Mastering new skills is not optional in today’s business and career environment. “In a fast-moving, competitive world, being able to learn new skills is one of the keys to success,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist and author of the HBR Single Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.
In fact, many people need to learn a new skill right now, if they want to get ahead in a job, change careers, start a new business, or pick up a new part time job during “retirement.” But what if you feel super-glued to a life you just don’t want. You have always aspired to start a business or go back to college but just don’t feel like you can acquire the skills to do so.
How do we learn new skills as an adult? Can you really teach an old dog new tricks?
Thankfully – the answer to the latter question is YES. Up until recently, the accepted view was that we gradually lose brain cells – up to 40 percent of our neurons – as we get older, hence the forgetfulness, lack of focus and mental slowness we associate with senility. However, this has been debunked.
New research, as recently reported by New York Times Health Editor Barbara Strauch, indicates that there is hope for our aging brain. Indeed, Stauch said, “What is stuffed into your head may not have vanished but has simply been squirreled away in the folds of your neurons.“
This is based on the longest, largest study about what happens to people as they age, the Seattle Longitudinal Study. This continuing research has followed 6,000 people since 1956, testing them every seven years. The study has found that, on average, participants performed better on cognitive tests in their late 40s and 50s than they had in their 20s.
Older people did better on tests of vocabulary, spatial orientation skills (imagining what an object would look like if it were rotated 180 degrees), verbal memory (how many words you can remember) and problem solving.
However, where older folks did less well is in their number ability (how quickly you can multiply, add, subtract and divide) and perceptual speed (how fast you can push a button when prompted).
The good news is that with more complex tasks such as problem-solving and language, we are at our best at middle age and beyond. In short, researchers are now finding scientific proof that we do get wiser with age.
So, then how do we learn new skills as an adult?
One key difference between adult learning and learning as a child is motivation. Adults are motivated by time and by the things we need to learn to get from A to B to reach our goals.
Because everyone learns a bit differently, a good way to get started learning something new is to start by experimenting and tracking how you learn best. Try experimenting with time of day; are you more focused in the evening or early morning?
In addition, don’t try to cram it all into a short period of time like you did in high-school or college. A review of studies in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that spreading out learning is far more effective than cramming. So, Instead of trying to learn a skill by taking a 2 hour long class every night, give yourself a lot of time overall, and practice with small chunks throughout the day. Practice is important. However, how we practice is just as important as practicing itself.
Change, and the ability to learn something new, is possible at any age – if the motivation and courage are there.
Let me know if you have tips for learning something new based on your experiences, in the comment field below.