Living

Find joy in learning as you grow older

Focus should be on cultivating the inner self rather than just the acquiring of skills

Although at 51 I am not yet old, I am old enough to have learnt my limitations.

When I practise the ukulele, I do it knowing that I will never be more than a mediocre player.

When I train for a run, I do it knowing that I will never achieve an impressive time.

When I practise jump-rope tricks, I do it knowing that I will never dazzle anyone with my skills.

But I like it that way. It means that I now strive for mastery rather than achievement.

Now, when I study or practise, it is because  I take joy in the activity itself. There is a part of  me that delights in rhythm, melody and harmony. There is a part  of me that delights in strength and endurance. There is a part of me  that delights in  the coordination  of mind and body.

The French essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533 to 1592) once wrote: "There is nothing more remarkable in Socrates (an Ancient Greek philosopher) than that he found time, when he was an old man, to learn music and dancing, and thought it time well spent."

But to me, there is nothing so very remarkable about that. Time spent learning music and dancing seems to me to be time well spent, at any age. In fact, time spent learning any skill, craft, art, sport or science seems to me to be time well spent, at any age.

MORE THAN MASTERING SKILLS

Needless to say, the older you get, the less chance you have of becoming highly proficient at what you set out to learn. But the joy in learning remains undiminished.

In his book 365 Dao: Daily Meditations, the American-Chinese artist and author Deng Ming-Dao tells a story about a wanderer who devoted his energies to mastering five things: the zither, chess, books, painting and the sword.

He writes: "The zither gave him music, which expressed the soul. Chess cultivated strategy and a response to the actions of another. Books gave him an academic education. Painting was the exercise of beauty and sensitivity. Sword was a means for health and defence."

One day, a boy asked the wanderer what he would do if he were to lose his zither, his chess pieces, his books, his paintbrush and his sword.

At first, the wanderer was horrified at the thought. But then he realised that the zither is nothing without a musician, that chessmen are nothing without players, that books are nothing without a reader, and so on.

He realised that in mastering those things, he had done far more than acquire various skills. He had cultivated his inner being.

That story expresses precisely how I feel about learning, as I grow older. In my younger days, whenever I set out to learn something, I always had some goal in mind. I always wanted to reach a certain standard or achieve some kind of distinction. Whenever I studied or practised,

I had that goal in mind.

But now, when I study or practise, it is because I take joy in the activity itself. There is a part of me that delights in rhythm, melody and harmony. There is a part of me that delights in strength and endurance. There is a part of me that delights in the coordination of mind and body.

When I play, run or skip, I cultivate those parts of myself.

It occurs to me now, as I write, that I have never, in all of my 51 years, learnt to draw or paint.

I have always thought of myself as lacking artistic talent, and have never had the confidence to pick up a brush or a pencil. Perhaps, as I enter a new year, it is time I did.

There is a whole part of my inner being still waiting to be cultivated.

•Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Find joy in learning as you grow older'. Print Edition | Subscribe