I’ve done a lot of stuff. Like, serious amounts of stuff. I’ve been places and seen things and met people, all in the space of a decade that’s gone skidding past so quickly I can barely see for all the dust. Most people would tell me that these years were the best years of my life; no job, no kids, no responsibility. I could become anything I wanted, take up any new skills, learn something new every day. Well, to those people I say: yeah, you’re probably right. BUT the question I would like to ask them is, why does that all have to stop? I mean, obviously having less time to yourself is a huge factor, and thinking of the welfare of others over your own is a big deal. But I refuse to believe that job + kids + getting older = not learning anything new. No thanks.
It’s tempting to think that the set of skills you have by the age of 18 are your lot. I mean, yeah, it’s unlikely that somebody who has never sat at a piano in their 30 years of life will ever be the next Mozart but it doesn’t mean they can’t try. And it certainly doesn’t mean they can’t get enjoyment out of learning to play. We are only really told about the amazing people with talent who were child prodigies, who had some natural ability as a toddler etc. But what about the people who got good at stuff later in life, not dependent on the choices of their parents?
Among an extensive list of totally awesome late bloomers, we have GB Gold winning rower Helen Glover, who only got into a boat for the first time at 23. Yeah, ok that’s pretty young but consider how most sports stars are created: pushy parents, hyper competitive, “do you love me yet, mummy/daddy?” attitude and not a lot of free time, soundtracked by lots of sobbing and shouting. By most sport standards, starting out at 23 without a tyrannical parent breathing down your neck is practically unheard of. But 23 isn’t the oldest on my list! Oohhh no. What about Leonard Cohen, whose first album came out when he was 32? Or Stan Lee, who only sat down and started doodling comics in his 40s? Or, even older, Frank McCourt, who wrote Angela’s Ashes (his first book) at 66? I mean, even Jesus was 30 when he gave up the carpentry and started performing miracles. Talk about a career change.
But thinking about learning new things does get harder the more we narrow down our skill set to the bare minimum needed to get by with our lives and our jobs. How many people can remember a single word of GCSE French after dropping it at age 16? Not many. How many people genuinely remember how to do long division? You get the point. Why bother learning new stuff when we have everything we need, to such an extent that we are actively forgetting previously learned information?
I thought the same thing, until very recently. Because I have essentially carved out my own path in life by choosing to study certain things and work particular jobs, I can be quite certain now that I will never become a doctor, an engineer or a hairdresser, or anything other than an educational professional of some sort. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have other interests, and this is where I was getting it all wrong.
I always thought to myself as a teenager that because I didn’t have some sort of “secret” awesome talent by now, I probably would never have one. I had friends who, outside of any school environment, were seriously talented pianists, violinists, cellists, gymnasts, rugby players, artists, poets, swimmers, actors, climbers. It seemed like everyone had a secret talent or hobby that they were AMAZING at, and I didn’t. I did a lot of activities and dabbled with a lot of things, mostly music related, but never in my 18 years of childhood and schooling did I ever master anything. And obviously since I was surrounded by what I now understand was an exceptional group of people, I figured that since they all had this stuff down by their teens that there was no time left for me. I could never pick up the saxophone now, not if people were already busking at open mic jazz nights by age 17 and I would just be starting. No way! Too late.
But then I got a job. I know, right, a full time job is pretty much the absolute polar opposite to most people’s ticket into rediscovering themselves. But it’s true. Before I moved to the Midlands to start a new chapter of my life last September, I panicked. What was I thinking? 23 years old, curious, educated and pretty much totally free, and I was choosing to move to the suburbs of a city I wasn’t keen on, trapped right in the centre of a country I spent my teenage years yearning to get out of. I had nightmares of dinners as beige as the curtains; Saturday nights organised entirely around the ITV programming schedule; evenings spent paying bills or talking about paying bills; MAGNOLIA. Not to mention I was totally unemployed.
How is this all linked, you ask? Well. From the first week I started working at a school, I noticed a change. My job requires me to cover any lesson, regardless of my own specialities. So I meet a lot of kids, and I have to introduce myself a shitload of times every single day. There are still kids now, 5 months in, whom I’ve never even laid eyes on before. So I felt that I needed a way to break the ice with everyone and show a bit of my personality. It started with origami; I covered almost an entire week of art lessons, and once the kids started to get bored of the set tasks, I showed a couple of them how to make some models out of paper. They responded really well, so I brought it into the learning support room and the EAL room, where I was spending a lot of time. Again, the kids loved it; I could make them little paper trinkets at virtually no cost, without a huge amount of skill. I now run origami club one lunchtime a week and it’s lovely.
