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Why It’s Worth Learning Something New As An Adult (Even When It Seems Scary)

For many of us, the idea of learning something brand new as an adult from playing the clarinet to basketball can seem downright daunting. And while it may be scientifically easier to learn a new skill as a child, there’s no reason not to start whether you’re 18 or 81. Keep reading to discover our expert tips on the subject and feel inspired to take that fencing lesson, dance class or photography course.

What are some of the benefits of learning a new skill as we age?

Aside from the excitement of discovering a new passion or hobby, there are plenty of scientific reasons behind why it’s worth learning an unfamiliar skill as we age. “Learning requires us to create new connections in our brains, so we keep things fresh so to speak,” explains Stephanie Bolster McCannon, organizational psychologist and author of BolsterUp! “Engaging in new hobbies or skills as we get older allows us to create new neural networks which leads to fresh perspectives and exciting ‘aha moments,’ not to mention it invigorates our appetite for more living.” 

Plenty of research agrees — one 2019 study revealed that learning several new things at once increases cognitive abilities in older adults. After just a month and a half of learning multiple tasks which ranged from language lessons to using an iPad, participants in the study (who were aged 58–86), increased their cognitive abilities to levels similar to those of middle-aged adults.

Aside from the brain boosting benefits, McCannon adds that the social connections made from participating in something new is wildly beneficial to health and happiness.

What are a few top tips when it comes to tackling a new hobby as an adult?

First and foremost, McCannon tells Lively It’s important to be more patient with yourself as you take on learning something fresh as an adult. “Because much of our neurobiology has been wiring and firing together for so long, it may take a bit of an extra effort to create new neural connections,” she explains, adding that all learning takes place by repetition, so to speed the process along, take notes, review your notes later that day (rewrite them if necessary) and practice the skill often.

Ulrich Boser, author of Learn Better, writes that when it comes to developing a new skill, evaluations are also crucial as we need targeted feedback. He gives the example of picking up the sport of basketball again as an adult — before he started taking classes with a seasoned instructor, he would go to the local court and practice without any real focus.

Once he started meeting up with the instructor, they’d work on very detailed aspects of the game and he was given discrete homework between trainings like lying on his back and practicing his shooting form. “When we have a sense of what we want to learn and start to do that learning, we need some information on how we’re performing,” Boser states. Long story short: don’t be afraid to tap into the experts for help and feedback.

One other interesting bit of insight from McCannon to consider is that meditation can enhance learning, memory and recall time, so it may be worth picking up the practice alongside your new skill.

How can someone get over fear of feeling “too old” to try an unexplored skill?  

As McCannon notes, getting over the fear of feeling “too old” to pick up a new hobby can be the biggest challenge and requires a simple mindset shift. Her suggestion to tackle it? Make a list of the beliefs that surround this fear or feeling “too old.” Think about things like how this belief originated, what makes the belief true and what makes it false. 

“I would also recommend finding a good life coach that can guide you through these fears and feelings — just ‘going for it’ may be too overwhelming for many and then they never take any necessary steps for getting involved in the new skill, hobby or learning,” she points out. 

Suggestions for getting over feeling like you need to be instantaneously “good” at something?

There’s no doubt that we live in a culture of instant gratification which makes us perpetually impatient, even when it comes to learning. McCannon shares that it’s important to remember no one is instantaneously “good” at something — while it may be true that someone can have an easier time learning depending on a variety of factors, “it’s simply not accurate that it’s instant and without some effort.”

Boser adds that we’re bound to struggle when it comes to learning a new craft. He writes that to develop a skill, “we’re going to be uncomfortable, strained, often feeling a little embattled.” It’s worth filing away this little bit of insight and that success doesn’t happen overnight. 

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