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The fertility of the older mind (bbc.com)
290 points by ALee on Sept 6, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 115 comments

As a child I was obsessively aware of other people's opinions of me, so I was afraid to make mistakes. Today, I am much better at putting myself in the learning mindset because I have learned a basic truth: learning is essentially the same as temporarily making a fool of myself, but in a safe place. That's how we all learned to walk, talk, and read, after all. If we can learn such complex skills as those then we can surely pick up a lot more skills, with effort.

I wish I had understood that as a child. I tried to learn to dance and act, but I mostly failed because I didn't really put myself out there. I did learn to sing thanks to choirs. I got into computers partly because all my mistakes were completely private.

There's no reason I can't continue to learn new skills. I just need to shed my ego and try things without reservation.

> As a child I was obsessively aware of other people's opinions of me

1. Young people care what others think of them

2. Middle aged people don't care what others think of them

3. Old people realize that nobody thinks about them

I'm old, and I'm still at "don't care". Except when it matters, of course. But I have noticed that old age helps with blending in, and attracting less scrutiny. Also, one gets some deference. So hey.

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink. But now I'm insecure, and I care what people think.

- Twenty One Pilots

Both of those guys are still in their 20s. Hardly at middle age or old age yet :)

And, the lyric is timeless.

Sure, but 28 is twice 14 :)

In other words, you can only learn to do by doing. However, I don't agree with the "safe place" bit. Sure, some things require a safe setting to practice in because of the danger the real thing entails, but that's not most things. You need to meet reality as it is and as you are--that's when the gears really click into place and you begin to grow. It's why pretense will always stifle learning because you're too busy shutting yourself off from a real encounter. It's a retreat from reality and into the blinding comfort of the ego. Indeed, humility, so often confused with modesty, is actually the honest appraisal of the self, strengths and weaknesses, and the willingness to examine them as fully as necessary. Those who lack humility ultimately lack the courage to go out and to gladly be subjected to all the feedback, good and bad, constructive or not. I have found that it profits a person immensely to stop trying to appear smart and to be fully honest and open to being affected, changed and improved. It's the only way to learn and to learn about yourself. Only then can the hunger of ignorance be fed with knowledge and understanding and the shackles of error and confusion be broken.

There is no practice life. You learn by living.

This is what I love about circus training. When you fail, you fall down. Or worse: you collapse on your partner.

If you can learn to handstand on someone else's hands without, you can do just about anything.

The point being: you have to just go for it. You WILL fail at some point, in any and every endeavor.

But the reward is that you might just be doing a handstand on another person :)

I find this mindset both admirable and deeply troubling, of people who feel that being able to do a handstand on another person is a worthwhile trade-off for the considerable risk of injury to yourself and the other person.

I'm almost 64. I will get my CSP (Certified Scrum Professional) certification soon. I am learning Python and taught myself Java at 52-54.

I can run circles around some of my younger associates in terms of critical thinking, design thinking, and integrative thinking. My job requires this and I do it whenever needed.

The following is attributed to Bob Hope:

When I was 20, I worried what other people were thinking about me.

When I was 40, I didn't care what other people were thinking about me.

When I turned 60, I realized nobody had ever been thinking about me.

Yep. It is all in our heads.

There was a saying in the military: pain is weakness leaving the body.

I always thought the corollary was: feeling stupid is ignorance leaving the mind.

Well said!

I think a lot of people can relate to this. I was always afraid of asking questions when surrounded by people more knowledgable than myself. I didn't want to appear stupid, or ignorant by not knowing something I assumed I should have already learned. I later realized that it makes so much more sense to bite the bullet and ask the question the first time. The longer you go pretending to know something, the more embarrassing it becomes when you have to eventually ask what it is later. The people who do this are the ones who appear knowledgable in later situations.

It's been said, "You learn nothing from succeeding".

To grow, we must learn how to fail well. I agree; the goal is to succeed or fail egolessly: efficiently and productively, without regret, even do it eagerly as one explores a new path... then failure becomes merely a lesson in what not to try, before you try again.

It's true that we ought to be comfortable experimenting without fear of embarrassment, as well as to learn to tolerate more serious failure on occasion, and certainly unexpected failures can serve to draw attention to symptoms of deeper issues worthy of rectifying before they cause you even greater trouble down the road.

However, I will point to Richard Hamming's advice to learn from our successes rather than our failures.

