Tom Vanderbilt talks about Beginning

Tom Vanderbilt is one of my favorite writers. His book on traffic is a fascinating deep dive into the nature of the modern world of driving with side meditations on a variety of fascinating topics like the science of traffic jams.

Some time ago, I heard that Tom was working on a book on learning, and the result is impressive. In “Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning,” he looked specifically at how to be a beginner, which is an important topic these days as we’re all starting or restarting the gaining of new skills.

I had an email interview with Tom recently.

Why Did You Write This Book?

The initial inspiration came when my four-year-old daughter suddenly decided she wanted to play chess and I didn’t quite remember how to. I quickly learned the basic moves, but as chess is an immensely complex game — becoming a grandmaster is harder than earning a Ph.D., one grandmaster with a doctorate told me — I thought she might benefit from some expert lessons. Then I thought I’d join the lessons. So there we were, two beginners, separated by decades of age, trying to learn the same thing.

This sparked a broader realization: It had been a long time since I’d tried to learn something new, some substantive skill. Why was that? Of course, I’d been busy the previous few years being a beginner parent, and trying to earn a living.

But there were some larger obstacles, some discouraging self-talk. There was the notion that, first, I’m too old. Learning was reserved for young, lightning-quick learning machines like my daughter. How good could you actually get at chess, as if mastery — which in chess comes in the form of an actual title — were the only goal. Second, there was my self-protective ego, protesting “why would you want, at a time when you’re supposed to be at peak competence, to be bad at something?” Third, I felt a sort of guilt; i.e., how is chess going to help me in my job, in my life? Isn’t that just a silly distraction?

I wrote the book in an effort to try and quell this self-talk, to get whatever fears and social expectations were keeping me from embarking on these episodes of playful exploration, which, in the end, were incredibly powerful. So many of us get hung up on the idea of being that awkward beginner that we never even want to go there. The book was intended to try and push people over that hump.

How Did It Change Your Views Of Learning?

To be honest, I’m not sure I had many views of learning, as it was something I’d largely stopped thinking about since graduating from college.

But there were all sorts of things I learned about learning while I was writing the book, most of which pair up to concepts that have been put out there by people like Carol Dweck (mindset), Lev Vygotsky (the zone of proximal development), Gabriele Wulf (the external locus of attention), among others.

I was also very aware of using particular strategies that have become very familiar in the world of learning. In chess, for example, I often use, which uses a spaced repetition model in its exercises. In trying to juggle, I’d find myself deep in Nikolai Bernstein’s concept of “repetition without repetition,” or, basically, the idea of changing up your practice to aid one’s learning. One of the things we may underestimate in trying to learn a motor skill is how many “degrees of freedom” the human body has — how many ways it can move. We can also underestimate how dynamic a skills environment like surfing, or even juggling, can be. In other words, the same thing never quite happens twice, so don’t always practice the same thing.

I also learned a lot by studying the way infants learn (via NYU’s Infant Action Lab). In one interesting experiment there, they tried to figure out why infants moved from one location to another. Was it because their caregiver was there, or some enticing toy? It turns out their movement patterns were essentially random. They had no goals other than just exploration, moving for the sake of moving — which was really learning about moving. I’ve tried in my own learning processes to not get so hung up on goals or progress, and give myself that freedom to just be in the moment, and take small steps of progress as they come. ​

You Argue That Some Cognitive Abilities Decline. Can You Explain A Bit More About The Evidence–and Why It Matters?

As a muscle, the brain degrades like any other as we get older: The hippocampus shrinks, cortical thickness declines, we lose neurons. Under the “scaffolding” theory proposed by Denise Park, the aging brain has to compensate for this declining firepower by building “scaffolds” across wider areas of the brain. This isn’t that efficient, and is prone to “interference,” and basically means we need to use more brain power than a younger person to get the same result.

As a variable, age even overrides expertise. In a study of chess players, for example, expert players were, as you might guess, more likely to spot when a checkmate was threatened than novices were. But older players took longer than younger players, at all expertise levels.

This doesn’t mean we can’t–or don’t–continue to learn until, well, the end. “Learning proceeds until death and only then does it stop,” as the Chinese philosopher Xun Zi put it. It just means we’ll have to work a little harder than when we were younger to get the same result. The good news is that work actually makes our brain, in essence, seem younger. In a study by Denise Park and colleagues at the University of Texas at Dallas, for example, older subjects in a study who learned in groups did better on a cognitive battery than subjects who simply got together to socialize. 

Spend a week trying to learn to juggle, whether you’re 8 or 88, and you’ll be activating the brain’s neuroplasticity — while also having fun.

What Advice Do You Have For Other Beginners, Beyond Getting A Surfboard?

Make it easy. I don’t mean it’s always going to be easy. But try to remove whatever barriers there might be to what you’re trying to learn. Start by learning something you actually want to learn. Motivation, to my mind, is the largest barrier to learning. And then just try to incorporate that thing into your life as much as possible. If you’re trying to learn juggling or guitar, keep the juggling balls or guitar next to your desk.

On the fear of being bad at something in public, two bits of advice. Under what’s called the “spotlight effect,” we often overestimate how much other people are actually noticing us. In a class full of beginners, you’re just another beginner! Your mistakes are no more worthy of notice than the person’s next to you!

Lastly, don’t let others define your notions of success. You may not achieve mastery, but you should at least be the master of your learning journey.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *