During a recent car trip, I asked my 79-year old father (or as my sis and I call him—”Appa”) this question: “What is one thing you’d like to learn?”
At first, he responded with, “Nothing.” Then he scoffed. “Ah, I’m too old. What would I want to learn at this point?”
“Come on,” I pressed him. “You read and watch a lot of videos. You’re curious about stuff. There must be something you’d like to learn more about? A language? Maybe a skill?”
From the passenger seat, he stared ahead, as if pondering the span of highway in front of us, and then said, “Singing. I’d like to learn how to sing again.”
Appa went on to tell me about the time he tried out for a prestigious chorus during high school. Out of 600+ hopefuls, he received the highest score—a “98.”
His face lit up and his hands became animated as he continued in Korean, “I was good. The chorus teacher tried to recruit me, even showing up at our home a couple times. But I was already playing rugby and didn’t want to do both.”
This admission from Appa about his desire to sing was astonishing for a few reasons:
Years ago, my parents owned a home karaoke system (I know, I know—Asians and karaoke! 😜). I remember a particular night when their friends were over in the living room and witnessing Appa, microphone in hand, singing to Elvis’ “Love Me Tender.” I was mortified, but distinctly remember the glee on their friends’ faces and the clapping that ensued as Appa sang and when his near-perfect score appeared on the TV screen.
But I had no idea—none—that Appa cared so much about music, let alone singing, beyond a casual karaoke kind of way.
As someone who grew up singing—first performing in school choruses and later singing in multiple bands, starting with the blues and later with jazz, indie-rock, with dashes of punk, a capella, French pop, electronic—I was floored to hear about Appa’s special relationship with music and singing too.
“My voice isn’t as good anymore,” he continued. “But if I had joined that chorus, who knows. I might’ve had a career in music,” he said, grinning.
I could sense the slight wistfulness in his tone. I felt it too and wished I’d known sooner about something we’ve shared in common.
I reassured him that he’s just out of practice and encouraged him to consider singing again, either at his church or taking lessons. He nodded, as he often does when I prod him to do something I think is good for him, like eating less sweets, not driving at night, whatever.
Regret over learning and curiosities not pursued
This conversation with Appa makes me think of that sting of regret, not about things we’ve done or tried that ended up being bad choices, but that sickening feeling of regret and longing that comes when you consider things you’ve wanted to do or try but hadn’t because of fear or circumstances or other barriers. That kind of regret can feel especially persistent.
But one thing that seems constant is that people, by and large, love learning and there’s overwhelming evidence that learning and staying curious are beneficial for us in countless ways. Or as the psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel G. Amen, MD explains, “You can harness your brain’s inherent plasticity to learn new skills, build a better memory or quicken your speed of processing abilities, which will help to keep you sharp as you age.”
What’s one thing you’re curious to learn?
Check out these inspiring stories about how learning enhances our well-being in surprising ways:
- “4 reasons to learn a new language”: Ted Talk by linguist John McWhorter about why we should learn a new language in the face of diminishing languages spoken now—and it’s not what you’d expect!
- “The Human Brain Is Hardwired for Poetry” offers incentives to read and listen to more poetry since doing so activates specific areas of the brain and can impact our capacity for surprise and change.
- “The amazing fertility of the older mind” shows how our minds can master new skills at any age!
- “11 Benefits to Learning Something New” by New Zealand entrepreneur and adventurer, Natalie Sisson, highlights compelling benefits for learning something new.
As someone who identifies as a lifelong learner, I’m happy to hear this and, although my mother lives with dementia, I’m especially heartened by growing evidence that learning can also slow cognitive decline.
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