When is the last time you learned something new?
When is the last time you put yourself in an uncomfortable situation in order to gather new skills or stretch your comfort zone?
When is the last time you changed your mind about something and took a different stance because of new knowledge?
Chances are, for many of us, it may have been days, months, or even (“gulp”) years since any of these things have happened and that does not bode well for our future. As we progress through our lives we tend to develop a “very particular set of skills” (just like Liam Neeson) and the more we use those skills, the less time we spend developing new ones. This is not necessarily a bad thing unless we begin to rely so heavily on those skills that we cease to understand the value in challenging ourselves and why it is important for our overall mental and physical health.
Contrary to popular belief, you can teach an old dog new tricks if the old dog (insert your name here) is willing and able. In fact, Daniel Honan wrote “Neuroplasticity: You Can Teach An Old Brain New Tricks” about the work of Dr. Dennis Charney and there are some pretty amazing insights in regards to the impact that exercising your brain can have on you physically as well as on your overall well-being. In fact, he asserts that the brain orders the body to make the necessary changes to suit its needs. I was quite fascinated with the story about the London cabbies and how they have an enlarged hippocampus which holds spatial representation capacity which they would use for navigation.
The challenge is that it does get harder to engage this plasticity as we age and if you want to read more about that here is “Neuroplasticity: The 10 Fundamentals Of Rewiring Your Brain”. In fact, Dr. Sarah McKay offers this summation in “Neuroplasticity: can you rewire your brain”…“Plasticity dials back ‘ON’ in adulthood when specific conditions that enable or trigger plasticity are met. ‘What recent research has shown is that under the right circumstances, the power of brain plasticity can help adults minds grow. Although certain brain machinery tends to decline with age, there are steps people can take to tap into plasticity and reinvigorate that machinery,’ explains Merzenich. These circumstances include focused attention, determination, hard work and maintaining overall brain health.”
If that is not enough, there is the argument that learning actually leads to folks being happier. Philip Moeller provides a compelling case as to why everyone over the age of 40 should be focused on their personal learning & development. In his article, “Why learning leads to happiness”, he discusses “flow,” a name coined 30 years ago by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and how it can lead to an autotelic state. (see Csikszentmihalyi’s Ted talk here). He also points out that doctors are heading down the path of connecting continual learning as a potential method of staving of Alzheimer’s.
I believe there is also an emotional component as to why we tend to shy away from learning as we age and that is because the older we get, the less we embrace failure of any sort. I think we develop a fairly fragile image of ourselves in terms of what we “do” and “don’t do” and embrace one and shun the other. Not because we can’t or don’t want to do it but because we don’t want to be in the position of failing when we try. We tend to overvalue things like strength, confidence, & being “right”. We avoid failure at all costs and you rarely hear anyone touting how many mistakes they’ve made. The irony with this is that innovation and growth requires failure because we cannot learn without acknowledging our own ignorance.
I am left handed and many times in my life, I have been forced to do things with my right hand because there was not another option. Simple things like using a pair of scissors could pose a challenge as they are made for right-handed folks. Early on I became accustomed to being put into unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations and am sure that was part of the reason I have sought out new and interesting opportunities throughout my life…or it could just be I am not that bright and am willing to move from failure to failure without losing my enthusiasm. I guess the motivating force is not that important because I like the outcomes.
For all you right-handers out there…pick up the pen in the “wrong” hand and give it a go!