Professional Skipper – August 2000 issue          back to articles menu

“of Old Dogs and New Tricks”
Why is it that as we grow older and supposedly wiser, some of us repeat the same mistakes? Is there such a thing as being ‘too old to learn’? Might there be another answer? Light-hearted comments from an Old Dog. Actually, make that Lower-Middle-age Dog.


When I left my first relationship, I swore I would never do it again. I’ve never done it again three times since then. However, I only married once so it would appear I learned part, but not all, of the required learning. Or is it that we can learn the knowledge; yet fail to learn to apply it?  Will I, on my deathbed, suddenly jerk upright and say “Oh, bugger, so that’s how it’s supposed to work”, then fall back lifeless with a ‘duh’ look on my face?  Talk to any counsellor and they will tell you of the battle they fight against their own internal cynicism, in order to stay motivated in the face of a continuous stream of people who have brought the same behaviours into their present relationship, which caused the break-up of their previous one…

I’m often told that ‘Life is a Journey of Learning’ (this usually said by crystal-clutching earnest–looking pale people in cashmere sweaters, sandals and socks, buzzing away on Bach Flower Remedy) and my question to these people is – What’s the Bloody Point? I mean, you spend your allotted three-score-years-and-ten to learn all this stuff only to end up either pushing up daisies, or as a little pile of white powder in a wee pottery vase. About the only thing, in the absence of tangible evidence, that makes me hope for an after-life is the belief that no responsible Creator would waste all of that effort and resource to create a knowledgeable entity which would then be snuffed out. Or are we all a kind of cosmic curio on some God’s mantelpiece: ‘See this, Zeus? Created it myself – only took seven days. I call it ‘Humanity’. Absolutely pointless of course, doesn’t actually do anything, in fact it’s polluting the Planet quite a bit, but isn’t it interesting…’

 Anyway, I’m getting around to saying that I have Faults. Yes, Faults. That may come as a shock to those who know me. I know what my Faults are, and just in case I forget, there are people around me, and I include Keith our dear Editor, probably appointed by God, who will point those Faults out to me, often with an irritating degree of repetition.

I Procrastinate. There, I’ve said it. I’ve been putting off saying it, you see. There’s probably an encounter group somewhere I could join. ‘Hi, I’m Steve and I’m a procrastinator’. I have always procrastinated. I am a procrastinator par excellence. Sometimes I even delay the procrastination, for increased enjoyment. ‘Congratulations Mrs Punter, you’ve given birth to a healthy Procrastinator’. In the Maternity Hospital they probably had to induce me after a lot of haranguing, ‘Come on out, Steve, we’re all out here waiting… it’s deadline day… either come out now or we’ll come in and get you…’ to which a muffled voice might have replied ‘Er, look, um, could we do this next week perhaps, ah, I’m kinda tied up at the moment…’

 I can still remember the cover of the Algebra book that I hated in 3rd Form. Why do I remember it? Because for the whole of the holiday period leading up to exams, the blasted thing used to glare at me from my homework desk. ‘Do me’, it would say in its telepathic musty papery voice. ‘I’m here, I’m not going to go away, you are going to have to read me soon!’ – and I would put off and put off the evil moment until the matter became of crisis proportions. Not surprisingly, I got 17% for school certificate maths and had to re-do maths in my 6th Form year, and I only did it because the Union Company wouldn’t accept me as a Cadet without School C Maths. I got 51% next time around. I hated Algebra with a passion. Probably because no one ever explained why anyone would want to multiply letters together – let alone how. Those were dark days. Now we turn out kids who can’t read or write. That’s progress.

Back to Old Dog Punter the Procrastination King. I have tried all sorts of things, and with a huge effort, I get by without missing important deadlines. You may have missed Tongue in Cheek in the March issue, mainly because it wasn’t there. That deadline slipped through the cracks, although it’s really the Editor’s fault for only reminding me five times and not the usual six.

Look at all the tools and systems that are available to the Chronic Procrastinator. Microsoft Outlook, Digital Diaries, Wall Planners, Organiser Diaries, To Do Lists. I’ve tried them all. There’s one thing they can’t provide. Discipline. That’s the essential Discipline required to actually enter stuff into them in the first place, secondly, to remember where you put them, and thirdly, to actually refer to them from time to time.

Be honest. How many of you – yes, I’m talking to you – have made out lists of things and put times and dates alongside each item in the list, looked proudly at the thing you’ve created that will change your life, and then months later found the blasted thing under a pile of other stuff that never got done either, with coffee mug rings all over it. Only last week I turned the rotating whiteboard over and found a whole list of things to do that I don’t even remember writing. They obviously weren’t critical.

So how come Time Management courses (yes, we run them at STA) don’t produce change for so many participants who come back 2 years later looking older and more ragged?

Well, let’s try answering that with a joke: How many Californian Psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change. Going on a Time Management course will give you models, methods and ideas. You’ve still got to put them into place, and then enact them…

I remember reading where someone was asked ‘would you like to see into the future?’ and the answer was ‘Hell NO! - That would take all the fun out of it’. I actually like living my life in a mild degree of untidy, glorious confusion with an element of uncertainty. As long as the client or participants don’t suffer from it in anyway, why should it matter that I complete everything at the last minute?  This light bulb doesn’t actually want to change. It’s not that I can’t change.

Humanity is itself an Old Dog. 5000 years of recorded history. You would think we would have learned some things, yes? In terms of horrific learning, World War I was supposed to be the War to End All Wars. Twenty years later came WWII. Then Korea, followed by Vietnam, the Falklands, and Bosnia, plus I’ve left out a few local massacres and terminal disagreements. Every generation has heaps to look back on and supposedly learn from. So how come history repeats itself? Did we not learn? Humans know that war produces death and misery. Yet we still do it. Cigarettes kill millions every year. We know it. Yet many of us still do it. Clearly, the taking-on of knowledge is, by itself, not learning and even if it was, doesn’t necessarily lead to changed behaviour.

There’s no point in attempting to teach this Old Dog new tricks, unless the benefits totally outweigh the pain of the change. Then maybe I’ll change behaviour, and only then can you suggest that learning has occurred. Watch out though, that in changing one aspect of someone’s behaviour you don’t destroy the essential elements of who they are. Perhaps you might consider changing the environment so that the effect of the undesired attribute is absorbed or offset through another strategy. Which is what I did. Hence I now have a Personal Assistant who is slowly learning how to work with me, maximising my good attributes by allowing me free rein to work in my natural way, while she makes up for the missing attributes. Everyone wins. Clients and participants aren’t exposed to a risk (that they didn’t know was there), I get to work guilt-free, and another job is created in the workforce. Or you could have tried to teach this Old Dog new tricks.

Never teach a pig to dance. It frustrates you and confuses the pig.

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2001 All rights reserved by the author.                                                                                                                       back to articles menu