Beginners: Learning to Learn

There is something truly inspiring about the idea of new beginnings. Starting something new is often frightening, but there is so much to learn. The magnitude of the activity certainly leads direction and the something 'new' inspires the mind and body to act outside the sense of normalsy and comfort.

Why do so many of us stop learning new skills as adults? Are we afraid to be bad at something? Have we forgotten the sheer pleasure of beginning from the ground up? Or is it simply a fact that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Tom Vanderbilt had spent an entire career as a successful writer with books on traffic and atomic America, along with writing for publications such as Wired, Outside, and Artforum, but it was his latest book Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning that began to change lives - including his own.

He began his journey into human life-long learning in his late forties and he knew he would struggle to learn and retain in the same way that his daughter would, whom he had impressed upon the value of diversifying your interests from a young age. He details his journey in his book, which was published in January.

Why Continue to Learn?

You are asking yourself why it is important to continue to learn as you get older. You get through life just fine with your forty-five hours a week of work and ten hours of streaming on the couch. A study from University of Stirling reported adult learning influences people’s income and employability, as well the attitudes and behaviors that affect people’s mental well-being. Everything from increased mental wellness due to continuing to keep yourself sharp, to boosts in self-confidence when you see yourself begin to master something new.

Tom Vanderbilt took his opportunity to learn chess, juggling, drawing, singing, and surfing. Even if you never plan on standing on stage and belting out Stronger by Kelly Clarkson, or put yourself up against the Bobby Fishers of the world in an international chess tournament, your brain still has the superpower of rewiring itself later in life.

But is that worth the scary, awkward, and humbling process of learning a new skill?

"Chances are, you're going to look foolish in the beginning. You're going to ask dumb questions. You're going to fall down," Vanderbilt said. For him, those experiences nevertheless were easily offset by the excitement of discovering new things. "There's this whole new world that's open to you," Vanderbilt said. Practicing a nascent skill can be like opening a door, he explained, one that might lead to unexpected places. "You go through that door, and suddenly there are other doors that you didn't even know existed."

If you are dedicated to taking on learning how to fence for example, in addition to learning an Olympic sport, you will pick up a multitude of new information on the culture, the history, and the why behind it. Not to mention expanding your circle of influence to a whole new group of people.

Basic Principles of Good Learning

The first principle of good learning is to learn from your mistakes. While it may seem obvious, it is sometimes difficult for an adult to let go of the level of competence they have gained in their life to look awkward and foolish while they make mistake after mistake. You are going to fail many times before you start to succeed, which can weigh on your confidence. If you stick to it and focus your attention on where you were at the beginning instead of where you wish to be, you will see improvement instead of failure.

The second is to vary the forms of practice. That means that it is best to switch up the way you are approaching the skill. For Tom Vanderbilt, when he was learning to juggle he would try sitting down, throwing higher, and changing up what he was throwing. This is called repetition without repetition. It forces the brain’s learned patterns to become more flexible, allowing you to cope with the unpredictable difficulties – such as a mistake in one of your earlier movements that could lead you to lose control.

If you are inspired to take up a new pastime yourself, Vanderbilt advises starting out with something that is easy to integrate into your existing lifestyle. You may be surprised by the speed of your progress, he says. “A lot of people get hung up on the idea that this is just a massive time investment – that there's no end of the road – and that's very daunting to them.” He found that his drawing, for example, had improved significantly in the time that it would normally take to binge-watch a season of The Queen's Gambit.

When you first start out, there will be frustrations and moments of failure – but these may in fact be the most important experiences of the whole process. After years of experience in journalism, Vanderbilt says that the new challenges were a welcome change to his “professional complacency”. “It sort of opened my mind and brought me back to this sense of not knowing,” he says. This was especially true for the skills – such as drawing – that already felt somewhat familiar. “The learning of the thing itself was often different from what I imagined. My expectations were constantly being upset.

So no matter what you have lingering at the back of your brain, whether it is something you always thought about picking up but never did, or whether it is something brand new that your children are giving a shot for the first time, now is the time to take it on and master something new.

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