“Nobody’s born smart. We all start at zero. Can’t talk, can’t walk, certainly can’t do algebra. Adding, reading, writing, riding a bike, nobody’s good at anything at first. There was a time when Einstein couldn’t count to 10 and Shakespeare had to learn his ABCs just like the rest of us. Thankfully, we’re born to learn. Slowly, surely, you stumble, slip, crawl, fall, and fail, and fall. Frustrating, confusing, trying, struggling, until one day, you walk. One foot in front of the other. One idea on top of the next. Each wrong answer making your brain a little bit stronger. Failing is just another word for growing. And you keep going. This is learning. Knowing that you’ll get it, even if you haven’t got it yet. Because the most beautiful, complex concepts in the whole universe are built on basic ideas that anyone anywhere can understand. Whoever you are, wherever you are, you only have to know one thing, you can learn anything.”
The world is constantly changing, and sometimes the changes are seismic and overwhelming.
At times like these, it can be helpful to remember we are an incredibly adaptable species. We have dominated the world in such a dramatic fashion precisely because we can adapt to almost any environment.
The heart of being adaptable is the ability to learn new things. It’s comforting to know that I am hardwired to learn, because this means — in theory — that I can survive anything this world throws at me, as long as I keep adapting and learning new skills.
No matter what problems we have, it is my deep belief that we can learn our way out of them.
If we are chronically unhappy, we might want to learn about our mind and our brain. David Eagleman has written wonderfully accessible books about neuroscience that will open your eyes to the “tremendous magic” of the three-pound tofu encased in our skull. From our studies about the brain, we might learn that we are not always “the ones driving the boat of our behaviour”. When we understand that, we might no longer be so hard on ourselves whenever we feel bad or angry or anxious.
If we want to learn how to thrive mentally, we can pick up meditation or dive into the research that’s being done across psychology, neuroscience and contemplative practices like Buddhism. We might learn about the conclusions by scientists that “when your mind changes, your brain changes”. Learning about these ideas — that we don’t always have to be a puppet to our emotions — might convince us to commit to training our minds in the direction of more peace and happiness.
If we are stuck in a dead-end job or don’t enjoy our career, we can choose to learn new skills — we can add new knowledge to what we already know or reinvent ourselves entirely. Then we can use these new skills to get out of our dead-end job. Or start a business. Or pursue a new career path. We might think that our brains can no longer change now that we’re older, or that we might not be able to learn anything of much value with our older and slower brains, but research has shown that our brain is a muscle that grows stronger the more we use it.
So eventually it is not our lack of ability (or the lack of neurons) but often our misguided belief that we are doomed to be stagnant that causes so much of our suffering.
In short, we can learn anything, and use the skills we learn to change our lives, no matter what age we are and at which stage of life we find ourselves in, but first we have to believe that we can.