Four years ago, I started an annual tradition. Every year, as part of my birthday celebration, I commit to learning a new skill.
There are only two rules. First, I have to take a structured class, taught by an expert. Second, the skill or activity can’t have anything to do with work. The more random, the better.
This tradition, so far, has taught me the basics of sword fighting (specifically, rapier and longsword), how to bind books by hand, cross country skiing, and the 2021 kicker: singing.
I’m five lessons into a 10 lesson package of private singing lessons, and while I’m certainly better than when I started, I won’t be appearing on American Idol anytime soon. Last night, as I was practicing scales instead of binge-watching TV, my dog started chiming in on the high notes. Whether she was trying to harmonize or protest, I don’t know, but she did get herself off her pillow long enough to give me an, “Are you okay?” sniff.
As children, our lives are constantly filled with learning. The point of being a child, we’re told, is to try all sorts of things so you know who you want to be as an adult. But once we choose our path and bog ourselves down with jobs, mortgages, and kids, learning new skills for the sake of learning becomes a frivolous exercise. Additionally, children learn faster than adults
, and adults aren’t especially open to spending precious time engaging in activities that they’re not good at.
But forcing yourself into a beginner’s mindset is like a heavy bicep curl for the brain. Neuroplasticity
, or the brain’s ability to adapt in response to new challenges, is not limited to juveniles. Picking up new skills strengthens existing neural connections and can even form new ones, which is especially important to help adults fight of cognitive decline. One study
showed that older adults (age 58-86) who learned three skills simultaneously not only had greater cognitive abilities than their contemporaries but also had a similar cognitive performance to people 30 years their junior.
Beyond the cognitive benefits, continually learning new and random skills creates more interesting humans who are better able to connect with diverse groups of people and subcultures. My brief experience with sword fighting means I now have a passing interest in the art of combat, which means action sequences of medieval movies just got a lot more intriguing. I can’t look at a book without thinking about how the words of Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante were once bound by hand into manuscripts. Cross country skiing is a hell of a lot easier on my knees than downhill and gives me the same sort of solitary peace that I feel when I take long walks in the woods. It’s an activity I will return to year after year.
But singing, thus far, is the biggest gift of all. I am frustrated to the point of tears when I sound like a cat with its tail stuck in a hairdryer, but the 10-week commitment is bringing a whole new layer of richness into my life. Music is everywhere. Learning the building blocks means that I internalize every song, every singer, every note in a way I never did before. I have more respect for vocal artists, even the “basic” ones. Go try and sing some Taylor Swift, on pitch. It ain’t easy.
Furthermore, I am quite literally learning to use my voice. Though I have always been confident in my wordsmithing, I stumble in conversation, especially difficult conversation. I clam up and struggle to get the words out. Singing a wrong note brings up the same emotional block, but because I’ve paid for 10 private lessons, I’m forced to repeatedly face that block in front of another person. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since I’ve been taking singing lessons, I’ve been better able to say what I need to say during a series of hard life discussions.
I’ve already got a running list of skills I’d like to learn in future years. Drawing, auto repair, and beekeeping are my current top three. Yes, it takes time and money that might be “better” spent paying down debt or tossing it into an IRA. But to me, anything that sparks curiosity and improves the quality of day-to-day life is an investment that should be considered part of a balanced budget.
When was the last time you were a beginner? What could you learn this year, just for the sake of learning? How might your life be enhanced if you open yourself up to something random?