Lifelong learning is easier to grasp as an abstract concept than it is to actually implement.
It requires that we fend off a fair number of neurological and psychological antagonists while also maintaining a stable sense of self and ethical equilibrium, even as we regularly shed our skins and emerge from fresh cocoons—leaving versions of “I” behind to make room for new iterations of the same.
I’ve been fortunate to see what successful lifelong learning looks like many times over the course of my life, but one of the most quintessential examples that comes to mind every time I consider the concept is a woman I met while traveling who I’ll call Judith.
Though she’s now passed away (which is part of why I’m using a false name for her, as she was a somewhat private person), throughout her life she maintained an always-on appreciation for novelty and growth, while still being capable of appreciating the fundamentals: the everyday wonders that are easy to overlook and take for granted.
The first time I met her, we fell into a conversation about how she was learning to use emoji on her phone while communicating with her family and friends—especially her grandchildren (Judith was in her 90s at the time).
It’s common for each new generation to be looked down upon by previous generations: the way they talk, the way they dress, the music they listen to, and the values they hold are all silly, watered-down, pointless variations of the clearly more perfect versions that came before.
This reflex makes sense as a lot of what we consider to be normal and good is formalized in our brains when we’re young.
Many of us decide that the music we listened to when we were in our teens and 20s is the be all, end all of the craft, and there are both neurological and cultural reasons for doing this (and those reasons are tricky to overcome without conscious effort and attention, but even then can stick around as persistent baselines).
The same is true of things like emoji or other trends that emerge after our brain-plasticity heyday.
Up until roughly age 25, our brains are growing and shifting and changing shape, but after that point we have to exert time and attention and energy to achieve even the smallest of tweaks to our now more-concretized understanding of the world.
Again, there are quite a few reasons for this, many of them related to saving energy so that as adults we can utilize shorthand, mental frameworks and thus, won’t have to work as hard to understand new concepts: we can view them through the lens of things we already understand, and that then shapes our perception of these new things (while also tending to limit our capacity to integrate radical novelty or fundamental shifts into our worldview).
Judith, though, was excited about emoji.
This 90-something woman was gleefully learning about this (at the time) new mode of communication and enthusiastically experimenting, failing, learning more, and engaging with her grandchildren as if she were the child rather than the other way around.
My sincere hope is that I’ll be able to maintain even a fraction of the awe and sense of possibility Judith had, even so late in her life.
As I grow older and as I struggle against the forces Judith so capably and (seemingly) casually wrangled, I want to evolve with the world rather than fading into the background, growing resentful about anything that doesn’t seem to be aimed directly at me and my existing beliefs and habits and understandings.
I want to maintain my capacity for not just malleability, but joyful exploration and exposure-catalyzed exhilaration.
Rather than allowing herself to be drained by the changing world around her, she decided to change with it.
This way of perceiving and engaging isn’t easy or straightforward or without tradeoffs, but the people I’ve met who’ve adopted this type of practical philosophy have shown me a path that I’m not sure I would have otherwise imagined, much less decided to aspirationally adopt for myself.