Tom Vanderbilt’s fascination with the lifelong learning process began with his daughter’s hobbies: piano, football, taekwondo. He wanted to encourage her in her new activities and accompanied her to classes and tournaments.
While she exercised her mind, he answered e-mails, had fun on his cell phone, or stared at nothing until his daughter was finished. And soon he recognized the hypocrisy of the situation.
“I was instilling in her the importance of learning all these different skills,” she says. “But she could have easily asked me, ‘Why don’t you do all these things then?'”
Starting with chess lessons, he decided to spend a year developing a range of new skills. He learned to sing, draw, juggle and surf.
In no time did he hope to fully master these skills or show off his prowess with an extraordinary feat, such as winning the television competition. American Idol.
“As adults, we immediately put pressure on ourselves with goals,” he says. “We feel we can’t afford to learn just for the sake of learning.”
Instead, he wanted to enjoy the pleasure of the process.
Vanderbilt details his journey in the book Beginners (“Beginners”, in free translation), January 2021, which combines his personal experiences with the cutting-edge science behind skill acquisition.
Eager to learn more, I talked to him about the myths of adult learning and the substantial benefits that a “beginner’s mind” can bring to our lives.
how to learn well
Starting the project at age 40, Vanderbilt knew he would have difficulty matching the learning skills of children like his daughter.
Children are especially good at picking up patterns implicitly—understanding that certain actions will lead to certain types of events, without any explanation or description of what they’re doing.
After age 12, however, we have lost some of that ability to absorb new information.
But we shouldn’t be too pessimistic about our own abilities.
Although adults may not absorb new skills as easily as a child, we still have “neuroplasticity”—the brain’s ability to reprogram itself in response to new challenges.
In his year of apprenticeship, Vanderbilt met many people who were past middle age and still wielding this “superpower”.
In addition, Vanderbilt’s research revealed some basic principles of good learning that anyone can use to make learning more effective. The first may seem obvious, but we easily forget: we need to learn from our mistakes.
So instead of just repeating the same actions without thinking, we need to be more focused and analytical, reflecting on what we did right and what we did wrong. (Psychologists call this “deliberate practice”.)
Vanderbilt noticed this when playing chess. You can spend hours playing online, but that wouldn’t be as effective as studying the strategies of professionals or discussing the reasons for their losses with a chess teacher.
The second principle is more counterintuitive: we need to make sure our practice is varied. In juggling, for example, changing objects, or changing the height at which you throw them, was useful for him, who tried sitting and while walking.
As one scientist told Vanderbilt, this is “repeat without repetition” and forces the brain’s learned patterns to become more flexible, allowing you to deal with unpredictable difficulties — like an error in one of your previous moves that can cause you to lose control.
Even more intriguing, Vanderbilt found that we often learn best when we know we will have to teach the same skill to others.
It’s not clear why this happens, but this expectation seems to increase people’s interest and curiosity, which stimulates the brain’s attention and helps ensure that it establishes stronger memory traces. (Vanderbilt had many opportunities to teach what he had learned, as he often included his daughter in his projects.)
So whatever you’re trying to master on a personal level, consider sharing that skill with someone you know.
And while you might find it helpful to watch real experts perform a skill, Vanderbilt has found that it can also be helpful to keep up with other novices, since you can more easily analyze what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong.
With that knowledge, Vanderbilt made great strides in each of the skills he set out to learn. Singing, he says, was one of the biggest obstacles, emotionally: “This process of opening up to a stranger in the rawest of ways,” he explains.
When he got over that nervousness, however, singing also turned out to be the most rewarding activity.
“It’s the thing I’ve probably given myself the most, because it has an inherent pleasure and makes you feel so good.”
He ended up becoming a member of the New York Britpop choir.
If you’re inspired to start a new activity on your own, Vanderbilt advises starting with something that’s easy to integrate into your current lifestyle. You might be surprised at the speed of your progress, he says.
“A lot of people get caught up in the idea that this is just a huge investment of time — that it’s a never-ending path — and that’s pretty scary for them.”
He found that his sketches, for example, had significantly improved in the time it would normally take to marathon a TV series.
The ‘why’ factor
You may still wonder why you should make the effort when you could be hanging around on the couch.
But Vanderbilt points out that there are many benefits to embracing any new skill — including some long-term brain changes that could offset some of the mental decline that often comes with aging.
He cites a study of adults — ages 58 to 86 — who have taken various courses in areas such as Spanish, music, composition and painting.
After a few months, not only had they made good progress in their individual skills, they had also shown a marked improvement on broader cognitive tests—which corresponded to the performance of adults 30 years younger.
Interestingly, these benefits seemed to come from experimenting with multiple skills rather than focusing exclusively on one in particular.
As Vanderbilt writes in his book: “Instead of running a marathon, you’re putting your brain through a variety of high-intensity interval workouts. Every time you start learning this new skill, you’re resetting. You’re retraining your brain again. to be more efficient.”
We tend to see the ‘dilettante’ as superficial and lacking in dedication. But it seems that those who are ‘jack of all trades’ — the eternal beginner — may have sharper brains than masters of a single skill.
Pursuing many different interests throughout your life can even increase your creativity.
As David Epstein noted in the book Range, Nobel Prize winners were much more likely to enjoy artistic activities such as music, dance, visual arts or creative writing than other scientists.
As you begin to learn a new skill, there will be times of frustration and failure—but these may actually be the most important experiences in the entire process.
After years of experience in journalism, Vanderbilt says the new challenges were a welcome change from his “professional ease.”
“It kind of opened my mind and brought me back to this feeling of not knowing,” he says.
This especially applied to skills that already seemed somewhat familiar — such as drawing.
“Learning the thing itself was often different from what I imagined. My expectations were constantly contradicted.”
Research has shown that intellectual humility—the ability to recognize the limits of our knowledge—can greatly improve our thinking and decision-making.
And this ability to reconsider our preconceived ideas and open our minds to new ways of thinking may be increasingly important in today’s rapidly changing world.
Whether we’re learning for the fun of it or trying to hone our professional skills, we can all succeed by cultivating that “beginner’s mindset” where there’s no certainty and there’s everything to learn.
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