In this article, I argue that today will always be the best day to try or learn something new.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks (well you can, but it’s hard)
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s way of reprogramming itself based on what it does. Your brain actually changes structure with new experiences. Brains also change based on what you think about. So giving energy to the kinds of thoughts you want to have, makes them form more easily the next time. This is one of the advantages of writing (it’s a form of caching thoughts).
Someone who starts playing piano for one year at age seven will likely be much better than someone who starts playing piano at age seventy for one year. Generally, the younger someone is, the less hard-wired and the more open to change their brain is. The seventy-year-old might have a better strategy for learning or more discipline, but learning is going to be harder. Neurons die every day, and they are the things gray matter is made of.
Useful versus true beliefs
There are several kinds of beliefs:
- those that are true and useful,
- those that are true and not useful
- those that are false and not useful
- those that are false but actually still useful
I think the first and last are particularly interesting. My standard contrast is the following:
A belief that is true and useful is someone telling you: “Look both ways before crossing the street or you might get hit by a car.” An example of a belief that is false but still useful is someone telling you: “Look both ways before crossing the street or a demon will steal your soul.” The latter is clearly not true, but may be useful in the sense that while the underlying premise is not valid, the effects of looking both ways might be enough to get someone to have enough awareness to avoid getting hit by a car. All things considered, I’d take the true and useful belief over the false and useful, but at least the latter is still useful. Really most ideas are somewhere on the spectrum, and a belief that is useful or true at one level of thinking or experience might be not useful or true at another.
Back to the topic at hand
The belief that “today is the best day to learn something” is useful even if it’s not true.
There are several components to why this is the case. First, and probably most importantly, it promotes acting the only time it matters: right now. It inspires action, and often after learning something, I realize that it wasn’t all that hard to begin with. It gets the ball rolling when I might have never done it at all. It’s a really optimistic view to hold.
Second, I save time. What took me four years to learn in college might have taken me five years when I as twice as old. If I want to start surfing, today is the very best day to get out on the board, because every minute I spend flailing in the water is perhaps 1.1 minutes in a couple of years. This is because the body and mind tend toward stasis, and getting them out of that takes energy.
Next, I think it leads to a more interesting life. If I see the current day as being the best day I will ever have to learn, it’s likely that I will want to explore more interesting opportunities. Why wait until later when it will be harder to do something? It’s a major opportunity cost to lose the best day ever. I think that people who want to do software should start as young as possible to get their brains wired up in a way that promotes future analytical thinking. I think most of the really good developers that I know started messing around on their own, many times in high school or before.
Another nice thing is that it makes me better going forward. If I put off learning something useful for a couple of years, that is a couple of years that I don’t get to leverage whatever it is that I put off learning. At some point, people give up learning new things because the time and energy needed to change seem too high relative to the benefit. Why learn to use a computer, I’ve gotten along just fine and I only have an uncertain number of years left. Holding the belief that today is the best day to learn something might overcome that pattern.
Last, I find that I worry less about what other people have accomplished or what skills they have when I remember this. I can still get better at whatever it is that I want to get better at, and today is the very best time to do this. No need to compare.
Don’t get hung up on the fact that last week was a better day to learn than today. Why cry over spilled milk? It’s pretty clear that I will not be an NBA player, because I haven’t been playing basketball enough and from an early enough age. Even if I set out today with the intention to join the league, it would probably take too long to get good enough before my playing days were over. Just remember that today is going to be a better day than tomorrow, so don’t waste it.
The technicality police have been thinking things like: “well what if you’re sick or you have something ‘important’ to do?” Fine, you’re right (in a sense.) But in general, I think it’s useful in the long run. Obviously this whole idea isn’t a knock against older people. They should have a lot of useful experience by now.
What do you think about this idea? True, useful, neither? Are there any equations you know for the amount of time it takes someone later in life to learn something new? Leave a comment below!