“Why Do I Feel Dumber As I Grow Older?” Said Every Singaporean Ever
Top image: Linh Koi / Unsplash

Of the myriad ways my friends and I measure how busy we are, a line that gets repeated too often is: “I haven’t read a book in ages.”

To say I’m disappointed in myself would be an understatement. Truth is, I’m not sure my 10-year-old self would recognise 28-year-old me, who can barely read a book for longer than 15 minutes before she gets distracted by the desire to refresh Instagram.

Books weren’t just an integral part of my childhood; they also defined who I am today. Besides the values and lessons I’ve gathered from stories, the act of reading itself instilled the importance of imagination, curiosity, and discipline. It helped that devouring books way above my reading level made me (feel) smarter than my friends—an ego trip that I relished.

Essentially, reading enabled me to learn about the world, then proudly show off that knowledge.

When I stopped reading, it felt like I had completely stopped learning.

Today, books have become a whole other beast that I can’t quite slay. The problem began in university, when I was assigned to read stacks of academic papers for class, a tedious obligation that turned me off reading, learning, and my entire education. Having been robbed of three of my passions, it truly felt as though I had lost something.

At some point, I tried to fill the void by picking up leisure reading again, but doing so only made me feel like I was desperately trying to fix an expired friendship. In the end, I simply stopped trying.

After graduation, it was all too easy to let my mind languish from the exhausting 8-to-6 work cycle. I found myself mindlessly scrolling through my social media feeds, choosing to read bite-sized news articles (sometimes just headlines) over diving into a hearty novel.

I’d succumbed to being nothing more than another drone reading emails, checking for social media updates, and perusing media releases.

Whatever morsel of knowledge I absorbed was inevitably superficial, obtained for the purposes of impressing others and remaining informed on the bare minimum of current affairs.

To put it mildly, I’ve never felt more uninspired and disengaged from life since I stopped having the discipline, energy, or motivation to read a book.

Your learning journey is one of the few things that you can fully own. (Image: Dan Chung / Unsplash)
For almost two decades, most of what I’d known about the world was derived from books. As such, when I stopped reading, it felt like I had completely stopped learning.

This was even though most learning happens every day, anywhere, through informal interactions and observations. We learn by speaking to others and by trying to empathise with their situations; we learn when we seek out perspectives different from our own on social media or in real life.

After being hit with massive creative burnout recently, I was reminded of how lukewarm I’d become towards life. Essentially, I missed my younger self who enjoyed learning new things about anything and anyone. I needed to haul myself out of this pity party for one; having “no time” was a tired excuse.

I started by attending events catered to people from outside my industry, guided by the words of a wise friend: “If you can’t find anyone to go with, go by yourself. That way you force yourself to speak with new people.”

One of these events was the National Youth Council’s Youth Conversations on Lifelong Learning, where I hoped to find someone who could relate to not having enough time to learn. If they also happened to have a convenient solution to this conundrum, it would be a bonus.

Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much. Government initiatives to engage the youth have always struck me as full of hot air, since participants tend to discuss theories and concepts, but not practical solutions.

But cynicism, as I’ve realised, is another form of foolishness that saps your energy. So I reminded myself to stay open.

Don't let school get in the way of your education. (Image: Sean Kong / Unsplash)
The first thing that struck me was the number of people who shared my fear of coming across as ill-informed while in the process of learning. Yet somehow, they pushed through this fear. Similar to my own fear of not being smart enough, they saw it as a personal failure if they were not as knowledgeable as they thought they should be.

To overcome this fear of failure, one of the participants had developed a habit of prefacing his ‘stupid’ questions with the caveat, “I might be stupid, but …” when seeking out new information. While self-deprecation was his way of bolstering himself against potential criticism, it also let him ask anything he wanted to know while keeping him humble.  

At his day job, this same participant would get his team to spend one hour every morning reading newsletters related to their field of expertise. These newsletters served to broaden their perspectives, reinforce their interests, or reignite their passions had the spark faded.

It reminded me of the various newsletters I sign up for that pull together thoughtful longform articles from all over the internet. That I’m not flipping through physical pages doesn’t invalidate the amount of knowledge I’m gaining.

For this group that I met, no matter their fear of appearing stupid, the desire to improve themselves trumped self-doubt, empowering them to continue looking for learning opportunities. They showed me that learning requires vulnerability, resilience, and a considerable amount of indifference to what others think.

More than that, it necessitates being kind to oneself and allowing oneself to fail. Even if it means looking dumb. Especially then.

These participants, in my opinion, had conquered half the battle by knowing what they didn’t know. Anyone can preach all they want about how beneficial lifelong learning can be for your career progression, but it is fundamentally a lifehack for self-awareness.

Another participant shared an equation about her learning journey that explains this notion:

Clarity = Capacity – Clutter

Basically, the more you learn, the more you discover what you like and what you don’t, what you’re good at and what you’re not, and how to use that knowledge to build the life you want. Clarity is then eventually derived from filtering out the people, things, and experiences that don’t give you fulfilment or happiness.

Yet many people, including myself, usually allow ourselves to stop learning after we improve in our personal pursuits. We mistake learning for passively consuming information.

In order not to stagnate and feel intellectually stuck, it’s just as important to pass on our knowledge. The only way to learn more effectively is to teach more frequently.

And ironically, getting smarter may not be possible without first acknowledging how stupid we are.

This post is sponsored by the National Youth Council. For more information on Youth Conversations by National Youth Council and Ministry of Culture Community and Youth, head to their Facebook page, Instagram or website at: nyc.gov.sg/YouthConversations.

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