I wrote my first column for Talent Zoo back in 2010, but after a few columns, I had to stop writing for almost two years. I had contracted endocarditis, a staph infection of the heart, on a business trip to Argentina. It almost killed me, but with very powerful intravenous antibiotics, I began to recover, only to be put back into critical condition barely a month later. This time it was something called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a condition of unknown origin that attacks the peripheral nervous system. The author Joseph Heller of Catch-22 fame contracted Guillain Barre and almost died. He lived to write about it in “No Laughing Matter” and though I’m no Joe Heller, I also lived to write another day.
Why am I telling you all of this? One of the unexpected consequences of the condition, which I didn’t understand for months after I could move my arms and legs again, was that my brain had also suffered. I was mentally slower than I had ever been, and it took a while for me to comprehend simple questions or requests and then even longer to act on them. With regular exercise my limbs recovered, and I can now walk a couple of miles a day without a cane, but my mind has taken longer to fully snap back.
I have talked with any number of people who have experienced similar situations without ever having had Guillain-Barre. Their condition goes by such names as “chemo brain” for people who are going through a course of cancer therapy, or “pregnancy brain” for women who are in the midst of a pregnancy, or “injury brain” from getting their heads impacted by a hard knock while playing sports. Injury brain isn’t quite at the same level as a concussion, but the effects – prolonged mental lassitude – can take a while to ease.
All of this is important to you job hunters because as freelance writers, artists, and designers, you live more by the speed and agility of your brain than ordinary people. It is your ability to reach into the deepest recesses of your cerebrum to dig out an original solution or a creative breakthrough that sparks your life and puts money into your pocket. So when your brain suddenly fails you, for whatever reason, you have to be alert to what’s happening and do something. There is a paradox here, since it is precisely the inability to be sharp and alert that is the first symptom that something has gone awry with your brain, but believe me, you’ll notice it sooner rather than later.
If you find yourself grasping for words or concepts when they normally come at lightning speed, you’ve got problems. If you suddenly have low-level but recurrent headaches, you have problems. If you suddenly begin to forget time-related things – meetings and such – you’ve got problems. Now, a certain amount of brain freeze hits us all, at one time or another. Having to carry around too many things in your head is common to creative people who are juggling many projects, and the occasional mental stumble is not a cause for alarm. But persistence of symptoms – anything lasting more than a week or one major bout of mental hiccups – means that it is time for going over a mental checklist.
I have three gold standards of mental agility. The first is The Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. I can generally finish it in under a half hour. If I take longer than that, it means that I’m mentally foggy, at least on retained information. The second is Klondike, a solitaire game I play on my computer. Klondike depends upon pattern recognition, which is a form of mental agility. When my mind is firing on all cylinders, I can complete a game in about 30 seconds. Finally, I play backgammon, which is a more complex game that depends upon the ability to de-randomize the random roll of the dice to your own advantage. When my winning percentage is below 90 percent, I know that my mind’s ability to rapidly solve difficult computational problems is slowing down.
There are many companies that get upset if they discover you playing games on the office computer, but in many places, playing mind games are considered vital to performance, In Sweden, for example, neither pilots nor railroad engineers are allowed to take their controls until they pass a daily exam which is nothing more than a game – they have to pick out a singe number that randomly appears in large columns of numbers on a single page. This is a test of mental agility, and doing it at a slow speed is considered such a reliable indicator of impairment, that it has been used for more than forty years.
The kind of work that Talent Zoo readers do is critical to today’s post-post-industrial economy. It requires that you be your sharpest all the time, whether it is during an interview or on the job. A little brain freeze now and then happens to all of us. But be alert to the possibility that it could be more than that, and get it treated accordingly.
Stephen Kindel is the Chief Operating Officer of The Bronx Project, a startup pharmaceutical company. He has had many jobs, written many books and hired many people over his career. His latest book, Skill Sets, is available by contacting him at
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