When you were a kid, you not only went to school, where you did academics, art, and PE, but you probably also took extracurricular lessons in music or sports, and likely even taught yourself things like how to do magic tricks.
Now that you’re an adult, can you think of the last new skill you learned?
My guest today explains why there’s a good chance that you’ll struggle to answer that question, and how that’s a tragedy you ought to do something about. His name is Tom Vanderbilt, and he’s the author of several books, including his latest, Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning. Tom and I discuss why his daughter’s desire to learn chess inspired him to spend a year learning the game himself, as well as to take on a project of learning other new skills. Tom explains the reasons adults give up learning, and why, while it is harder for adults to learn new things than it is for children, it’s still worth becoming a novice all over again. We then explore how to harness the beginner’s mind, using Tom’s experiences in learning how to sing, surf, juggle, and draw as examples. We end our conversation with Tom’s takeaways from his experiment, and how becoming a lifelong learner is really all about pushing through the mental barriers that hold us back from the many possibilities for growth that remain in adulthood.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- The reasons we give for not learning new skills
- How Tom decided which new skills to tackle
- How is the beginner’s brain different from the expert’s brain?
- Your crystallized brain vs. the fluid brain, or how age really does make a difference
- The value of learning new things regardless of any “real world” value
- The power of learning in a group
- What it was like learning to surf as an adult and some bigger lessons on skill acquisition that Tom got from that experience
- How to handle plateaus in our learning
- Why take on drawing? Why do people find it so hard to do?
- Some overarching lessons Tom took away from this experiment
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- How and Why to Become a Lifelong Learner
- What Poker Can Teach You About Skill, Luck, and Mastering Yourself
- The Hidden Pleasures of Learning for Its Own Sake
- Learning How to Learn
- Grow, Adapt, and Reinvent Yourself Through Ultralearning
- Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
- Living with a SEAL
- Painting As a Pastime by Winston Churchill
- 100 Skills Every Man Should Know
- The Lost Pleasures of Group Singing
- Barbarian Days
- How to Learn Another Language
- Experimenting With Your Life
- How to Draw Teddy Roosevelt
- Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Connect With Tom
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Read the Transcript
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. When you were a kid, you not only went to school where you did academics, art, PE, but you probably also took extracurricular lessons in music or sports and likely, even taught yourself things like how to do magic tricks. At least, that’s what I did. Now that you’re an adult, can you think of the last new skill you learned? My guest today explains why there’s a good chance that you’ll struggle to answer that question, and how that’s a tragedy you ought to do something about. His name is Tom Vanderbilt, and he’s the author of several books, including his latest, Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning.
Tom and I discuss why his daughter’s desire to learn chess inspired him to spend a year learning the game himself, as well as take on a project of learning other new skills. Tom explains the reasons adults give up on learning and why, while it’s harder for adults to learn things than it is for children, it’s still worth becoming a novice all over again. We then explore how to harness the beginner’s mind, using Tom’s experiences in learning how to sing, surf, juggle and draw, as examples. And we end our conversation with Tom’s takeaways from his experiment and how becoming a lifelong learner is really all about pushing through the mental barriers that hold us back from the many possibilities for growth that remain in adulthood. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/lifelonglearning.
Tom Vanderbilt, welcome to the show.
Tom Vanderbilt: Great to be here, thank you.
Brett McKay: So you got a new book out called Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning. And you do sort of a immersive journalism thing here, like George Plimpton or AJ Jacobs, where you explore this idea of the science and research of what we know about learning and the beginner’s mind, but you do that by learning new things yourself. And what kickstarted this book is you began teaching your daughter, your young daughter, to play chess, and that kickstarted this whole exploration of what it means to learn. So tell us about that moment and why that sort of, that made you think about, “Well, how do we learn?” What’s going on there?
