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We are a culture that prizes the young. We hang our hopes and dreams on brilliant young techies. We laud the child prodigy. We give our biggest salaries and accolades to nimble, fresh-faced athletes.
Somehow, influenced by societal pressure or our own timidity, we seem to think that progression stops around 40. That “over the hill” means we’re headed straight downhill, where we will mire and stagnate ’til the end of our days. We’ve all read the studies that tell us our greatest cognitive growth happens before the age of 3. By 12, we’re washed up. Might as well hang an “out of order” sign around our necks.
Of course, none of this is true. Numerous studies show that some of our greatest creative blossoming can happen in later years. Our bodies and minds have plenty of agility left, and learning is something we can accumulate to the end of our days.
This is why I always admire those who aren’t afraid to pick up new skills, hobbies or professions in their latter years. These are people who run their first 5K at 60, who learn to play piano at 40 or enroll in a Spanish class after they retire. They graduate from college to show their grandchildren it’s never too late. They don’t shy away from technology, but learn to code in their 70s and 80s.
My grandmother learned to paint late in life, after all her children had grown and left home. She painted mostly from photographs of her beloved Yellowstone National Park. She painted until her hand could no longer hold a paintbrush steady. Then she turned to making intricate stockings and ornaments for all her grandchildren. Her handiwork is something all our family cherishes.
My brother is in the midst of a leap-of-faith career shift. A lover of both music and medicine, he is back in school to become a nurse anesthetist. It has not been an easy journey. He has a few more years of intense schooling, but as his sister, I couldn’t be more proud. It’s taken him both faith and guts to make it happen.
The truth is, some of our greatest creativity and success can happen in later years. According to an article in the New York Times by Pagan Kennedy, in the U.S. “the average inventor sends in his or her application to the patent office at age 47, and … the highest-value patents often come from the oldest inventors — those over the age of 55.”
It has never been easier to learn a new skill. With platforms like YouTube, we can learn how to fix a washing machine, tile floors or play the ukulele. Open online courses like Coursera and EdX give anyone with the internet access to world-class teachers and classes. All it takes is a little time and faith in ourselves.
We can look to examples like physicist John Goodenough, who at 94 is revolutionizing the energy industry with his patent for a battery that would, in essence, do away with petroleum-fueled vehicles, according to the article by Kennedy.
This same physicist caused commotion before when, in 1980 at the age of 57, he co-invented the lithium-ion battery, writes Kennedy.
In the article, Goodenough says, “I’m old enough to know you can’t close your mind to new ideas. You have to test out every possibility if you want something new.”
“Some of us are turtles,” he continues. “We crawl and struggle along, and we haven’t maybe figured it out by the time we’re 30. But the turtles have to keep on walking.”
At a piano recital earlier this month, we oohed and aahed over the cute children plunking their way through Bach. There was the standout kid playing Rachmaninoff. But the performance that touched me most was the man, old as the hills, who played “Silent Night.” The notes were as gentle as raindrops.
I don’t know his story. He was either a beginner or returning to music after a long time away. And there he was, tucked in with the smooth-faced youngsters. They had their whole lives ahead of them. Rachmaninoff was just the beginning. They played their songs fast and eager, with throw-away chords. They knew there would be a thousand, a million more notes assured in their future.
But this man played slow and careful, as if each note counted, like an inward breath or the tick of a clock. His song was one of sheer delight.
The start of a new year gives us a chance to look both backward and forward — back to what we’ve learned, and forward to the hope and promise that there is so much more to learn with what remains of our days.