5. You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Where it’s from: According to phrases.org.uk, the earliest appearance was in The Boke of Husbandry by John Fitzherbert. It’s quoted as “The dogge must lerne it, whan he is a whelpe, or els it will not be: for it is harde to make an olde dogge to stoupe.” That was in 1534.

What it means: Exactly what it sounds like. Old people are set in their ways.

How it relates: People become rigid in their beliefs, but often in much more. Our thought processes seem to steadily preen themselves until it’s reduced to a few stories told on repeat, the body essentially functioning on minimum thought, on autopilot.

This is my impression of senility. Our minds look for cues and use these to program responses. We get very good at this, it’s a common tool for conversation. You hear a topic and you have things to say. You say them and someone else adds to it. We all learn from each other, and often we’ll use the same wording when we talk about something.

But we continue doing this even when our cognitive functions are declining naturally. We continue creating shortcuts while losing our ability to recall and our willingness to scrutinize or be creative and original in our phrasing and thinking.

Think, for a moment, of a caveman learning first that fire is good, for warmth. Then that fire is bad, because it burns. Then that fire is good, with meat. The caveman learned a lot, and he learned it because he kept an open mind, he was curious. As we get older we get too rigid in our beliefs and stop listening to alternatives that cause us to question ourselves. We think we know more because our birth certificates got a little faded. We ignore the fact that others could have specific experiences that make them more knowledgeable about something, or that times have changed. And we just care less and about fewer things as we begin to settle.

We keep the heat but lose the meat when we do this, and not only that but we screw ourselves when we’re older. Learning is a tough habit to pick back up, and it only gets harder with age. We should constantly question ourselves and acknowledge that very few thoughts outside of mathematics are 100% representative of a situation. 2+2=4 every time, but even your seemingly consistent walk to work changes every day — a red light here, a rainy day there, maybe a reckless driver one morning…

We can’t let the effects of a less-than-fulfilling 9–5, or the immense challenges of multiple part-time jobs, affect our willingness to scrutinize and learn. Nor can we include reading and learning among the sacrifices we make as parents even though we’re running low on energy. Learning with your kids might help energize you.

Optimism is huge here. Life is hard, and challenges are demotivating. And people will say that it’s tough to stay optimistic, but optimism isn’t about putting on a smile when everything is going wrong. It’s about acknowledging that everything might be going wrong and believing that you can figure it out.

Optimism is not forced happiness. Optimism is hope and self-confidence. It’s having gratitude for the things that have gone right in your life because you know life isn’t perfect, or fair. We should all be optimists: We should all have the faith that we can improve our careers and lives, learn something we think is challenging, or talk to someone out of our league and not let ourselves get crushed by fear, denial or failure.

We should all be able to acknowledge the good luck we’ve had in our everyday lives. Whether it’s someone helping you find a job, a parent’s support, or someone holding the door open for you, that person made your life better, sometimes in ways that others didn’t get to experience.

To me, optimists are understanding realists more than they are pie-in-the-sky idealists. It’s not that I believe this book will sell thousands of copies, it’s the belief that I’ll be fine regardless because writing this has been a tremendous thought exercise. That’s what makes me an optimist.

I might daydream about retiring off my writing but I can’t be confident about sales because I’ve never sold a book before and if I do it will be because of luck. Somehow I got in the right room or the right inbox and a lot more worked out along the way. I’m optimistic because I’m putting in reps. This writing is my workout and it will help me regardless of if anyone else ever reads this.

Situations, particularly poverty and retail jobs in my experience, make this difficult. It’s no secret that doctors and lawyers and academics — people who are regularly engaging their brains in challenging ways (and enjoy higher wages) — age better.

But retail jobs take your time, demand very little critical thinking, and often don’t even want you reading even if the store is empty, while also not providing the type of wages or pay that would give you the financial freedom or regular hours needed to indulge in healthy habits and find engaging hobbies.

That’s shitty and there’s not much you can do about that besides find another entry level job that teaches you something useful or gives you more time… or a hobby that reinvigorates you after your shifts. It’s tempting here to say the answer is to build a skill that will get you out of retail, and ultimately that’s the goal, but as a society we don’t give a lot of direction on where or what training to get, and how to land a job with a certificate but no job experience.

It’s hard, but you can do it. Make connections helps, but researching the right skill or certificate might be better. Remember that your brain is a muscle and finding the bandwidth to work it out is one of the best things you can do for yourself regardless of your current situation. For economic reasons, but more importantly to help retain and improve your cognitive abilities even as you age.

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Just Curious

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