Tom Vanderbilt’s fascination with the lifelong learning process began with his daughter’s hobbies, piano, soccer, taekwondo. He wanted to encourage her in her new quests and would accompany her to lessons or tournaments. While she exercised his mind, he answered emails, played on his phone, or stared into space until his daughter finished class.
He soon recognized the hypocrisy of the situation. I was stressing to him the importance of having a broad education in all these different skills, he says. But she could have easily asked me, ‘Well, why don’t you do all these things? Starting with chess lessons, he decided to spend a year pursuing a variety of new skills for himself. He learned to sing, draw, juggle, and surf no point did he aspire to fully master those skills or show off his prowess with an extraordinary feat, like winning the television show, American Idol.
As adults, we instantly push ourselves with goals, he says. We feel that we do not have the luxury of participating in learning by learning. Instead, he wanted to revel in the pleasure of the process. Vanderbilt details his journey in his book Beginners published in January 2021, which combines his personal insights with cutting-edge science that studies skill acquisition. Eager to find out more, the book discusses the myths of adult learning and the substantial benefits that the “beginner’s mindset” can bring to our lives.
How To Learn Well
Vanderbilt began the project in his late 40s knowing that he would have a hard time 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 the need for any explanation or description of what they are doing. But after age 12, we lose some of that ability to absorb new information. However, we shouldn’t be too pessimistic about our own abilities. While adults may not absorb new skills as easily as a child, we still have neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reconfigure itself in response to new challenges. In his year of apprenticeship, Vanderbilt met many people, much older than himself, who was still wielding that superpower.
What’s more, Vanderbilt’s research revealed some basic principles of good learning that anyone can use to make our learning process more effective. The first may seem obvious, but it is easily forgotten: we need to learn from our mistakes. Therefore, instead of mindlessly repeating the same actions over and over again, we must be more focused and analytical, thinking about what we did right and what we did wrong. (Psychologists call this “deliberate practice”). Vanderbilt noticed this when playing chess. You could spend hours playing hundreds of online games, but that wouldn’t be as effective as studying the strategies of professionals or discussing the reasons for your losses with a chess teacher.
The repetition without repetition second principle is more counterintuitive, we must ensure that our practice is varied. Juggling, for example, allowed him to learn to change objects or change the height at which he threw them. Then he tried the same sitting and walking. As one scientist told Vanderbilt, this is repetition without repetition, causing the brain’s learned patterns to become more flexible. This helps cope with unpredictable difficulties, such as a mistake in one of the movements that could lead you to lose control. In an even more enigmatic way, Vanderbilt found that we often learn best when we know we will have to teach others the same skill.
It’s not clear why this is so, but that expectation seems to heighten people’s interest and curiosity, which activates the brain’s attention and helps ensure that it leaves stronger traces in memory. (Vanderbilt had many opportunities to teach what he had learned, as he often included his daughter in his projects.)So whatever it is you’re trying to master personally, consider sharing that skill with someone you know. And while it can be helpful to observe real experts performing a skill, Vanderbilt found that it can also be helpful to observe other novices as it makes it easier to analyze what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong.
Opening Up To A Stranger
With this knowledge, Vanderbilt made good progress in each of the skills he set out to learn. Singing, he says, was one of the biggest obstacles, from an emotional point of view. It was the process of opening up to a stranger in the crudest way, he explains.
When he got over those nerves, however, it also turned out to be the most rewarding challenge. “It’s what I probably liked the most because it has an inherent pleasure and it makes you feel great.” He did so well that he eventually became a member of the New York Britpop choir. If you are inspired to embark on a new hobby, Vanderbilt advises starting with something easy to integrate into your current lifestyle. You may even be surprised by the speed of your progress, note. A lot of people get obsessed with the idea that this is just a huge investment of time – that the road is endless and that’s very discouraging for them.”Vanderbilt found that his ability to draw, for example, had improved significantly at the same time it would normally take him to watch multiple chapters of a television series.
Why Learn Something New?
You may still wonder why you should make the effort to learn something new when you could be relaxing on your couch. Vanderbilt explains that there are many general benefits to acquiring any new skill, including some long-term brain changes that could offset some of the mental declines that often come with aging. The author points to a study of adults, aged 58 to 86, who completed a few courses in subjects such as Spanish, music, composition, and painting. After a few months, they had not only made good progress in individual skills, but they also showed pronounced improvement on more general cognitive tests, matching the performance of adults who were 30 years younger.
Interestingly, the benefits seemed to come from testing multiple skills, rather than focusing exclusively on one particular experience. As Vanderbilt writes in his book: “Instead of running a marathon, you are subjecting your brain to a variety of high-intensity interval training. Every time you begin to learn that new skill, you are reshaping yourself. You are training your brain again to be more efficient. We tend to see the fans as if they were superficial and without dedication. But it seems that the skilled person, the perpetual beginner, may have a sharper brain than the master of a single skill. The constant pursuit of many different interests can even increase your creativity. As David Epstein also pointed out in his book Range, Nobel laureates were far more likely to have enjoyed artistic pursuits such as music, dance, visual arts, or creative writing than other scientists.
In the moments of failure you learn a new skill, there will be frustrations and moments of failure, but these may be the most important experiences of the entire process. After years of experience in journalism, Vanderbilt says the new challenges were a welcome change to his professional complacency. Somehow it opened my mind and gave me back the feeling of not knowing, he explains. This was especially true of skills like drawing, which were somewhat familiar to him. Learning the sill was often different than I imagined. My expectations were constantly lowered.
Extensive research has shown that intellectual humility – the ability to recognize the limits of our knowledge can greatly improve our thinking and decision-making. And that ability to reconsider our preconceptions and open our minds to new ways of thinking can become increasingly significant in today’s changing world. Whether we are learning for pleasure or trying to improve our professional skills, we could all do well to cultivate that beginner mentality where nothing is safe and everything can be learned. Although our ability to easily learn a new skill diminishes with age, taking advantage of the beginner’s mindset can help you learn effectively as an adult.