Too Old?

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

How often do we buy into this old saying? It seems to embody the notion that when people get to a certain age, they can stop learning. Yes, I know, the saying talks about dogs. But is that all it’s really saying to us?

We do get stuck in our ways and prefer not to learn new methods or approaches to our work or daily routine. The familiar is comforting and rewards us with a feeling of safety in the knowledge that we can do it – whatever “it” is.

Why do we buy into the notion that you can’ t teach “old dogs” new things? Moving out of our comfort zones is difficult. I’m not talking about taking a new route to the grocery store or getting up earlier than usual. I’m talking about the gut-wrenching agony of facing what you know must change and doing it. It means taking the leap into the unknown. Change is good, but it’s still hard (and sometimes scary).

I see people regularly who are beginning a new career and learning everything that comes with new places, people, responsibilities, and tools to do the work. I have become a good judge of which people will step out of their comfort zones and succeed and which ones will retreat to the familiar. For some, this embrace of a new, unfamiliar profession is very frightening. They may know that what they’ve embarked upon requires them to learn new things, but they don’t always want to. It’s easier to fall back on what you’ve done before.

My job requires me to “teach old dogs new tricks” and reassure them about their capabilities. They think they can’t learn something new – meaning they aren’t well-enough equipped to learn – and vulnerable to doubt. I teach, I cajole, I encourage, I help, and I give them a dose of reality before they walk out the door of my classroom.

You see, regardless whether someone can learn “new tricks” or not, he/she needs to want to learn and be willing to keep learning. Our brains do not turn off when we hit a certain age. We cannot say we’ve learned everything we need to know and coast until our lives come to an end. If we choose a new profession, we can be assured that we’ll need to learn new things to be successful in that role.

I prefer to continue to learn. I recognize that I’m a bit different than many people. Nothing excites me more than the prospect of gaining knowledge and skills to accomplish something interesting. It’s not always easy, and I don’t always do everything perfectly, but I do get satisfaction from the process of learning.

I am not immune to the fear of getting out of my comfort zone though. Because of this, I understand well how new learners want to protect themselves and not step out into the unknown. I believe that all instructors need to understand this fear and help learners step out and try new things regardless. We are definitely not too old to learn “new tricks.”

Do one thing every day that scares you.” Eleanor Roosevelt.

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