I have recently made a change in my work schedule so that I can focus more of my time on the main problems I have been writing about here for the last few years. I plan to start a new website allowing people interested in acting on something green. To do this, I have been learning a new programming language and framework (Ruby on Rails) and a number of other new things that come along in the bargain. My company DigitalAdvisor (where I’ll still be working, but fewer hours) is working on an entirely new project, stretching my awareness even further beyond what I would do normally.
Keeping up with what is new requires a great deal of effort. I think this is relevant to the topic of this blog: we need to keep sharp, and understand nuances: every moment of the world is new, and we are now faced with the necessity (no longer the option) of change. Those who are mentally agile, and expect and are willing to work will be able to keep up.
As my 47th birthday approaches, I have become acutely aware of the effort required. Perhaps it’s the mid-life-crisis talking, but I am stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that it is harder to learn things when you are old. It is my recollection that it was hard to learn things when I was young, too. But there is some difference or other.
Speaking only for myself, it’s very easy to get comfortable with what I already know. And as I get older, I know more stuff, so it might be possible for me to coast a little — ride my own coat-tails, in a manner of speaking. And even if the relevance of accreted knowledge degrades rapidly compared to what is new, knowledge over many years has some value. One can get by on experience, and perhaps even just on ones past victories. I know of a number of people who do, and many more who are trying hard.
I also think there’s a little conspiracy of us older farts, tending to over-value such knowledge. It would certainly be convenient if years of experience really were equivalent to up-to-date knowledge, experience, and skills. I recall the saying about “old age and treachery” — if there’s one thing I am better at now that I am older, it’s understanding interpersonal dynamics (… which enable me to “overcome youth and skill” in some cases.) I expect that few of us who are middle-aged, with kids, increasing responsibilities, decreasing desires to rule the world (again, speaking only for myself), and perhaps even a little bit of perspective can or would want to rekindle the combination of bravado, fear, competitiveness, pride and sheer stupidity that characterizes youth. (See, it’s that kind of statement that defines such treachery, no?)
But in the end, the truth seems to be that being mentally agile, and keeping up with what is current is necessary. Perhaps it’s simply not possible, and this must be the likely truth on the whole, as nothing else would explain the recurring misunderstandings and conflicts between young and old. Still, I think it’s worth trying, and I only really think this is true for average people: it’s better for some (and even worse for others).
Staying current today is critical for old and young alike, but perhaps especially for the older ones of us. The world, and our society is certainly in a period of flux. As changes happen, we need to be able to “get” them, and realize that many of the assumptions of our past are no longer valid. Technology is part of what we need to “get”, because even the seemingly trivial things like text messages, blogs, MySpace and Facebook, virtual presence, and all the stuff that’s coming (or maybe even here) is the new way problems will get solved … like it or not. It seems unlikely that the old technologies, old ways of thinking, and in particular old ways of solving problems will be what gets us out of this current problem.
History is littered with the bones of the ones who didn’t quite get this important concept.
Perhaps it’s not so much that it’s harder to learn new things when you are older. Instead, maybe you have to be able and willing to drop long-held assumptions, behaviors, patterns, and ways of doing things so that you can let your mind see and understand the way things are now. For the young, there are few assumptions, behaviors, patterns and ways of doing things to drop — just the need to learn how to do things at all. It’s not particularly easier to be young, it’s just that there’s no convenient alternative.
What we have in front of us in our energy, climate, and other related crises are a lot of alternatives to consider. For the older fogies in the group, we need to think hard. It will require mental agility. It will be inconvenient. We can’t just trust our experience, and in fact we need to be appropriately mistrustful of it. It’s hard; it requires effort.
However, those who are able to stay current will have a side benefit: we’ll be young at heart. Said another way: we wont be old fartz.