There was once a hundred year old man. Everyone who met him marveled at his vitality and the vibrancy of his mind. He radiated joy and people wanted to be near him. When asked the secret of his long and happy life, he replied, “When I turned fifty, I was determined to find a way to stay youthful and young at heart, so I decided that every five years, I would study something new.” And so every five years, this man embraced a new activity and poured his energy into it, letting the joy of learning lead him in a new, surprising direction.
I don’t know what he chose to study, but let’s imagine what his trajectory might have been: fencing at 55, sailing at 60, Indonesian at 65. At 70, gourmet cooking. At 75, Shakespeare. At 80, a pair of knitting needles. It doesn’t really matter what he studied; what matters is that he started over again and again, and he never stopped learning.
I was intrigued by this man’s story; inspired that someone had embodied lifelong learning so completely. What an amazing man, I thought. What an amazing life he must have had! But then the wave of momentum that is my life crashed upon me, and I promptly forgot all about him.
Only I didn’t really forget him. Not completely. Because when I turned 55 last July, a confluence of circumstances led me to see two distinct paths stretched out before me. And to avoid the one I didn’t want to take, I decided to adopt this man’s strategy as a compass for my life.
Until I made that decision, my choice as an adult had been to do more of what I was already good at. I was a good writer, so I continued to write. I was a good communicator, so I kept communicating. I’d always been a transmitter of change and transformation, so I kept expanding my role as a teacher. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things. They’re wonderful, generative, creative things, and there are great rewards in going deeper and deeper into something you love.
But that wasn’t working for me anymore. I never created the time or space in my life to try anything new; I limited myself to well-worn paths worn into familiar grooves long ago. I didn’t have hobbies. I had drive. I had ambition. I had accomplishments. I had busy down pat. I had my share of successes—and some spectacular failures as well. And it’s not that I was risk aversive. But the risks I took were calculated. They were all in the same bailiwick. And because of that, my world was getting smaller.
Fear was starting to narrow the margins of my life. Repeatedly, I heard myself say things like, “I can’t do that.” “My brain doesn’t work like that anymore.” “I can’t remember anything.” “I’m not good at that. I’ve never been good at that.” Or, “That’s just not me.”
I had started to sound old.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel to France with Lizzy. I couldn’t speak French, so I was dependent on my 14-year-old daughter, who is basically fluent. But because she was 14, and didn’t always want to do what I wanted to do, she wouldn’t always translate for me. I was so helpless, I couldln’t even say, “I need to use the bathroom.” And because I believe, “I suck at languages,” I hadn’t made any effort to prepare for my travels. So I found myself in France, feeling anxious and afraid, continually thrust out of my comfort zone. Who had I become? What had happened to that courageous woman I thought was living inside my skin?
Last summer, I also passed my four-year breast cancer anniversary and I started to ask myself, “What if I do live a long life? What if cancer doesn’t cut it short? What if I live to be my mother’s age?”
What the hell was I going to do with all those years?
And then there was Eli. My precious first-born was going off to college. My independent daughter was trying out her wings and it was clear that very soon, in the blink of an eye, they would both be gone. My whole life was going to be wide open and free—and I had no idea what to do with it.
That’s when I saw those two choices spread out before me. I could hunker down and continue to choose what was habitual and safe. I could grow old before my time, believing the I can’ts and I won’ts and I don’t want tos that were clamoring for my attention. Or instead of coasting, I could choose to really live.
I decided I wanted to live.
That’s when I remembered the hundred-year-old man. That’s when I remembered his decision to be a beginner and to learn something new, once every five years. Five years is enough time to gain basic proficiency, to experience pleasure in a new activity, to lose the complete awkward self-consciousness of the beginner. Five years is enough time to build relationships, to have adventures, to carve new neural pathways, to reap rewards. Five years is long enough to fall in love and wake up a new part of me.
I decided to do what he had done.
Because of my inability to ask for a bathroom in Paris, I decided to start with a language. Since I live in California, I chose Spanish. But it wasn’t until I went for my first, horrible awkward lesson with my teacher Carolina, enduring an excruciating hour that had me awash in insecurity, self-doubt and the certain belief that I would fail—and immediately signed up for another class—that I really took the plunge.
Now I study Spanish flashcards at stoplights so I can learn to say: play (jugandar), visit (visitar), and I want, Yo quiero, I need, Yo nececisito, and Where is the bathroom? (¿Dónde está el servicio?). Every time I open my mouth, I make a dozen mistakes, but it is thrilling to be a student again. I am experiencing the compelling, ecstatic terror of the beginner.
I have no idea what I will take up at 60, if I make it that far, or 65, should I be graced with another ten years, but for now, I am too busy radiating with beginner’s mind to think about it. I am watching my brain cells come back to life, stepping back into the heart and mind of the good student I used to be. I am learning! And finding joy in sucking at something I’m bad at, but truly love.