"There are so many ways of being wrong and so few ways of being right that it is much more economical to study successes."


"Study successes. If you study successes, when your time comes, you'll know how to succeed. If you study failures, then you'll know how to fail. So study success very closely: not only yours, but other people's. Why did Galileo do what he did? How did Newton do it? Try as best you can to study other people: how they succeed, and what the elements of their success are, which elements of that can you adapt to your personality. You can't be everybody, but you have to find your own method. Studying success is a very good way of informing your own style."

(The latter quote is from 25:30 of https://youtu.be/a1zDuOPkMSw)

As a young person trying to build things which change the world, I appreciate the wisdom found in the link. Thanks!

I see it was a matter of how you view your self-worth in the face of a mistake. Society in general likes to put one down for making a mistake regardless of how small or insignificant.

And one's inner dialogue tends to be the nastiest critic and chips away at motivation when learning something new.

It doesn't help that many humans tend to put down others more easily if they perceive them as weak regardless of similar or different identity. Being of the same age, gender, ethnicity, etc. doesn't matter. And people strive really hard to reframe their perspective to view others as weak too.

If I've a child, the one thing I'll teach her/him is not to give a damn about what others think.

I've gone through this as a child and it was paralysing. You always play it safe and that results in you not giving 100%.

but you need love, don't you? That's when you need others to think positively about you, isn't it?

Love is more about giving than taking.

> Or perhaps children are simply less inhibited and aren’t so scared about making mistakes.

Struck a chord there - because I had come to the same conclusion of sorts, about my ability to practice activities in public.

Riding a bicycle is a fairly hard thing to learn and very easy to practice (from my experience), but learning to do that when everyone around is falling off them was much less of a struggle than trying to learn ice skating in my mid thirties, when everyone at the "cheap skate night" is just gliding by with no effort.

There's a certain embarrassment which distracts from the task at hand. And being good at several other things, which are more immediately satisfying to do also factors into the decision to spend time learning something new which you'll never be as good as the ones who started when they were 5.

Right now, I'm struggling to learn enough spanish to converse with my kid & observing language learning first-hand, in third person. The words just come out without any particular boundaries in production - grammar, conjugations, gender, whether it is the right word.

Everything is optional and the only discouraging response is skipping the conversation and trying to ignore it.

Learning a language (spoken, not programming) is similar. If you're willing to sound like an idiot with a bad accent, constantly messing up words and parts of speech, it's easy to get immersed. If you're self conscious it's significantly more difficult.

I had finally achieved a long-time dream of mine by going to Japan. When I landed, it hit me: very few people knew a lick of English! I remember my exact thought upon making this realization: "I could use my crappy Japanese and be thought a fool, or I could speak English at people and remove all doubt." That helped me deal with the self-consciousness. That and booze.

My step father, I his 60s, took his schoolboy French, that he hadn't used in over 40 years, and turned it into a decent conversational level simply by not caring about how bad he was but just going for it.

There's probably a corollary to that: first you have to get comfortable, but to get really good (fluent) you probably have to get pretty self conscious. It seems to me that most adults learning a new language will retain a fairly heavy accent and some clumsiness more or less permanently (while of course being perfectly articulate) unless they work really hard to get rid of it.

A related thing: I'm skeptical of the popular claim that it's impossible to lose an accent as an adult. I think adults can still learn to speak very close to a native accent, if they keep on trying.

I learned Spanish as a kid/natively, and stopped speaking daily at 17. Now mid-30s, I've lost a significant chunk of my vocabulary, and there are adult topics of conversation with vocab I haven't learned.

But I went back to South America for work in 2009, and apparently I just sounded like someone from a different Latin country. Someone even asked if I was French.

I didn't realise that was something people thought!

With deliberate practice and a dialect coach you can pick up an accent, I don't see why the inverse wouldn't also be possible.

In his "Hello, my name is Linus Torvalds" recording from the 90s, Linus has a pronounced accent. These days he sounds American.

My problem with languages is that I’m very good at phonetics, so I can speak confidently with minimal accent as long as I know what I want to say—I’ve actually done some voice acting in languages that I don’t speak—but my comprehension is terrible. I can read French almost as fast as I read English, but can’t really follow a TV show or carry on a conversation. It’s maddening.

Unfortunately, there seem to be more resources out there for people with the opposite problem: poor production but good comprehension. Anyone in a similar boat to mine who can offer advice? Is simple immersion the best approach?

