It’s graduation season, and if you listen closely you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief issuing forth from millions of graduates before they fling their mortar boards into the air, signifying the start of life in the real world. This is when commencement-day speakers tell students to knuckle down and focus like a laser on cultivating the kinds of specialized skills that will facilitate their entry into the ranks of the gainfully employed, with its promise of independence, self-respect, and a decent mortgage interest rate.
I never did the whole cap-and-gown thing in college (a feeble bourgeois gesture, according to my inflated sense of countercultural superiority), but I pursued my chosen career with the single-minded devotion of a groveling corporate ladder–climber. I subscribed to books and magazines about writing, pored over the works of writers I hoped to emulate, and spent most of my waking hours doing what I figured a real writer did. This left little vacancy in my pea-sized brain for extraneous knowledge.
In the 40-odd years since then, I’ve opened myself up to a smattering of learning experiences (raising a couple of kids doesn’t hurt), but I remain pretty narrowly focused on what I already know. This has allowed me to earn a reasonable living working with words — which was the idea, after all — but new research suggests I’m not doing my aging brain any favors.
In an article published earlier this month in the journal Human Development, University of California–Riverside psychology professor Rachel Wu, PhD, argues that geezers like me can best protect their gray matter by abandoning the “specialized” learning that tends to dominate our career paths and embracing a more childlike approach to skill building.
“We argue that across your lifespan, you go from ‘broad learning’ (learning many skills as an infant or child) to ‘specialized’ learning (becoming an expert in a specific area) when you begin working, and that leads to cognitive decline initially in some unfamiliar situations, and eventually in both familiar and unfamiliar situations,” Wu writes.
The difference between the two learning styles, she notes, can be explained by six factors that clearly favor youthful curiosity over experienced indifference:
- Open-minded vs. closed-minded. As we age, we’re less likely to travel outside our comfort zones.
- Consistent access to teachers and mentors vs. no access. They’re out there, of course, but we seldom seek them out.
- A growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset. Once we’re settled in our jobs, most of us feel like we know all we need to know.
- A forgiving environment vs. one in which failure comes with consequences. Why take a risk when it could get you fired?
- A serious commitment to learning vs. a lack of perseverance. The older we get, the less likely we are to soldier on through difficult subjects.
- Learning multiple skills simultaneously vs. a singular focus. It’s hard enough to learn one new thing at this age, so why push yourself?
If you need some persuading, there’s this: The Centers for Disease Control last week reported a 55 percent rise in Alzheimer’s deaths between 1999 and 2014. But Wu argues that geezers aren’t necessarily doomed to become part of that trend. Indeed, we have more influence over the functionality of our aging brains than we may think. “What I want adults to take away from this study is that we can learn many new skills at any age,” she explains. “It just takes time and dedication. We seem to make it very difficult on ourselves and other adults to learn. Perhaps this is why some aspects of cognitive aging are self-imposed.”
I really have no excuse for my narrow perspective on learning, living as I do with a woman who discovers some new subject worth exploring about as often as I change my socks. On any given day, My Lovely Wife may be studying the nesting habits of bees, laboring over a new painting, or exploring the origins of a Baha’i holiday. If I was a bit more cooperative and slightly less affected by public humiliation, we might still be taking French classes.
And while I suppose there’s still some hope for my aging neurons, this season’s newly minted graduates have a real chance of maintaining their love of learning as they move through the corporate world. Qui sait? It might even help a few of them reach the top of that ladder.