Tom Vanderbilt: Sure, and I should say trying to teach my daughter chess is a bit of a stretch. I was really learning myself because the whole thing started because we were playing a game of checkers once on a vacation, and there was a chessboard nearby in this library, and she looked over and saw this, chessboard is a cool-looking thing to a kid, these great little statuesque pieces, and said, “Daddy, can we play that?” I was like, “Yeah, that would be great, except I never really learned,” which sounds ridiculous, but yeah, I’d probably learned the basic moves a long time ago, but they had never stuck. So I thought, “Well, I’ll go to the Internet, I’ll try to figure this out,” and I had some success with that, to some degree. I think one of the great things that’s happened, especially in this last year, is that the power of the Internet as a learning apparatus has really become clear, you can learn to do just about anything.
So I picked up sort of a basic knowledge of chess, but the thing with chess is you hit a plateau quickly, it gets infinitely more complex all the way up to, of course, Grandmaster Level. So I felt I was in over my head, the strategy and tactics were too much. So then I thought, “Well, I’ll hire a coach to teach my daughter properly.” Then I thought, “Why should I just pay for this guy to come over and I’m sitting on the sidelines when I could be benefiting from this as well?” So I just said from the beginning, “Can I sit in on these lessons?” And I thought, here was a funny thing, we had this little, nice little sample size, group of two people, she was four at the time, I was in my 40s: How is that gonna work out? [chuckle] And so I found the whole experience so striking to me that I really… And what really drove it home was that you know, “Hey, I’m learning this new thing. What actually is the last new skill I had learned? And where has this been during my 20s, 30s, 40s?” [chuckle] And then yeah, I set out with this goal of trying to learn all these things that I had long wanted to learn, and I should just… I’ll conclude this long answer by saying: When I say learn, I should say I haven’t reached the finished stage of any of these things, I’m in the process of learning, but so yeah, that’s what kicked it off.
Brett McKay: What are the most incisive moments? And the thing that convicted me when I was reading your book, at the very beginning, you’re talking about… So your daughter really got into chess, and she started going to these chess tournaments. My son’s done one of those. And if you’re a parent, you take your kid to this thing, and it’s a lot of waiting around, they play chess, and then you gotta wait while they play, and that game could last for however long, and they gotta play another game. And something you observed is that all the parents were there and they’re just on their smartphones, they were just twiddling around on Twitter, reading a book, and you thought, “Why are these parents just like… Why, what happened? Why are these parents just letting their kids learn and take part in this new skill, and we’re just sitting here out stagnant?” Why did that… I think that moment, too, also existentially shook you. What was it about that? And why do you think, as adults, we give up on learning new things?
Tom Vanderbilt: Yeah, it’s a great point, and I felt… I guess I felt hypocritical. Here I was, day in and day out, telling this, telling my daughter, “It’s so important to learn. I want you to learn all these things. I don’t want you to think that you can’t do anything.” And in most cases, a parent is put in this position of authority. “I’m gonna teach you how to ride a bike, how to tie your shoe. If there’s something I don’t know, well, we’re just gonna stay away from that.” So it wasn’t hypocritical, I’m telling her every day how important learning is. But what could I point to in my own life that was the last new skill that I had learned? But of course, as a journalist, I absorb a lot of information, I’m kind of learning all the time. But I thought skills were something that I had given up on, and out of, basically, sort of, charitably, I could say lack of time, but also, cowardice is there are also. “If I didn’t learn how to do this when I was young, why would I want to plunge into this when I’m 40 or 50?” Something like surfing, which is not so kind to the aging body, but I just wanted to bring home this lesson I was imparting to her to myself.
And as to the question of why we give up, yeah, I guess I’ve sort of answered that a little bit already, but we give ourselves lots of excuses, we… Adult life does intervene. We have jobs, we have… Often have children, we have a lot of responsibilities that do take up time. But if you sort of made a time diary of your week, I’m not gonna implicate anyone here, but it probably includes a lot of, let’s just say consumption of Netflix shows and the like. I think in anyone’s schedule, there is this time for learning, we often throw that out there. “Well, I’m just too busy to learn something like chess.” If you watched The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix like a lot of America did, you could have basically picked up the game in the time you spent watching that, so just… So I think we give ourselves a lot of reasons not to and often, are afraid to embrace all those reasons why it would be actually a great thing for us.
