I hate “Old dog can’t learn new tricks” phrase, because it’s untrue and really discouraging. I’m 40 years old and I’m learning constantly new things, feeling smarter than ever. Should I already give up with learning or do I have few more years left? I cannot see any reasons to stop learning, but I do know persons of my age that seems to be fixed with their current skills unable to learn new. They have nothing wrong with their brains, it’s all about their attitude. By believing that you are too old to learn, you become one.
Peak of scientific genius
A study Age and Scientific Genius (Benjamin Jones et al. 2014) shows that the biggest scientific contributions are produced by rather old age, not as a youngster. Also it seems that the average age of scientific breakthrough (~40 years) is increasing all the time. After that the frequency of scientific contributions naturally starts slow decrease, but seems to be caused by other reasons than low creative capasity. For example career might lead to more managerial or institutional positions where research time is more limited.
If it is possible to have your intellectual peak at older age, you must be naturally capable of learning.
It is common “fact” that kids learn faster than adults – or is it a fact. The best learning advantage of Kids over adults is that they do not fear to fail. When they fail, they learn from it and try again, without any shame. Junior employees typically also have same attitude – trying and failing is nothing to shame for. When you get older, you start thinking more how smart you look for others, which might cause you to avoid challenges. You learn by trying new things, not by avoiding them.
Also be careful not to get stucked with your old expertise. World changes and you should keep up with the change – or you are ready to retire. Typical excuse to not learn is something like “I’m low level C-programmer, not [insert any modern technology here]”, which sounds to me as saying “Hi, I’m a dinosaur and about to be extinct”.
Every challenge and new technology is a learning opportunity. Be humble and forget your distinguished expert status. Everyone will respect you even more, when you keep learning new things.
Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.
– Henry Ford
Advantages of being adult
If you want to succeed, you need to be motivated and prepared to work hard. As an “old dog” you understand what is important to your career, so finding your motivation should be a lot simplier than finding it for a teenager studying math. You also might have previous knowledge with similar patterns/structures as new subject, making learning easier. With those advantages and your super-extra-fragilistic working ethic, you learn definitely faster than youngsters!
And it’s not only intellectual things that you can learn, but also physical activities. There are of course some limitations, because your body just becomes older, but you still can learn new things. At older age it’s quite common to start playing golf or practise for marathon, but even learning skateboarding is possible. I just loved the interview of famous musician Ben Harper by Transworld Skateboarding magazine. At age 45 he still learns new stuff – and believe me, those tricks are pretty heavy stuff!
I Object! I have proofs that kids learn faster. I know family that lived a two years in Hungary and now their kids speak Hungarian like natives, while parents are only adequate. That is true, but their situations cannot be compared. Kids were in school and basically learned language whole day, while parents used other language as their work and learned basics from a book.
In article Children Learning Languages faster than Adults: The Argument Continues in Vietnam Antonio Graceffo writes about his experiences about learning foreign languages. If kids are exposed 8 hours per day to new language and adults try occassionally after work to learn it By book, situation is definitely different. He is convinced that in same situations adults are learning faster, since they can use their full knowledge and experience to support learning process.
Anne Merritt’s article Are children really better at foreign language learning? is also explaining how adults learn faster by having broader conceptual understanding and better ability to find patterns. Typically kids learn to pronounce better adn therefore considered closer to native speaker, but that should not be the only measure. My personal experience is, that after adult pronounces well enough to be understood, most focuses on other areas like vocabulary and grammar.
Old dog learns new tricks. Only thing that can prevent it is your own attitude. Believe in learning at any age and remember that failing is part of the learning. Remember to use your experience and working ethic as an advantage.
If still have doubts, just start by learning something very small and easy. If you are able to take that small step and your brains won’t explode, take another step and another and another … and soon you’ll be running.