Not only do I lack any particular talent for playing the piano, but I didn’t even start taking lessons until early middle age — far too late to develop the neural pathways I’d need to play well. As a result I’m not very good, and I never will be. But I go to my lessons, I practice as much as I can (I’ve gotten good at squeezing my daily one-hour practice session into as little as 10 minutes on some days), and, unexpectedly, I find a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction in my incompetent playing. It also turns out that taking piano lessons has benefits that go well beyond personal satisfaction — it’s a great form of cross-training.

With any exercise regimen, months of repetition can make your body extremely efficient at performing certain movements — but only those movements. Someone can be in good enough shape to complete a three-hour marathon, for instance, but still be sore all over the day after playing a 30-minute game of pickup basketball. Doing only one kind of...

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