Brett McKay: I also think, too, and you make this point, too, there’s some sort of cultural conditioning that happens at some point. It’s sort of very subtle that, and it’s this, is that, “Well, learning is for kids. Like, once you’re an adult, like you’re done,” basically. [chuckle]
Tom Vanderbilt: Yeah, and of course, children’s whole lives are set up for learning and they have all this time, immense amounts of time to do nothing but learn. Wouldn’t that be great? And then the supportive cast around them that is applauding their every move and signing up for these lessons and thinking they’re just the greatest thing since sliced bread. And adults don’t really get that so much. When I sort of brought up this project to my wife, I had kind of a sense of, let’s say polite condescension like, “Yeah, you learn to sing, that would be great. Just don’t do it too much around us, okay?” I just think we tend to get into that trap of thinking that only children can learn, children are learning machines. And I should just say that a lot of the learning that even kids do starts to get short-circuited after a little while, and I bring this up with things like drawing or singing. Every kid draws and sings up to a certain point, and then they’re basically encouraged not to or it sort of falls out of the curriculum, and that’s only for art kids, or that’s only for music kids. And by the time you’re in college, as some studies have shown, your ability to sing has basically fallen off to where you were… You’re worse than when you were a kid.
Brett McKay: Alright, we’ll talk about what’s going on there. So when you decided, “Okay, I’m gonna learn stuff, I wanna explore this idea of a beginner’s mind, what it means to learn, what goes on when we learn.” You decide, “Okay, I’m gonna learn some skills.” How did you decide which ones you take up? What were the criteria you used for the skills that you would learn?
Tom Vanderbilt: I want them to be, number one, things I really wanted to do. I didn’t wanna just sort of pick things that might sound good or be noble pursuits. I would love to learn Mandarin or another language, but that would just… I felt like that would sort of dominate the book, and I wasn’t actually a true beginner in learning a language so… Dabbled in Spanish all my life, so there’s that. And secondly, wanna do things that I could do within reach of my home, and this is sort of before COVID, of course, I was taking in-person lesson. So all the things were things I could do without going somewhere across the world. Someone suggested learning to make gelato at Gelato University in Italy, which I would love to have a master’s degree in gelato-making, but I… So and then the third thing was I wanted to sort of cover a broad spectrum, almost like a university curriculum of little bit of arts, little bit of humanities, kind of physical aspect with surfing, and just be broad. And the reason I did five of these things, which soon branched into six or seven, and continues, is that I was worried about being bored, basically, or not liking something that I had decided it was going to be my passion.
I love these books that are out there, Word Freak, Stefan Fatsis; Moonwalking with Einstein; and Maria Konnikova’s book about poker, in which she becomes, basically, a poker champion. Those are amazing books, amazing pursuits, but I didn’t ever think I was going to have the time or the knack to become great in any of these things. So I wanted, as I describe it, I wanted to sort of have a distributed competence in all these things that had long interested me, sort of like a Swiss Army Knife I could pull out of my pocket and just pull out that little blade. Was I amazing at any of these things? No. But could I get through something or talk to someone who was great in that thing? Yeah. So that was sort of the criteria.
Brett McKay: So as we said and as you described you learning these new skills, you also explored the research. You talked to neuroscientists and cognitive experts about what goes on when we learn. So let’s start off with this: What do we know about the beginner’s mind? What does it look like? How is it different from an expert, or even just a competent mind?
Tom Vanderbilt: Yeah, beginners mind, just in case anyone isn’t familiar with this, it’s a concept from Zen Buddhism, which is it’s not really scientific, it’s just sort of an ethos to try to approach the world as a child, as a novice, and the word novice means beginner monk, I should point out, but… And this is something that gets hard when you reach your fifth decade of life and have a ton of what’s called crystallized knowledge, sort of wisdom and memories, and it gets hard to disregard that stuff and approach the world in a fresh way.
