Advice to Students of all Ages

When I was growing up, I was often asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’m certain that those who asked meant well, but I was not qualified then to answer that question intelligently, and I’m not sure I can answer it intelligently now. If “growing up” means that I’ve finished my education, that I know everything I need to know, that I will no longer be curious, and that I will not ever need to change my mind because I have all the answers, then I plan never to grow up.

While I know more than I did as a child and must have accumulated some wisdom, I continue my thirst for knowledge, ideas, and new experiences. The more I know, the more opportunities are available to me for my next career; more opportunities for being productive, for happiness, and for the fulfillment of my dreams. I don’t want to grow up if that means I will stop learning and cease having new perspectives and new ways of looking at everything. I treasure the realization that I was really stupid about a specific subject a year ago, and then I met someone smarter than me who taught me something, or better yet, I figured it out myself. 

Growing up need not have an endpoint where a person starts out as a child and at some specific age, or level of accomplishment, or goal achievement, graduates to the distinction of being “grown-up.” Growing up is a terrible idea if it means one stops growing. 

If being grown-up means that I have garnered the wisdom, the skills, and the knowledge necessary to achieve a successful life, and can stop accumulating new wisdom, skills, and knowledge, I’m not interested; I don’t want to grow up, ever. The most interesting, enjoyable, and exciting parts of life involves learning. The greatest thrill in life is the elation that comes from having a new idea, an original way of understanding, explaining, or expressing an experience, a process, or a sensation. It is not important that others may have made the same observation. The act of creation is exercising your ability to think and create. Exercising your mental muscles can make you smarter, wiser, and happier.

Learning begins when a person’s brain starts to form. Evolution has provided us with some specialized cells in our bodies, but, for the most part, our brains (more accurately our nervous systems) start out as empty vessels. After birth, our neurons start specializing based upon plans laid out in our DNA and activated by our sensory inputs. We start out experiencing and responding to pain and hunger and, as our sensors develop, we react to light, sound, pressure, taste, and smell. Most wondrous of all, we remember

It’s logical that the rate of learning is greatest when we’re just born, or even when we’re still a fetus, since we’re starting with nothing, but it’s wrong to assume that our ability to learn must deteriorate as we grow older. Here’s what science tells us about learning:

Many years ago, a group of experimental psychologists at Princeton University decided to explore the question of whether the ability to learn deteriorates as humans age. They created a device that measured the time it took a person to perform simple tasks in an artificial environment that forced them to solve problems in entirely new ways. They then had a tool that answered the question of whether learning ability and age are related. Their goal was to see whether the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” was true. To verify the effectiveness of their device, they went into the town of Princeton and measured a sample of people of various ages and occupations. They were startled by the results.

It seemed that children were the most capable learners and that learning ability deteriorated slowly until about the age of 40, after which there was a sharp drop-off. Older people seemed to have lost the ability to learn new things. You can imagine the dismay of the psychologists, especially the older ones. So, they expanded the sample to include faculty and researchers at the University. Among the people tested was Albert Einstein, who was in his eighties at the time. Einstein, in his eighties, had the learning ability of a typical eight-year-old.

The researchers observed that Princeton townspeople in their sample tended to be comfortable in their lives, had completed raising their children, and had drifted into a pattern that focused on comfort and avoiding stress and conflict. Their objective was to use their existing knowledge and skills to earn a livelihood and then to retire. The opportunity for career advancement in the small town of Princeton was limited; the more ambitious of their children moved elsewhere to find challenging jobs. 

The conclusions of the researchers were:

  • The human brain functions very much like the muscles in its body. As muscles need to be exercised throughout a human lifetime, so does the brain.
  • When people continually challenged themselves to solve problems and learn new information and skills, there was little deterioration of their thinking and learning ability.
  • When people stopped using their brains, their ability to think and learn deteriorated, atrophied, just like unused muscles. 
  • The neurons that make up our brains deteriorate much slower than the cells in the rest of our bodies. An older person may not be able to lift weights, run, and jump like a youngster, but the ability to learn and think if continually exercised remains robust even at advanced ages.
  • When people give up and when they stop learning, even for a year or two, and allow their learning muscles to atrophy, their ability to learn may be gone forever.

The message should be clear to you: You have a world of opportunities to create, solve problems, fulfill your dreams, and help others fulfill their dreams. But finding the one opportunity that’s right for you is not easy. The way to keep your options open and have the most career opportunities in your future is to prepare and acquire the tools and knowledge that will give you the most choices when you go out into the world to fulfill your destiny. 

Continue to be a student! Stay curious, thirst for knowledge, and learn from everyone you meet because “everyone knows something you don’t.” In this wonderful world we live in, you have access to all the knowledge in the world. Take advantage of that access.

My final bit of advice: An open mind is essential. A closed mind is devastating to the process of learning. A truly educated person must be prepared to change his or her mind and accept the advancing knowledge of our society. To do this, you need to be able to say, with great sincerity,

I’m sorry! I made a mistake! I don’t know! Please help me!