The Mystery of Stradivarius
Updated: Nov 28, 2022
Antonio Stradivari, by Edgar Bundy, 1893: a romanticized image of a craftsman-hero
Two decades ago, I decided to write a mystery novel about a cat burglar. It was something of a flow-based idea. Early research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I had explored the role that optimal performance played in juvenile delinquency. In some fairly elegant studies, Csikszentmihalyi discovered that typical teenage crimes like vandalism, graffiti and fighting were often motivated by a desire to use risk-taking and moral transgression to tune the challenge-skills balance and drop into flow. You could call this the “optimal experience at all costs” theory of juvenile delinquency.
My cat burglar was going to be a grown-up version of one of those teens. Yet, I wanted my cat burglar to be a compelling character, so I wanted my cat burglar to specialize in stealing something particularly special. I settled on rare musical instruments.
But this raised the next obvious question: what are the rarest musical instruments in the world?
This is what led me to the Italian instrument maker Antonio Stradivarius. In a record unmatched anywhere, Stradivarius single-handedly crafted almost half of the most valuable instruments in history. Nearly half? I mean, what are the odds?
But then I discovered an even stranger fact—two of Stradivarius’ most famous violins were built when the instrument-maker was ninety-two years old. Now I was really baffled.
Everything I knew about getting older said that Stradivarius’ feat was impossible. The general theory of aging showed that both our physical skills and mental skills decline significantly over time. But if physical skills drop away as we age that would also include violin-making mandatories like fast-twitch muscle response and fine motor control. If this theory was right, no way could a ninety-two-year-old man make two of the rarest musical instruments in history.
Even stranger: Stradivarius pulled this off in 1736—that is, long before the advent of modern medicine.
I never ended up writing that novel, but the mystery of Stradivarius stuck with me. In trying to solve the puzzle, I uncovered a growing pile of new science that showed that fast-twitch muscle response and fine motor control do decline over time—but only if we don’t keep utilizing those skills. Fast twitch muscle response and fine motor control are use-it-or-lose it skills. Since Stradivarius never stopped making musical instruments over the course of his lifetime—he made over a thousand in total—these skills didn’t atrophy.
This led to the next question: Are fast twitch muscle response and fine motor control the only use-it-or-lose-it-skills that humans possessed? If not, if there are others, perhaps we can sustain peak performance farther into our lives than most people believed possible.
This question led to research. A ton of research.
Over the next two decades, I discovered that there was a new field being born—what is today called “peak performance aging”—but it had yet to go by that name. Back then, there was just a collection of intriguing ideas in about two dozen fields: adult development, longevity science, geriatric psychiatry, network neuroscience, embodied cognition, flow science, longevity science, successful aging, just to name a few. All of this work told a tantalizing story about what might be possible in our later years.
Yet, much of this work was theoretical. Then, in what might best be described as a fit of madness, in the winter of 2021, at the tender age of fifty-three, I decided to take all of these ideas, blend them into an action plan, and use the result to teach myself to park ski.
While I’ve been skiing for over four decades, I had zero experience in a terrain park. I didn’t know any tricks. I could barely clear a jump. I couldn’t slide rails. I didn’t know how to grind a box. I was a fifty-three-year-old man, with an injury-riddled past, a ridiculously busy schedule, and zero experience with freestyle skiing—like what could go wrong?
Well, the facts are the facts. You hit the ground hard while learning to park ski, that’s a fact. Another fact is that older athletes take a lot longer to heal than younger athletes. Additionally, park skiing requires significant physical skills, stretching from strength and stamina on one end to fine motor performance and fast-twitch muscle responses at the other. If these skills drop off a cliff as we age, then learning how to park ski at age fifty-three should be impossible. Finally, the acquisition of motor patterns, like the acquisition of language, is an innate process in children. But that window of opportunity closes long before middle-age. As a result, most older athletes don’t believe they’re capable of onboarding the entirely new language of motor patterns required for park skiing. For these reasons, for others, there’s a general philosophy among action sports athletes: If you haven’t learned to park ski by the time you’re thirty—don’t bother.
But not so fast.
Recent discoveries in embodied cognition, flow science, and network neuroscience have revolutionized how we think about human learning. On paper, these discoveries “should” allow older athletes to progress in supposedly “impossible” activities like park skiing. To see if theory worked in practice, I put these ideas to the test on the ski hill, conducting my own ass-on-the-line experiment in applied neuroscience and later-in-life skill acquisition—aka, I tried to teach this old dog some new tricks.
Long story long, see my next book, Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad, pre-
orders available here.
Long story short—my crazy idea worked. Really worked.
I got much farther in a single season than anyone, myself included, expected me to go. I started out with a list of twenty tricks that I wanted to learn. This was my measuring stick. It was essentially a road map that went from absolute beginner to low-level intermediate—a progression path that would normally take me three or four years. I went eighteen out of twenty in a single season.
Equally intriguing, my ski partner, Ryan, had been applying all the same ideas and making similarly ridiculous progress. Yet, from a scientific perspective, all we’d done is run a very small pilot study in peak performance aging.
To remedy this situation, in the winter of 2022, the Flow Research Collective ran a larger study. Our subjects were a group of seventeen adults, ages 29-68. In conjunction with two major ski areas, North Star and Palisades Tahoe, FRC researchers used the principles I uncovered to teach study subjects how to park ski and park snowboard. With one exception—a man in his late forties recovering from a serious back injury—none of our participants had significant park riding experience. Many were complete novices.
The goal of the study was not to teach our subjects how to throw tricks—though that was one major outcome. Rather, the goal was to teach our subjects to creatively interpret terrain features as a safer and surer path into flow and, by extension, progression. To do that, we broke terrain park riding into eight foundational movements: crouching, jumping, switch riding, slashing, grinding, 180, 360, and a shifty. We spent four days on the mountain. Each day, subjects learned and practiced two of these movements.
To figure out if it worked, we videotaped the training sessions and assessed the results with the same criteria used to judge freestyle competitions. We also conducted lengthy pre-enrollment assessments and interviews, post-study assessments and interviews, and had the subjects take two flow and learning assessments a day, for each of the four days of the study.
To be blunt, the results were freaky. We taught a bunch of old dogs a bunch of new tricks. All our subjects made incredible progress in most of our judging categories, aka, the so-called PAVED criteria: progression, amplitude, variety, execution, and difficulty. We also saw a sizable uptick in flow, which further amplified progression, and produced a significant positive shift in attitudes towards later in life learning. Afterward, all our participants had re-evaluated what they wanted to do with the second half of their lives.
If you want to see what the experiment looked like, we made a short video about out it. You can find it here.
If you want to kick ass until you kick the bucket, Gnar Country is the book for you. It’s a book that chronicles these experiments. It’s a grand adventure into the science and practice of peak performance aging.