Starting a new job in a field I have little knowledge of is really testing my ability to adapt, which is making me think about life as an older person.
I think it’s a pretty common perception among younger people that as we get older we struggle more to learn new things. We might call it getting set in our ways or, less kindly, believe that older people no longer have the capability to change with the times. At the same time, we stress how important it is to keep challenging our aging brains so as to keep them active.
I wonder, though, if the fact that we take longer to assimilate new information as we get older, is due to us having a greater experience of just how complex most things are. At thirty we see the world as black and white, right and wrong. We look at the most up to date piece of data and we build our rules upon that, constantly adjusting as new pieces of data hit our consciousness. In some ways, we emulate robots by doing numerous incredibly fast revisions, reshaping the world every second. At sixty, we take a longer view and say, wow, over the course of each minute we need to make 60 revisions to the way the world is and that’s really complicated and I’m rather daunted by it. We can also tend to think that it is better to get to the end of the minute and act on the collected data rather than make all those micro-adjustments. It doesn’t mean that either of us, young or old, is less capable of getting to the same point, but it can look like older people are slow, or reluctant to learn.
Experience is something you only really come to value as you get older. Young people are still full of wonder and life is an adventure. They don’t want to know that everyone has done it all before. They do not want to face the idea that they are no more unique than anyone else.
I think we can all learn from each other. When a younger person has more knowledge or experience of a particular thing than you do, take advantage of it. When an older person throws in a hint of caution or wants to apply the brakes a bit, consider whether they are acting on their own experience and could have a valid point of view.
Always keep in mind that life is incredibly complex and it’s just not easy.
When I finished writing last Friday about Edward Scissorhands, a fairly definitive movie when it comes to not fitting in, I got to thinking about the choices we make during our lives in order to fit in with certain people or groups, the camouflage we choose (or are encouraged) to adopt, and how that can result in us feeling less like ourselves than we should. However long and however hard we try to fit in, the truth is that the only person you can ever truly rely on is yourself, as these two lines in a song from the musical “Chess” (by Tim Rice/Beny Andersson/Bjorn Ulvaeus) convey:-
No-one in your life is with you constantly,
No-one is completely on your side.
Although as I get older I am less inclined to make compromises in order to fit in, I think it’s pretty fair to say that there have been vast stretches of my life when I have curbed my own natural interests in order to fit better with the friends or colleagues that I have had at that time. For me, this has always started out as a creative endeavour, like trying on a different character for a while to see what it feels like, but I always end up feeling that my ‘real’ character has been submerged. This doesn’t only happen in the real world. For my generation, getting older has coincided with the rise of digital friendship and a whole new way of being influenced and of feeling a need to fit in. Quite simply, we are exposed to many more options right now than we have ever had in the past and that just increases the pressure to comply.
It seems a shame, but there are more interesting things in this world than any of us can experience in one lifetime and we have to make a choice about what we are going to pursue and what we are going to leave on the sidelines. For me, this has included accepting that I’m not going to sew garments for myself, even though I am confident that I could bring my skills up to speed and there’s a whole host of clothes I’d love to sew. It took me some years to understand that this is just not the road I’m going to walk. I would rather spend my time knitting, and there is enough of that to occupy me for at least one lifetime. I am aware, though, that every exposure to people who are happily sewing away and producing great-looking outfits, results in that twang of “I could do that” aspiration. And don’t even get me started on all the paper planners in the world at the moment! We must teach ourselves to deal with such influences, or we must act to avoid them entirely.
The big problem is that we can spend a lot of time and money on things that aren’t quite right for us, even though we know that isn’t the best use of our resources. When we invest in a particular interest and don’t pursue it, those items become part of the clutter in our lives that needs to be purged and, although it isn’t healthy, it is so much easier to simply accommodate the clutter than to actually sort it out. I think the modern trend for simplification and minimalism is not only about reducing physical things, but also a push to reduce the choices we have and the influences that we allow to work on us.
Fortunately, some things are relatively easy to ignore, the things you know you could never master if you practiced for a thousand years. For me, those are painting/drawing and driving; a number of people have this same reaction with swimming or cycling and I am sure there are countless others. Knitting, perhaps? In this case the knowledge is a combination of lack of interest in the activity, lack of desire and/or incentive to achieve the outcome, and lack of talent. Yes, sometimes people just don’t have the talent to pursue a particular skill, but you know what? They have loads and loads of other talents that make up for it.
So, what do we lose when we try to fit in and thereby sideline things that are important to ourselves in favour of things that are important to someone else? To understand that, we need to think about how we feel when we are doing the things that are important to us, that do interest us, that we are talented at. We feel our spirits lighten, we walk with a spring in our step, we think of the future – making plans, dreaming dreams – and we finish things because they engage our interest and make us happy. When we set aside the things we enjoy, life becomes a drudge, our brains may be engaged, but our hearts are locked away in a box, we envy others and, often, we delude ourselves.
It is, unfortunately, not simple to learn what interests you, which endeavours are worthwhile and which are simply interesting, even what the authentic you below all the camouflage really consists of. It takes time; I am sorry to say it probably takes a whole lifetime and maybe even more than that. Although none of us wants to face it when we are young, in this instance there really is no substitute for experience.
Related to this subject, here’s a couple of tunes which I never thought I would mention in the same breath!
“I know him so well” Elaine Page and Barbara Dickson
“Mis-Shapes” Pulp (interested in Pulp? This blog is doing a song-by-song analysis!)