To me, the primary reason that we lose once-mastered skills is simply a prolonged lack of application, and with focused effort, we can get them back.
Let’s say, for example, that you are performing a speech, completing a graded school assignment, or even overcoming your body’s tiredness by staying out late. Once, perhaps, you did those well. And now, not so much. What has caused this change? Is it age? A permanent loss of skill? Or is it something more?
Here are three stories to wring this topic of its secrets.
Story one. It was a stormy, starless night, and the rain thundered against the windowpane. I lay awake in bed, the covers pulled up to my chin, my eyes wide with trepidation…
Oops, never mind. Wrong kind of story.
I was saying… Story one. Within the last year I had a conversation with my mom about my having wrote and memorized the maid-of-honor’s speech for my sister’s wedding. My mom was complimentary, and I was grateful, but I was also adamant that she could have done it, too! Yes, I love words, so the memorizing of a speech that I had worked a long time on crafting just right did help the process along, but I still believe it was the application, the called out need for memorization, that did it. And with that came the realization that of course I could achieve it; it had just been so long since I needed to that I initially doubted that I could, a faulty line of reasoning that can perhaps resonate with other people’s experiences, too.
Now, I know that memorizing a speech word-for-word isn’t for everyone, and that isn’t the point. (Although, for two great memory related links, see this entertaining infographic on memorizing the gist of a speech through a story of images found at EssayTigers, and this highly educational article on four extreme yet valuable memory techniques found at Life Training – Online.) An analogous situation is returning to an educational program after years of absence, and the initial uncertainty about your ability to manage the graded assignments and structured format. For a further exploration of the differences between school and work, see my related post on Real World, New Rules. In both cases, however, whether you are memorizing a speech or resuming education, the need calls for the skill. And thanks to that need, the skill almost certainly comes back.
Being in my twenties, I have found that the people and friends I am around now often complain lightheartedly about not being able to stay out late anymore. I find this a little ironic, since being twenty-two and staying out late in college was so commonly done, and yet, perhaps being only a year or two older, people “can’t” stay up late anymore. Perhaps most of us know this unconsciously, but to call it out: a huge part of this is our environment. In a hypothetical world, if you were to resume the college lifestyle, and you no longer had your work schedule and other adult matters to juggle, would you still feel the same way as you do now?
If you answered yes, then perhaps, instead, you simply don’t have an interest in that kind of lifestyle. This, too, though, is not due solely to age, although I am sure that is a factor. It is also a lack of will. A lack of interest. An acceptance that you have changed and have purposely stepped away from that life phase into another (assuming you originally resided there). For an exploration of such internal transformations, see my post on Change.
What’s more, it is not a positive or negative fact that our environment, or our will, is affecting us in this way. It just is. I find this awareness important, to know that these areas are the primary contributors to such a decision, and not just the oft-used blanket statement, “I can’t do it anymore.”
Rather, it’s “I’m choosing not to.” Or, “I’m prioritizing other activities.”
It’s about being honest with ourselves.
It’s as simple as that.
Story three. So far, I have focused on three particular skills. As an expansion of this, however, there is an amazing Hopes&Fears article featuring a compilation of answers to the question, “How long does it take to lose a skill?” The author Jared Fischer and illustrator Nicolet Schenck “talked with educators, engineers, neuroscientists, biomechanics experts, data junkies, and a Buddhist dharma teacher” and obtained answers such as how “skills do not have equal rates of decay” and optimistically, “a highly valued skill, one that is a true passion, … may never be lost.” I highly recommend it.
Furthermore, this thought-provoking Quora post that provides over one hundred responses to “What are valuable skills that many young people are losing?” is a fruitful resource. It describes recently deteriorating skills such as “read[ing] deeply,” talking on the phone, connecting with nature, patience, being alone, and writing cursive, and it is packed with life advice that is both timely and universal.
How do we get these skills back, assuming we want to? Well, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – you’re right” (as attributed to Henry Ford here). That’s always the first step. Even if you only think “I might be able to do this,” that’s what matters, and is what will get you moving. (For inspiration, see my post on No Excuses.) Then, you find a need for the skill, and you get to work. You practice. Practice practice practice. And practice again.
So, here we are. Find a lost skill. Re-learn a language, re-memorize a poem, re-excel at soccer, even re-climb a tree. Just do something. Something that you once did or knew how to do, and now you don’t. And enjoy it.
There are times for all of us when we just don’t have it in us to overcome the pull of our inertia, or our new environment, or our busy lives. We’re only human. If you wait too long, though, know that in the future you may always wonder… what would have happened if you had tried to re-learn that skill, just one more time.