Old dogs and new tricks


I’m sure you’ve heard the idiom, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

It was made popular by the 16th Century English writer John Heywood. There’s more history behind it, but the phrase commonly refers to people who are so old and set in their ways that they refuse to learn anything new.

Over the years there seems to come a point where it seems like people become frozen in intellectual time. It’s like either they stop learning because they can’t, or don’t want to, I’m not sure which.

Those people stop learning new things and seem to grow more resistant to do so by the day. I don’t know if it’s something they just decided to do, or maybe they lack the motivation or need to continue to learn, I can’t say. But it certainly seems like there’s a brick wall we hit, intellectually, where our ability or desire to learn subsides.

According to Scientific American, “In most adults, learning and thinking plateau and then begin to decline after age 30 or 40.” Yikes! Really? My take on that is that, much later on, we have fewer reasons to pick up new skills or academic information. So, many people just don’t bother.

I’m fortunate that work requires me to stay current on technology, industry practices, and much more. But, for some time now, I’ve been feeling like an old dog. How do we avoid that learning plateau, or can we?

At this point, I should share that I’ve always been someone who likes to learn, provided I have a solid interest in the subject. My grade school years were a constant puzzle to my teachers and parents trying to figure out how someone with an I.Q. of 145 gets a “D” in algebra but an “A” in computer programming. The fact is, if the interest wasn’t there, I just didn’t “apply myself.” Yeah, I know. That phrase brings back bad report card day memories for me too!

A few weeks ago I attended an out-of-state writing conference, partly to challenge myself, but mostly to focus on something other than work for a couple of days.

Although I write for a living, I rarely get the chance to fully immerse myself in one project. In this case, I have a few novels in various stages of completion and I wanted to find out which one of them was worthy of my time. I figured the best way to evaluate that was to be around other writers, in an inspirational, immersive environment.

I’ve attended events like this before, but nothing so well structured, and I was completely energized about my writing (while I was there, anyway). I learned a great deal but not before I had to overcome some voice in the back of my head saying, “I know all of this already, what could these people possibly teach me?”

It was a challenge to silence the Negative Nate in my mind and focus. I made it a point to have a purpose behind my attendance at each session. I consciously chose to learn at least one new thing from each instructor, regardless of my own expertise. And I did just that!

If you feel like you’re stuck, here are some suggestions. First, no one is too old to learn – too stubborn maybe, but never too old. Think about something you always wanted to learn and get started! There’s no one holding you back but you.

Next, make a plan. I think one reason we stop learning is that, as we age, our patience grows shorter. To be successful and productive, you’ll need to be prepared and be careful not to take on too much at once.

Due diligence is advised. If you’re using the Internet as a resource, beware of all the self-proclaimed experts. Be sure the material is credible and accurate. Choose a verifiable and highly reputable source for any educational endeavor.

At the end of the day, nothing should keep you from growing as a person, intellectually or otherwise. What direction that takes is entirely up to you. Remember, the years may tick by. But, we only get old when we stop trying to improve ourselves.

Gery Deer is a Greene County resident and columnist. He can be reached at www.gldcommunications.com.

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