Immersion. Listen to songs, radio, movies, TV shows. Use subtitles if necessary. Make friends who speak that language. Talk to them in that language.

It's not just about being comfortable with messing up, even when you make no mistakes, if you want to lose an accent, you have to be willing to give up your sense of your own voice/"the way you talk" and try on a new voice in which you sound completely different than you're used to.

Agreed, I've since realized that most foreigners are charmed by the very act of making a sincere effort to speak their language. So really, there is something to gain in even speaking the language quite poorly.

Self Consciousness is the bane of my existence

Children are used to being bad at stuff, they don't expect to be good straight away.

Adults avoid stuff they can't do and also expect to be better at stuff because they're adults. I teach clay craft/pot throwing - for some reason adults think they can come along and make/throw a vase on their first go. Like expecting to rock up and make a wedding cake with no prior experience at baking.

I'm self taught, my first timers manage pots at a level that took me about a year to achieve.

We see first hand at painting sessions the birth of inhibition in art - parents who tell their child the painting they're doing is _wrong_ because the adult thinks they (the adult!) can do it better. The child isn't allowed space to simply express, to learn the movements of the brush and feel of the paint, to make "mistakes".

I'm 36 and only weeks ago started skiing. My way of dealing with the "embarrassment" of face planting the snow a lot, though I can't say I ever consciously chose this, is to make sure I'm the one doing most of the laughing.

My belief is this: given how much I've learned from my mistakes, I think it would be wise to make quite a few more. Hopefully new ones.

I always went with the idea that if you are not face planting, you are not trying hard enough.

I'm going to apply that to my attempts at learning to program.

Some kids are less inhibited and scared but some aren't and they need active help to get through the anxiety. I think there is a genetic component at play because how else is that learned behavior.

As a parent, you can inhibit your children as toddlers by telling them "no!" all the time. Then, when it comes time to learn or be social, they now have inhibitions to overcome.

That's not to say there's no genetic component (my son, $deity bless him, has this anxiety/fear of lots of things - we're honestly not sure if we're unaware of some environmental cause, or if he's fighting genetics...)

Sure, lots of "noes" might reinforce anxiety but I think some kids are immune to it.

It struck a chord with me too. I'm finding in my 30's a lack of fear (or an ability to manage it) that I didn't have when I was younger that makes me want to seek out new experiences and learn new things more in some ways than I did when I was in my teens and 20's (and more "pliable"). This research makes me feel good about my chances and about the benefits that could come with learning new things.

I cannot resist from a sarcastic comment. I find it cute when Americans claim they are "learning a foreign language". Currently I live in a 5th country. Each of them had completely different language, only two were from the same language family. I had no knowledge of English until I had been ~18.

Keep in mind that Americans live in a country where you can drive for hundreds of miles in any direction and still end up somewhere where English is spoken. We can hop around from state to state and opportunity to opportunity without having to take the time to learn a new language. The US is not Europe.

Yours is a typical American reaction that suggests that others learn foreign languages only because they might have to communicate after driving a short distance. In fact, Europeans have been able for centuries to communicate with neighbouring countries in their own language or rudimentarily known lingua francas without having to expend effort of picking up a new language. And yet, they still often decide to learn a new languages because of cultural interest in that country (films, music). Mere intellectual curiosity is a driver for a lot of people, there is no reason that that can’t apply to the USA as well.

I'm guessing the OP is being downvoted, but I'm not sure why. OP is right.

Even in East Asia, plenty of people learn Japanese to watch anime, Chinese to enjoy Chinese classics, medieval stories, CPop, Korean for KPop, etc, etc. South Asia has a very rich intellectual tradition in dozens of languages, and a thriving (albeit scrappy) industry of film in local languages. Don't forget the time-honored trope of learning English through Hollywood movies.

America is unique in that it has created a culture that doesn't connect with the outside world at all. American sports are American, American TV shows are American, American movies come from Hollywood. It makes being multilingual in America a much rarer feat.

Do you know if multilingualism is more common in England, Australia, or New Zealand? I've got the (maybe mistaken) impression that it's just not valued as highly in the English Commonwealth as in other countries.

English schools all teach at least one foreign language. But very few students master it because to a good approximation there is no need.

Because English is so widely spoken it is more costly (however you measure it) for an English speaker to learn enough languages to converse than it is for a non-English speaker to learn English; after all, they only have to learn one language while the English speaker will have to learn several to be able to converse with the same number of people.

