By Tom Peterson
You can learn new tricks. As a young man, Albert Schweitzer made big marks in several fields. He was a renowned organist and an expert on Bach. He had earned a doctorate in philosophy and another in theology and had written a book that turned contemporary theological thinking on its head.
All that was in his twenties. “My thirtieth birthday… I spent like the man in the parable who ‘desiring to build a tower, first counts the cost whether he have the wherewith to complete it.’ The result was that I resolved to realize my plan of direct human service in Equatorial Africa.”
Of course, he still had plenty of learning to do. First, become a medical doctor then found a hospital in West Africa (paid for largely by organ performances in Europe). He later developed from Hinduism’s ahimsa the concept of “Reverence for Life,” got a doctorate in music, won a Nobel Peace Prize…. And so on.
Schweitzer embraced lifetime learning.
So, when’s the best time to learn a new trick? When you’re thirty? When your kids are grown? When you’re financially stable? How about Now? God help us if we begin to lose our passion for learning new tricks.
More important, what would you like to learn? Spanish? Creole cooking? Improve your skill at a sport? Skills to start a new business? How to solve a challenge in your community? Whatever you’re doing, you can always learn better ways, new tools to be more effective. There’s something you want to do, but you may feel the learning curve is too high. The good news is that in an era of sites like Open Culture, we have access to learn almost anything.
Think You’re Too Old (or Young) to Learn New Tricks?
Think it’s too late? Don’t panic. Although I’m long in the tooth and the task seemed daunting, I was able to learn enough WordPress to have this website/blog. Even for us older folk, it’s never too late. A Dartmouth University study, described in Psych Central, shows that folks of all ages can learn new tricks: “This flies in the face of all these traditional views that all structural development happens in infancy, early in childhood,” [Alex] Schlegel said. “Now that we actually do have tools to watch a brain change, we are discovering that in many cases the brain can be just as malleable as an adult as it is when you are a child or an adolescent.”
Forget the scientists of Dartmouth. Here’s what the TV show Mythbusters found:
Can’t Teach Old Dogs New Tricks
Explanation: In 1523, an English guy named Fitzherbert penned a treatise on animal husbandry in which he advised readers that “the dogge must lerne when he is a whelpe, or els it wyl not be; for it is harde to make an old dogge to stoupe.”
Roughly translated from the vernacular, that’s “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s a saying that’s quite familiar today, even among non-pet owners. But is there any truth to it?
To take this timeworn adage for a walk around the block, MythBusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage found a pair of aging Alaskan malamutes who didn’t know a single trick in the book. As 7-year-old canines, siblings Bobo and Cece were equivalent to a couple of 50-year-olds in dog years, arguably qualifying them for the “old dog” category.
After four days of training, Bobo and Cece proved Fitzherbert flat wrong. Each could heel, sit, lie down, stay and shake upon command from Jamie and Adam. And since malamutes are known to be stubborn, Bobo and Cece’s stellar performances definitively busted the myth and represented for old dogs everywhere.”
Feeling old is only a mental trap. You’re always young enough to start something new. Not enough time is another trap. As is being too young. As is “it’s too hard.” Maybe you have a bucket list or a way to develop your career. Get on the on ramp. Spend the time and energy. Start learning. If you stay with it, the rewards are great!
Here are some tips on getting started (through repetition).
“Therefore search and see if there is not some place where you may invest your humanity.” —Albert Schweitzer
Photo: CC, Nobel Foundation