You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Do you believe our age only makes us more set in our ways? If we get angry too often, do you believe we should resign ourselves to never becoming more relaxed? If we’re afraid to speak our minds, should we take it as a given that we’ll never become more self-confident? If we refuse other people’s ideas, do you believe we should never expect to become more flexible? If we always behave in the same way in the same situation are we to say, “it’s too late for me” and give up on learning to behave differently? As easy as it is to give a resounding “No!” to all these questions, I believe that learning new ways isn’t as hard as we may fear it to be.
Old dogs can learn new tricks. If “old” is who we’ve become as a result of our past, then age isn’t only about how many years we’ve spent in this body. It’s about how we do what we do, what we think, and what we say. We can learn new tricks by building on who we’ve become rather than disowning our past in order to move forward. To experience new people and situations, we need neither to forget nor dwell on our past. We need to accept it. It’s usually that which tests us the most that gives rise to our finest traits. Our habits we cling to are no obstacles to change. They’re our biggest proof that we can learn to change. For how did we get those habits in the first place, but through learning new things.
We can act differently in our relationships, we can turn anger into laughter, we can have more of what we like, and we can create a better life. When we think of what we want, we think of having to change, rather than wanting to change. To have what we want we need to want what we have to: what we have to do, what we have to change, and what we have to become. There’s no right time to learn a new act. The right time to act is now.
Next time you catch yourself feeling angry or in the middle of an argument with someone, give this a try. Pause and take a deep breath. Now imagine your phone rang and you had to pretend you’re in a good mood speaking to the other person. If you can make that switch in a second, you can accept someone else’s point of view too and stop the fight. Nothing lasts forever, so why should our habits?
Meet John, a middle-aged clerical worker, married with three kids. John’s hobby is to play the guitar. Many casual guitar players strum a few cords for fun when no one’s around. I think John’s craft is better than casual. And I told him so. He used to have a band, even recorded a CD. He married, had kids, and learnt the tricks of his day job well to keep the good money coming. I asked John why he didn’t want to pursue his music now that he’s more established and had more time on his hands. He simply answered, “I’m afraid I won’t be good enough.”
Uncertainty of the new nourishes the appeal of the old. No wonder we all grew up approving of the adage that the older we are, the more set in our ways we’ll be. If we believe this to be true, then it doesn’t matter how much we want something, it doesn’t matter how big our dreams are, or how good we can become at something. We’ll be where we are, doing the tricks we know, resigning ourselves to inaction by calling ourselves “too old”.
Old dogs can learn new tricks. How else would we have come to where we are now had we not learnt new things in the past. We had to start somewhere, but we don’t have to end the starts. Start learning a new language, a new skill, or a new behavior.
If anyone I know could use old age as an excuse for resigning himself to his old ways of thinking and doing things, my friend Victor would be the one. Victor is 84 this year. And yet he still works using his computer from home. He keeps active in his circle of friends and colleagues. He even travels with his wife Eva from Australia to Europe every year. Ever since I’ve known this man, I’ve loved our conversations. He is well-informed, witty, and youthful. I’m sure we all know people in their 20s who can make us feel gloomy five minutes in their presence. How does Victor do it? Well, it doesn’t feel like he’s doing much. He just is. But he does listen to what you have to say. He makes his point, but is willing to change his mind. Most importantly, I think, he respects your advice and opinions. I hope I get to enjoy Victor’s company for many years to come.
Do you think you’re an “old dog”? Please, think again. Our beliefs are made up of thoughts we think most often. We can change our beliefs by thinking different thoughts. All of us “age” by getting accustomed to how we usually respond to people and situations. We trial and error through most of our lives. And we stick with what works.
If we want to learn new things, we have to be brave to let go of what has worked in the past. The sign for “brave” in the American Sign Language is the same as the sign for “healthy”. So if to be healthy is to be brave, act despite your fears of failure and embarrassment, don’t resent the past, and don’t dredge it up for others either. Be healthy. If you don’t like the bone you’ve been chewing, change your tricks. Wag your tail and share your walk with others.