Lifelong learning: the ultimate anti-ageing technique

Oscar Wilde said youth was wasted on the young.

Or maybe it was George Bernard Shaw, I don’t know.

The point being that young people don’t take full advantage of all that youth offers, all too easily squandering it, supposing it will last forever.

Do we “older” people do the same?

Do we squander the wisdom that comes with age because we stop being willing to learn? Do we close our minds, lose our humility, and consider ourselves the finished article, unable to be improved upon?

If so, maybe it’s because of a fixed mindset.

Did you ever learn that your brain develops most during a critical period in childhood – before the age of seven – and then doesn’t change much after that?

I did.

I remember bits of my seventh birthday quite well. It was an important day in my calendar, but I didn’t realise just how important. Had I known that from that moment on my destiny would be hardwired into my brain like footsteps set in concrete, I might have taken it all a lot more seriously.

There is a photo of me wearing my brand new “I am 7” badge, in my tiny boxroom bedroom, surrounded by clutter and friends. I am smiling, I have thick National Health specs perched on my nose and a big gap in my front teeth, but I am a seven-year-old kid so I still look OK.

That cute little scamp had no idea that his personality was now fixed and the limits on his intelligence were now set. He was ignorant to the fact that from this point on learning would be much more difficult, every change a mental struggle.

At least that was the prevailing wisdom: we develop a “static brain” early in life that establishes the structure of the grey matter, and so defines (limits) our personality, talents, and abilities for evermore.

Fortunately for me, and to a lesser extent the rest of the human race, this bleak picture turned out to be incomplete. Around the time I was blowing out my seven candles and listening to my new Showaddywaddy elpee, neuroscientists were changing their views about the plasticity of the brain.

It seems that this static brain model was only part of the picture and the brain is a much more adaptable beast than first thought.

An example of this is London taxi drivers.

In a test known as The Knowledge, London cabbies have to know every street in the city, and research by University College London showed that they have an enlarged hippocampus in the area associated with spatial recognition, the same area that lights up like a Christmas tree when they were asked to mentally plan routes whilst in an MRI scanner.

This isn’t to say learning doesn’t get more difficult as we get older and acquire knowledge, build habits, and get stuck in our ways. It is easier to learn something new than change our minds or correct our mistakes, just as it is easier to build a house on an empty plot than to renovate a building that’s already there … and as we all know from bitter experience, it’s a lot harder to break a habit than it is to make one.

The fixed mindset links to this idea of the static brain, that we are more or less stuck with what we’ve got.

The fixed mindset is defensive and cares about being seen to be clever: much better to defend my knowledge to the death than be exposed as wrong as risk losing smart points!

A fixed mindset might regard a challenge as something to avoid rather than embrace. Obstacles might make them give up too easily when they should persist. The fixed mindset takes criticism too personally and will throw up the barricades and miss the chance to learn from it. The fixed mindset will see the success of others as a threat, and perhaps struggle to take inspiration from it, and will regard effort as evidence of a lack of talent rather than an essential ingredient of success.

Fear not, there is another way!

The growth mindset is the opposite of all the above.

The growth mindset is about trying to detach things like knowledge and skill from our identity and being humble enough to be OK about not being right all the time, not being the finished article, not having the perfect set of opinions based on the soundest possible human judgement.

This isn’t easy.

It takes a lot of self-confidence to be that humble, a lot of skillful mindfulness to overcome the fixed-mindset urges that pop up when we’re feeling under pressure, and a lot of focus to deliberately cultivate the more positive alternative behaviours associated with the growth mindset.

But if we don’t so this, we limit ourselves in a self-fulfilling circle, fixing our own mindset and failing to learn. We become the old upon whom age is wasted.

But … if we get it right, what joy awaits!

We can become learning machines, developing and refining our knowledge, skills, and judgements left, right, and centre … and perhaps most interestingly of all, if we get it right and keep learning, our brains get more plastic and more able to learn … so not only can old dogs learn new tricks, learning new tricks keeps you from getting old!

More on Growth Mindset from Psychology Today

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