Then, one Friday evening before Christmas I was sitting at my desk and suddenly had the urge to pick up my guitar. I was rubbish. I always had been, really. Never got the hang of it, there were too many strings and the damn thing was just too BIG. Then suddenly I remembered the tiny adorable ukulele Matt had bought me a year or so earlier that I had never really found the time to learn to play. So I picked it up and it was a bit awkward to play due to it having been put together quite badly. I watched a couple of videos online and then was swept up into a sea of ukulele inspiration. I HAD TO HAVE ONE. Well, a better one. So I decided to upgrade the next day, and the rest is history. I haven’t put the thing down yet.
What’s the point? The point is, that even though I should be at a stage in life where all my learning is done and I’m happy with my lot in life when it comes to skills and friends and opportunities that I may or may not have taken, this little ukulele has opened up a lot of doors. Firstly it’s made me realise that like it or not, I am, actually, a musical person; the moment I tuned it up and played my first chord, it did something to me. Playing it came so naturally and sounded so beautiful that I couldn’t stop. It didn’t matter that I was almost a total beginner or that I totally sucked at the guitar. Then, I started posting videos online. Not because I want to “get noticed” or be the next big thing or anything like that, but because I feel so happy and peaceful making music on this thing that I wanted to share it with my friends. As far as I can tell, nobody’s hated it yet… Then I heard that a music teacher had used ukuleles on a music day at school. We had a chat and I found out that there were some other teachers who were keen players or keen to learn. So I started the Ukulele Club. We meet a few times a week to sing, play, laugh and learn.
So basically, since I started working full-time, I’ve done more in 5 months than I ever did in my years as a student or unemployed person. Yes, I lived abroad, and I still see that as the most important, formative year of my life but when I was living in those two big, beautiful capital cities, I spent 90% of my free time drinking wine, eating pasta, writing my blog and chatting with friends both in real life and on Facebook. Nothing particularly special about that, except that the backdrop was a stunning view over either Paris or Moscow.
Since I started working, I feel like I have those coveted “secret talents”, because not everyone is actually like my old friends were. A lot of people actually can’t play a scale on the piano, or speak Russian, or sing in tune. The ukulele is only small, but its impact has been huge. In the 3 months I’ve been playing, it’s made me rediscover the piano, given me the confidence to sing in front of my parents for the first time, and the self-esteem to get into a studio and record my first track (massive kudos to Mr Myers and his awesome A Level production students). Not only that, it’s made me at least 5 new friends at a brand new workplace, made even the naughtiest kids in school smile, and infected an entire year 11 science class with Bieber Fever.
Yeah, I could have sacked off this grown up life and travelled the world, meeting new people here and there, never really settling down until I absolutely had to. But I really don’t think I would ever have felt this alive.
So yeah, if you made it to the end of this illogical, meandering essay of a post, here is what you should take from all this:
1- The ukulele may be small, but its powers are mighty. Just try looking at one without smiling, go on. I dare you.
2- Never stop learning. The reason people think young ‘uns are much better at learning new stuff is because THEY ARE. If a regular jogger stopped for 20 years do you think they’d be able to suddenly run a marathon? Um, no. Your brain is the same. If you learn nothing new for 20 years you will definitely be out of practice, so don’t stop.
3- But even more importantly, just because you didn’t do something as a teenager, it doesn’t mean you will never be able to do it. Didn’t get a tattoo as a teen but always wanted to? Get one now! Didn’t ever learn a language at school but wish you had? Get out there and do it. Suck at maths? Grab a revision guide and see how much you can remember. Always dreamed of playing the piano? Go and buy a keyboard and a beginners’ guide, see how much fun you can have. Want to travel? Book your time off work NOW and go for it.
I’m not saying everyone should play the ukulele, or that everyone should work in a school. However, we all deserve to feel proud of our own abilities and nobody should go through life wishing they’d learned how to do something. So, I hope after all this at least one person might be inspired to go out and do whatever it is that they always wanted to do. You never know, it could change your life.