Dealing with Atrophy

One of the fundamental principles of physics is the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of entropy. In simple terms, it means that uncertainty, randomness, disorder and chaos are naturally occurring events in the universe. In consequence, “things fall apart.” Including us.

While entropy governs our fate, so too does atrophy. When we allow it to happen. Atrophy is the gradual decline in our effectiveness or vigour due to neglect or indifference. The quantity, quality and strength of everything decreases over time. Some things take longer to decay than others – carbon takes millions of years but we humans take about 80 years or so. In every worthwhile endeavour, the process and therefore the pace of degeneration is entirely up to us.

Atrophy is the wasting away, deterioration or diminution of our energy, power and motivation to excel. The mismanagement of our talents and resources determines our physical, psychological and financial well being. Intellectual atrophy, sometimes called dementia, is life altering. It has numerous causes, ranging from injury to disease. For most of us, the “seed of atrophy” is simply lack of use.

The occurrence of entropy or atrophy doesn’t mean the universe is out to “get us” or even up scores, like the notion of karma. Because nature doesn’t really care how we feel or what we do. It will be here long after we’re gone. But, without conscientious inputs of intent (i.e., desire), information (knowledge) or motivation (the urge to excel), atrophy will just feed on itself and naturally increase in scope. The ability to do useful, productive, beneficial work is a necessary countervailing energy that enables vigorous life-sustaining changes in our psyche. And that drives our perseverance.

Staying alive, choosing to be healthy and happy, is entirely up to us. That’s simply the consequence of the decisions we make. It’s a human predicament we can either feed or starve. Nourishing it requires effort, intelligence, creativity and learning how to make things get better. This is our antidote to resisting the life forces that impel things to fall apart. The quality of our existence, and maybe to a degree also the quantity, is about recalibrating our psychological equilibrium.

In biology, the concept of a “half-life” is the time required for a substance to lose half its effects. The half-lives of drugs vary from a few seconds to several weeks. Lead has a half-life of approximately a month in the blood stream but a decade in our bones. The half-life of caffeine in our body is about six hours, though numerous factors can alter that time line.

The same applies to our enterprises. Peter Drucker, the management guru, once said: “Eventually every theory of business becomes obsolete, then invalid.” Both business and management models have ever-shrinking lives. The nature of capitalism, driven by technological advances and hyper-competition, is that you must be better this year than you were last – not to gain market share but just to maintain what you already have. How long will it take for your enterprise to become irrelevant? Today, it’s hard to imagine it being more than a couple of years. Two-thirds of the FORTUNE 1000 market leaders ten years ago no longer exist.

Facts also have a shelf-life and atrophy over time, until they are no longer considered facts. They are disproven, altered or replaced with new knowledge. Every day, we produce more than 2.5 billion gigabytes of data, perform 4 billion Google searches and watch 10 billion YouTube videos. (In the time it took you to read that sentence, over 530,000 Google searches were executed.) Every day, four million new blogs are written, 80 million Instagram photos are uploaded and 616 million tweets are released into cyberspace. As science advances, we discover things that contradict what we thought we knew.

With our rapid changes in information, and therefore knowledge, even the most informed can barely keep up. Two years ago, IBM reported that 90% of the data we possess had been created in the previous two years alone. And it will more than double in the next two. Those who once believed the earth was the centre of the universe, or was flat, weren’t stupid. They were just uninformed. Remember doctor-endorsed cigarette ads? Government “secrets” are kept under wraps by law for 25 years – hackers and leakers make the notion of secrets now preposterous.

Since knowledge atrophies at lightning speed, how relevant is your diploma, degree or professional credential today? Modern estimates place the half-life of an engineering degree at between two and five years. Just “keeping up” requires a minimum of twenty hours of study per week. Medicine is no different. This treadmill of continuous learning, where you try to run faster to not fall behind, is the inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion and its ensuing counterpart – knowledge obsolescence.

The faster the pace of atrophy in our lives, the more valuable the skill of learning becomes. Because knowing how to identify, acquire, parse and synthesize useful information, and in so doing derive pertinent, meaningful insights and ideas, is the only response to atrophy I have discovered. Not only do we have to become better at what we think we’re already good at, we must be better just to stay in the game.