Let me state clearly, from the outset, that this aphorism is a piece of ageist rubbish and an outdated view, at that. I know lots of people who are life-long learners, still learning new and valuable skills, in their advancing years. I am here to tell you that the old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, is a tissue of lies.
Sadly, the adage sticks and it inhibits people from learning new things, just because they are old. That’s very sad. People with lots of potential are simply discouraged from developing it, because of their age. I’d go as far as to say that the habit of prematurely discarding older employees, in favour of younger ones, is in no small part due to blind belief in this homily (they’re also less questioning of authority and willing to work like dogs, for a pittance).
If the adage has any positive contribution to make, it’s that it can serve as a warning against becoming complacent. People can easily fall into a comfort zone and stop taking risks and chances. When you have an arsenal of existing tricks at your disposal, it can be very tempting to stick with those and not bother learning anything new, but to remain relevant you must.
There is a thrill involved in learning something new. It feels good to stretch yourself and add another string to your bow. The risk that you might fall on your face makes succeeding feel so much the better. If we stop learning, we stop growing and if we stop growing, or at least renewing ourselves, then we begin dying.
What the folk wisdom fails to acknowledge is that the old tricks might be very cool. It might be difficult to find a new trick to learn, which is better than the old tricks. There is nothing wrong with leaning into your experience and using the knowledge you learned long ago, even if it might be old. It’s amazing how much wisdom is locked up in some of those old tricks.
The new reality, for most people, is that they won’t have the same career for their entire lives. Things change faster than that. Some job types simply disappear, while new ones come into existence. Most people, it has been shown, will move through lots of different and diverse careers, during their lifetime, portfolio fashion. If old dogs couldn’t learn new tricks, we’d have a problem, but the evidence is that people often transition from one field to another, mid-life or later. There are also legions of mature students that will testify to the fact that you can study, later in life, and pick up entirely new skills.
Polymaths are constantly learning new things. It’s how they’re wired. They have a fascination with learning and learn new things, from different disciplines, because they don’t know how not to. There is no choice, for them. Every time they see something new to master, which captures their interest, they just have to dive right in and learn it. That’s why they are polymaths. They just can’t help it. I’ve never known a polymath to cease learning at some arbitrarily landmark birthday, unless they unfortunately don’t make it that far.
We’re told that one of the ways to stave off senile dementia and the ossification of the brain is to constantly challenge ourselves intellectually. The more you use your capability for recalling and creating memories, the longer you get to keep that facility. It is vital, for our very well being, that we constantly seek to learn new skills and new information. Those older people that make this a habit fare much better, against the ravages of time, than those that do not. Brain plasticity is a wonderful thing.
Yet, people are still willing to accept that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, as a piece of immutable, received, orthodox, natural law. Isn’t there somewhat of an irony in younger people adhering to this worn, tired, old, discredited adage? Wouldn’t it be better if we threw out this useless maxim and instead encouraged people to keep their minds and intellects active and their careers safer from redundancy, by telling them that they’re never too old to become the person they wish they were?
I agree that in late middle age, your chances of becoming an Olympic gymnast are almost non-existent, but even the Olympic gymnasts are unable to perform at that standard, when they age. That’s a different thing. The adage says that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Clearly, that’s nonsense which is easily disproven. It might be harder, it might take more application, it might be easier to stay with what you know, but it’s certainly not impossible to learn.
I encourage you all to learn just one, small, new thing today. I don’t care what it is. Something way outside of your current skill set or knowledge base is best. Let me suggest neurochemistry, ornithology, sonar, quantum electro-dynamic theory or esoteric writings, as potentially fruitful areas for exploration. There are literally millions of new things to learn and almost as many new fields of learning in which to find new things to learn. Learn something new, however small, every day and you will feel better. You’ll also feel less old.
My dad used to tell me that every day you learned nothing new was a day wasted. He is now facing challenges with memory loss, but he was right. That old dog’s old trick is actually valuable. I’m glad he taught it to his most devoted pup. Now that I’m an older dog too, I’m teaching it to my pups.
There is a feature of Microsoft Word, the programme I used to write this post, which allows you to save a copy of your work without having to explicitly name it. I’m sure most of you know the feature well. The feature works by taking the first line of your document and using that as the suggested, default name of the file. What it won’t do is include any punctuation marks in the name, because those have the potential to freak out the operating system (don’t get me started on this topic!). In a poetic way, though, when I went to save this file, Word truncated the suggested name of the file to “You Can”.
I think I’ll leave it at that.