Published April 02, 2012
It can be challenging—and at times, frustrating—to learn new skills, especially as you grow older. But Gary Marcus, a psychology professor at New York University and the director of the Center for Language of Music, did exactly that—fulfilling a lifelong goal of learning how to play music when he picked up a guitar at age 38. The science was against him: Popular psychological theories have long supported the idea of the ‘elasticity’ of young brains, making it easier for children to master new skills than adults. But with time, effort and a few tips Marcus shared with FoxNews.com, he overcame his ‘long history of failed attempts’ and finally became musical.
Here’s what Marcus had to say about his experience, and how you can apply it to your own efforts to master something new.
What inspired you to write this book?
The guitar—I got addicted to the guitar and realized the only way I could keep playing was to make it a part of my life, and the book was a way do that. I had a lifelong love of music and a long history of failed attempts to learn to learn how to play music. I played the videogame Guitar Hero and failed at that, then played again later with my wife’s help. I got better and better at the game, and it was remotely like making music. It became a gateway drug to the real guitar.
Do you still play now, and if so, how would you rate your skills?
I try to play every day. I’ve certainly improved—I was absolutely dreadful, and now I’m good enough that I can go onstage with other musicians and not completely embarrass myself. I’m at the intermediate level: I can do the basic stuff, but I still have a long way to go.
There’s evidence that suggests children’s brains are more ‘elastic’ than adults— making it easier for them to learn new skills—but what are external factors that may pose limitations for adult learning?
Well, critical periods (a psychological theory that suggests people can only learn certain skills, such as language, at certain ages) are overrated. It does get harder to learn as you grow older, but it’s more a matter of degree rather than possibility. Adults have less time to invest in learning than kids do. They have other responsibilities—like paying bills and taking care of kids. Adults also have higher expectations for themselves. Kids are willing to fool around and learn, but adults put too much pressure on themselves. They expect quick progress. They expect to be playing Rolling Stones songs on the second day. They don’t allow themselves the leisure of learning gradually, and they get frustrated because of it.
What can adults do to overcome these limitations?
I think the most important thing for adults to do is to give themselves space and not expected overnight success. When you’re older, you need to take smaller steps. If you’re playing guitar, and it takes you a while to just master quarter notes with a metronome, do that instead of expecting to play a complicated song. It’s important not to develop bad habits as you’re learning, and when you rush things that’s when you develop bad habits. Going slower, building on skills incrementally is the best way to get better. The second thing is people really need to target their weaknesses. We have a tendency to practice things that are fun because we’re good at them, but to become really good, you have to figure out what you’re less good at and target those places. So for me, that was all about rhythm. I used a metronome, a drum machine and developed an iPhone app called Chatternome and practiced with those things.
Logic dictates, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ How would you revise that statement, based on your experience?
Old dogs can learn new tricks if they take it incrementally, and learn new skills.
Learning something new, especially something that you’re not naturally good at, is scary, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction you get from learning something that you thought you’d never be able to do.