By Joe Casey
It’s Back to School season. In our home, our youngest daughter began her junior year in college last week. Our son is starting his junior year of high school this week. It’s a time of transition. The return of the backpacks.
How about you? Are you headed back to school? People tend to scoff at that question. Following considerable laughter, I usually hear “I finished school a long time ago.” or “I’m retired. I’m too old for that” or “I could never do that”.
Look past the laughter and you’ll see that these answers can reveal underlying beliefs, often unexamined, that can prevent us from continuing to learn.
Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, highlights the importance of mindset. She notes that many of us have been conditioned by our educational system to adopt a fixed mindset, believing that our capabilities are fixed early on. It’s a default position and it’s a limiting view. A lot of our institutional systems are based on it. In contrast, her research shows that adopting a growth mindset can lead to substantial development. It’s an empowering view.
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Too old? Nice try. The research by neuroscientists on neuroplasticity shows that we continue to develop new neural connections throughout our life. Learning that you can learn – at any age – is a gift.
Finally, it’s easy to fall into the trap of the traditional views of the life course. Early in life, you go to school. Then you have a career and start a family. Do this for decades. Then retire. Of course, that’s changed dramatically. Yet, many people still see “school” as something in the rearview mirror. Something from early life. Something they’re done with.
Phyllis Moen, Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, points out, in her book Encore Adulthood, that while the traditional life course was linear and predictable, because of increased longevity and other lifestyle factors, it is becoming the opposite today. Moen sees a new less-linear life course emerging, with the “lockstep” order of the past morphing into more flexible and individualized paths, with more than one retirement for some people and education being part of mid-to-later life for many. In fact, Moen has created a program, with her colleague Kate Schaefers, to help baby boomers to continue learning, redefine their purpose and pivot to their next act.
I went back to school again three years ago. When people asked why my wife would quip “Trust me, he certainly still has a lot to learn.”
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Sometimes things you were interested in earlier in life spark your interest again in later life. In my case, I was taking our youngest daughter on a campus tour at the University of Southern California. I noticed the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and suddenly remembered how interesting I always found that subject as an undergraduate psychology major.
Then I recalled that my interest in Gerontology went back further. As a child, we would visit our two sets of grandparents on alternating Sundays. One set was stoic and distant. Dinner was always canned green beans (which I hate this day). Time passed very slowly. The next weekend, we visited the other set. It was like the scene in The Wizard of Oz, where things went from Black & White to Technicolor. My mother’s parents were lively, funny and imaginative. They had a robust garden where they grew their own vegetables – but there was always some sort of unusual (and less healthy) treats they would delight in sneaking to their grandchildren. There were always extended family members around and a lot of laughter. I often wondered how could these people be so different?
So, I decided to pick it up again. Ironically, while my daughter chose to go elsewhere, I ended up going forward with USC, and at 60, graduated in May with a Masters in Gerontology. Time well spent. Thanks to many of the faculty and fellow students, I now know more, but more importantly, I grew as a person.
After a distinguished career as a historian, Nell Painter decided to pick up something that she was interested in – art. After retiring as a professor at Princeton University, she went back to school, first to get an undergraduate degree in art and then a Masters in Fine Arts. Her new book Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over is a compelling and inspiring story of her journey of returning to school and moving from teacher to student. She recently joined us on The Retirement Conversation to share her insights and advice.
She advises stating small. Continued learning doesn’t need to be part of a formal degree program, just pick something you’re really curious about – or always wanted to learn about – and start down the path. And today, with online courses and programs tailored for older adults, it’s easier than ever.
You can listen to our conversation with Nell Painter here
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Joe Casey is a former HR executive who is in his second act as an executive coach and retirement coach. He went back to school part-time and earned a Masters in Gerontology at the University of Southern California.