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Beginners

The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning

By Tom Vanderbilt
13-minute read
Audio available
Beginners by Tom Vanderbilt

Beginners (2021) is a light-hearted study of the joys of life-long learning. Part personal story and part scientific primer, it demonstrates the benefits of always trying something new.

  • Middle-aged folks trapped in the same routines
  • Seniors seeking ways to stay sharp
  • Anyone eager for a little inspiration to never stop learning

Tom Vanderbilt is a prolific author with works appearing in The New York Times Magazine, Popular Science, Smithsonian, and London Review of Books. He is the author of best-selling non-fiction titles such as You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), and Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America.

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Beginners

The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning

By Tom Vanderbilt
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Beginners by Tom Vanderbilt
Synopsis

Beginners (2021) is a light-hearted study of the joys of life-long learning. Part personal story and part scientific primer, it demonstrates the benefits of always trying something new.

Key idea 1 of 8

Life-long learning keeps your mind engaged, whatever your age.

Tom Vanderbilt had a steady career as a journalist. But when his daughter was born, he quickly discovered that he now had a second job. He became a teacher. 

As Vanderbilt found, when you’re a parent, you’re always teaching your children new skills. First come the basics, like walking and talking. And, as they grow, you move on to more complex tasks, like riding a bike, cooking, and navigating social situations. 

As Vanderbilt taught his daughter all these essential skills, he realized something about himself: he hadn’t learned a new skill in years. So, he decided to change that. He challenged himself to learn a few completely new things, including chess and surfing. Vanderbilt soon understood that being a beginner again came with lots of benefits.

The key message here is: Life-long learning keeps your mind engaged, whatever your age.

We never really stop learning. Even minor activities like reading the news or watching television give our brains new information. However, this form of learning merely gives us declarative knowledge: facts, figures, even trivia. But not all knowledge is like that. There’s another kind, one which the author calls procedural knowledge. It helps us actually do something: speak a language, play an instrument, or execute a technical skill. 

As we grow older, we tend to learn fewer and fewer procedural things. But there was a time when every one of us was great at gaining new procedural knowledge. That time was childhood. 

Kids see the world with fresh eyes. They bring no preconceived notions to new activities – and this means that there’s nothing to hold them back. 

Another important thing is that society doesn’t expect children to be experts at anything. This makes kids far less worried about failure or appearing clumsy. And then, finally, their brains are simply wired to learn. The average seven-year-old has 30 percent more neurons available for soaking up new information than the average adult.

However, while adult brains are, perhaps, less nimble, they still retain plasticity. This term refers to our ability to change and learn. In fact, continuing to learn new skills as you age is fantastic for your mental health. Studies have found that when older adults practice new skills – like painting or writing music – they also improve in general cognitive tests. 

Even if you only focus on mastering one new activity, you’ll still open up your brain to more learning in the future. We’ll explore one new skill, singing, in the next blink.

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