How to Set Your Brain on Fire


The droplets of water drizzle lightly on the tin roof of our cabin in the woods. A cozy knitted blanket is tucked tightly around my arms and legs, with just enough slack to leave my arms free to type.

Beyond the old eight-pane windows, which have never changed since this cabin was built over a hundred years ago, lies a blanket of greens. A deep forest of cascading leaves, branches, and tree trunks. Happily the birds tweet, scattered over the branches of the old-growth trees, 600 years or older with trunks the size of Volkswagens.

Red-and-Black Checks

Nestled inside are the memories of decades past. The couches from the house I grew up in, now worn and slipcovered with red-and-black “buffalo checks.” A crackled hundred-year-old canvas canoe hangs in the rafters, upside down so the beautiful wood strips on the inside are visible. I painted a local couple’s home on the lake in exchange for the canoe about a decade ago.

Brown Velvet Lace

An old stone fireplace sits before me, unlit though it’s a chilly morning. Old books and magazines fill the shelves along the wall under two paint-by-number paintings, an old violin, and a hundred-year-old Victorian lamp with brown velvet lace hanging from its shade. A pair of snow skis adorn the wall, along with an old pennant for the local college, a pair of antique ice skates, a stuffed fish, and some paintings from my early days as a painter. Though it’s clutter, it’s comforting clutter.

Beside my overstuffed old chair sits a birch bark log I drilled and made into a lamp, a little log cabin model my son Brady made a few years ago, a sketch pad, and a harmonica I just bought in hopes I’d learn it this summer.

Sacred Family Time

Summertimes are special, and we look forward to them all year, never knowing how many summers we have left. I consider it sacred time with the family and a chance to recharge my batteries. Though I still work eight- or 10-hour days from here, the view from my office is a lake and a mountain instead of the old scrub oaks of Austin. The days are long — last night it was light till about 10 — so there is time for kayaking, swimming, bike riding, or whatever I can do with my family. It usually involves leaving camp for a visit to Donnelly’s Ice Cream, the best in the Adirondacks, so creamy it’s like a flavored stick of cool butter. There are lines of people waiting to get their ice cream, usually 50 or more people every time we stop. It’s that good.

Though I’ve not yet got to learning the harmonica, which requires a very quiet spot where no one can hear you, I’ve also decided to take classical guitar lessons. I’ve been playing for about eight years, since I began accompanying my daughter to lessons so we could do something together, but I have reached the limit of my basic abilities.

Going Classical

Thankfully I found Steve, a local instructor and excellent classical guitar player, who has discovered all the bad habits I’ve developed. So I’m having to relearn everything I know. For instance, I’ve been holding my fingers wrong, and for classical guitar I have to move the instrument to my left knee, not my right. Because it’s summer, I can find a hour a day to practice.

I’m Ready to Give Up

And already I’ve suffered through those “this is too hard” moments, when I’ve said to myself, “It’s simply not worth it, I’ll just stick to what I know and stop these lessons.” Unfortunately, I’ve said that about six times this past week, pretty much every time I practice, because my fingers are in excruciating pain — I’m using different spots on the tips than I’ve used before, and having to use specific fingers on my other hand differently, with one finger assigned to each string. I keep getting it wrong.

I keep telling myself that I can do it, that every good guitar player went through this, and that the outcome will be worth the pain. But pain and frustration aren’t easy, and quitting is. Yet I know I have to pay my dues.

Comfort zones are happy yet dangerous places. Dangerous because we can get so cozy that we stop learning, and we don’t put ourselves out there to try new things.

Why bother? Why not stick with what we know and be happy with that?

Confusing My Brain

Well, that’s an option, and I think it has a lot to do with your personality. In my case I need fresh challenges at every turn; I feel as though I’m going backward if I’m not growing. But the best part is the mental rush when my brain starts to scramble. For instance, this week in my guitar lesson, the instructor was pushing my limits and I simply could not keep up — my brain was confused, and I had to just stop and think about each task, one at a time. I felt for a brief moment like my brain was exploding. Though confusing, it was invigorating, and I could feel my brain changing.

The Brain Gym

Experts say that one of the best ways to combat aging and dementia is to challenge your brain with crossword puzzles and online games. Just like your muscles need resistance to stay healthy, the same is true for your brain.

What if you asked yourself when the last time was that you were learning something new and challenging your brain? One of the things I love about painting is that it’s a continual challenge, and I’m constantly learning. Yet my brain isn’t freaking out like it was when I was asked to do a multi-string multi-finger sequence I could barely figure out. It’s those kinds of things that I think we need. Things that really push our limits and make us feel alive.

Resisting Change

If comfort is the enemy, then perhaps stimulation is our friend. Six years ago I awoke to the realization that after 20 years of running my business, I had been repeating the same practices year after year. I was doing nothing new, and it was reflected in the lack of growth in my business. But when I started attending conferences about things I knew nothing about, my brain, and my motivation, changed. It was very much like my guitar lesson. At first I was confused and overwhelmed, then as my brain started opening up new paths, I was starting to understand new concepts. When I tried doing them myself, it was hard, and I was ready to give up, but my stubborn nature made me stick with them. The end result was that they started changing the outcome of my business, and I became better than I had been.

