Adult (Re)Learning: The Frustrations & Benefits of Regaining A Skill As An Adult

By Al Reese

In recent months, I’ve gone back to activities that I dabbled in as a teenager to energize my life.  Specifically, I’ve started to play acoustic guitar again and have tried to (re)learn German, skills that I had mixed success with at an earlier age.

Although playing a six-string guitar might seem like a natural adjunct to playing bass guitar (my primary instrument), I’ve found it to be more difficult than I had imagined.  I had a lot of fun occasionally playing the guitar when I was younger and first learning music and joining a band.  I can still play basic guitar chords like G, C, D, E and even a few barre chords.  What I was not prepared for, however, was how quickly my (re)learning plateaued.  My goal was to learn to play classic rock songs from the 70’s and 80’s, which often require far more than just rudimentary chords.  My fingers often simply refuse to adapt to the sometimes-twisted shapes necessary to play, for example, the Emaj7 chord that begins “A Rainy Night in Georgia.”

My history with German is much less joyous, as it produced the only D of my academic career (thank you, Herr Winkler!).  That trauma notwithstanding, I decided to try to pick it up again to make my Austrian visits with my daughter and grandson easier to navigate.  After 3 weeks of daily lessons in Duo Lingo, a free language app, I realized how slow my progress was and how far away I was from being even remotely conversational in the language.

All of which led me to do some research on the difficulties of adult learning.  We’re not talking Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice rule here – that’s for those who want to master a particular skill and who typically start that journey as children.  No, this is “why am I so thick headed?” inquiries on the obstacles of adult learning.  The most common theory seems to be that children unconsciously learn a complicated skill because they’re not burdened with the years of learning and experience that “plague” adults.  They simply accept the rules of language or the requirements of an instrument as a given rather than trying to understand them or place them in some more familiar context.  Sorry to say that I found neither conclusive answers nor a “silver bullet” cure for us late bloomers.  

What I did find, though, was many reminders of the benefits of adult learning as a means of staving off mental decline later in life.  It’s often claimed that, by strengthening your neural networks and enhancing your brain’s plasticity, you can help slow down the aging process – a good outcome despite the frustrations.  That runs parallel to a phenomenon I often see with those contemplating the financial planning process.  Many will get overwhelmed or intimidated at the beginning of a difficult (and sometimes painful) process like charting and securing their financial future.  Particularly when making estate-related decisions like who inherits your worldly possessions or takes custody of your children, it’s easy to throw up your hands in frustration and fret about the difficulties of making progress on such a complicated issue.  I can assure you, however, that – much like revisiting a language or an instrument from your past – even the effort itself can be rewarding for those who persist.