In my job I talk and correspond with people who speak Castilian Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, various South American Spanish dialects, Hindi, Gujarati, Arabic, Turkish, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, German (including Swiss German and Austrian), French, Chinese (Mandarin and several major dialects), Vietnamese, Italian.

I speak passable Norwegian because I live in Norway but there is no chance that I could learn all the other languages, life is too short and all those colleagues speak English.

They Spanish speakers (etc.) don't learn Hindi (etc.) either for just the same reason.

If English weren't so widespread we would have to choose some other auxiliary language. For a thousand years it was Latin, then it was French, now it is English, sometime in the future it might be Mandarin Chinese.

So I don't think multilingualism is necessarily highly valued anywhere, the ability to communicate is valued and speaking the most commonly used auxiliary language gets you a lot of that.

Australian middle schools almost always teach a foreign language, the problem is that it's more or less random - Japanese, French, Italian and Indonesian are pretty common.

Depending on the school you can elect to keep studying a language in high school, and the subject weighting is quite favourable towards your final College entry rank. But most people graduate with minimal retention.

US schools are the same way, albeit usually with a focus on French or Spanish. I'm wondering more about the culture - there doesn't seem to be the same culture of language learning that I hear about from Europeans.

I would say language learning is treated as a hobby, like painting or salsa dancing. It's certainly not part of the cultural DNA.

There's always been a love-hate relationship between England and France. Some Englishmen are Gallophiles, others avovedly not. Note: this is about French culture, its literature and way of life, of which French language is a part, not French language itself.

I see it more as an intense sibling rivalry between Britannia and Marianne. Sometimes they have scratching, hissing, spitting cat-fights. Sometimes they sneak into the other's bedroom and surreptitiously fart on all the pillows. And sometimes they just have each other's back, with no questions asked.

I think the effort to reward ratio is much lower if you're a native English speaker and especially an American.

plenty of people do try to learn a second language. that's why apps like duolingo are popular. but language is a medium for exchange, and if you have no one to practice with i don't think you'll really get it. of course, i only speak english myself.

you would really trust yourself to translate a film after picking up a language without ever speaking it with anyone?

> you would really trust yourself to translate a film after picking up a language without ever speaking it with anyone?

Sure, this is completely normal. For example, coastal Albanians tend to understand Italian films, television and radio quite well just from exposure to Italian-language broadcasting, even if they never actually interact with Italians. And as I mentioned elsewhere, for a lot of people who learn to understand Spanish media, it all happens through telenovelas, not time spent with actual Latin American people.

Over the last year, I have been studying Serbian and Albanian without much interaction at all with speakers, and I am already at the point where I can enjoy many films and television programmes – sure, I might have to occasionally pause the video and rewind it or look up a word in the dictionary, but the learning and reference materials I have at my disposal are completely sufficient for that, there is no need to actually speak with anyone.

Plenty of us do learn other languages purely out of curiosity. I've been studying Japanese for the last 9 months for that reason. However it's difficult to immerse myself in spoken Japanese because, where I live, I have to go out of my way to meet up with native speakers--that's the point the parent poster was making.

> Where I live, I have to go out of my way to meet up with native speakers--that's the point the parent poster was making.

The point would still be wrong. Plenty of people learn a foreign language without the ability to have much contact with native speakers. Eastern Europeans have been keen on picking up Latin American Spanish, but it’s mostly watching telenovelas or falling in love with music from there, not actually going to Latin America. People learn all kinds of foreign languages from all the way across Europe, with the only actual interaction with native speakers being maybe a holiday once a year or less. A lot of language learning plays out through exposure to media, and with the internet, Americans have no less access to media than Europeans (or, as another person here notes, East Asians).

But you have to be motivated to learn the language. Set aside the people who love learning for learning's sake (which is not everyone). With English being the default world language, and American media outside the Internet also typically in English, well, the motivation to learn a language probably isn't quite as strong here.

The biggest advantage here would come from picking up Spanish. Live in a place with large Hispanic populations and you'll find plenty of media over here in Spanish in certain locations. It actually wouldn't be too difficult to immerse yourself somewhat. It's not surprising therefore that the greatest percentage of American bilingual speakers have Spanish as their other language (http://www.gallup.com/poll/1825/about-one-four-americans-can...).

