On learning things as an adult

I have a dirty secret. It’s something that I do late at night when I can’t get to sleep. Some people think it’s a bit weird, but for me it works to clear my brain and relax.

I practice my multiplication tables.

Here’s the thing. I was a smart kid. I came first in my grade in years 3, 4, 5 and 6. I was dux of my primary school. In high school, I won medals and frequently did best in exams. I got sent to gifted and talented programs. 

And through it all, I never ever learned my times tables.

A lazy learner

I remember faking it in year four. Everyone else, even the kids who weren’t so bright, had memorised their times tables. They were proud of it. They could get asked to stand up and answer 7 x anything. I would sit at my desk, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t get called up.

And the maths gods must have heard my prayers. Because I never got called up. On the rare occasions I did, it would be an easy one, a 3 or 5 times, which I knew.

Because I was ostensibly the smartest kid in the class, my teachers simply assumed that I knew my times tables. They didn’t call upon me because what would be the point? Obviously, I was going to get it right. Let’s test that dunce Mark instead. 

The problem with being naturally smart is that you’re also lazily smart.

For whatever reason, I find it immensely difficult to commit the times tables to memory. That’s why, when I’m struggling to sleep, I try to do the 12 times tables backwards. You can probably do this quite easily. Try it. How long did it take you?

I am now finally confident that 12 x 12 is 144, but for some reason, I keep thinking 12 x 11 is 136, which really screws me up when I try to do 12 x 10. Concentrating on such a thorny pointless problem helps me to fall asleep. I rarely make it past 12 x 8.

Assume nothing

Learning basic things later in life is obviously very different to learning them as a child. You don’t take the knowledge for granted. You throw assumptions out the window. Everything you learn is hard won and precious. Everything you learn is conscious. It makes it a much richer learning experience. 

This year, I’ve become a road user for the first time ever. I didn’t ride bikes, skateboards or rollerblades as a kid. As a teenager, I didn’t learn to drive. So here I am in my 40s, learning road rules for the first time.

When people meet me, they always assume I’m a bike rider. People assume a lot of things about me, most of them wrong. They also assume I’m vegan. The number of times I’ve been asked by someone I barely know, “You’re vegetarian, right?” is astonishing. I’m not, although I’m an excellent vegan cook. 

For whatever reason – must be my hippy vibes – within 5 minutes of meeting me, people form an opinion: she’s a vegan bike rider who totally knows her times tables.

But I never learned to ride a bike as a kid. For lots of reasons, it just didn’t happen. I don’t know why people assume I’m a cyclist. I guess I’m thin and it fits my lefty profile. As an adult, I took one lesson (thanks George!) and I finally learned the mechanics of actually riding a bike. But one two-hour lesson does not a bike rider make you.

We once rented bikes and cycled around Lake Bled in Slovenia. I managed to ride around half of the lake, very slowly, very wobbily and only on stretches of path where there were no other people. The instant I saw other humans I would stop, dismount, and push the bike. I mostly pushed the bike around Lake Bled.

My whole life, upon learning I can’t ride a bike, people have said to me, oh you should learn to ride. You’ll love being a bike rider. It really opens the world up to you. People say the same thing about driving a car, but I never learned to do that either. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know.

But I was always happy to just walk places. I’ve walked across countries. I’ve walked along major rivers. I like to walk because then I know exactly where I am and how I can exit the situation. My reluctance to get in cars and taxis isn’t just because I’m not fond of cars – it’s also because I know that if I can walk to a place, I can walk from it again, too. It’s a part of my anxiety of knowing always how to get home.

But yeah, people’s first instinct is to offer to teach me how to ride. You’d be perfect on a bike. It’s easy. Come on, I’ll teach you, they say. 

Like it’s that easy. Like the only difficult part is getting on the seat and pedalling and staying upright. I can do that part. I have done that part. It’s all the other parts of riding a bike that people forget about because they learned as children. It’s all the assumed knowledge that I’ve missed out on.

My bright red tricycle

One day, about three months ago, a magical thing happened. A three-wheeled bike appeared in my Facebook marketplace feed. 

A three-wheeled bike! 

My gods, I thought. I could do that

When people say to me, oh it’s easy to ride a bike, I remind them, you’ve been doing it your whole life. It’s not just the bike riding part that’s hard. There’s learning the road rules, negotiating pedestrians and cars, staying in a straight line and not wobbling all over the place, having confidence to stop and start in tricky situations, making turns at intersections, veering around obstacles without falling off, going over speedbumps, knowing what to do when a small child runs out in front of you or you need to ride through a street football game.

Sure, I could learn to ride a bike on a basketball court or in quiet backstreets, but how do I transfer that to a road or footpath? All of that comes naturally to you because you learnt slowly on your street at home and then gradually went further and further out. You don’t even remember how you learnt all of those things so you assume it will just come naturally to me. But how do I actually learn that as a grown person? Where is my safe space, my safe time to go out and actually learn those things? 

