Learning New Things. For No Reason.

Within the past two years, my children have learned to ride bikes, ride scooters and skateboards, navigate monkey bars, slide down poles, swim, play checkers, backgammon and three different card games. They’ve learned to carry numbers, borrow numbers and multiply numbers, then estimate how many plastic bears equal a small gourd in weight. They’ve learned to read. They’ve learned to write. They can reboot a computer.

These are big, big things that will stay with them for their entire lives. An adult doesn’t forget how to read or swim freestyle. An adult doesn’t forget how to get out a piece of scrap paper and set up the numbers on top of each other, crossing out the number that’s getting borrowed from, and moving the number from the tens column to the ones column.

We adults do forget how to learn new things, though—especially big things. Our lives become too serious and too busy to invest time in learning something for no real reason—just to learn something. We learn skills in our jobs. We learn new computer programs, we learn new systems and strategies, we learn the names of the people we meet at fundraisers and mixers. Sometimes we learn new things we don’t want to, like how to inject our spouse with a cocktail of antibiotics to combat an infection that was picked up after having surgery. We learn what goes on during a colonoscopy, we learn how to recover lost luggage, and we learn how to download new operating systems onto our smartphones. Everything we learn has a purpose. Our learning is utilitarian. It helps us save money, keep jobs, to get from point A to point B.

There’s no real point to getting from one side of the monkey bars to the other. There’s no point to backgammon. There’s probably a point to carrying and borrowing numbers, but the calculator on a smartphone leaves one questioning exactly what the point is. When it comes to children learning these skills, nobody bothers to question the purpose of this learning. You won’t hear an adult say, “Hey, Jacob, why are you bothering with learning to ride a bike? Where do you plan on going? When are you going to be done and be able to ride on your own? Is there any money in bike riding?” We assign an inherent value to a child’s learning, even if there is no apparent purpose to it.

We don’t assign that same value to our learning when we become adults. What would happen if, as adults, we learned new skills for no new purpose? What skills would they be, and how would the process work?

My biggest obstacle to learning is ego, plain and simple. It’s embarrassing to learn something everyone else learned 30 years ago. It’s embarrassing when your swim instructor walks out to the pool, and she’s 17 years old, two decades your junior. It’s embarrassing when someone tells you the people who swim in the lanes next to you have tried out for the Olympics, are training for the Ironman Triathalon, were on their college swim teams.

I followed through with it, though. I told the 17-year-old that I was there because I’m too self-conscious to swim in a lane, I’d like my swimming to conform more to actual strokes and I want to add swimming to my exercise routine. I was getting bored walking.

Of course, she didn’t care about any of this. She was there to earn a few bucks. She was professional in the way that 17-year-olds are when they have a job to do, and she taught me enough about swimming to get me into the lanes. She told me I wasn’t exactly doing the breast stroke, because I wasn’t doing the frog kick properly. We fixed it. She told me my freestyle looked just fine. She told me I wasn’t quite ready to do an underwater flip when I turn around, but that there was nothing wrong with touching the edge of the pool and then just turning around.

If any of my children had asked me whether they should be embarrassed by what they don’t know and whether it is humiliating to learn something new, from someone young, who is more talented, I would tell them that is ridiculous. We don’t always follow the advice we give children. We don’t usually do that, in fact.

Swimming has turned into one of the greatest gifts in my life. When the pool is empty, early in the morning, and there is nobody else there, it’s as peaceful as any mountaintop, any nighttime sky full of stars, any rowboat in the middle of a lake, or any of the other places that are universally considered peaceful.

When I was pregnant with triplets, it was the only place I was comfortable and the only exercise I could do. My big belly was so huge, I could see everyone who was at the pool briefly stop what they were doing and stare for a few seconds, wondering why I was so big, when I would deliver my big baby. I began timing my swimming during the aqua aerobics class. The women who took the class, which is easy on joints, were often elderly, injured, or sometimes overweight. They embraced me with their smiles and lovely comments, such as, “it’s nice to see you here,” or “you must be so excited to welcome your baby.”

Since my swim lessons with the 17-year-old, I have learned to become a tutor in our regional literacy program, I have read the Bible from start to finish, I have ridden my bicycle so slow up a big hill that some local kids laughed at me in front of their parents and tried to see if they could beat me up the hill by running. I have read War and Peace, I started listening to hip-hop, and I’ve run a 5k (without stopping!). All of these pursuits have embarrassed me in some way, and they’ve all been rewarding in more ways than I can count–even though none of them have made me money, gotten me to a destination quicker or resolved a computer glitch. It’s enough to make me start following the advice I give my children.





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