I agree that media exposure can play a huge motivation. However, at least in the past, mainstream media in the United States was almost always originally in English. To use one example, in many other nations, foreign languages (English for sure at least) appear in pop radio hits constantly. In American pop music, in contrast, foreign languages rarely appear -- when present, they usually were one hit wonders, eg your "Sukiyaka", "99 Luftballoons", and "Amadeus" type songs. Obviously there are a few exceptions even "just outside" that mainstream circle (example: Rammstein) but "the norm" of US pop radio in the past was pretty much 99% English.

I do wonder if this will change a little. I am hearing more foreign language lyrics in American pop songs (mostly Spanish); some foreign media forms seem at least cult popular (anime is an example of a foreign medium with a decent sized American subculture); and as you point out, the Internet allows access to far more media forms than you could get previously.

Indeed. People learn Latin, of which there are preciously few speakers.

It might also be that your culture values that heavily as a good thing for its own sake, whereas ours doesn't as much? My impression is that the English Commonwealth countries don't place much value on language learning (I could certainly be wrong on that front).

Also, english being pretty much the defacto world language doesn't help matters. If you only speak Dutch, you can only talk to 23M people. If you only speak English you can only talk to....2B people?

For all your language skills, I'm not sure you know what sarcasm is.

Ha! Vocabulary is my Achilles ankle!

> Currently I live in a 5th country.

You have the advantage of living in those countries and being able to immerse yourself in the language. In the US we have be more proactive about learning if we truly want to get fluent. There's less immediacy about knowing a 2nd language here. It's not great, I'm not defending it. Just listing a possible advantage Europeans have over us.

> I find it cute when Americans claim they are "learning a foreign language"

I am not sure I understand the point being made here or through some of your other replies. What does your experience being in many different countries with different common languages have anything to do with Americans claiming they are trying to learn a foreign language? I find it no different than anyone else claiming they're trying to learn a foreign language?

Are you implying Americans cannot learn a foreign language or that it's more difficult due to the lower chance of exposure to those languages, lack of necessity to learn those languages, or lower probability of encountering others whose native language is not English? If so, I would likely agree.

Oddly your supporting statements counter what I describe because I do not know your nationality and you could be American, having moved when you were much younger.

I am 33, and I have paid a lot of anecdotal attention to what seems to keep my brain fresh, i.e. able to still learn new skills at a rapid clip. Just by way of credentials: I was a successful lawyer for a few years of my 20s (rising to level of federal law clerk), but then taught myself to program and have been working as a professional programmer since shortly before my 30th birthday. Even though I am on the older side of the programmer market, my career has been great, and I've been able to rapidly rise in the ranks. I also know a fair amount about design and business strategy now.

The secret seems to be: Practice. If you want to be able to do new things, you need to always be doing new things. I am always trying to learn something new - mentally and physically. For example, I am very right-side dominant in my body, but I have lately been trying to open more doors with my left hand, throw stuff at the trashcan with it, etc.

Always be doing at least one new thing in your life if you want to be doing new things for the rest of your life. It is OK to fail at a new thing! You just have to admit failure, pat yourself on the back for your courage, take stock of what went right and wrong, then pick a new new thing to do.

Relatedly, I have noticed that some people who I considered much smarter than me as a teenager often no longer appear to be, and I believe it is because they stopped trying to grow new types of skills and thus let their brains stagnate.

It is hard to do unfamiliar things, but so worth it.

I'm 31, and I started learning to draw a bit over a month ago. Progress is slow, but it's been visible.

The kicker was when I realized that talent doesn't really exist; talent is built. The sort of people who are "naturally" talented at drawing and arts are likely to be people who are naturally more intuitive (rather than analytical) and will spend lots of time just grinding away at things instead of trying to understand them intellectually until they don't need to understand it anymore. Sort of like a physically fit person would just climb over an obstacle while an analytical but untrained person might get stuck trying to figure out a "smart" solution.

I consider myself much more of an analytical person, which is partly why I am learning to draw. I want to strengthen my intuitive side as well.

It doesn't hurt that the theory of drawing (which includes the physics of light, human psychology and understanding of form) is actually quite interesting. Practicing my muscle memory today also lead to a small epiphany when I realized that instead of focusing on making an ellipsis with my pen, I have to focus on my shoulder muscles and get them to move my arm elliptically and drawing then simply happens.

If you're interested in learning to draw yourself, check out drawabox.com

> I have to focus on my shoulder muscles and get them to move my arm elliptically and drawing then simply happens.

