You’re Never Too Old to Learn or Change

Setting up a Context That Works for Big Learning Changes in Your Life

Surprisingly often, we feel guilty about changing our careers or learning something new. When we are in our twenties, we think, “I could have been a first-rate guitarist if I’d just started when I was a kid!” When we reach age sixty, we look wistfully back at the more open possibilities of our thirties. We forget that when we were in our thirties, our options often seemed equally limited and that even college freshmen look with envy on other students who began studying French, physics, or philosophy in high school. No matter what our age, we often feel too old to learn something new.

Often, it’s hard to realize that the path not taken always seems alluring—and to see that there are benefits to the path you have taken. Retraining your brain to master something new as an adult can have profound benefits—not only for you, but for those around you and for society as a whole. These benefits are so valuable that you may be surprised to learn that even the world’s most accomplished people actively seek out career change. Some even plan for regular changes in their careers ahead of time. Stephen Hicks, a professor of philosophy at Rockford University in Illinois, observes:

When I was a grad student and becoming serious about a career in philosophy, I was impressed by a profile I read about Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the physicist. His strategy was to read and think intensively for several years in one area of physics and then write several papers and an overarching book to integrate the ideas. Then he would shift to another, often quite different, area in physics and do the same thing. Over the decades, he avoided rut thinking and was able to make creative contributions to many areas.

Since philosophy is such a sprawling discipline, and since one feature that attracted me to philosophy is its fundamentality to many different intellectual areas, I resolved to follow Chandrasekhar’s strategy. Since finishing grad school, my career has been in six-year units—four years of reading, thinking, and writing shorter articles in an area and then two years to finish a book. Then I jump to another distinct area.

The six year pattern was not mechanically scheduled but emerged organically. And while I’ve worked in several distinct areas now, there are nonetheless connections between them, so I expect and plan that by the time I am done, I will have completed work that integrates to form an overall philosophy.

Shifting your mindset about your capabilities often isn’t easy. Those around you can sometimes conspire to keep you where you are instead of where you want to go. There are different ways to deal with this challenge.

Leave: If the situation is toxic, “damn the torpedoes” and remove yourself from it.

Double life: Live a double life for a while, simulating the old lifestyle and interests, while developing new interests on the side.

Contrarian: Take pride in being a contrarian. The more others say you will fail, the more it can bolster your internal resolve. This worked for Adam Khoo, who set up interim goals—like getting into a well-known junior college—that proved to himself as well as to others that he could achieve his aims. Keep in mind, however, that it’s important to choose reachable and doable interim goals and checkpoints to assess your progress. For example, if you try as hard as you can but repeatedly get a very low score on the MCAT, it may be time to reassess your dream of medical school.

If you are lucky, those around you will support you in your attempts to change. Rejoice and use the opportunity to go as deep as you can into the learning opportunity.

Don’t play up mental roadblocks that will keep you from a newly discovered passion. But don’t minimize important considerations either—like whether you’ve got at least the basics of what it might take to succeed. You don’t want to be like a cluelessly bad karaoke singer warbling haplessly into the night.


Adapted from Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D. © 2017 by Barbara Oakley. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.


Photo Credit: Asiseeit/iStock

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