A couple of months ago, at the age of 19, I learnt how to ride a bike. Of course, my parents had attempted to teach me during my childhood but due to my balance, or lack thereof, they had no success. A number of people also attempted throughout the years but it was of no avail. However, this summer, under the instruction of a brilliant teacher, I eventually learnt how to ride a bike and even graduated to riding a tiny, tiny motorcycle. Who would’ve thought? Of course, this road wasn’t without its bumps- quite literally too. I scraped my knees countless times, nearly ran over a dog and took on a (stationary) tractor head-on (to this day, I nurse the recesses of the bump on my forehead). But the point is, I learnt how to ride a bike. Better late than never, I’d like to believe. I’m proud of myself.
A few days ago I was at a sports store when I saw a pair of in-line skates. Having managed to learn to ride a bike, as wobbly as I might be, I want to move onto in-line skating. I happened to make the mistake of voicing this desire out loud. And the response I received wasn’t surprising, simply exasperating. “You want to learn to use in-line skates at this age? You’ll fall and break your nose.” Yes. I want to learn to use in-line skates at this age. I want to learn to sail. I want to learn to jive, to speak new languages, to repair a broken shower – to do all sorts of things! And why shouldn’t I?
A tendency I’ve observed amongst humans is to blame most of their shortcomings or lack of effort on the fact that they’re ageing. “I can’t learn a new language, I can’t jump that high or run that fast, I can’t do this, I can’t to that. I’m getting old. Maybe if I were 25 years younger.” As we grow up, the rate at which we grow diminishes. Age and growth seem to have an inverse relationship. Is age truly such an obstacle? Maybe I’m too young to understand that but too old to learn something new.
Through my youthful eyes, I see the “inability” to learn as a kind of laziness that sets in as one becomes more comfortable in life. When a child is growing up, everything is a struggle. Tying a pair of shoelaces seems like a daunting task until it is mastered with practice and perseverance. As we grow up, the struggles we face grow too- in number and intensity. Initially, all these struggles seem unique and require new knowledge and skills to be overcome. But these struggles are an essential part of self-development.
Struggles are of different types and they make us grow in different ways. I’ve classified them into three types- the Basic Struggles, the External Struggles and the Self-Imposed Struggles. Basic Struggles are those such as learning to walk for the first time or tying shoelaces or learning to write. These struggles are those everyone is faced with, usually at quite a young age and they are conquered with a mix of practice and inherent ability as they imbibe basic survival skills. The External Struggles are those which are imposed upon us by the external environment, which may or may not have been partially brought on by ourselves. We’ve to learn to deal with bosses should we choose to work under someone, we’ve to learn to pay that next education loan instalment while funding our regular lifestyle needs and if we can’t, we’ve to learn to curb our demands. Both, the basic and external struggles have a shelf life. Basic Struggles come to an end at some point and the External Struggles become repetitive until we’ve overcome them or learnt to deal to the point of them feeling like a regular task and not a struggle. However, it’s this third form of struggle we shy away from the most.- the Self-Imposed Struggle. Life throws it’s challenges at us time and again but those obstacles which challenge us the most are the ones we place in front of ourselves.
I’ve noticed younger people are far more keen to challenge themselves than their older counterparts. Every struggle overcome, to a young mind, is a feat accomplished with the reward being not only a win but also the lessons learnt on the way to that win. But as we age, the tendency to throw ourselves at something new drastically reduces. Life is sailing rather smoothly and we see no excuse to disrupt its course. A challenge is a burden, and nothing more. We do not find the motivation within us to work harder, especially towards something new and unknown.
Another reason older people tend to shirk off challenges is the very obvious, fear of failure and embarrassment. I was mortified to admit to not knowing how to ride a bike. And the idea sustained bruises and bumps wasn’t very appealing. But the people I was surrounded by were more than happy to help. And that bump is my scar of war (exaggerated, but you know). The fear stemmed from the childhood memories of mean little kids poking fun at my inabilities. But the older we get, the kinder we become. And if public embarrassment is what you fear, the last sentence will help you shed your inhibitions. Now that we’ve tackled embarrassment, let’s move onto failure. Do you remember learning how to swim as a kid? What was your biggest fear at that time- failing and thus not being able to make your parents, trainer, etc. proud OR drowning? We didn’t even know the meaning of failure or pride back then. It was the sheer fear of not being able to keep your head above the water that scared you. So if we could conquer that as children, why do stupid words like those stop us from doing that now? Why are we so scared to fail? Maybe it’s because we’ve been conditioned to think from our school days that failure is undesirable. But time has passed since then and we have grown. We have had an abundance of experiences teach us that failure is a part and parcel of life. The only failure is in not beginning. And as Thomas Edison said, “I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Failure, is all in the head.
Also, as we get older, we get pretty good at coming up with excuses. “I’ve got responsibilities. I’ve got deadlines. I don’t have the time to do that. What if I get hurt, I can’t afford to be in bed for a week.” And if you’re one of those people citing these mundane reasons for not trying something new, it’s either because you’re too comfortable and scared or you’re actually just that mundane. Try something new, life goes on anyway. The project you couldn’t complete because you were too busy sky-diving? It got done anyway. Kids you couldn’t cook lunch for? School canteens aren’t half bad. I’m not advocating dropping everything you’re in the middle of to go on an adventure. But responsibilities are the last thing that should be stopping you from pursuing something which lets you grow or makes you happy.
As we grow, we learn, we experience and we gain. We become more knowledgeable. We become stronger- in body and mind. And this strength should make us fearless, not fearful. So the next time you’re scared of trying something new, take the plunge anyway. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only adult taking swimming lessons. It’ll be totally worth it, especially when you move onto scuba diving.