In the June 5 issue of Time magazine, Bill Gates was interviewed about the books that have influenced him. I was struck by one of his comments: “You don’t really start getting old until you stop learning.”
Is that true? Do we stay young in mind and spirit, though not in body, as long as we continue to learn new things? I agreed with the quote at first, but, as I thought more, it seemed to me that the statement could be accurate or not, depending on how the term “old” is used.
Merriam-Webster lists several uses of the world ‘old’. Gates probably isn’t using it to refer to being “advanced in years or age” but instead in the sense of “showing the characteristics of age.” Some of the characteristics commonly associated with age are negative, such as inflexibility, cantankerousness, and tediousness. Having stopped learning probably does contribute to becoming old in this sense. Curmudgeons not only are disinterested in learning the latest ideas and practices, but actively erect defenses against anything new, believing instead that the old ways were always better. This type of old person prefers reruns of the Andy Griffith Show or Happy Days (which were nostalgic even when they were new) to more recent shows; oldies music to contemporary songs; Turner Classic Movies to the latest Oscar nominees. Before they know anything about what’s new, they know they don’t like it. Their insulation from new knowledge–from learning–is also insulation from ever having their assumptions challenged. They are in a time capsule, a bubble insulating them from the world around them.
But obstinacy and close-mindedness are not the only characteristics associated with advancing age. Many people become wiser as they age, humbler and less certain they have all the answers. Recently I talked to a woman in her early 70s who said, “The older I get, the more I realize how little I know. Much of the things I used to be sure about I am not so sure about anymore.” She has become less dogmatic as she aged, more open to possibilities and more curious about views that differ from hers. She says, “I used to always have something to say. Now I’m more willing to listen, or just to sit in silence.”
Her perspective is definitely something she acquired as she aged–it’s rare to hear such thoughts expressed by the young. Her way of being old doesn’t result from having stopped learning. If anything, the opposite is true: the more she learned, the more she saw the complexities of life and the more dissatisfied she became with facile or one-sided answers. Here’s an interesting thought: perhaps her way of being old is not only consistent with continuing to learn new things, but actually requires lifelong learning in order to develop. The paradox of learning over a lifetime is that, past a certain point, the more one learns the more one is aware of how much more there is to know and the less one speaks in absolutes or with certitude.
So, perhaps Bill Gates’ assertion that growing old is the result of no longer learning is true or not, depending on what sort of growing old he’s talking about. If we stop learning, we are likely to show such negative features of aging as inflexibility and intolerance. However, there’s another way of growing old–characterized by increased curiosity, openness, appreciation, and wisdom–and those who stop learning will never age in this manner.
It seems I learn something new almost every day. For example, recently I learned the difference between the yoga poses cobra and upward facing dog, and that older coffee drinkers are less likely to progress from mild cognitive impairment to full-blown dementia. Some of what I learn is trivial, some profound. By itself, continuing to learn doesn’t guarantee wisdom or maturity. That’s not why I keep learning things, though. I learn because the world around me and the people in it are fascinating and I’m enriched by knowing about them. If I receive additional benefits, that’s a nice bonus!