Teaching old dogs new tricks – 3 Steps to learning
How I learned how to dance at 31, how to speak Japanese as an adult, and basically how to learn anything.

Teaching old dogs new tricks – 3 Steps to learning
How I learned how to dance at 31, how to speak Japanese as an adult, and basically how to learn anything.

Robson Square, Vancouver. Adopted home of the Vancouver street dance community.

How I learned how to dance at 31, how to draw at 34, how to speak Japanese as an adult, and basically how to learn anything.

Up until I was 30 years old, if I somehow wandered into a nightclub I knew I was in for a long and painful night. I would oscillate between feeling extremely uncomfortable on the dance floor to struggling through the crowd trying to somehow get to the bar and catch the bartender’s eye. Mostly I just tried to look like I was enjoying myself while every minute I’d peek at my phone to watch the clock tick until it the club closed at 2am. Please god let it be 2am already!

In short, going to the club was a horrible experience. I could not for the life of me understand why people lined up, bribed bouncers, and suffered in hot, sticky, loud and crowded conditions for the pleasure of overpriced drinks and feeling like an idiot on the dance floor.

Fast forward 5 years and now I love clubs. Not all of them, but in general I’m always game for a night out dancing. These days I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone wouldn’t love a night out dancing.

What changed?

Back then, for the life of me I couldn’t dance. Not at all. To be honest, I wasn’t even able to hear the rhythm when I listened to music. I recall once one of my friends tried to teach the most basic thing possible, just step side to side in time with the music. Not only did I look like I was having some kind of slow seizure, I could neither be on time with the beat or even understand what it was.

I can’t say I was the worst dancer in the club, but only because I’m sure others were as bad as me. I’m positive no one was worse.

Then I had made some friends who were dancers. Watching them and seeing how full of life, playful, and fun they were while dancing inspired me. I wanted to feel that way. I wanted to feel free and confident and express myself like them.

So, I started asking them to help me learn, I started practicing with them. I would ask someone to teach me one or two things, then I would go away and practice those things on my own. I would go back later and ask for tips and feedback, grateful for every pointer, idea, or criticism. If you are willing to put in work yourself, most people are willing and happy to help teach things to support your journey.

That’s how at 31, with some inspiration and a bit of support, I set off for a three year journey into dancing and while I’ll never have my own youtube channel, I managed to get good enough at it to thoroughly experiences and enjoy it, which is the main point.

The steps:

Step 1: Get Inspired. For Real.

  • Follow your emotions, not your brain

    • Inspiration is an emotional process, not a rational one. We have oodles of international students in Vancouver who come here to learn English. I often ask them why they are studying. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people tell me that it’s because they “should” learn English, or that they “need” to learn English for a job or school, or something else. Once in a while there is someone who says something like “I don’t know, I’ve just always loved studying it or speaking it.” After their year in an English environment is up, guess who’s actually massively improved their English and who hasn’t really improved at all, regardless of how much “work” they put in to their studies?
    • It’s worth accepting the reality of the struggle between what we emotionally feel and what we rationally want. Successful mastery is about getting really fucking great at training our emotions to better support our logical goals.
    • I’m not going to go into detail too much about how to get your emotions on board if they aren’t naturally, but Jonathan Haidt describes talks about it in a book, the Happiness Hypothesis (available here); and I first read about it in Switch by Dan & Chip Heath (available here).
  • You need something to aspire to and to make progress towards, even if that’s changing

    • I don’t know about you, but when I’m emotionally inspired to make a change, there is always some image in my head of what the end goal will be. What will it feel like to dance with freedom? How would it feel to move like that guy? How can I learn this part of the choreography that I’m stuck on and what will it look like when I do?
    • There’s a marked difference in the outcome when you are practicing or training with a passionate eye towards a future state that you feel is awesome, vs simply going through the motions. Try to get a solid feeling or image to emotionally pull you forward, so you can do less pushing.

