The allure of learning something difficult

By Caitlin Kelly

Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland
Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland

For some, it’s calculus or making a roux or hitting to the outfield or soothing a colicky baby.

It’s been years since I’d had to acquire some new and challenging knowledge. Once you leave the world of formal education, it’s onoing auto-didacticism (love that word!) or slow mental atrophy. I work alone at home, and have since 2006, so unless I make a conscious decision to take a class or attend a conference, no boss (for better or worse) will force me to learn some new skills.

This weekend, my husband and I are taking a workshop in…how to create a workshop. How American is that? I hope to offer one for writers next summer and he hopes to offer one for photographers. (Stay tuned for details!)

But while many of my peers are rushing to learn computer coding, I wanted something different, a new set of skills for my own pleasure.

Time to learn German? It looked really difficult! More practically, when, if ever, would I really use it? I live in New York and getting to Europe is so costly that I usually visit France, (where I already speak the language), England or Ireland.

Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)
Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)

Instead, I’m learning how to play golf.

Mostly because my husband loves it. Like me, he came to it later in life as neither of our families were into the sport when we were growing up. My father, still sailing and cycling in his mid-80s, still shakes his head at my taste for it.

We’re not wealthy and where we live a game of golf can cost up to $100 for a decent course, so it’s not something we can do every week.

But Jose is passionate about it and playing golf also combines the elements that make me happy: his company, being outdoors in a beautiful setting, exercise, socializing.

He gave me a set of older clubs, some great golf shoes and off we went to the driving range. (That’s where you buy a bucket of balls and spend an hour or so practicing your shots with every different club. Large round wooden targets that look a bit like archery targets saying 50, 100 and 200 yards, tell you how far your shots are reaching.)

It’s a very male place.

But on a cool summer’s morning it’s also a great start to the workday; we have a range only 10 minutes drive from our suburban home. Two days after hitting a bucket and a half my arms, chest and oblique muscles are sore!

We were very lucky, on a recent trip to Donegal, Ireland, to be invited out to a links course by the edge of the Atlantic. We played with two women in their 60s, who were terrific golfers and yet very patient with me, playing my fourth or fifth game ever.

The course was crazy! One hole required hitting straight over a cliff to the fairway on the other side. There were no carts on a course so hilly that we felt like sheep clambering up and down, carrying our clubs backpack style. (Links golf comes from the medieval work hlinc, meaning hilly.)

I found it hard to concentrate because the scenery was so stunning: deep blue water, a distant island, seagulls swooping so low we almost hit them. I felt salt spray on my cheeks as a strong wind blew in our faces.

I love that golf is a portable sport — almost anywhere green with some land will have a golf course, or several, and often much more affordably than where we live. We’ve now played in rural Ontario and midcoast Maine, in the crisp air of autumn and on a day so hot I gave up after the fourth hole.

I like how challenging the game is. It forces me to slow down and pay very close attention. It requires a stillness and a shutting out of all distraction. It rewards both power and fine motor control.

I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t — I admit — keep going. But it’s also satisfying to be acquiring new skills later in my life. It’s so easy to stick to what I know and am good at.

The Luas -- which means
The Luas — which means “speed” in Irish

After our three weeks in Ireland, listening to my friend’s voice calling out the official station stops on Dublin’s tramline, the Luas, (she speaks fuent Irish and did the voice-over), I’m debating trying to learn even a bit of Irish.

My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the tiny Donegal town of Rathmullan, and we recently revisited his one-room schoolhouse there. I have roots in that world.

But Irish? Now that’s deeply impractical; only two percent of Irish people even speak it anymore, in three areas known as the Gaeltacht.

But it’s gorgeous to listen to.

What new skills are you learning these days?

What made you choose them?

20 thoughts on “The allure of learning something difficult

  1. golf is something i’m interested in learning too. my boyfriend loves to play, my father used to play, and i’ve just begun to hit buckets of balls at the range with my son in law. i’d like to take a few lessons to master my stance, grip and swing and then practice on a real course. i’ll keep you posted. also took a class with my local sheriffs to understand their role in the community, and would love to take italian in the not too distant future. i think it’s important to always keep learning, to continue to grow and be a part of the world.

    1. Yay! Hope you’re enjoying it…I spent years resisting the idea but, if you find you have an aptitude and enjoy it, why not?

      Love the class about sheriffs. Have never heard of such a thing. And Italian. So bella! 🙂

      1. Tell me about it. When I was on the way back from Munich, the waiter in the dining car asked me why I kept mixing my German with English. I explained that I was American but I was living in Germany so I was trying to learn the language so I could be part of the culture. He actually gave me a high-five for that!

  2. Danish. And drawing. I’d so love to learn capoeira (I’m hopelessly unathletic, but I don’t do much in that space), but that requires staying someplace for a longer while than visa rules allow me to, at the moment.

    I’ve wondered why certain golf courses were called “links.” Now I know 🙂

    1. Danish…wow! That sounds serious, but cool. Drawing is a great skill for someone like yourself who’s already a visual person. You’ll see how differently you start to look at things. I love how it, literally, sharpens your focus. I’ve loved the classes I took and should get back to it.

      Right? I had no idea! 🙂

      Good to hear from you!

  3. Golf is a fantastic sport! When I got injured in highschool, I had to switch from high-impact cheerleading with tumbling and stunts to another sport in lieu of needing a hip replacement at some point. Playing golf was perfect. It can be solitary or a group activity. It requires patience and a love of nature. You can hit on the range for hours or walk nine holes, but the best part is seeing all the different courses. Sounds like you found a lovely one! I wish you the best with your journey in golf. Remember, the most important thing is not your score, but how you played. Golf etiquette and your demeanor when playing is what will get you invited back into a foursome, not how well you played. You probably won’t regret not scoring low a few rounds, but you could definitely regret throwing clubs or having a tantrum (sadly, I saw this often on the high school golf circuit-most of the time with the guys, not the girls haha). Right now I’m studying up on how to parent a toddler. That will likely be the toughest skill I’ve ever had to gain hahaha. Great post, thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for this!

      I have never thrown a club nor would I…my husband has schooled me well! We often skip the score to focus on enjoying the game and improving my shots. Life is tough enough as it is. 🙂

  4. Funny you should mention golf as this is something I’ve been wanting to learn for a few years now. Growing up, I accompanied my father to many different courses, but wasn’t interested in the game back then. Now I am because I love nature, love walking, love the idea of learning a new skill, and like the social aspect of golf. So next year, if all goes well, I plan on learning TWO new skills: golf and Portuguese. Why Portuguese, you might ask? Because I plan to play golf in Portugal ! And look at real estate. You can buy a gorgeous 2 bedroom apartment there for under 100,000 euros. Mind you, that’s away from the chi-chi areas. Have you been to Portugal?

  5. I love that you’re learning something that is not cerebral! Something physical to take your mind off of the abstract and into the here and now. Those are the best kinds of new things:).

  6. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Wednesday links | A Bit More Detail

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