My earliest years were spent in a land-locked country. There were some rivers, but my memories of rivers feature funeral pyres and hindu shrines, built up on the riverbanks, speckled with bright red and orange flowers and random cheeky, pesky monkeys, stealing the fruit offerings. Never swimming in a river. I do remember boating on a lake – a row row row your boat kinda boat, but I don’t ever remember actually being in the water of the lake. The only place where we ever went swimming, was at a hotel when we lived in the city, and how we wrangled that, I’m not sure. But it wasn’t a common event and certainly not common enough to build any proper swimming skills in me. So when I went to school in New Zealand and when the whole school would jump on a bus to head into the pools in the city centre, and when we were divided up into ability groups, I was very quickly plonked in the very lowest of the groups.
Bam. Teach that kid to tread water. Teach her to float. The very basics.
Now I was eight at the time and surprise surprise I was plonked in a group with mostly newly turned five year olds in it. Pretty much every kid in my school level could do the basics already and were grouped in the big kids pool. Me, I was stuck in the very shallows of the learners pool.
I wasn’t too impressed by this, so I worked on my swimming. I listened to whatever the teacher tried to teach me, then in the weekends and school holidays I got myself to the pools to practice. And practice I did. And by hook and by crook, I pretty much taught myself how to swim, through trial and error. So that the next year, when those school buses pulled up at the school and we began our noisy ride to the steamy concrete pools, full of chlorine that stung and reddened our eyes, I knew that I wasn’t going to have another humiliating experience of being in the shallowest end of the learners pool. I could swim, maybe not like a fish, but enough to be at least with stragglers my own age. And that felt good enough for me.
I had a similar experience when I started ballet. I absolutely loved to dance…….I began with jazz dancing at the age of ten and I begged and begged my parents to add in ballet as well. They relented when I was eleven and I joined the ranks of the R.A.D students. Now jazz dancing is easy to pick up at any age and to be in a class with any similar-age kids, but ballet, not so much. You really need to learn the basics and master the basics and work your way up the grade levels, to be able to handle the harder stuff. So here I was at age 11, in a class of five year olds again. Of course at the time I didn’t see that and recognize that negative feeling I got from that was one of ‘shame’, but I knew I didn’t like it. So once again, I just worked hard. I practiced and I practiced. I listened and I copied and I practiced some more, and I used all the shame and embarrassment to drive that desire in me to improve and do better. And I did. I was never an amazing dancer, but I worked hard and I progressed up the levels and my very wise teacher allowed me to skip a grade or two and by the age of 18 when I finished high school I was dancing five days a week, including teaching lower grades for my teacher and absolutely loving everything about the world of dance.
When you’re a little bit motivated and a little bit inspired, it is amazing what you can teach yourself to do. And. It’s a heck of a lot easier to teach yourself things the younger you are.
How is that?? You’d think that the older you are, the more skills you’ve got in your toolbox, right? But, no. Somehow it doesn’t work like that. It’s a scientifically proven fact that the older you are, the harder it is to learn new things. There are studies galore about this…..with reasons ranging from: your brain looses its plasticity (the ability to form new pathways) with age, your experiences of learning new things aren’t consolidated as well with age, as they are as a child, and there’s even a thing where your sleep changes during puberty and the type of sleep you end up having post-puberty is not conducive to helping learning new skills. That’s not super encouraging though, is it? Not when you’re someone who actually likes to learn and likes to develop new skills for a job requirement or out of interest, or even as a necessary step to help manage your health (like my husband had to when diagnosed with type one diabetes out of the blue at age 35).
So what can you do to help with new learning? I’ve been thinking about this and reading a little and have a few little thoughts on this……
Allow for more rest. Your brain is working hard. Your body is not a battery that just keeps going and going. You need to recharge. You need sleep and you need rest. Without sleep you cannot actually commit new experiences to memory.
Allow for more self-love. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person in the universe that blames herself for x, y and z, when that’s totally not called for, and that revs up about five thousand notches the minute I can’t do something new. We never ever expect children to be able to read Chaucer after their first week of school, do we? We teach reading in steps. We progress from short sentences to longer sentences. We advance from shorter words to longer, harder words. We encourage and we’re patient. We need to be the same for ourselves, whenever we’re learning something new. Whatever that new thing is.
Allow for more courage to try new things. I think courage breeds courage. All you need is a little to start with, and it somehow, magically, it multiplies. Do the next hard thing, and then the next, and then the next. I didn’t learn to drive in New Zealand. I had a whole heap of reasons and excuses not to, but after we moved to America, after I’d left all my friends and family and moved with my husband and two small children to a place that I’d never been to, all of a sudden I had this new found courage in me to tackle other new things. So I learnt to drive. On the wrong side of the road. And I made my husband sit the test before me, so I could learn the route and feel more confident. But I did it. What had previously been something that was too hard for me, became something I had the courage for. And I haven’t ever regretted that.
Allow more letting go. This is something I don’t do well, but see the need to really work on. It’s all too easy to hold onto all the ‘I can’t dos’ and ‘I wish I could do betters’….that’s easy…a better narrative would be ‘I’m working on that’, ‘That’s something that is in process for me’. Just recently I was working on a problem in one of my jobs, and I openly made the comment to my boss that I wished I was an accountant as then I’d be able to solve that problem easily. And then I felt dumb for saying that. I know I don’t have that training, but more importantly, my boss knows very well I don’t have that training – all I need to do in any situation is do my very best and seek out help when I need to. And let go of all the things I’m not yet……emphasis on the yet….
Looking back, I can see that teaching myself to swim and learning how to dance when I was the ancient of days in the classes, were actually easy things. I had oodles of time, passion and determination all in my arsenal. It may be harder to learn things as a adult, but it’s definitely not impossible, and it helps to know you’ve got a cheering squad by your side, which is what I have in my amazing friends and bosses. When it comes to learning anything new, I’ve got people telling me they believe in me, that I can do it. And that makes the world of difference. I hope you have that too. If I can do hard things, you can too. Let’s do hard things together.