Being older and more experienced inevitably makes you more astute, the theory goes. Nonsense, says comedian and author Jeff Green who argues just the opposite. 

When I worked as an office dogsbody in the 1980s, I was told about one of the company’s longest-serving employees, a crusty old dude who’d been doing the same job for years and was considered to be the company’s IT expert.

“He’s brilliant. He knows everything,” people said. So when I sought his advice about getting a set of customer records pulled from the computer system, I received a rude shock. Instead of the avuncular font of knowledge I’d been expecting, Mr Guru turned out to be an arrogant, inflexible oaf.

Sitting in his office, his shoeless feet on the desk, he revelled in explaining to me how what I was asking for was impossible and that we didn’t do things that way, while smirking at my disappointment and blocking all of my suggested solutions with his “expertise”.

Needless to say, I didn’t get my printout. What I did get, however, was my first meeting with a sufferer of the Einstellung effect. Also known as “the inflexibility of experts”, it’s a behaviour that occurs when someone gets so entrenched in a point of view or way of doing things that it becomes hard for them to see things differently. It’s a creativity killer that lulls us into fake omniscience when, in fact, it leads to a narrowness of thinking that actually undermines our expertise.

And it’s nourished by age.

So when people say that experience and getting on a bit automatically brings wisdom, I’m dubious. It seems to me as I get older, that life is funnel-shaped.

Getting older is sort of funnel shaped
Illustration by Scott Garrett/Heart

We may gain greater general knowledge with the passing decades, but the varied and new experiences of youth inexorably narrow until life eventually—in most cases, at least—settles around the same habitual patterns: the places we visit; the authors and magazines we read; the people we trust; the beliefs we hold.

Does that sound like the key to wisdom, experiencing and thinking the same things over and over?

I’ve lost count of the number of older people I can’t show to polite society because their dated, set political views are as rabid and unhinged as a Balinese stray dog. Becoming wise, and staying wise, surely comes from constantly doing fresh stuff so we see things from a broad perspective.

 

"As you age, if you're not careful, you'll lose a little wisdom bit by bit"

 

Another problem is that, all too often, though we may have had lots of experiences, we’ve forgotten to learn from them.

When the next football season arrives, after 40 frustrating years following Tottenham Hotspur, you’d suppose I’d be wise enough to expect yet more plucky failure and keep my baiting of Arsenal supporting friends to a minimum.

But will I follow such a prudent course?

No.

Will my expectations run wild with the first sniff of flowing football and a couple of back-to-back wins?

Absolutely.

This is going to be our year! My clueless optimism might be explained by a 2009 Massachusetts Institute  of Technology study. In tests on monkeys, researchers found that success in a task produced a stronger learning signal to the brain than failure. So the popular belief that we absorb more from our mistakes may not actually be true.

If all this wasn’t enough, our brains get weaker as we get older. From the age of 20, we lose ten per cent of our neurons per decade. Thankfully, most grow back, but there’s a small net loss that, according to a study of British civil servants published in the British Medical Journal last January, shows up in our cognitive function from the age of 45. By 65 to 75 we’ve suffered a near ten per cent decline in mental reasoning.

We can slow this inexorable cerebral decay with fun stimuli like Sudoku, handicrafts and coach “as you age, if you’re not careful, you’ll lose a little wisdom bit by bit” trips to Ely Cathedral, but it’s never going to be easy fighting our own physiology, whose proteins and genes eat knitting patterns for breakfast.

Add a hefty dose of the fear of the new that comes as you age, and a jaded indifference to curiosity and the pleasure of mastery, and before you know it you’re on the phone to that pimply nephew to come over and set up the webcam for Skype.

When I was a young teenager I was given a Casio FX-77 scientific calculator for Christmas. For months, while waiting for puberty to kick in, I delved into its obscurest functions, marvelling at the laws of sines, cosines and tangents.

Nowadays, I think about cosines as often as I spend the afternoon on a pogo stick, but does my realisation of the marginal uses of trigonometry in daily life make me wiser overall? Of course not. What’s the solution? You need to have a greater variety of different experiences for a start. Catch the bus to work sometimes, change your news sources, seek out new people and listen to their perspective.

You need to avoid the trap of thinking you’re an “expert”—if you’re still learning, which we all should strive to achieve, how can you be an expert? So remember, when you’re young you know quite a lot. But as you age, if you’re not careful, you’ll lose a little wisdom bit by bit.

Mind you, being older and wiser, you probably knew all this already. 

 

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