Monday, November 24, 2014

"Only too old when you're dead"

When is it too late to start?

"My belief is you're only too old when you're dead."

A friend of mine posted that sentence this weekend, and it just resonated with me.  I have never met Windi.  We are friends of mutual friends on facebook, and admire each other from that distance.   (Well, I can only speak for myself - I admire her...).  As our mutual friend said once, 'Windi is a force of nature - she decides to do something, and throws herself into it with no sense that she is not world class at it.  And pretty soon, she is teaching her flamenco instructor moves.'

Is it any wonder I am a fan?

Windi decided to start learning the fiddle, so that she could play Irish tunes.  Nobody showed her how, she just bought a violin, accessed some online videos and started playing. 

At first, she posted progress online, and her playing was somewhere south of virtuoso.  But I was intrigued, and followed her progress, always looking forward to the next video sample.  It was not long before the tunes were not only recognizable, but even pretty good.

Now, just one year removed from her first sawing of bow and string, she is looking for a band to play with.  I can't wait to hear her first jam session.

My sister Caroline picked up the accordion when she was in London a couple of years ago at age 39.  And no, she was not looking to polka or even (sadly) zydeco.  She had in mind the image of the French cafe accordion player.  And for several months, she just played (um) quietly in her apartment in her spare time, teaching herself left fingering and right keyboarding and chord progression, and....

And one day she had her window open and people under her apartment shouted up some encouragement.  She has since played in bars and auditions and teaches herself new songs all the time.

What is it that you feel is beyond you?  Sure, high school French was brutal, but you find that you are intrigued by Mandarin Chinese? You have a hidden passion for stargazing, and want to learn astronomy? Or is there a musical instrument that you want to play?

Is it too late? Is it true, that Old Dogs Cannot Learn New Tricks?

Our understanding of neural pathways is based on a use-it-or-lose-it model.  If you have not learned what you need by the time you hit puberty, it is too late.  No late-life prodigies in music.  No second career geniuses in foreign languages.

Linguistics studies particularly point to an early developmental time frame when language acquisition is possible, and anything after that is impacted by the fact that you didn't learn it when you were 5 years old.  The brain wires itself along specific neural pathways, linguists tell us, and re-routing those pathways is almost impossible.

Badgerdoodle.  Absolute poppysmeg.

We rewire neural pathways all the time.  We learn new words, new names, and we stick them in  our memory banks in different ways.  Yes, we adults have established a way of learning and those pathways are entrenched.  That might make it hard to organize that new knowledge.

But we also have experience under our belts on what learning works best for us.

Maybe you are a kinetic learner, and know that you learn best while doing aerobics.  Or you are an auditory learner, and can put things to music to memorize them.  Because you have experience with learning, you can take advantage of what you already know about yourself to make the learning easier.

I am convinced that the main difference between adults and kids is embarassment.  Not that kids are not embarassed by making a mistake in public (I recall a particularly horrifying moment when I was in fourth grade crying while cutting edges off of the paper I was turning in) but that adults encourage the kid when mistakes are being made.  And adults who are motivating themselves see the embarassment as a reason to stop.

But consider this: when you were learning your first language, how many times did your parents have to repeat the following sequence before you got it right?

"Dat gog toy."
"That's right, son.  That's the dog's toy."
"Dat gog toy."
"That's right. That's the dog's toy."

Why would it be any different to learn to speak Basque?  New words, new order, new syntax, new everything.  We are going to mispronounce the words, and use the wrong forms, over and over. We will fail and grit our teeth and try again, and fail again.  Just like when we were kids.  Is it just that we are more hardwired to high expectations?

My friend Adam works in knowledge management, and has been studying how organizations share information. And the change to sharing of information in the corporation requires three things: (check out his blog), motivation, ability, and trigger.

I think that the analogy is pretty apt for use in learning any new task, not just in corporate learning.  We all use these tasks in taking on a new task that we have never done before, whether learning computer coding or making French sauces.  We need the motivation, we need the ability, and we need the trigger.

The motivation is probably the greatest change between learning a new task for a child versus learning a new task for an adult.  Mom made me take piano lessons when I was in second grade.  What was my motivation there?  Was it because I decided I needed to be able to play music? 

Um, no.

But when my wife decides that she wants to learn the piano as an adult, what is her motivation?  No longer is it just a matter of pleasing her mom.  She is her own motivator.

The ability sector is "teaching people how to do things." This is the practice.  The physical repetition of the fingering, repeating the vocalizations until you can make a voiced glottal fricative on command, or the practicing of the steps until the samba is second nature. 

The final piece, as I understand it, is the trigger - the place where we re-create the response.  If you always listen to your Russian conversation tapes in the car on your drive to work, then your Russian is going to be strongest in the car, where the association is strongest (part of the reason that you are suggested to practice taking standardised tests in the room where you will be taking them). 

None of this is beyond the grasp of someone who wants to learn.

Will it be frustrating?  YES.

Will it be vexing? YES. 

Will you get a strange gratification when something makes sense? YES.

And see, that is the beauty of learning anything new - the gratification (elation, even?) of succeeding.  But instead of running to mom to share the success, I get it all to myself.  And then I reinforce it with more work on the ability sector.  And reinforce it again.  And again.... smiling with each repeated success.

It is terrifying to jump into something new.  My wife bought me a banjo this year, and I practice every free moment.  But I gotta confess - I am terror-stricken when I think of playing my banjo in front of people.  My hands shake at the best of times, and the thought of adding a little performance anxiety to top it off, well, I am pretty frightened. That embarassment potential is almost reason enough to stop.
But maybe all that means is that I need to change the trigger.  Maybe move to a more public place for playing the three songs I currently have in my repertoire.  Stretch my comfort zone to include front porch playing.  Maybe post a short video of Cripple Creek.  Laugh at the mistakes, and know that eventually, that sentence will come out right. 
"That's the dog's toy." 



For those who teach, a nice blog entry from the teacher's perpective can be found here. 


1 comment:

aunt Patty said...

W bat a primary pledge that I get a minute I concert over the phone. I love to hear you play.