How to Stay Young Forever: Never Stop Learning

by Allyce Yang, Class of 2020 | Sep 1, 2017

Remember when you were a child who knew nothing about the world, and depended on wise adults to give you answers to your endless questions?

Now, you are that adult with all the answers. Well, you don’t have all the answers, but you have enough of them that you can focus on other things: doing well in school, perhaps, getting a promotion; buying a new car, maybe working out more, or taking care of your family.

Pursuing these things can sometimes distract us from the curiosities of the world. We forget to ask questions. We forget to seek answers. Sure, we don’t need to reach beyond our current realm of knowledge to survive. We can live healthy and even happy lives without continuing to learn.

But does that mean we should ever stop?

For the past year and a half, I’ve been studying Korean as a break from schoolwork, not out of requirement, but purely out of passion. This endeavor has made me realize that learning can be a lifelong adventure for anyone who has the bravery to dive into a new world.

Learning Re-awakens Your Childish Sense of Wonder

It’s far too easy to become complacent about our perspectives of the world. As adults, the entire world often feels like its been mapped out for us — our day routines, our future, what we can and can’t do. Living within this comfortable certainty, we seldom need to venture into the beyond.

When we were children, our lives overflowed with exploration. Back then, adults didn’t have to bribe us to learn something — more often, they had to bribe us to stop asking questions. The thirst to learn, explore, and create practically spilled out of us, often at the most inopportune of times.

As a child, I was relentless about what I wanted. When I wanted to know something, I would find some way to figure it out. I would ask adults, read books at the library, or later, Google the topic I was most curious about. I used to do anything to learn something I “shouldn’t” know, or figure out a new secret about the world around me.

I discovered that my inner child that loved learning new things had never really died in the first place.

On the brink of my 19th birthday, the great unknown seems a lot more frustrating than it does magical. What used to be mysterious is now intimidating. Figuring out how to file taxes or learn programming isn’t nearly as awe-inspiring as those cities drawn out of chalk. Now, life is much easier if I do what I’m good at; when I live in the familiar and focus on my own comfort.

Seeking new information, seeing the world through new perspectives, and trying out different skills and activities are ways of re-inspiring this wonder. I started learning Korean during my final year of high school, and carried on through my first year of college. Even though I was studying all day and sometimes all night for class, I sought solace from the stress of academics in the novelty of just getting to know a new language.

신기하다 (shin-gi-ha-da): in Korean, this means fascinating, interesting, or amusing. It’s a word that wholly encompasses my experiences as a beginning Korean speaker: everything was new to me. Korean sentences that had simply been meaningless symbols to me bloomed with meaning and beauty. Song lyrics that had previously been gibberish to me became poetry. Learning Korean truly changed the world around me, but the true transformation was in myself. I discovered that my inner child that loved learning new things had never really died in the first place.

However, when learning something new, it’s important to remember that failure is largely inevitable. After all, if you truly are starting from square one, you will probably stumble constantly as you try to find your bearings in unfamiliar territory.

Success — ability, skill, and accomplishment — are rewarded by the world with college acceptance letters, job offers, raises, and social prestige.

Failure, on the other hand, gets no such immediate reward. As I learned Korean, it seemed that the more I learned, the more I had yet to learn. When I learned the alphabet, I struggled to spell words. When I could spell words, I struggled to build sentences. And when I could build sentences, I struggled to force them out of my brain quickly enough to carry conversation.

Standing on top of my new knowledge and staring into all that I had yet to learn made me acutely aware of what I lacked, and all the mistakes that I was going to make in the future. Yet even though I feared failure, I could plainly see that being even just a little better at Korean would make my life infinitely richer and more beautiful.

Failure is really just a reminder that you have room to grow. It’s one of the most important parts of the learning process because it reminds you that you are more than what you have done in the past, and that you are capable of doing things that you may have never imagined.

Learning for Pleasure Helps You to Understand Yourself More Deeply

Here’s an exercise I’ve often done. Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What excites me?
  2. What would I do if I didn’t have to worry about money?
  3. If the world were to end today, what would I regret never trying?

When we were children, these answers were probably easier to answer.

  1. What excites me? New action figures in the toy store
  2. What would I do if I didn’t have to worry about money? Buy more ice cream
  3. If the world were to end today, what would I regret never trying? That new ice cream flavor that I never tried before

Now, as adults, we don’t have the answers to these questions off the top of our heads. The more life we live, the vaster our store of experiences and memories becomes, the harder it becomes to figure out what really matters to us going forward.

Even before I started learning Korean, I knew that language learning was important to me, but I didn’t know exactly how fulfilling it would be for me.

After a year of self-studying Korean with the goal of fluency, I was able to hold basic conversations and understand Korean YouTube videos without English subtitles. Though I was proud of the progress I had made, I was even more inspired by the new worlds that even this basic proficiency had opened up for me.

When you learn something new, you don’t just learn about that topic. You learn about what you are capable of, and what you want to do with your life.

I could finally understand the complex beauty and ambiguity of some of my favorite Korean song lyrics. I learned simple and elegant words for experiences that in English require multi-syllable, multi-word phrases. I was still far from my initial goal of fluency, but I decided I was happy with the Korean knowledge I’d gained, and realized I wanted to achieve this basic level of proficiency in other languages, like German.

My experience learning Korean helped clarify some of my answers to those three questions:

  1. What excites me? Many things, but nothing excites me quite like language learning.
  2. What would I do if I didn’t have to worry about money? I would spend my entire life moving to different countries for a few months, so I could learn the language and talk to the people there.
  3. On my deathbed, what would I regret never trying? I would regret giving up on a new opportunity to express myself and communicate with others because I was afraid of making small linguistic mistakes.

When you learn something new, you don’t just learn about that topic. You learn about what you are capable of, and what you want to do with your life.

You may pick up skills you didn’t know you had. You may learn more about what fascinates you or even what bores you. You may discover that broadening your knowledge makes you thirstier for what lies beyond the horizon of your capabilities. Even if you don’t become a master of whatever you’re trying to learn, you will almost definitely emerge with more insight into who your are as a human being.

Final Thoughts: Don’t be Afraid to Learn “Outside the Box”

Learning something new isn’t just another time drain. It’s the beginning of an adventure, a river that will carve out new insights into your reality. You don’t have to be a child to have a child’s curiosity — you must be simply be willing to push the boundaries of your capabilities.

No matter what your passion is; whether you’re an absolute beginner or just a little rusty; whether you’re sure that you can learn something new or doubtful that you can even get past the beginner stage: do not be afraid to take the plunge.

The world is full of opportunities but they will remain forever out of grasp if we don’t reach for them with all we have. As adults, we may know much more about the world than we did as children, but that doesn’t mean we should ever stop striving to do, know, and be more.