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Over the years, we have told ourselves over and over again that we just can’t learn new things. We’re too old to learn new skills; our brain is tired and getting old. It can properly absorb new knowledge; not the way it used to.

Well, UCR psychology professor Rachel Wu says that is all baloney. Our aging brains in hardly a problem, if anything the opposite is true. The problem is that we learn new things the ‘adult way.’ If we were to take a childlike approach to learning new things, we would go further in getting the knowledge.

Prof. Wu puts this argument in a recently published scientific paper in the Human Development. She did a five-year-long research and established the fact that there is no such a thing as a ‘prime learning years.’ What matters is the method we use to learn new things.

How did we learn when we were kids?

Prof. Wu says children take a “broad learning” approach. To them, everything is unfamiliar and new, and they’re eager to discover their new world, without the emotional baggage of failure of failing. At a younger age, children haven’t encountered many failures in life – not that there’s anything wrong with failing, the problem is carrying it around like an anchor – and they’re obsessed with learning new things.

The child’s environment is also primed for accelerated learning. They are surrounded by parents, older siblings, teachers, and mentors who naturally want to guide them. Kids are often learning several new things at the same time. They are taught to believe they can learn new things if they just keep trying, and eventually gets the hang of it; how to tie their shoes, how to read, etc.

So what becomes the problem when we’re Adult?

Things change when we are adults. We are perpetually held down by the anchor called fear of failure. Based on our past mistakes that led to failures, we become afraid of trying new things. We, therefore, switch our brains from “broad learning” to “specialized learning.”

That happens around the time we start our careers; we pick a specialized line and settle there. Then more impediments to learning new things (especially when learning things outside our line of careers) begin cropping up both internally and externally.

When learning, adults no longer have mentors readily there to help them. They are also anchored down by the fear of failure. They also suffer a major psychological flaw of thinking natural talents trumps effort. They finally resort to accepting things are difficult, and it is probably for the best to give up. Sticking to just what is familiar; and should we try to learn new things, it is usually one.

Prof. Wu argues as adults, there just too many forces working against us. She and her research work advice adults should embrace a more “broad learning” approach. Wu says if you want to learn a new thing, say how to code, speak a new language, play a new musical instrument – you need a fresh approach; approach it like a kid.

Approach the world with childlike wonder,” says Prof. Wu. She goes further to break down the steps on how to do that into the following six steps:

Get out of your comfort zone: Take the unfamiliar path. Try out a different approach to learning, not the one you are used to every day. That could mean enrolling in a class, finding others with whom you share the same interest and form a study group.

Find a mentor: Go out and get guidance from experienced mentors, experts, or teachers to guide you through the learning process.

Silence all the negativity: You should know effort trumps talent. Thinking otherwise will derail your efforts.

Accept mistakes are part of life and get back on the horse: In life, you are bound to encounter failures, but every time you fall off the horse, dust yourself up and get right back on it. Don’t let your mistake anchor you down in one position, never to move forward again.

Persevere and Commit to the course: Don’t quit few months after you began. Doing so will not get you where you want.

You can learn multiple things at once: Learning multiple things at the same time helps to keep your mind in a learning mode; helping you absorb more information faster.

If adults were to engage in broad learning… similar to those from early childhood experiences, aging adults could expand cognitive functioning beyond currently known limits,” said Prof. Wu.

What I want adults to take away from this study is that we CAN learn many new skills at any age. It just takes time and dedication.”

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