Korean food kimchi
Photo: Thinkstock
Between the thrill of novelty and the pleasure of mastery, learning—how to read palms, speak French, dance Flamenco, ski, build a sandcastle, fix a toilet, anything—makes your heart pick up a beat and your world expand. Where to start? Right here—with true stories of skills attained, new territory conquered, and loads of ideas to feed your mind and make your whole life sparkle.
Five years ago, I made a list—the 150 teensy and gigantic things I plan to do while I'm alive. Year by year—or semester by semester, as I see it—I cross one activity off the list and replace it with a new one. Learn to backstroke a quarter of a mile. Done. Salsa dance in an Amsterdam pub at midnight. Exhilarating. Take a trapeze lesson (closest thing to flying), host a red-dress disco party (I'm still recovering), take up tap dancing (rhythm is a must). This semester: opera tickets and a trip to Korea.

I'm an opera virgin. When my housemate, Julia—a Korean-American investment banker and opera connoisseur—heard that, she flipped. Pronto, we bought tickets to New York's Metropolitan Opera. Before sniffling though Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly—the tragic 1904 version of woman-waits-by-the-phone-we stopped in Manhattan's Koreatown for a bowl of jap chae (glass noodles with vegetables). That's when I resolved to knock out items 38 and 96 on my list: To master the intricacies of opera and sample ten foods in Korean cuisine. This August, armed with dozens of words in Julia's native language, I'll board a flight to Asia with my buddy.

"The best thing for being sad is to learn something," said the wizard Merlin to young King Arthur in T.H. White's novel The Once and Future King. "That is the only thing that never fails." Turns out this view has scientific underpinnings. The brain is evolutionarily primed to seek and respond to what is novel, says Lawrence C. Katz, PhD, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina and the coauthor of Keep Your Brain Alive. He says you can improve your recall by practicing a daily session of what he calls neurobics.

Oh, exhale: This doesn't involve weights, sweaty towels, or treadmills. According to Katz, any major break from the ordinary—brushing your teeth with the opposite hand, for example—stimulates the brain. Michael Merzenich, PhD, chief scientific officer of Neuroscience Solutions, concurs. He says that at around 30, our memory and cognitive and motor abilities begin to decline, but anytime you learn a new skill, you change the brain physically. "Let's say you learn 'Chopsticks' on the piano," he explains. "If you looked at the brain [after mastering it], you'd see changes in the response of millions of neurons. The brain is a 'plastic' instrument that has continuous capacity for change." To Merzenich, brain fitness is every bit as important as physical fitness.

Writer and radio host Barry Farber knows that. He can speak at least 25 languages, among them French, Danish, and Hebrew. I met Farber because he was teaching a class I attended recently—Build a Million Dollar Vocabulary in Just One Night. Not only do I now know the difference between an encomium and an incumbent, but I can tell you why acquiring knowledge is the first step in stirring up your brain juices. We have enough moments to learn a language every year, he says. Harnessing those otherwise meaningless scraps of time, says Farber, can turn you into a master of linguistics.

Or a student of every item on a Korean menu. Or a backstroker once terrified of water. Or a rhythmically challenged black woman who shelled out $60 for tap shoes. If T.H. White's prescription for joy is to learn something new, I intend to seek out as much happiness as my arteries can hold—one opera at a time.
—Michelle Burford

Next: What one woman learned from a trip to Atlantic City
When my friend Rashad suggested we drive my Hyundai (which had no air-conditioning and a busted radio) to Atlantic City to play craps, I thought he was high. My father had a bad habit of blowing rent money on the Pick 3—so I wasn't eager to tease my gambling gene. We flipped a coin for it. That was the only bet I lost that day.

I'd only seen the game played in the movie Casino. But since Rashad called himself Craps God 2001, I agreed to be his disciple. When we got there, a man attached to a portable oxygen tank tossed the dice first.

"Ten the hard way," the dealer said.

"Yessss. I'm gon' buy me a new truck!" the old man said between hacking coughs. The crowd, a mix of hookers and church folk, stomped and hollered. The hard way means betting on the number to come out identically split on both dice. It did, and the new-truck owner doubled his $200 bet.

Meanwhile, Rashad broke down the table dramatics and explained different players' strategies.

When it was my turn to throw the square bones, I spit on my palms and said, "Give me $40 on ten the hard way," swearing that I'd walk away if I lost $100. After 30 minutes of running Rashad's three-hitter-quitter play (pulling my chips off the table after three consecutive wins, then reentering the game after somebody else rolled a 7 or 11), I did leave the table—with more than $300.
—Chee Gates

Next: The art of palm reading
I learned...

...palm reading from a book. It's the handiest skill to salvage a lackluster party or a really deadly baby shower.

