Learning How to Learn.

An MEA alum recently asked me, “What could be my most powerful resolution for 2022?” I told him that “learning how to learn” would offer him huge collateral benefits.

When I read this recent Wall Street Journal article “Never Think You’re Too Old to Become a Beginner,” I smiled widely as it suggests that “openness to experience” is a critical skill to develop in midlife and beyond. And, it led me to wondering – as you’ll read in the article – why we’ve never added juggling to our list of wacky new things people learn here in Baja? Hope you enjoy the article and it influences your New Year’s Resolutions. If you can’t get beyond the WSJ paywall to read this, here are the most important points from the article:

  • “So I decided to become a beginner in a number of things that I’d long wanted to try to learn, from singing to surfing. Being a beginner is hard—it feels better to be good at something than to be bad. It’s even harder for adults. The phrase ‘adult beginner’ has an air of gentle pity. It implies learning something that you perhaps should have learned already. Though the first steps can be difficult, it’s worth the effort: Becoming a beginner is one of the most life-enhancing things you can do.”
  • “A good starting point is to take up juggling. The innocuous little act of throwing balls into the air has been found, in a number of neuroscience studies, to alter the brain. This ‘activation-dependent structural plasticity’” as it’s called, pops up in as little as seven days. Juggling changes not only gray matter, the brain’s processing centers, but also white matter, the networked connections that bind it all together. Learning a new skill requires the neural tissue to function in a new way,’ After that initial burst of activity, the brain settles down. By the time you can do the skill without much thinking—when it becomes automatic—gray matter density declines. So you try a new juggling trick, and the process begins again. Interestingly, the changes in brain density happen for older people just as much as for younger people.”
  • “The older you are, the harder you’re going to have to work. As people age, they should do not less, but more to keep and maintain their abilities. There’s a happy twist, however: The more learning that older adults take on, the faster they seem to learn—the more they become like younger adults.”
  • “And learning a skill, even if you don’t achieve mastery, has benefits beyond the skill itself. In a study of people aged 60 to 90 conducted by the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas, subjects were split into two groups. One took classes in digital photography and quilting, the other simply met and socialized. The subjects who took the classes had larger improvements in a variety of cognitive areas, ranging from episodic memory to processing speed.”
  • “So let ‘beginner’ be your watchword for 2022. But watch for overreach in your resolutions. Don’t declare that you’re going to master the piano or paint like Picasso. You may dwell longer than you like in the beginner stages, even growing resentful of this thing that is supposed to change your life. Resolve instead simply to try to learn new skills—the more the better—and, even more important, to give yourself permission to be bad at them. Let the process of learning itself be your goal.”


– Chip Conley

This article first appeared in Chip Conley’s Wisdom Well blog