Pro artist here. For what it's worth this is a pretty good habit to learn, as it's more likely to keep you safe from the carpal tunnel syndrome fairy if you do a lot of drawing. Good drawing form involves keeping your wrist static, and doing all the motion with your arm and/or fingers.

Learning this feels weird but is well worth it. The best way I found to pick it up is to work with a pencil; instead of holding it nearly perpendicular to the paper, hold it almost parallel to the paper, with your fingers on the far side/top and thumb on the near/bottom; you should get a big fat line from the side of the point touching the paper. This is a grip that all the grizzled old pros swore by when I started working in that industry, and it's helped a ton.

That's an interesting theory. I've always played a lot of pool, and am good at math/geometry. Yet when I over-analyze a shot and think about what I'm about to attempt, I miss far more often than if I just rely on muscle memory/pattern recognition and take the shot without too much thought.

I think the understanding of angles, intersection points, transfer of energy, etc. helped me practice as a novice (as well as helped me stay interested). But to get really "good" at something, you need to work at it until most of the skills involved are almost subconscious. (Which aligns somewhat with what I recall from "Thinking fast and slow", which I thought was a great book).

I concur. I play a fair bit of pool, and I play my best when I've had one drink and I don't think about the shots too much.

If I try to line up every shot perfectly and concentrate on my cue action, I inevitably make a bad shot.

They say every cartoonist has 200 bad pages in them. Best to get through those first 200 ASAP.

(source: my girlfriend is a cartoonist)

You kids today! I just turned 50! B^>

Yes, always be trying to do at least one new thing. At the moment I'm on a new old thing, enhancing a Web site with very slightly more daring CSS, and also getting better performance from my solar-powered RPi2 than I seem to be able to get from CloudFlare's state-of-the art monster operation! B^>

You're 33, you're not on the 'older side of the programmer market.'

If anyone tells you that, I suggest you take a long hard look at who they actually are.

When I was a junior programmer at 30, it sure felt like I was on the older side. :)

It's a separate subject, but there is a lot of age bias in the field.

I guess you have to be in the right place. I'm 28, and the most junior person on my team by at least 5 years in age and 8 in experience. It is great, since I have so many people to learn from.

I'm 28 and I wish I were the most junior on the dev team. Being a "lead" developer is fun, but I wish I had more people who I can actively learn from just by being around.

There are plenty of places where the "senior" developers have more than 5-6 years of experience.

I know how you feel. I'm 26.

Very true. I work at Fortune xx company and there are literally hundreds of developers in their 50s and early 60s. (ones older just retire). Many of them are head down workers reporting into managers who are 10-15 years younger (who probably don't make any more)

Do you have a source for that? As far as I can piece together by going through the 2016 and 2017 StackOverflow developer surveys, the median professional developer appears to be ~30yo, with ~8 years professional experience.

Don't you think there might be some implicit bias relying solely on a StackOverflow survey?

My source is that I know plenty of developers working in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60, which is anecdotal for you but reality for me.

I'm 30 and a senior developer. But I started out with an English degree and had planned to be an academic. In the intervening years I have been a technical writer, a business analyst, a QA and even had a ill-judged stint as a recruiter. Oh, and I was a UX designer for a year, albeit not a very good one.

Now I am thinking of becoming a lawyer or civil servant, but worry that I may no longer be mentally agile enough to learn a new skillset. So I'm very glad to read this article!

Incidentally, as someone heading the opposite way to yourself, do you have any advice / warnings for a developer thinking about law?

I know little about the career of law, but at age 60 I know something about seeking change. My advice: make sure you are shooting at a real target (a specific job that already exists) and not just in the general direction of a job title that sounds attractive.

Many attorneys seem to find that their abstract / academic "love of the law" doesn't translate into a tangible form that they can live with day to day. Many physicians discover the same thing -- the daily practice of medicine is not as charming as their inchoate notion of "healing the sick" suggested.

Concretely, after working in software for 30+ years, I'm grateful every day that the field is big enough that it let me evolve from one domain to another, and explore multiple skills and interests over the years. If I'd been trained only narrowly, perhaps as a PhD virologist, I doubt I would have been pleased at the slim variety of work opportunities that I was prepared to pursue.

You touch on a real concern and I'm not going to make any moves until I can put it to bed. Law would be a huge investment and I need confidence I could be happy in a variety of legal careers.

That being said, my motive has always been the work rather than the domain. Of course, law is very prestigious and sounds very impressive, but what really draws me is the chance to research, think and write in a way I haven't since university.

