You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

My wife and I have owned many dogs -- French Poodles, rescued Portuguese Water Dog, Wheaton Terrier, rescued Miniature Pinscher-Dachshund, and a German Shepherd. Ominous-looking, because of her dominant black color and huge ears, but unusually gentle, Hannah our Shepherd was my all-time favorite.

During one of her frequent visits to my home office, where she knew I kept treats in the lower left desk drawer, I gave her a treat. On impulse, I asked my approximately eight-year-old “friend” to come into the living room and told her she was going to learn how to roll over.

Other than basic commands, and listening to me babble on about many things, Hannah did not do tricks. That was somewhat demeaning for this beautiful creature. However, this one case would be different.

While saying, “roll over,” I grabbed her and rolled her over. She looked stunned but went along with it. We repeated this exercise two or three times. Then I said, “roll over,” and she did -- as she did whenever, after that introduction to the trick, I asked her to do so. Clearly, I could teach this “old dog” (Hannah, not me) a “new trick”.

How About Us?

How about those of us who are “old “or “middle-aged dogs”? Can we be taught to learn new tricks? Or are we set in our ways, perhaps practicing what Joel Barker, in his book Discovering the Future: The Business of Paradigms called paradigm paralysis?  As a better alternative, he advocated selective paradigm pliancy, that is, be open to the possibility of fundamental changes in the limits we place on ourselves.

Our world, within and outside of our professions, is changing at an accelerated pace. Can you imagine what the next decade will bring? I cannot, other than to be certain that it will be dramatically different -- technologically, economically, politically, and socially -- then today.

Those of us -- individuals and organizations -- that want to thrive, regardless of age, will need to learn new tricks. If we choose to hunker down -- and just survive just get by, we risk irrelevance, failure, and regrets. Regarding regrets, journalist Sydney Harris said, “Regret for things we did can be tempered by time…Regret for things we did not do…is inconsolable.”

Here are some possible work-related and other “new tricks” for the “old dogs,” chronological or otherwise, among us:

  • Start your own consulting business. Considering all you have experienced, surely you could learn what you need to start up and be successful in your part-time or full-time business.
  • Learn how to type the correct way -- stop using the hunt and peck method.
  • Study speaking fundamentals and experience the thrill of positively influencing an audience.
  • Travel to new places in new ways.
  • Request job assignments different from your norm.
  • Take up the guitar.
  • Design and build a boat.
  • Delve into a new technology.
  • Open that bookstore.
  • Walk the Appalachian Trail, run for mayor, live and travel on a boat, or go around the world. For years, you have fantasized about these adventures. However, you have always quickly dismissed these dreams with “reasons” why they could not be fulfilled. Suggestion: At least conduct some research to learn what would be required to realize one of these fantasies, before you will no longer be physically or mentally able to do so.

The “old dog” in us, whether attributed to age or attitude, can be taught new tricks. However, we must be both teacher and learner. “In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future,” according to self-taught social philosopher, Eric Hoffer, who went on to say, “the learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”  Let’s conclude with this challenging and uplifting advice from writer and humorist Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you did not do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds. Explore. Dream. Discover.”


  • Want to improve your writing, speaking, project management, or other knowledge and skills? Then check out my webinars, which are archived by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). They are available for purchase at individual, group, ASCE member, and non-ASCE member rates. By taking and passing a post-test, users receive CEUs based on the webinar length.
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