Beginning Again—and Again
A new book plumbs the benefits of learning skills late in life.
Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, by Tom Vanderbilt (Knopf, 320 pp., $23.99)
Like many parents, New York-based journalist Tom Vanderbilt found himself, in mid-life, clocking long hours on the sidelines of kid events. He took his daughter to chess tournaments on weekends. He signed her up for choir and swimming lessons. Meantime, he and his fellow parental spectators all stared at their phones. Eventually, this provoked a thought: why wasn’t he spending any of this time learning new skills himself? Was he “imparting a subtle lesson: that learning was for the young?”
Approaching 50, Vanderbilt realized that many people don’t want to do anything they’re not good at after adolescence. But trying to learn new skills could make life more interesting. It could give him activities he could do with his daughter, and perhaps teach “one of the most valuable lessons of all: Just because you’re not immediately good at something does not mean you won’t eventually get it.”
Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, tells the story of Vanderbilt’s journey to learn to surf, sing, draw, and juggle—not exactly well, but passably. He explains why other adults might want to become beginners, too. The book, he writes, “is less about making you better at something than making you feel better as you try to learn.”
Lifelong learning turns out to have many benefits. One upside: brain plasticity. Plenty of research finds that adults who keep learning have slower rates of cognitive decline than old dogs who refuse to learn new tricks.
There’s also the rush of novelty. “As you plunge into learning some new art or skill, the world around you appears new and bursting with infinite horizons,” Vanderbilt writes. “Each day brims with new discoveries as you take your first tentative steps, slowly pushing the bounds of exploration. You make mistakes, but even those are empowering because they are mistakes you have never made before.” Novelty and emotional intensity make time seem as if it’s moving more slowly—not a bad thing for grown-ups feeling the rush of years.
Beginners can even change the way they see familiar things. “Learning to sing changes the way you listen to music, while learning to draw is a striking tutorial on the human visual system,” he writes. As Vanderbilt designs a new wedding ring for himself under the tutelage of a master jeweler (to replace the ones he lost learning to surf, naturally), he can no longer see jewelry in quite the same way.
The good news for anyone becoming an adult beginner is that “we live in what might justifiably be called a golden age of learning,” Vanderbilt writes. “YouTube pedagogy” is available for any subject under the sun, supplemented with apps teaching foreign languages and tutors available by Zoom. Compared with the limited universe of community college night classes of only a few decades ago, we’ve never had more options.
Of course, learning remains hard—but Vanderbilt assures readers that kids don’t have an easy time of it, either. Babies take months to learn to walk. They fall repeatedly. It’s just that they don’t care. It’s liberating not to expect yourself to be good at something.
Vanderbilt’s enthusiasm is infectious, but his book’s basic argument—that it’s good to be a beginner—appears early on. The rest of the book is filled with descriptions of his singing British pop tunes in a community choir, the characters who populate surf lessons, and his frustrations in learning to draw faces. Beginners is more memoir than anything else, and the narrative often slows as Vanderbilt recounts all the not-universally-fascinating details he’s learning about any given subject. “It’s not a ‘how to do’ book as much as a ‘why to do’ book,” he explains, but the sheer volume of his new skills gives the book at times a meandering quality.
Still, it’s hard to walk away from Beginners without feeling like spending a few minutes learning to speak German or play the violin, terrible as one’s initial attempts might be. As a fellow surfer tells Vanderbilt, “Constantly doing things that you suck at is a great life lesson in itself.” Not everything needs to be done well. Just doing something new can be fun enough.
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