How Learning A New Skill Helps You Age Better

Photo via History in Photos blog

Photo via History in Photos blog

"Let me suggest something that might do all of these things — which is to say, might not — but will, as nothing else will, provide you with a deeply satisfying sense of yourself that you did have when you were much, much younger. Find something — something new, something difficult — to immerse yourself in and improve at.

When is the last time you improved at anything? I’m not talking about self-improvement, though I have nothing at all against turning to deep yogic breathing when your spouse irritates you. And I am not talking about the kind of improvement your company subjects you to, the training that comes with the promotion and vesting stock: Here’s the late-afternoon-meeting gaze that assures your team you are interested in everything they are suggesting. I am talking about improving at a demanding skill or set of skills — a craft, a discipline. I have in mind something that will take years to get proficient at, something that there is a correct way of doing, handed down for generations or even ages, and for which there is no way for you to create shortcuts with your cleverness or charm. Playing the cello, maybe. Or cabinetry. Or, in my case, tennis, serious tennis.

I took up tennis in my mid-50s. The nest was about to empty, and the weekend afternoons were beginning to yawn. I’d always been a tennis fan. With personal time on my hands, and a career winding down, I wanted to do … what? Something different and hard. Something that could counter the looming extended monotonies and unpromising everydayness I imagined awaited me in retirement. Something that did not transpire in my head and at a desk, which is exactly where most of our lives unfold these days. I wanted to learn and get better at something that embodied life.

The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively about what inhibits people from making a commitment to continuous improvement. Schoolchildren, for instance, are often afraid of appearing to need to improve; worrying that they will be perceived and judged as unintelligent, they struggle not to learn but to seem smart (even plagiarizing and cheating if need be). Professional athletes, as Professor Dweck has also observed, can lack the motivation and self-regulation required to get even better because they believe their inherent talent is plenty enough.

THERE are quantifiable benefits often associated with taking up something like tennis and getting better at it. Your brain, it’s thought, will be recast and strengthened. Denise Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, randomly assigned more than 200 older people to different new activities for roughly 15 hours a week and found that only those who had learned and refined a complicated skill improved their memories. Other researchers say the intense and prolonged physical exertion of a game like tennis may fend off cancer by slowing the decline of your telomeres, the tiny caps on the ends of your DNA strands that tend to shorten and fray with age, and leave the DNA subject to greater risk of mutation during cell division and replication. You will, I am convinced, do good things for your heart: Senior Olympians have been found, on average, to have a cardiovascular 'fitness' age 20 years less than their chronological age.

Which brings us to the beauty of a disciplined effort at improvement and, I think, the only guaranteed benefit of finding something, as I found in tennis, to learn and commit to: You seize time and you make it yours. You counter the narrative of diminishment and loss with one of progress and bettering. You spend hours removed from the past (there is so much of it now) and, in a sense, the present (and all its attendant responsibilities and aches), and immerse yourself in the as yet. In this new pursuit of yours, practice is your practice: It comes to determine the way you eat and sleep and shape your days. It is not your life, but one of the lives that make up your life, and the only one for which looking ahead, at least for a little while longer, is something done without wistfulness or a flinch."

-Gerald Marzorati, Edited via The New York Times