I originally wanted to be an academic, but the conditions and the realities of the work are quite depressing. Programming pays well, and I think I'm good at it, but my real skills are more verbal. I actually quite like the idea of combing through complex documents and trying to judge what's truly salient. For whatever reason it just seems my brain is wired to enjoy that kind of work. It's the same kick I got from literary criticism, poring over texts and slowly building an argument from a mass of details.

It's a hunch, anyway. Would you suggest any ways to validate it?

I went to school with a lot of people who later became lawyers. The only ones who are happy work in patent law as inside counsel. All the other ones seem pretty miserable.

learn new skills at a rapid clip

The secret is definitely to practice, I've found an even bigger shortcut is to convince/pay/beg an expert to be your coach or mentor. And once they are your coach, demonstrate that you respect their feedback by obeying when they tell you to update your approach.

As they say, perfect practice makes perfect.

As I get older it gets much much harder to feel stupid at something new when you know what it feels like to be very good at something else. This I feel is the key reason people stop picking up new skills, it feels miserable to be back at a beginner level and so much more satisfying to do something you’re proficient at.

However, if you can recognize this and reset your expectations then you will probably find you have extensive general skills to bring to bear around learning and self discipline. Those skills will make the actual learning process overall much quicker compared to learning your first few major skills, it just might not feel like it.

Actually I read your opening line the opposite way you intended, and agreed with my version of it!

I find myself less stressed by inevitable failures as I know that I have already proved myself in a number of ways, so anyone who infers idiocy from my learning stumbles may themselves be the idiot... %-P

One issue I'm having when learning new things (at 41) is memory. I don't feel less sharp than before, but I have a harder time to recall things that I studied a few months before. For instance, I regularly take coursera classes but one year later, I don't remember much. I'm trying to take more notes, hopefully it'll help.

Are you absolutely certain it was better when you were younger? I don't remember much from high school or college, especially for the classes where I crammed the night before exams.

If you do remember your studies better from youth, consider that a high school or college course is typically several months' worth of daily classes, while a Coursera class is maybe 10 hours total where your brain thinks you're vegging out at home alone watching TV. If you could somehow spare a full-time semester today at 41, I bet you'd retain a good amount of what you learned.

Do you exercize? At 25 my memory was great even after a week of sitting on my ass, but now that I'm 31 my memory goes straight to Hell if I don't break a sweat at least twice a week.

Copious notes helps too :)

I think the article paints too rosy a picture for older minds.

Yes you can learn things as you get older but the bar for your achievements gets lower and lower as you age.

Let's take chess: There are no cases of a novice starting to learn at the age of 25 and becoming a grandmaster. You need to do some of that deliberate practice at an early age. I suspect the case is the same for math,programming, violin playing etc.

Interesting thread on the topic is here: https://www.chess.com/forum/view/general/who-is-the-oldest-p...

It is not just the case of kids having more time to dedicate to a skill/hobby because there are people of independent means who pursue chess at an adult age and still fail to advance.

As you get older your ability to truly master a skill declines.

That does not mean that you can't become a productive programmer at age 60 or 70.

It just means that you will not achieve Bill Joy || Fabrice Bellard || John Carmack levels of proficiency and I suppose that is ok. :)

I doubt there are many cases of people starting to run at 25 and becoming Olympic sprinters either. And for the majority of us, that's ok. Learning when one is older is a quality of life issue. It's not about being the best at anything, but rather expanding one's horizons, keeping life fresh and interesting, finding something to challenge oneself and providing motivation and fulfillment. Those opportunities are available to almost anyone who is healthy regardless of age. Mastery is secondary, and it's a bit defeatist in my opinion to not start something new simply because it can't be mastered. Many activities can be enjoyed without achieving full proficiency.

> Let's take chess: There are no cases of a novice starting to learn at the age of 25 and becoming a grandmaster. You need to do some of that deliberate practice at an early age. I suspect the case is the same for math,programming, violin playing etc.

Most perfect information games are _extremely_ memorization biased. A huge part of gaining the initial skill to compete at a decent level is memorizing thousands of positions, openings, and mistakes by other players. It's only after that that the real play begins.

So it's no surprise that older people who don't have the time to invest into this cannot reach the upper echelons. At 25, over a third of your intellectual life is already gone. The raw time you have to learn the basics and experiment at the upper levels is cut in a third.