One great example I mentioned in the book is this thing called the Candle Problem, which psychologists do, which they give people a match, a box of tacks, and a candle, and the instruction is to put this, attach this candle to the wall. And it turns out that young children actually do better than older children, and even adults in this experiment, because they’re not hung up on these objects as the things they are in and of themselves, as Functional Fixedness, it’s called. Children just look at these things and think, “Oh, well, what could I do with that? What could I do with that?” And as an adult, you know what these things are. “Oh, this goes for that.” So it just gets harder to have that sort of freshness. And neurologically, I’m not really sure what that looks like, and I’m not sure it’s been actually that well-studied, but children really are all about beginner’s mind. [chuckle] That’s just their whole process, and they have these synapses that are… The number of synapses they have are just vast compared to adults ’cause we’ve spent our whole life pruning those connections and trying to filter out what isn’t important. ‘Cause it’s an efficiency thing, we can’t go around like children all the time, gazing in wonder at every little moment of our lives and wondering what’s behind that because we’ll go crazy.
So that, and that’s just one of the things that, neurologically, if you look at expert performers, they sort of begin to describe this. Their brain is sort of winnowed, in a way. There’s been some work on chess Grandmasters, and rather than their brain expanding, it sort of gets smaller, and I’m sort of butchering the neuroscience here, but the point is that they learn to do more with less. They’ve made automatic a good percentage of that behavior; whereas, children are just soaking it all in and nothing’s automatic for kids, except a few skills like walking.
Brett McKay: So kids have more fluid intelligence as opposed to crystal, and that makes it, learning, easier, in a lot of cases.
Tom Vanderbilt: Yes, in some ways. For the game, just to take the game of chess, for example, my daughter is really great at things like puzzles, at spotting opportunities on the board in a given moment. She’s great at blitz chess, which is five-minute games per side, or even bullet chess, which is one-minute games per side. I, at least, in the beginning, was sort of better at that wisdom side, that crystallized side. I had this decades and decades of just experience at playing games, which is sort of a meta knowledge of strategy and how to play and how to be patient and how to do things like consider, for example, “Why did my opponent just make that move they just made?” My daughter would just sort of play her games from her own point of view with her own end game in mind and disregard what the other person was doing. Not always, but sometimes. And this was why she would lose and her coach would yell at her, but adults just might have a little bit more of that penchant for strategy, let’s call it.
Brett McKay: And then this idea that as you get older, learning gets harder ’cause your crystallized intelligence goes up and your fluid intelligence goes down. You saw this in your family. I guess you got your dad, I think it was your dad, playing chess as well. And it would be like your daughter was the best, you were the next best, and then your dad wouldn’t be. He’d be last, basically.
Tom Vanderbilt: Yeah, and this is just… It’s just age, and I wish it could be different. And of course, my dad wasn’t playing chess all his life, so this is something to point out. If he had been, the decline is less pronounced. The one thing to point out here is that it does get harder to be a novice as you get older. It takes longer to learn that new thing. So he had the greatest challenge, I had the next greatest challenge, my daughter had the smallest challenge. Which is not to say it’s all about just that sort of cognitive ability. There’s motivation, there’s the sheer amount of practice. My daughter did start getting a lot better than me, but she was also putting a lot more time into it, and doing things like analyze her games. So I don’t wanna say it’s all just some inherent brain thing. If my dad started playing 10 hours a day and studying, and he would make a lot more progress. But if you just start everyone from that same clean slate, more or less, yeah, that’s gonna happen. There is that age regression. So that’s just something that… ‘Cause it’s not to say you can’t make great progress, it’s just you’re just gonna have to… Going to have to work a little harder.
Brett McKay: Right, so I think that’s the big point is that it’s gonna be harder, but learning new things is not impossible, even as you get older. And you highlight people in their 70s, 80s, who are still learning new things.
