Learn to Do Anything

The Philly Mag staff took lessons on everything from tap dancing to bike riding to chicken killing (really). What skills do you want to learn this year?

A couple of years ago, I took banjo lessons from a charming, hyper-talented professional jazz guitarist named Tonino Montella, who has a great little storefront in the Italian Market (and who plays the jazz brunch at the Four Seasons restaurant every Sunday). Tonino, who offers lessons in all the stringed instruments, was teaching me to play bluegrass—a lifelong dream of mine—on the sweet little five-string my husband gave me for a birthday.

At first, I practiced dutifully. I worked my way up to playing a slow but still recognizable “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” which was almost pitifully thrilling for me. But with work deadlines, out-of-town trips, parties to go to and (let’s be honest) Bravo television to watch, the fire in my heart that drove me to practicing dimmed, and I found myself only seeing Tonino once monthly … hardly enough face time to make real progress. Soon, the guilt and shame of my spotty dedication and stalling education had me avoiding the lessons and the instrument altogether: Today my banjo sits plaintively in the corner, and the perfectionist in me prevents me from taking it out to find how much of the little I learned I’ve forgotten.

I brought this experience with me as I edited the Learn To Do Anything package in the January issue of Philly Mag—on newsstands by the end of this week. Even for those of us with the best intentions and a heart full of passion, learning new stuff as an adult—finding the time, committing to one more thing, allowing yourself to feel the vulnerability of not being accomplished at something—is hard. But on the other hand, to simply stop growing in new ways just because learning something new isn’t as easy as it was when you were a kid with less ego and more time … well, that’s boring. And since, as a former editor used to warn me, boredom is the enemy, I do think most of us would like to find ways push forward and be that person who has interesting hobbies, who is accomplished in more than just our professional lives, and who finds joy in the variety of experiences life holds out to us when we go looking.

For the story, one of my co-workers took singing lessons. Another learned how to make her grandmother’s traditional Thanksgiving gravy. Another learned to read tarot cards. Another learned to ride a bike. Another learned how to kill a chicken. (Long story.) I learned to tap dance.

It didn’t all just lead to a fun magazine read. (Though I think it is fun … I hope you check it out. We also have a whole giant list of things you can learn, and places you can go to learn them, organized by how much time it’ll take you and how much money it’ll cost you.). The project also lead to a sort of energy around the office—people were excited to talk about their new skills, they were invigorated by a new experience. Overcoming the vulnerability of looking like a jackass (see: tap-dancing) and committing to a new project was, I think for most of us, a hugely uplifting, gratifying experience.

So much so that I’m thinking about picking up that banjo again.