(An adaptation of my most recent Toastmasters speech. Thanks to all the websites that helped me gather the great ideas below; I neglected to keep a record of them!)
For the sake of a snappy title, I called this post “New Tricks for an Old Dog.” I admit, I’m not quite an old dog. Instead, I could have called this “new tricks for a medium-aged dog” or “new tricks for a not-so-young dog.” In fact, I could have called it “new tricks for any dog at all,” for the point of this post is that when it comes to learning new tricks, age doesn’t matter.
Take me: I was recently accepted to do my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. I also spend my free time polishing my French. And I’m definitely not a young dog.
But why should I bother? Isn’t there a time when you know enough? By a certain age, you already have your career, you already have your long-term hobbies, you’re super busy in day-to-day life. You already spent your first 20 years or so learning, so why make the effort now to cram in anything new?
Well, they say that learning is its own reward. But let me give you three additional reasons to keep learning well into old age.
First, like healthy food and regular exercise, learning is good for you. You pay attention to your body; now it’s time to pay attention to your mind.
Memorizing, solving problems, making decisions: these all help your brain stay well-oiled. And studies have shown that keeping your brain active may help it strengthen brain cells and connections. This gives you extra defense against diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Second, learning gives you all types of benefits—above and beyond the skills you set out to learn. You open up and enhance your mind. You become more creative and innovative. You may be able to keep up with the ever-shifting job market. You may become more independent and useful. You may become more interesting and able to small-talk. You may even meet new friends.
Third, learning helps you feel fulfilled. When you tackle something you’ve always wanted to do—or even only recently wanted to do—it puts that spring in your step. You have purpose and focus and feel satisfied with life.
It’s this last one that’s my main driver. Sure, I’d like to be more interesting on social occasions. Sure, I’d like to expand my job opportunities. And I definitely want to stave off Alzheimer’s. But my main motivation for returning to university and brushing up on my French is entirely selfish: to feel good about myself.
Let’s start with the French.
I grew up from grade seven to my early 20s as an anglophone resident of Montreal. I’ve always defined myself as “being able to speak French—but not quite bilingual.”
I seriously want to get rid of that “but.” So what if it’s nearly 20 years since I last picked up a French textbook? So what if I have no one to speak it to, and may never need to use it? So what if I don’t have time?
I recently found a website that teaches French—and several other languages—for free. I have a subscription to the French edition of the magazine Châtelaine. I read French books from time to time. Bit by bit, I intend to get rid of that “but.”
As for my Masters, that’s much more formal and will be much more time-consuming and will cost much more money. And again, it’s simply to make myself feel good.
Writing is what I do. If I can get better at it, that’s all the impetus I need. There’s no promise of a job at the other end; although I would become qualified to teach at a college or university, writers don’t need to be formally educated. Still, it’s a way for me to solidify my intent and dedicate my time and learn from others—and come away better at writing.
These two activities—puttering away at French and signing up for a multi-year degree—show both ends of the spectrum and help illustrate how lifelong learning is available to everyone. For it’s easy to make excuses:
1) Time. I don’t have time. I have a full-time job. I have a family. I have commitments. Yet I can squeeze in a bit of French in very simple ways. And writing? In the morning, I currently get up an hour earlier.
2) Money. Sure, my Masters will cost. But the online French site I found doesn’t cost a thing. If you want to learn, there may be an affordable way.
3) Information. With the Internet, these days everyone can find information. Even if you don’t own a computer, the library has everything you need. And best of all, the library holds a wealth of information in books.
4) Location. I live in an isolated small town, but managed to find writing and French programs that can be done online. And you don’t need a formal classroom. If you want to learn to knit, ask a neighbour. If you want to learn about avalanche safety, join Search and Rescue. There’s bound to be a way.
So the moral of the story is: if you want to learn something, do it. It’ll be good for you in so many ways.