...how to paint a bathroom, which I do every winter, when I crave color. Two years ago, I chose Pepto-Bismol pink, and I felt like I was in a Barbie Dream House. Horrible. Pale green was another disaster—in the mirror, I looked like I crawled out of a crypt. Now I have a light, light blue-green. Keep it light, I've found. And easily washable semigloss is best.

Next, I'm off to a sandcastle-building workshop on Staten Island. Our annual family vacation includes a sandcastle contest, and I want an edge. My instructor, Matt Long of the sand-sculpting firm Days at the Beach, says it's crucial to start with a big pile of sand and sculpt from the top down. Who knew?
—Jancee Dunn

Next: Learning to be handy around the house
I learned...

...to repair the toilet in my roommate's bathroom: "You fixed it?" she said. "I don't need a man as long as you stick around. Maybe you could move in with me and my husband when I get married?"

...to hook up a phone jack to the wiring in the wall. to prioritize and break a project down into steps that are much less intimidating. With the help of a coach, Patricia Lutke, and the book Getting Things Done, by David Allen, I now know the first step is to get every single thing I have to do onto paper and out of my pinball machine of a brain.
—Susan Bowen

Next: 3 steps to learn how to speak French

How to Speak French as She Is Spoken


As opposed to 1977 high school French, which was good enough to get me out of college requirements but too dusty and stilted for upcoming jaunt to Paris with sophisticated, adventurous-but-Frenchless husband:
  1. Buy a car. Turn car into language lab with all-audio Living Language instruction tapes. Be not afraid to mispronounce—after all, if you overtrill your r's and there's no one there to hear it, have you really butchered the language? Play tape whenever in car, repeat when told to repeat, and don't skip to shopping and restaurant lessons. You might need to call someone's téléphone cellulaire or recuperate from a day of pounding the pavement with a cours de yoga.

  2. Go to France. Delight in how rarely les Fran├žais switch to English when speaking to you, and how easy it is to ask if the Camembert is ripe enough to eat tonight or whether that ravissant chemisier also comes in aubergine. Notice how infrequently you and your husband get testy with each other.

  3. Feel great satisfaction at end of trip (except for frisson of regret that you were never able to work that idiom for sleep—le dodo—into conversation).
—Lise Funderberg

Next: Getting the most out of motherhood

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Baby


I love kids, and thanks to my firm conviction that there's nothing inherently wrong with treating spaghetti as finger food, they generally love me right back. But about six seconds after my daughter, Julia, was born, it hit me that kids and babies are two entirely different creatures. Children are resilient; your baby is squishy. Plant children in from a Wiggles video and you can sleep another 45 minutes. Offer your baby a check for $25,000 and round-trip airfare to St. Barts and you're still going to be up playing patty-cake at 5:15 every morning.

Nurturing a baby is supposed to come naturally, but the dirty little secret of mommying is that sometimes it doesn't. A simple feeding of mashed carrots left both of us looking like an early Jackson Pollock. I'd have felt less panicky defusing a midlevel nuclear device than clipping Jule's fingernails. My lullabies were off-key, my diapering was lopsided. I counted the minutes till nap time, and lunged at a Pottery Barn saleswoman who suggested I "enjoy these days—they go by so fast."

But 21 months and an excellent antidepressant later, I'm pleased to announce that the days do fly by and despite endless teething, a broken Barney a lost Elmo, and 19 torn books, I find myself enjoying most of them. That's because I finally figured out that a Hefty back with neck and arm holes keeps the carrots off me, and a rousing chorus of the hokeypokey provides enough distraction to get a respectable percentage of the carrots into her. I also learned that the main requirement of parenting is being there. I don't have to be delightful if I don't feel like it, and I don't have to be brilliant; I just have to give it my best shot, keep a ton of baby wipes within reach, put some other poor sucker in charge of her manicures, and make sure she knows I'm hers—unequivocally.
—Lisa Kogan

Next: Taking flamenco lessons

The Flamenco Kid


I wasn't drawn to take flamenco dance classes by the promise of wearing a richly colored skirt with a ruffled train. It wasn't the hope of skillfully playing the castanets or the beautiful agony of the singer's cry. Although the layered rhythms of the Spanish guitar still transfix me, that wasn't what compelled me to find an instructor once I returned from Seville, where I first witnessed flamenco. What was and to this day remains ingrained in my mind is the impenetrable look on the dancer's face as she gestured with a graceful force I'd never seen before—equal parts happiness and sorrow. Her furrowed brow revealed more to me about the complexities of life than anything else I've experienced. And it is what keeps me going back for more.
— Tari Ayala

More Ways to Learn Something New

NEXT STORY

Next Story