What comes to mind when you hear the phrase lifelong learning? Formal classes, with homework, delivered over Zoom? That’s part of it. But there’s another dimension that our guest Tom Vanderbilt, the author of the new book Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, highlights. He writes about learning a new skill, as opposed to acquiring knowledge. And he’s not focused on professional skills. His book is about learning new skills – for fun. Intrigued by his daughter beginning to learn chess, he decided to learn along with her. And that began a journey of learning how to surf, sing, draw and juggle. His book shares his experiences and explores the science of learning, including why cultivating a Beginner’s Mind is key for adults committed to lifelong learning.
- The story of how his daughter learning chess led to this book
- The benefits of learning a new skill
- Why being a beginner is more challenging for adults
- Why a ‘Beginner’s Mind’ is helpful
- What gets in our way
- What he learned about unlearning
- The advantages of learning a new skill in groups
- How couples can benefit from learning a new skill together
- Why juggling can be a good learning experience
- Why these times are perhaps the best of times for lifelong learning
Tom Vanderbilt has written for many publications and is a contributing editor of Wired (U.K.), Outside, and Artforum. He is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) and Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America. He has been a visiting scholar at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, a research fellow at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, a fellow at the Design Trust for Public Space, and a winner of the Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, among other honors.
Tom Vanderbilt writes on design, technology, science, and culture, among other subjects, for many publications, including Wired, Outside, The London Review of Books, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Wilson Quarterly, Artforum, The Wilson Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Cabinet, Metropolis, and Popular Science. He is contributing editor to Artforum and the design magazine Print and I.D., contributing writer of the popular blog Design Observer, and columnist for Slate magazine.
He has consulted for a variety of companies, from ad agencies to Fortune 500 corporations, and has given lectures at a variety of institutions around the world, from the Eero Saarinen Lecture at Yale University’s School of Architecture to the Australasian Road Safety Conference in Canberra. He has appeared on a wide variety of radio and television programs around the world, including NBC’s Today Show, ABC News’ Nightline, NPR’s Morning Edition, Fresh Air with Teri Gross, the BBC’s World Service and The One Show, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Fox Business, and CNN’s Business Today, among many others. He is a Visiting Scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, and has received fellowships from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visiting Arts, the Design Trust for Public Space, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture. He is also a member of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Cold War Advisory Committee, a group studying the identification of sites and resources significant to the Cold War.
On Learning a New Skill
“…As my daughter was sitting there learning this new thing, I thought, why shouldn’t I also try to learn this thing? …And so this little experiment was born in which we were, these two people separated by four decades of age, trying to learn the same thing. We were beginners at the same skill, but coming to it from a totally different place. And that experience I went through just opened my eyes as to just how long it had been since I’d really take it on a new skill and, and how sort of exhilarating and energizing I’ve found it. And getting over all of those inner voices telling you not to do that.”
On Learning to Sing
“I’m in my fifties. You sort of reach a certain point where you’ve kind of defined by a series of nouns. Let’s say: I’m a writer, I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m this, I’m that. And you sort of treasure these things, but at some point, you begin to feel a little bit, maybe a certain status [hit] there and you start to wonder: Are there ways I could change my life? That would be interesting, (but things that aren’t too radical). And one of the easiest ways to do that is to simply take on learning a new skill. And this thing happens where at first you’re sort of trying to do the thing. Let’s say one of the things I tried was singing and you’re going through this whole process…And for many of us, it can be daunting. No one likes to look bad out there. But at the same time, it’s a very sort of powerful experience just to reset and then climb that learning curve again. And you feel that sort of reward and satisfaction as you see those incremental improvements. And I didn’t set out to be some sort of amazing singer. I just thought I might enjoy the process of learning in a deliberate way. And then at some point, you go from the verb of singing to the noun.”
On Couples Learning Together
“I saw that couples who had engaged in these shared learning experiences, particularly when they were novices – this could be something like ballroom dance classes or learning a new language together – that they were experiencing higher levels of relationship satisfaction afterward. And what the researchers speculated was that they both suddenly had this new, bright, shiny novelty in their life that was bringing them pleasure and meaning, and also enjoyment. And they sort of transfer that because they were doing it together. They sort of grafted a little bit of that feeling back onto themselves and the relationship. So it’s sort of like kick-starting if you will.”
For More on Tom Vanderbilt
Smule: The Social Singing App mentioned in our conversation
Sean Morey, the street performer/juggler I mentioned, on The Tonight Show way back in 1980
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