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VESTED Magazine

Old Dog, New Trick: The Power of Adult Learning

Jeffrey Watson remembers the time his mother, then 45, decided to learn to play the piano, a lifelong dream for a woman who lost her chance to play as a child when her impoverished family had to break up their piano for firewood. She had been practicing every night for about two weeks when she decided to take a break and go to a movie instead.

Jeffrey Watson remembers the time his mother, then 45, decided to learn to play the piano, a lifelong dream for a woman who lost her chance to play as a child when her impoverished family had to break up their piano for firewood. She had been practicing every night for about two weeks when she decided to take a break and go to a movie instead.

“My dad told her she couldn’t go to the movies until she practiced her piano,” Watson recalls. Frustrated, “she went and got her piano book, brought it out, laid it on the table, and said, ‘I quit.’”

Any adult who has ever taken up something new and difficult — from music to chess to tennis to a foreign language — will recognize that both of Watson’s parents had a point. It takes discipline to master a new skill, especially with an aging brain and body. But if your new pursuit is less alluring than a night at the movies (or, these days, an evening with Netflix), why would you even bother?

And yet, many people do bother for all sorts of reasons, including the desire to use —  and not lose — their aging brains and bodies.

Among them is Watson, a professional pianist who teaches at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The subject he’s taken up at the age of 52 is Spanish. He spends about two hours a day studying the language and recently participated in a two-week immersion program in Guatemala, where he lived with a host family that spoke only Spanish and worked with a tutor for four hours a day.

Linda Harris, 60, owner of a property management company, is another. Like Watson’s mother, she took up piano to address a childhood regret — her refusal to touch “the old, beat up” instrument her parents had wanted her to play. After both parents died of Alzheimer’s complications, Harris decided that, in their memory and to boost her own brain health, she would give the piano a try. She bought herself a beautiful baby grand piano and put it in her sunroom and, four years later, she performs at her church and at social gatherings.

Another is Gerald Marzorati, 63, a former editor of The New York Times Magazine. In his mid-50s, he took up tennis, not just as a casual pastime, but as a passion, a story he tells in his recently published book, Late to the Ball.

“My kids had reached the age where they were starting to look at colleges,” says Marzorati, who lives in Pelham, New York. “Suddenly those weekend days I would spend coaching sports or ferrying them around to their various events began to wane. My career was winding down as well, and I sensed the need for another challenge. And I wanted it to be a physical activity.”

He wanted to do more than just hit a few balls around. He wanted to excel, to play the kind of game he had admired as a lifelong tennis fan — albeit one who had never picked up a racket. “Tennis is an elegant and beautiful game,” he says.

Learning New Tricks

In his book, Marzorati raises a question: just how good can a relatively old guy (or gal) get at something usually taken up in childhood or adolescence? After all, many of us have heard that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to master a skill.

“If you are my age, you are not going to find 10,000 hours to do anything,” he says. “If you did, you wouldn’t get to the top. But the more time you devote to something, the better you are going to get.” Experts generally agree.

“What you see across a lot of domains is that there’s a peak age of performance,” says D. Zachary Hambrick, a Michigan State University professor of psychology who studies the science of expertise. Mathematicians and physicists peak in their late 20s, he says. Chess players peak in their 40s. In many fields, the age at which you start matters too. That includes chess, and it also includes sports in which training literally reshapes growing bodies.

Think of a ballerina’s hip and knee joints or a baseball pitcher’s shoulder, says Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University. His most recent book is titled Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (co-written with Robert Pool).

But both Hambrick and Ericsson say none of those facts should discourage older novices from reaching for their personal bests.

“Old dogs can learn new tricks, maybe not as rapidly and easily as younger dogs, but it’s not as if after young adulthood we lose the ability to learn complex skills,” Hambrick says.

And some old dogs are making it further in sports and other fields than once thought possible, Ericsson says. He points to increasingly popular competitions for older athletes, including the National Senior Games (sometimes called the Senior Olympics). One of his favorite examples is Donald Pellmann, a 101-year-old man from Santa Clara, California, who became the first centenarian to run 100 meters in less than 27 seconds in 2015. He also broke records in the long jump, discus, shot put, and high jump — where he was the first in his age group to clear the bar at any qualifying height, according to a New York Times account of his feats.

“The way so many records have been broken has been pretty remarkable,” Ericsson says. Apparently, when athletes have a reason to keep on training, “they end up being able to perform at levels that people once thought were impossible for older individuals.”

But not just any training will do. Ericsson, it’s worth noting, conducted the original research behind the 10,000-hour idea, a concept popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, that claims it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to become great at anything. For years, Ericsson has taken issue with Gladwell’s interpretation, noting that 10,000 hours was the average practice time put in by star performers in one field (violin), up to one point (age 20). But, he says, the most important thing for ambitious beginners to know is that it takes more than time and repetition to master a skill. It takes what he calls “deliberate practice.”

The hallmarks of this kind of practice, he says, are pushing beyond one’s comfort zone, using proven training methods designed by experts, and using feedback from coaches and teachers to overcome weaknesses. Rule one, he says, is that you can’t do it alone.

Still Improving, at Any Age

Harris, the piano-playing property manager, learned that lesson early on. “Initially I bought some books, and I thought I could teach myself,” she says, but after managing just “a couple little songs,” she signed up for lessons. Her routine: an hour each week with a teacher and two hours practicing on her own each day. She also goes to an adult piano camp each summer. And she belongs to a group for adult piano students who get together once a month to play for one another. Those get-togethers keep her motivated, she says, and “really are one of the highlights of my life.”

Harris says she can now play almost any modern piece and can play lengthy classical pieces. She wants to do more, including composing. With retirement in sight and her youngest child away at college, she sees no reason she can’t keep improving.

Watson, the musician who recently took up Spanish, says he’s been at it for only a few months, but that his all-in approach, including the intense two weeks in Guatemala, has given him the confidence to start conversing in the language.

Marzorati, the tennis-playing former editor, says his game is still improving too, nine years after he took his first lessons. With the help of a patient-but-demanding coach, weeks away at training camps and retreats, and a decent forehand, he competed as a singles player on the national seniors tournament circuit. These days, he plays in less demanding doubles leagues. He wins some, he loses some.

“The key is not to get focused on the end results,” he says. “The key is the steady improvement at something, which is its own reward.”

And there are other payoffs, he says. “I’ve gotten myself into the best shape I’ve ever been relative to my age anytime in my life. I sleep better. I’m more attentive to what I eat.”

Mostly, he says, he’s grateful every time he gets to play: “I say to myself, ‘Look at you. You are 63; you’re out on a tennis court on a gorgeous night; you are happy and healthy; and you are with someone who is happy and healthy. Aren’t we all lucky?’”