habits: no time like the present

I’m reading a book right now called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. It talks a lot about how people build skills and become superior at what they do. I was almost through the second chapter when I came across this sentence:

“Age matters. …Anyone who has tried to learn a language or a musical instrument later in life can testify that it takes a lot more time and sweat to build the requisite circuitry. This is why the vast majority of world-class experts start young.”

It dawned on me that in about 20 years or so, it won’t be as easy for me to learn new things or, more importantly, build better habits. It made me sort of sad, because I get a thrill out of learning. It is the closest thing to a drug that I know. It’s an adrenaline rush for me to take a project where I have little to no experience or knowledge and work, chip, squint, scrap, and claw my way through. This is probably why as a high school senior, my biology teacher was telling me to get into pre-med, my acting teacher was telling me to become an actress, and my literature teacher was telling me to become a writer – it’s not really because I’m particularly “gifted” in any of these subjects. It’s because I love to learn, and I’ve been lucky enough to have figured out a good way to do it. What people perceive in me as “talent” is really not a lot more than efficient programming, combined with a strange addiction to the learning process.

Happily, there aren’t a whole lot of new skills that I feel a burning desire to learn. I’m not going to pick up engineering as a hobby anytime soon. What I desire deeply is to learn a few new habits. Reading this chapter has made me realize that if I’m ever going to learn them, there is no better time than the present. Eventually, there might not be any time left at all. My brain simply might not be up to task if I’m still trying to build new habits at 65.

So here is a list of the habits I hope to learn, while I still can:

1. Punctuality. Unless I am competing to be the first one there, I am always late for everything. It makes me feel terrible, too, to walk in two minutes late for every single appointment. I know I can’t unlearn habits once they have been learned, so now I just have to acquire a new habit: be early.

2. Athleticism. All my life I have said to people that I’m not an athlete. Since I’ve moved in with my husband, a sports fanatic who plays football and runs marathons, I’ve come to understand that there is a reason why so many people love sports either as players or spectators: it brings you to the edge of your abilities and forces you to rise to the occasion. There’s a lot I admire about athletes now that I understand what they have to go through to get to their level. I’ve learned a lot by watching them, but I could learn a lot more by being one of them, in one way or another.

3. Fearlessness. I’m a pretty cautious person. I like to see things from all angles, make calculated decisions, minimize risks. This is good for 95% of life. It’s what has enabled me to run a business in a recession without dragging my husband into a financial sinkhole. However, this is also the reason why after 20 years of writing songs, I’ve only recorded one six-track EP. It’s the reason I’m still burning the candle at both ends with two jobs, instead of focusing on the one that I truly love. It’s the reason I never tried out for American Idol (well, that and I hear the line-ups are really long).

4. Discipline. I can be disciplined if I like what I’m doing, but even my 9-year-old nephew can focus for hours when he’s playing video games. What I want is the discipline to do the things that need to be done, with consistency, intensity, and single-mindedness. This could pertain to working out everyday (see Athleticism). It could be about folding my laundry. I want to be the kind of person who can be counted upon to rise to the call, mundane or profound, without fail.

There’s a couple of other “tactical habits” (as I like to call them) but these are the high-level, overarching ones that I feel are most important. I’m not sure how I’m going to do this specifically, but I’m only two chapters into this book. Maybe I’ll read something further in that will help.

Are there any new habits that you want or need to learn? Are you on your way to learning them now?

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