What I learned riding around Lake Bled was that, yes, I could ride a bike, in the sense that I could sit on a bike and pedal and achieve forward motion. But I couldn’t ride one in a straight line. And I certainly couldn’t ride on a narrow path just centimetres from the edge of a lake whilst surrounded by other people.

Long story short, I bought the three-wheeled bike the very same day that it appeared in my feed. A cargo tricycle was exactly the training bike I’ve needed my whole life. Plus, it fits two cases of beer.

My new life as a cyclist

It turns out that all those people were right. I do love being a bike rider. But I was also right; learning the other stuff has been the hard part. With a trike, I don’t have to worry about balancing – it largely stays up entirely on its own – so I can concentrate on learning the other stuff. How to use the road, how to sit on the bike, how to actually pedal. These are things I didn’t know and that I had to learn, bit by bit, consciously. Every time I go out on my trike, I learn something new. 

Did you know that when you ride into the wind, you practically come to a standstill? I discovered this whilst trying to cycle into an oncoming bagyo, a storm. Whew, I thought, I must be really out of shape. This hill is killing me. I was pushing and pushing and felt like I was getting nowhere. And then I realised that the wind, which was strong, but not typhoon strong, was holding me back. This was astonishing! I can feel the wind when I’m walking, but it rarely makes it difficult to move my legs. But on a bike, I don’t know why, but it really affects your ability to make progress.

Did you know that when your tyres are flat, it makes you feel like you’re ten kilos heavier and can barely ride? I rode around with flat tyres for two weeks, huffing and puffing and wondering why cycling was getting harder instead of easier. A neighbour offered to pump the tyres and voila! It was like a new bike!

Did you know that there are different ways to pedal? You can kind of go straight down, which was my initial approach. But if you engage your core and lean back slightly, you can push forward, using your thighs and glutes more, which is a lot easier.

Every day on my little red tricycle I learn something new about riding and about myself. I’ve learned that it’s better to keep my bike lock in the front basket rather than the back, because it’s faster to put it on. I’ve learned that I can go a good metre and a half before the bike stops and I realise that I’ve forgotten to take the bike lock off. I’ve learned that I should grab my keys as I’m approaching my bike so that I remember to actually remove the bike lock before I start.

When you learn these things as an adult, you don’t take them for granted.  Nothing is assumed. Every discovery is a blessing. I genuinely learn something new, process it and am astonished by the new piece of information that is now in my head. You can feel the learning taking place.

This is why learning a language as an adult is a powerful thing. Yes, of course, it’s better to learn a language as a child. It will always be more natural and definitely easier! But learning as an adult is amazing, too. You see connections between words, recognise patterns, appreciate similar etymologies. And you definitely don’t take any of your hard won vocabulary or grammar for granted!

Learning to ride a three-wheeled bike in the Philippines sure has been an experience. Road rules are fairly relaxed here, so you never really know from which direction a car or motorbike might be coming. There are days when I genuinely don’t know which side of the road I’m supposed to be riding on. People take corners in the shortest way possible, drive for lengths against traffic in order to avoid a speed bump or to turn into a side road. The number one rule I have learned is to look in all directions at once before making any decisions. Not a bad rule, in any case.

I do worry that when I return to civilisation, I won’t be able to ride because I won’t be able to just do whatever I like the way I currently do. I’ll have to actually follow rules, whatever they are. But that is a concern for a post-covid world.

Everything is illuminated

Learning a new skill as an adult is an uncomfortable experience. There’s nothing fun about committing your times tables to memory no matter what age, but it’s particularly ludicrous as a grown-up person. Approaching your first set of traffic lights at the age of 41 is terrifying and stupid. But all of these new things I’m learning – and let me tell you, I learn something new and not always pleasant every day in the Philippines – are hard-won. They are lived and learned. There is nothing innate about the new skills and knowledge I’m acquiring. And as I said, I don’t take any of them for granted.

All those friends were right – I am a cyclist. But I was also right. When you learn a new skill as an adult, you can’t just hop on and do it. You have to put yourself in a position where you can safely learn a little bit each day. That sort of environment isn’t readily available to adults the way it is for kids. You have to work hard to create it. 

Whether you’re learning a language, or to ride a bicycle, or to swim, or god forbid your times tables, it’s harder as an adult – not because kids are better learners but because adults are. As adult learners, we try to find patterns and nuance and deeper understanding, and that slows us down. At times it can be a little frustrating, but that’s the process. We don’t assume anything. We don’t absorb information and skills unquestioningly.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s illuminating.

(And if you have any tips for making progress on my times tables, let me know.)

3 Responses

  1. Loved it! And I now know (if I ever ride a bike) that I can travel a meter and a half before realising that I’ve forgotten to take the bike lock off

  2. I’ve got a tip for you 9x tables. Look at your 10 fingers. 4×9, put down your 4th finger. Count the fingers each side of the gap: 3 and 6, 36. Obviously the 2 numbers add up to 9 too. This is probably adult me just looking for too many patterns…

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Nat Newman

Nat Newman is an award-winning writer of short stories, podcasts, feature articles, ghostwritten books, drunk text messages and a novella. She is also an actor, voice artist, tour host and creative writing tutor.


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