I turned 40 this year. Such an arbitrary milestone, yet so ingrained in our culture that as it passes, one often pauses to reflect on the implications of middle-age. My god, I realize, I have outlived Mozart and Charlie Parker! And yet what have I accomplished? Time seems to move so much more quickly now; I have spent ages to reach this point, but I expect to double that lifetime, fates willing, in what will surely seem like moments. I can only hope, futilely, to savor the best moments within those moments with a deeper appreciation than I ever cultivated throughout my impatient youth.
I have reached a point where I need to carefully choose what pet projects I undertake, for fear that time will not allow their fruition. One of my current projects is learning Japanese. When faced with the prospect of spending years on a subject, only to achieve a basic level of proficiency, with no practical applicable use for the skill (not a lot of Japanese speakers around here, and what companies will hire someone bilingual who is almost completely unlikely to relocate?), I asked myself, Is there an age at which one must stop trying to learn new things for the mere sake of learning? Wouldn’t my time be better spent improving my family relationships, securing our family’s financial future, and mentoring the next generation of employees at my workplace — in other words, leaving the world a bit neater than when I entered?
Then I imagined how I might react if I witnessed a friend from the previous generation taking up something new. If an older coworker told me she was starting a business, learning an instrument, or taking up creative writing, would I pity them for starting too late in life, and risking time on something that may never pay them back for their effort? Of course I suspect we all would react in quite the opposite manner, with a nod and a smile, and a “Good for you! That sounds exciting.”
So why should I treat myself any differently? And why should anyone fear new long-term experiences, solely because they might be interrupted by death? I would suggest two good reasons for taking the opposing viewpoint — that no time is better than now to begin learning something new, no matter the commitment or challenge.
First, realize that you study for the benefit of others as much as for yourself. Take language, for example: Peter has decided to study French, and after a few months doesn’t feel like he has gotten anywhere. He only gets to use it once, when a French speaker asks him for directions to Johnson Street via car. What Peter doesn’t know is that by aiding the French tourist, he made it possible for the tourist to catch a flight with only a couple of minutes to spare — fewer minutes than it might have taken to drive in circles looking for Johnson Street. The French man had to cut a business trip short to rush to the death bed of an estranged relative, who has requested his presence. Relationships in the man’s family are repaired, and new opportunities arise down the road — a special deal on a home, perhaps, or a bigger share of a will. Years later, as the Frenchman recalls the time he came through for his family, he may be unlikely to remember Peter from Madison, Wisconsin as being a critical link in that chain of events. There were so many other things going on — maybe he struggled with slow service while refilling the rental car’s fuel tank, or perhaps he marvels at how lucky he was to avoid a pedestrian by mere inches as he rushed through the labyrinthine one-way streets. This story doesn’t end with Peter saying “Thank heavens I was able to save the day with my French skills;” he is oblivious to the impact he made.
Here is another example: An elderly woman purchases an organ, hoping to entertain herself with some simple songs. She doesn’t get very far with it, but her grandson spends some time with the instrument. The experience is one of many that inspires him to continue studying music into his adulthood. While he may never find a career in the music field, he eventually does find enough work at clubs and special events that Grandmother’s investment has paid him back several times over. She has left the earth long before she was able to witness her grandson’s development as a musician, so she never had a chance to be proud of having planted the seed that grew in him.
When you take up a new interest, you do so partly for the benefit of others. Reason number one that it is always a good time to learn something new:
1. You can be grateful ahead of time for having taken an interest, on behalf of those who you might impact later.
But will this happen in every case? Will your pursuits necessarily have an impact on others? And what if you die friendless, without a family? Who is there to benefit? You are, naturally. Even if you don’t see a payback from your studies, you have already reaped their benefits.
I study guitar because, among other reasons, I like to demonstrate what I have learned on stage. There are many guitarists who never perform live. Do you think they regret having studied? We have heard adages about the journey being as rewarding as the destination. Tired as it is, this sentiment is absolutely true.
I feel pretty good when I am performing with other musicians, putting our faith in our skills — always a semitone away from a wrong note, a split-second away from a missed entry. Live performance can be like a high wire act, carefully choreographed and rehearsed, but with an underlying sense of impending disaster. The rush, for both audience and performer, is intoxicating. A live performance is a product I and my bandmates have developed. We pass it on into the hands of the listeners, who take it home with them.
But I find just as much appeal in private practice sessions and rehearsals. Working out problems, correcting bad habits, pushing the limits of my stamina and technical fluency — this is play as much as it is work. For the practitioner of a craft, the process is the product. During the Middle Ages, it took decades to build some castles and cathedrals. Many stone masons and carpenters are likely to have spent their entire lifetimes on projects whose completion they would never witness. Do you suppose they lamented their fate? Today’s scientists are laboring over concepts that could eventually have tremendous applications, in technology power management and data storage, interstellar exploration, human longevity — yet cannot fathom what role their contributions will have played hundreds of years from now. Does this discourage them? Thus…
2. The very act of learning any subject or skill is an end unto itself.
Do something interesting. Any reason is good enough.