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Old Dogs/New Tricks and Other Bunk We Tell Ourselves.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | April 5, 2015

No. 1,135

Judge Carol Los Mansmann

Judge Carol Los Mansmann

It is hard to think of an old adage that is more disempowering than this one.

It is a negative idea, intended to discourage old dogs from even trying to learn something.  In a rapidly changing world, this leads to the marginalization of some of our most experienced and capable people. As a long-time dog owner, I can tell you that this dubious advice doesn’t even apply to dogs.

The truth is, as long as the mind is reasonably competent, we are learning new things continuously.  Its automatic, we have no choice.  But we can choose what to learn. Will it be a foreign language, a new skill or sitcom plots on television?

The old are not the only victims of such negative thinking.  I recently heard a lecturer retell how, when he failed his first arithmetic test, his mother consoled him by stating that nobody in the family was any good at math. This well-meaning woman was telling her son that he couldn’t learn something due to a factor beyond his control. He believed it. Then, far down the academic road, when he had to study statistics to earn a degree in psychology, he was forced to confront and overcome this untested hypothesis.  How many similar untested hypotheses have we all allowed to become deeply rooted in our subconscious?

This brings to mind the well-known phenomenon that young women have historically chosen careers dictated by social expectations. Once again, destructive negative thinking. Fortunately, for them and for all of us, this “wisdom” is now being successfully challenged.  Carol Los Mansmann, who became a member of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, told the story of how her high school guidance counsellor tried to throw cold water on her ambition to become a lawyer and then a judge.  The counsellor advised her to be a legal secretary.

That guidance counsellor was limited by an unspoken assumption that the world would remain the same. Then, within a few years, women started to attend law school in greater numbers and they now occupy more than half of the seats in most law schools. Eventually, many of them became judges.  Would it surprise you to learn that approximately half of the judges in Philadelphia today are women?  Carol Los Mansmann was not first, but she was a pioneer and mentor to others who followed.

And by the way, legal secretaries have become a dying breed in an age of electronic devices. How many of them listened to their guidance counsellors and later regretted not having disregarded the advice? So much for stereotypes.

Yes, there are limitations to everything. We can learn what they are by observing and thinking,  not by mindlessly repeating old saws with negative messages.  Old, young or in-between, when anybody, including yourself, says that you cannot do something, your immediate response should be: “Why not?”



CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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