Bill Joy himself only started programming in graduate school.

It's true that as a general rule, if you haven't revolutionized (or greatly impacted) your field by age 30, you're likely not going to ever do it.

However, that doesn't mean that the mind of people over 30 doesn't work as well. It may just be that people have different personality types, some people don't care that much about revolutionizing the world, and those who do care do not require all that long to do it.

So by age 30 or so, you're left with two self-selected groups: those who passionately wished to change the world and those who focused on some other priority in life instead.

There's plenty of people who does revolutionary work after their 30s.

Look at current nobel prize winners in physics for example. Many of them weren't young when they did their most important work. I read an article about this some time ago, but I wasn't able to find it at the moment.

I don't know if you can surmise that older people can't become grandmasters. I doubt that older people have the time that younger people do to practice. Also, as the article talked about, older people are less likely to be vulnerable (ie temporarily look dumb) in order to get better.

So I think, there isn't enough data to conclude that someone older can't be a grandmaster. Though, most people won't be a grandmaster either way, so there aren't that many data points to go off of.

I think that becoming a "grandmaster" of anything is probably outside of the scope of this research as that is a whole other bucket of worms (probably).

And who knows how the prevailing wisdom that you can't teach an old dog new tricks affected the number of people who chose to try to become a grandmaster? Maybe your priorities change when you are older and it has nothing or less to do with raw ability?

Doesn't the level of grandmaster evolve over time - it is essentially a competition between players who are getting better and better?

That means you're not asking whether a 25 year old can achieve a static goal(e.g. read 50 books), but you're asking them to successfully compete with everyone else, which includes other 25 year olds but with 15+ years of experience.

> Yes you can learn things as you get older but the bar for your achievements gets lower and lower as you age.

Here's to hoping you aren't in a hiring position.

When I reached my early 30's I felt I was getting old.

Looking back I believe this is because I was indeed just past the age of physical prime and could feel the slight slowdown.

When I reached my early 40's all that went away and I kept forgetting I wasn't in my 20's. (although I certainly am not). I didn't feel "old" anymore, but did start to realize life was short and think more about the future.

I don't know if starting to feel "old" in early 30's is common or not. But 30's is a great decade. You certainly aren't "old" at that time relatively, no matter how much you suspect it. I didn't care so much for the 20's. You are still a kid in many ways with kid habits and not as much control over yourself as you learn later, but you don't know it. Or at least I didn't.

Eh, for me the health problems started once I turned 30 (I'm now in my mid-30s). So yeah, I feel a little old, because I get little reminders multiple times throughout the day. Nothing too bad, at least not yet, but enough that I suspect in ten to twenty years I'll be one of those with more serious problems.

Also even though I'm still pretty darn smart, my mental retrieval speed seems to be a lot slower than it used to be. Has made interviews in particular harder to get through.

However, on the plus side, I didn't really start getting comfortable in my own skin until my thirties either. Started figuring out how to talk to people without getting nervous or assuming they're judging every little thing I say and do, started dating a lot more (even though I was in much better physical shape a long time ago I was too self-conscious or kept making excuses not to take chances back then), and figured out some activities I really enjoy that I probably wouldn't have even attempted in my teens and twenties, so there's that.

Resonates with me. Either we aren't ready for society in our 20s or society isn't ready for us. Either way, I think there's a missed opportunity there for a better use of that decade.

The best time to have learned something new was 10 years ago. The second best time is now.

Education has no age limit.

Hiring does, though. It's clear that a compliant workforce is considered a greater necessity than a competent one.

And a cheap workforce is considered a greater necessity than a competent or compliant one.

I think the single largest obstacle for the older mind to learn is time. A lot more responsibilities curtails your ability to spend as much time as you want to learn a new skill.

One thing I've been trying to do lately is constantly be learning a new juggling trick. For years I just did what I could already do (which wasn't much, but 100% more than people who don't juggle at all), but I've been enjoying breaking down coordination barriers with new tricks (even simple ones) that are similar to things I have done but just different enough to mess my mind up.

> A simple lack of confidence may present the biggest barrier – particularly for older learners, past retirement, who may have already started to fear a more general cognitive decline.

I see this frequently in teaching. It's a horrible downward spiral. And it's been hard for me to learn tact, so I don't add to the problem.

Much of what this article says seems familiar from reading other pieces on this topic, but what was truly new (to me, at least) was the role that exercise/activity in making it possible to anchor and retain what is learned.

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