Ask yourself…

What have I wanted to learn but have feared failure? (I know I keep telling myself I’ll never get good at this guitar thing, but I’m starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Plus, I have to continually manage my mindset.)

What have I always wanted to learn but have never taken the time or effort?

What have I wanted to learn but have resisted because of some mental block, like “I’m too young, I’m too old, I’m too” … you get the idea.

It’s also a good idea to consider that there are things you would love that you don’t know exist. Why not visit the website of a local college or adult education center and pick something completely foreign to you? Even if it’s not something you turn out to love, you will learn something of value.

Usually our minds and our comfort are the biggest roadblocks.

How about a new mantra? “I’m curious. I want to grow. I want to keep learning. I want to keep my brain stimulated.”

Keep in mind that whatever you decide to learn will get hard, and it will be easy to find a good excuse not to continue. It is at that inflection point that the true learning begins.

Today is a good day to play with the idea and do a little self-examination. Mental stimulation keeps life more interesting, has a great impact on your brain and health, and has a huge impact on your state of mind.

Just the challenge of a few guitar lessons has really challenged me, has been mentally and physically painful (burning fingertips), and I’ve wanted to quit and not wanted to practice. But I’ve accepted the challenge and will not give up.

My wish is that you find a fresh challenge.



  1. Dana Kingsley July 22, 2018 at 8:40 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here….relaxing to read and enjoy.

  2. Shirley Bland July 22, 2018 at 9:16 am - Reply

    Thanks. I so needed that!

  3. Caroline Ratliff July 22, 2018 at 9:46 am - Reply

    Eric, an excellent article. I can relate as an 82 year old changing to an HP from an Apple computer! It’s driving me crazy, but I’ll get there hopefully in this lifetime.lol.

  4. Valerie Payne July 22, 2018 at 10:33 am - Reply

    Fabulous entry for this Sunday. What surprised me was that you had taken up a new creative hobby. How you are able to do all you do is a miracle. But your thirst for knowledge and new discoveries make you the genius you are in business, art, writing and family. Thank you for sharing with me on Sundays. You give me inspiration for my week.

  5. Synthia July 22, 2018 at 11:06 am - Reply

    Thanks! Needed that and need to reread it every day. in my case I had a heart attack and stopped practicing the violin in January and haven’t painted anything in a long time.

  6. Lynne P Hollingsworth July 22, 2018 at 12:51 pm - Reply

    I needed this and I see I am not alone. Thank you so much. Well written…I could see that room!

  7. Lynne Hollingsworth July 22, 2018 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    Sorry …errors in my website address

  8. Leisa Luis Grill July 22, 2018 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    I couldn’t agree more! I think it’s why I have had several careers. The late Carey Grant was once asked why he looked so young at his age and he said the he took up a new hobby every year. I have painted my entire life, but about 5 years ago I took up a whole new way of painting. I’m in my 60s and not a day goes by that I don’t wonder if I’m “too old”, but what’s the alternative?? Do nothing? These new pursuits are the only thing that makes life rich, even with the fear and the brain overload. Thanks for a well-written piece.

  9. Jeancarlo Montjoy July 22, 2018 at 3:12 pm - Reply

    I felt this week

  10. Nicole Ours July 22, 2018 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    You’re such a lovely, subversive soul! Thank you for this week’s coffee conversation. Others have been meaningful as well-but this one spurs me to action.

    I will push past this silence. There is a memoir writing class my 94 year old friend needed transportation to attend. Turns out it is an amazing community of talented, fear-over-coming people. So far, I’ve only written and read three pieces.

    This is finally my time to paint. Earlier lifetimes have held devotion to family, my career as a special education teacher, with art tucked into stolen moments. Now, retired from teaching with family launched and my beloved husband taken by cancer, oil painting is my focus.

    Last month, ten visions took life at my easel. Creative growth is exploding joyously. And yet I feel guilty for not writing more. To take part in the intimacy and exploration without doing the daring, demanding work of my own writing leaves me acting like a voyeur instead of a citizen.

    Time to shake up my brain. Thanks to you, I will add an hour of writing daily to the feast of painting time.


    Nicole Our

  11. Michael Plumridge July 22, 2018 at 4:22 pm - Reply

    Thank you Eric, I am enjoying your Sunday morning words of wisdom. Your descriptions of every detail puts me right there in that cabin. I can totally relate to you as a new and aspiring artist after 35 years as a photographer and stepping into the unknown. After seeing your interview with Daniel Graves and watching your streamline videos I have challenged myself and booked into the Florence academy of art for a 6 week immersion course in the Fall. To do exactly what you are talking about, stretching the mind and learning something new. And then following up with the Figurative art convention expo in Miami. FYI, Currently I’m watching your DVD on the Easiest way in the world to learn painting. It is very helpful and I’m enjoying it alot. I played guitar for a while also and gave up for the same reasons. (Eyes Rolling)

    Thanks for the inspiring stories and hope to see you at FACE

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  19. Nadia Bees July 30, 2018 at 8:38 pm - Reply

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