The Paradox of Adulthood Learning

As children, we had unlimited ideas about what we were going to do with our lives. But by age 25, most of us will have resigned ourselves to repetition and routine. It grows easier with each passing day to perpetuate the familiar. Our tastes grow ever more narrowly confined with time. We have forgotten discovery as an active state.

Peak discovery is intimidating to normal humans because they define themselves by their limits. They have forgotten how to look beyond what they know. There was a time when you didn’t stop to think about how foolish you might feel if you were not immediately good at something. Trying new things was once endlessly exciting for each of us. Adults lose this freedom with age because they rigidify their concept of self into their environment. To display any weakness at all is to murder the conception of self – a fate worse than actual death.

There is nothing wrong with specialization in life, but left unchecked it prematurely closes the mind to new experience. Our specializations become our jobs, our hobbies, and how we describe who we are to the world. We get so used to labeling ourselves by a certain set of terms that we automatically disregard any others. Who you are is nothing more than an unconscious script you carry with you.

Cultural dogma tells us that identity expansion ends in early adulthood. New skills and abilities are acquired when we are young, or not at all. Common knowledge convinces us that who we are when we finish schooling is who we are destined to be for the rest of our lives. This extremely bleak outlook is accepted all around the world. In fact, in my observation it is one of the most universally shared traits of humanity.

Young children get away with errors that adults do not because no one expects someone with such little life experience to perform well at anything. As adults, we learn to be ashamed when we hit a wrong note on the piano, or make an inaccurate remark on an esoteric subject. There’s far less forgiveness for the grown man or woman who ought to know better. Grown-ups are not given the leniency they need to attempt something they cannot necessarily accomplish.

The paradox of learning in adulthood is that we have greater abilities, resources, and experience than ever before, but we cannot take in new information as readily as we once did. We go narrower and deeper into knowledge, but are easily overwhelmed by anything outside our familiarity. Because children have no strong familiarity, they forego this resistance. That is their unique advantage over us. Their natural enthusiasm makes all the difference. They don’t fear the discomfort of pushing personal boundaries. When people stop learning, they exist only to perpetuate the way they have been trained to see until now. Their actions preserve the world by the standards of those who came before them. They learn the rules of life and spend every moment being used by those rules – a slave to their own knowledge. Overcoming the belief that learning is difficult can be a bigger challenge than actually learning. But it is vital to the continued growth of a person.

It is often complete newcomers to a subject who most readily adopt the principles of adeptness. Prior experience creates predisposition. We inherit biases from those who already know what they are doing. Experts are limited to old information because the mind is already occupied. They cannot entertain multiple ideas within the same category without accepting one as absolutely true. This is how worldviews grow narrower with time. Regardless of the power of the intellect, emotions are not fluid enough to make perpetual change possible. Only blank slates don’t have to fight against the inertia of experience. If you’ve been working the same job, living in the same town, running with the same social circle, and generally dealing with the same problems, you have forgotten the thrill of childlike discovery.

Everything in life is constantly changing – in a state of advancement or decline. Without the impulse to explore, we lose ourselves to patterns of convenience. People cannot see what will move them toward bigger and more attractive goals – if they have any explicit goals at all. They have no trouble filling their days with trivial pursuits, but cannot plan their life out on a larger scale. By intentionally exposing yourself to new influences, you cannot help but make meaningful progress. You will mature faster through alternatives to what you already know.