The Joy of Learning as an Adult

What happens when you stop learning? You die.

I love learning. I know I’m in great company with my readers. Learning excites. It makes us proud. It sparks a fire within us to continue learning even more…more than we previously thought possible! Thankfully, it doesn’t take much to learn. All that’s required is a well-written newspaper, a periodical, a book (fact or fiction), a documentary, an in-depth conversation with an expert or knowledgeable friend…perhaps even a fun blog (hint, hint, hint).

But what about learning a new skill? Everyone talks about wanting to learn a second language, playing a musical instrument, taking dance lessons, or maybe even becoming a proficient public speaker. Not surprisingly, the sentiment is often followed up with, “If only I had started when I was a child.”

Unfortunately, many people do not have the luxury of learning such noble pursuits during their formative years. Like most Americans, I grew up in a household where money was tight. We hung on for dear life to the bottom rung of a struggling middle class. If a subject weren’t offered in school, it was out of the question. That being said, I made the most of my public education by taking band, choir, drama, typing, honors English, and Spanish among other skills I still benefit from to this day. For the most part, I did well for myself with the tools I had. By age eighteen, I had become a dabbler in many areas. Though far from being a master at any one of them, I knew enough back then to at least know what I liked, and ultimately, what I wanted to pursue later in life.

A strange turn of events happened when I got to college. Having been accepted as a musical theater major at NYU, I seized the chance to discover what it would take to become a real live Broadway performer. What did I learn that first year away from home on my journey to the coveted spotlight? Ha! I soon learned that my skills as a writer far out-shined my natural abilities as a stage performer. By a lot. I struggled with numerous expectations in my theater classes where many of my classmates exceeded with impressive bravado. On the other hand, when it came to the mandatory freshman writing seminars, I became the go-to guy for peer editing.

Writing somehow just clicked for me.

I firmly believe that everyone has a natural gift, one thing that seems effortless to refine. Sure, even Mozart needed a teacher at first to help polish his innate faculties with music, but showing him the ropes had to have been the easiest task in the world. No need to explain things twice to the renowned prodigy.

As for my foray into the world of writing, my instructors only needed to tell me once how to weave million dollar words into a paragraph for maximum effect. Nobody likes to read big words for the sake of big words. Use a simple word when a simple word will do. Choose a fancier word only after its easier, more accessible synonym has already been put to work. Do it well, and nobody will need to reach for a dictionary.

I’d found my first real passion! I spent hours every single day honing my newfound discipline. Get the words to sing off the page! If they didn’t sing, I chose others. I sifted through thousands before I settled on the perfect combinations. I learned to excite and elate, but never confuse.

In a short time, I’d unknowingly stumbled upon the key inside me with which to unlock my future growth as a seeker of skills. If I knew how to do one thing well (in my case, writing) then I could learn how to do other things, even if they had nothing to do with putting pen to paper.

My first job outside of college was that of an English teacher…in Chad, of all places! The barren, landlocked country in the very heart of Africa exposed me to a life once unimaginable to my former cosmopolitan New York City spirit. Suddenly I had to learn to navigate my way through a foreign culture, using a whole brand new set of languages no less! School was taught in French. The market used Arabic, and the villagers all spoke at least one of six indigenous languages.

I’m proud to say that I did pick up French, and relatively quickly. Interestingly, I had failed miserably at learning the romance language in college, but once I’d been thrown into a merciless sea of indecipherable chatter in a strange new land, I fought with all my might to grasp the language I’d once completely given up on. As soon as I got a grip on French, I realized I possessed the pattern for learning other languages. I soon picked up enough Arabic to at least buy my groceries every Saturday at the local market. And strange as it may seem, I used my newfound knowledge as a French speaker to make the leap to studying another romance language, Italian.

My adventures in Africa provided me my first huge “a-ha!” moment. Once my brain got hold of certain new information, it created additional neural pathways that would eventually lead to future learning in other areas of my life. The idea of speaking a foreign language suddenly became possible, when previously it had been absolutely insurmountable. And if I could learn a set of foreign languages as an adult, what other tasks that I’d previously considered impossible might I now be able to accomplish?

My newfound theories on adult learning would quickly be put to the test as soon as I came home from Africa. I moved to Las Vegas and shortly thereafter became a home owner. Like any home owner will tell you, the job is not for the faint at heart. Unless you’re hugely wealthy, the repairs inevitably fall on your shoulders. Toilet broken? You’re the plumber. Need a new light fixture installed? You’re the electrician. Backyard in need of landscaping? You’re the gardener.

Six months in, I found myself overwhelmed and panicked when I realized what I’d gotten myself into. But then I remembered the hoops I jumped through to learn French. Surely, I had it within my to look up on the Internet how to change out a leaky faucet. Low and behold, I actually had it within me to learn a lot of other things every home owner should know how to do, despite the fact I’d never considered myself handy.

All of this confidence truly came into play the moment I found the courage to learn how to dance. Now, not just any dance. But rather, pole dancing. I’d seen a male pole dancer on America’s Got Talent, and I immediately told myself I had to learn how to do that, and learn how to do it well. I sat on my ambitions for six years wondering how in the hell I’d ever be able to flip myself upside down and suspend myself from a metal rod by nothing more than the skin on the back of my knee.

When I could no longer stand my procrastination, I turned to Google for a local school on pole dancing. To my astonishment, I discovered that the world’s first pole dancing school was located about six miles from my house, and they even offered a Groupon. Just my luck! I showed up for the first class highly unprepared. I wore baggy basketball shorts instead of the requisite spandex “booty” shorts for maximum skin exposure. I didn’t understand at first how important skin contact was to keep a dancer safely attached to the pole. Yes, it hurts! That being said, I had confidence that even a thirty-four year old with little dance experience, and absolutely no gymnastics background, could eventually figure out how to maneuver up and around a spinning steel bar. All it would take is patience and good old-fashioned stubbornness.

Thankfully, I was right. I can now safely perform some exceptionally cool inverted tricks to the delight of my friends and family, many of whom watch with puzzled curiosity. Does my knowledge regarding the written word, French grammar, or home ownership in any way directly help me flip upside-down on a skinny metal rail? Maybe indirectly. What I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that I’m perfectly capable of learning anything I please. This is the information age! Anything we’d ever want to learn is at our fingertips. And even something as daring as learning how to dance is well within reason, provided you have the perseverance – or as I like to think of it, the raw stubbornness never to quit.

You can visit Daniel K. James on Youtube where he’ll delight you with over fifty short, easy-to-follow-along lessons on conversational French. If you’d like to know more about his current business teaching piano lessons, please click here.

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