Step 2: Have Fun

  • Get through the initial discomfort

    • I began taking the odd class. Man those were intimidating! I felt like the only one in the room who couldn’t follow what was happening and my brain screamed at me to either hide at the back or just quit and run out of the room. But I stuck with it. I wasn’t going to run away dammit. And I wasn’t going to give up and just go through the motions half-assed either. I focused and worked hard to get as much as I could out of that one hour, $14 class as possible. After class, I would go off on my own and practice what I learned that day over and over again. Coming back the next week with extra practice allowed me to build my confidence and comfort faster.
  • Get those consistent dopamine hits

    • Every single time I improved at anything in dance, or just did well – whether I showed it or not, I was internally milking that for all it was worth. I got the same natural drug rush every time I could get my point across in Japanese or could understand something that would have previously left me confused. Give yourself props whenever you make any progress, if you’re lucky, you’ll create an addiction to whatever it is you are learning. Addictions are awesome when they are positive and healthy.
  • You’ll work harder if you are enjoying it

    • This is absolutely the most important point. At some point, after I’d overcome the discomfort of self-consciousness while dancing and just no longer cared at all what anyone around me thought of it. Whether they were better, worse, or at the same level, I felt totally comfortable dancing with them. That’s the point when I could really get into it and start enjoying it. Dance became pure. It was no longer about learning or improving, my mind was no longer necessary and my emotions could take control. It became about me, my body, and the music. Practicing went from being work to being pleasure, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I would push myself to go harder simply because it felt so amazing I didn’t want it to end. Nothing will motivate you harder than joy.

Step 3: Get into situations where you need to work at it.

  • You’ll go a bit further than otherwise and get a payoff when you step up your game

    • Once you are through steps 1 and 2 and have gotten through the discomfort and are feeling good with what you’re mastering, it can be all to easy to just coast. Being good at things feels good and it can be totally satisfying to just stay at the level that you’re at. But, it’s even better if you can find a way to keep pushing, even when you don’t need to. Now the goal is to get out of your comfort zone at a higher level and start at step 1 again at that new level.
  • For dance it was performances

    • For whatever it is you are trying to learn, having a goal to be accountable for is an awesome way to motivate yourself. As we’re human, if our goals are only our own, we’ll be need to fight against our internal drive to let ourselves off the hook. If what we are doing is challenging, that little voice in our heads will tell us to do it tomorrow, that we’re busy, that we’re tired, etc. If possible, being accountable to someone else helps. When performances were coming up, the drive to both not be noticeably shittier than the rest of the group and to not let them down and devalue their hard work by fucking up gave me the push to get through the tougher pieces.
  • For Japanese it was travelling around for two months and needing to get by

    • Although I’d been speaking Japanese casually for years and had enough Japanese friends to be around it regularly, I still couldn’t hold a normal conversation without pauses and questions. Having been passive in my learning, I could listen and understand at a much higher level than I could speak. Then I traveled around Japan alone for two months. I hadn’t gone to Japan to learn Japanese, I had just gone to see friends and take dance classes there. But, luckily for me, almost nobody in Japan can speak English. With no choice but to focus and just get out there and try to get my point across, my Japanese went from kind of OK to fluent in just two months. All of that knowledge in my head just needed a good motivator to get it out and practiced.


The short version

The best way I’ve found to naturally learn anything is to find and create the balanced trinity of enjoying what you are doing, getting dopamine hits from making progress, and being driven by creating some positive pressure to propel you forward.

I’m taking the same approach to this. I write stuff that I want to write for as long as I enjoy the process, then when I start to get bored of the post or avoid it because it’s difficult, I click publish. Most of what I write, especially at the beginning, will be total garbage. But, if I keep at it, I’ll be more aware of other writings, notice things I’d have otherwise missed, I’ll experiment with different tones and styles. Eventually, one day, years from now, My combined experience may pay off I to a few posts that are actually good. Maybe at some point I may even write something that actually provides value. But that will happen because of my lackadaisical attitude towards pushing myself, not despite it.