate or pivot when growth slows or they face the threat

Companies are expected to innovate or pivot when growth slows or they face the threat of extinction. Disrupt or be disrupted. And after working at the intersection of beauty, fashion, and tech over the past 15 years, I have personally been steeped in the many forms innovation culture makes manifest. Whether you are optimizing for market share gains, needing to evolve your brand for greater relevance, or shifting your business model as technology accelerates the ways in which consumer needs change, the expectation in business is that you are always future-focused — or else you perish.

Yet the idea of re-engineering one’s personal life often feels like a foreign concept at worst, or the result of a mid-life crisis at best. We spend our lives in pursuit of expertise, craving the comfort, the self-expressive benefits, and the emotional security that mastery of a domain provides. After all, who enjoys the uncertainty and self-doubt that often accompanies being a beginner—that feeling of being flushed with self-consciousness when you attempt a new feat with subpar results, and the gripping fear that someone is there to witness? Indeed, it feels much safer to stay the same. Thus, it is far rarer to consider the benefits of personal innovation and the generative nature of trying something new, even if you aren’t good at it. But as my Soul Cycle instructor often asks us to consider, “The push is what changes you.”

The act of transformation is embedded in the human condition. Creating things from experience is our birthright. According to Dr. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and the senior lecturer of my “neuroscience for business” course at the MIT Sloan School of Management​​, “A creative brain is one that can put ideas to use in unexpected ways, using contrasting combinations of thoughts to foster new ones. This is the superpower of the human mind: to reinvent, imagine, improve, and rethink.” As children, we innately employ a sort of rapid prototyping of the self, quickly and frequently fabricating and trying on different facets of our identities until they reach a suitable level of fidelity, if only for a short time. But at some point—long before our brains are formed or have acquired full executive function—this exploration and changing of the mind is discouraged and we are expected to take a stance on what (not even who) we want to be when we grow up. So, we declare a major and, subsequently, a fixed narrative for our lives, and it tends to be singular and driven by external forces. If not the expectations of others, our own limiting beliefs often keep us from even catching a glimpse of our potential.

But, when you stop prototyping and succumb to inertia, you stunt your growth physiologically. Engaging your brain not only protects you from the neurodegeneration that comes with age, but it also stimulates the development of new neurons. As individuals, we may not be at risk of becoming irrelevant in the way a company might, but there are proven advantages to igniting your personal growth through intentional evolution. In class, Dr. Swart mentioned that taking on an attention-intense form of learning has global benefits in your brain, and even contributes to the executive functions: mastery of emotions, complex problem-solving and thinking flexibly and creatively. Said differently, the brain is malleable and—long into adulthood—will change, grow, and reorganize itself as a result of learning.

Societal pressure and even our own biology call us to embrace routine, but the brain also needs you to be just as consistent in nurturing your curiosity and creativity. To perform at its most optimal state, the brain requires us to be willing to disrupt current patterns of thought and behavior to explore new ideas and achieve audacious goals that allow us to develop new neural pathways and keep us operating for peak performance. Even tiny acts of disruption produce in us the ability to potentiate new outcomes. “Tinkering with ideas and with things releases your mind to wander from a state of stuckness into a possibility frame of mind, triggering neural connections and new insights,” according to Dr. Srini Pillay, neuroscientist, author, and CEO of the NeuroBusiness. Your ability to process things and the quality of your decision-making all improve when you are actively in creation mode.

Igniting such change need not be as extreme as taking a neuroscience class through MIT. It does, however, require deliberate practice, as Dr. Swart teaches. Change requires choice. I share this as a willing bringer of change. My career resembles a stage upon which I have had many costume changes, and I have made a good living as the person you hire when you want to reimagine how to make a big business shift: reach new customers, build strong teams and break down silos, lead digital transformation in an analog organization, bring the creative heat. But as a recovering perfectionist, I am also enjoying learning how to be new at things in my personal life, even at the risk of doing them poorly. The path itself is just as satisfying as the destination. Being bad at tennis is of no consequence, and one day, I’ll be good enough to play a full match terribly with a willing, albeit reluctant partner.

The upside is even more rewarding: I am reminded of the rejuvenating energy of starting something new, while reveling in fueling my brain. “Dabbling in a new endeavor—whether a hobby or fantasy—disrupts your habitual and reactive thinking, helping you find new solutions to old problems,” writes Pillay. Personal growth does not require a radical life or career shift (although by all means, go for it—I write this while on a sabbatical in Paris). Implementing small, daily innovative pursuits can be just as effective in giving your brain and your life more horsepower. They might even be the start of something remarkable.

Daria Burke is a innovation and impact-focused c-suite fashion and beauty exec, board director, investor and self-proclaimed neuro nerd.