Just because you’re old, say over 25, doesn’t mean you can’t learn new stuff

piano keyboard

Over the weekend, a story aired on NPR Weekend Edition Saturday called, Never Too Late To Learn An Instrument. I encourage you to listen to it.

While it’s about adults taking up an instrument for the first time (good news: it’s doable), I believe one can extend the lessons contained in the story to adults learning anything new. The primary point is this: there is nothing about the adult brain that makes it impossible for adults to learn how to play a musical instrument — or learn a new language or to master a killer top-spin cross-court backhand in tennis.

It’s a myth that only children can learn to play the piano — or “how to use the Internet,” for that matter.

Certainly, there are tremendous advantages to learning things as a child: children’s brains are still developing and they think it’s normal to be in situations where someone is teaching them to do something.

So why do adults believe they can’t learn how to play the piano?

More than a neurological limitation, the reason we adults don’t learn new things like how to play a musical instrument is because of our attitudes. According to the NPR story, one of the primary reasons we don’t take up music is our disdain for being incompetent. Hey, we’re adults. We’re used to knowing how to do stuff. We don’t like it when we’re in situations where we’re inept, like, say, when everyone around us knows how to play a videogame and we don’t know how to operate a joystick (I picked an example from my own life). So we say, “Videogames are for kids.”

However, there is nothing scientific that suggests an adult can’t learn to play videogames. Or how to program in Python. Or play a piano. Or edit video. Or shoot video. Or understand what Twitter is all about.

OK. You’re over 25 and you’ve never played the piano. If you start now, will you ever be a concert pianist? Probably not. But you can become an incredible player — much better than you’d ever believe possible. And certainly better than everyone else who won’t even try — i.e., nearly everyone you know.

The same is true about doing anything new. No matter how old you are.

[photo credit: droid – via: Flickrcc]

  • From the NPR summary:

    “But those who do try to learn the piano, the trumpet or violin later in life discover that the biggest obstacles have nothing to do with innate ability or IQ.”

    Another obstacle for people picking up a violin, or a second language, or basic Internet know-how, is to say, “I’m just not musically inclined,” or “Languages just don’t come easy to me.”

    What they don’t realize is that it’s not easy for anyone. I learned a second language, and at no point did I find it easy. Often people hear a good musician and they think that person just sort of “gets it” whereas others don’t have a chance. Not the case…

  • Thanks for adding that Matt. “I’m just not good at ______” is a universal crutch. I recently read Gladwell’s Outliers which echos the line Dizzy Gillespie is sometimes credited with: All it takes to master something is spending 10,000 practicing. Being “inclined” or “gifted” may help people learn something more easily or naturally than others, but it is not why some people are great at something, while others are not. Hard work is the primary difference.

  • Hudge

    I learned ballroom dancing after turning 55. I wasn’t all that great, but I mastered steps and timing and so on. It’s like anything else – some people will be better than others. You have to manage your expectations, at any age.

  • roy hammock

    Good one, bro. A reintroduction to French at 58-59 has been quite rewarding as I can now afford to go where its actually spoken and befriend those who will actually tolerate and appreciate my efforts. Same with fly fishing (yep, I gave up the bait) and bow hunting (no more smoke pole), and photography and Photoshop and on and on…….. Isn’t education/enlightenment the essence of “growing” older with at least a little grace? I thank God for the wonder and excitement I feel with every new tidbit I learn.

  • Speaking of wonder and excitement. Thanks for commenting, Roy. Or should a spell it Roi? Merci.

  • My great-grandmother decided to learn piano when she was 75. She never became a concert pianist, but she did accompany a church congregation (on organ, sometimes) — for some twenty years.