We are learning animals – learning by taking a plunge

When the famous Spanish cellist Pablo Casals was asked at the age of 95 why he still practiced six hours a day, he answered: “Because I think I’m making progress.” Toots Thielemans was still practicing at an age above 90. Wasn’t it Henry Ford who stated “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.“

I recently downloaded a series of podcast to listen in the car. Among them a series of interviews with some respected bass players on how they made their career. These bass players are all great musicians with different backgrounds, education, style and age. After listening to those interviews some common topics became very clear. One is how and when they learned and progressed the most as a musician.

Almost all said that the moments they learned and progressed the most were at times accepting a new “mission” far from their comfort zone (i.e. their actuals skills or style of music). It’s the kind of requests to which they enthusiastically replied ‘YES!’ and then realizing after some minutes ‘oh my god, this I will never be able to play/do’. However, those were the moments they start working very hard to learn and work on the missing skill(s). And perhaps the beginning was difficult and the first shows were perhaps somewhat disappointing; but after a while they managed and brought their skills up to the next level. Others worked so hard they were super prepared for the first gig. Only by aiming for a higher goal, by taking a next step that was beyond their current capabilities, by working (learning, studying, practicing, …) hard, and diving in the pool they progressed substantially. Each time again by working hard they were able to take that next leap.

Perhaps being not a musician this may seem to be a little far fletched from your daily business, but the underlying learning mechanisms are just the same. If you’re not outside your comfort zone, you won’t learn anything substantially new. Without the courage to take the leap, you miss out on important opportunities for advancement.

We have to recognize these opportunities and take advantage, take the plunge. One might discover that what one initially feared is not as bad as one thought and that at the end one will have learned a lot. If a certain change seems too big, we can try with smaller steps. By taking a smaller step, one is still moving forward, which is always better than staying still.

Whether a professional musician, an expert, a consultant, a knowledge worker, a doctor, etc. we all need to keep our skills up-to-date. Taking into account that our competence domains and environment take regularly forward leaps, we have to take regularly a plunge as well. But these are often the moments we progress the most.

Our employability, our ability to gain and maintain a desired job, no longer depends on what we already know, but on what we are able to learn. Our only security is our ability to learn and to adapt.