Tom Vanderbilt: Yeah, that plasticity, which is the key thing here, the ability of the brain to reshape itself as you pick up this new knowledge, and it happens really quickly. I was sort of amazed by this. They did these juggling studies where they tried to teach people to juggle three balls, which is sort of the baseline for juggling. And within a week, sometimes, even less, they had seen a substantial evidence of plasticity. And that is much less dependent on age. That falls off a lot less. So that ability to learn is still there. Again, it’s just gonna be harder for a few reasons that involve what I was talking about before, just as adults, we’ve absorbed a lot of things. I used the analogy of my brain is like a teeming hard drive, the thing that your parents have that they’ve had for 20 years, and you have ancient files on there, the hard drive is slow, you go to look for some memory, and it’s making that clacking sound, and it’s taking forever; and whereas, my daughter was like a flash drive. She could just pluck that out. Because she hasn’t met thousands of people that I have. She doesn’t forget names or faces. And so adults have that additional challenge.
Brett McKay: I think another problem you talk about in the book that holds adults back from learning is that as you become an adult, you become very instrumental in your approach to life. It’s like, “Well, I’m only gonna do something if it’s useful.” And a lot of the skills that you learned, people go, “Well, that’s not… Why learn how to sing? How’s that gonna help me with my job? How’s that gonna help me? Yeah, basically, how would it help me with my job?” What’s your response? Why learn? What is the benefit of learning a skill that might not have any economic utility?
Tom Vanderbilt: Yeah, very good question. I think we’ve already talked about a lot of the cognitive benefits, but it goes way beyond that. Just into sort of the social, the emotional; just to take one example, singing. Just singing is an immediate uplift. If you’re singing a blues song, it just makes you feel better, and it sort of taps into all sorts of mechanisms; the vagus nerve, which is associated with countering depression, helps you sort of work on your breathing, and breathing, of course, has been sort of in the news and literature a lot lately, and that sort of brings about a stress reduction and all these positive benefits. When I shifted to singing with people, this is where, this was sort of the special sauce here, where it really began to feel good because you were working with this group of like-minded people. And that…
Not that they all became my close friends, but you really had to sort of do this thing in this social group. And I sort of note that the choir was about 35-50 people, ranging, and that, coincidentally or not, is sort of the size that’s been identified by anthropologists as these original hunter-gatherer groups. So not to get too deep into the woods with that, but I think just this core group of humans in this ideal-sized cluster, literally working in harmony, just brings out such a positive feeling. And our rehearsals were on Monday night, and I would leave feeling like it was the weekend, after I had started the week sort of, “Ugh, Monday.”
So in terms of job, yeah, it’s a bit… Okay, I have to admit, I’m writing a book about learning these things, so there actually is a benefit to my job about learning skills. But most people, their job is not gonna be improved by learning to surf on the surface. But I quote the study that David Epstein and his great book, Range, talks about, which notes Nobel Prize scientists are 22 more times likely, according to this study, to have participated in some kind of amateur pursuit like music, performing arts, even being a magician, than the non-Nobel-Prize-winning scientists. Which is not to say there’s a one-on-one correlation with learning ballroom dancing and getting some amazing breakthrough in physics, but something about maybe that willingness to branch out, to be open to these new experiences, to talk to people you might not be talking to in your normal job, get out of that sort of silo. Maybe that sparked some creativity that they were able to bring back into their job.
And a lot of people think of, “Well, these are things you do if you don’t like your job or to bring joy to your life ’cause you’re sort of weighed down by your… Although that might be true, but I think it’s even more true, as Winston Churchill pointed out in this… Who is, by the way, a great amateur painter, wrote this sort of great small book on painting, said, “The people that love their job, they need this stuff even more because there’s just that tendency to never let go of your job. How are you ever gonna step outside of your job if you’re so passionate about it?” And I do love my job, yet, I also found such benefit from doing all these things. And it just continues to pay dividends in… To my life, let’s say. Jesse Itzler, who’s written about living with monks and living with a SEAL and all these other things, that, as he’s phrased, “life resume.” And I really sort of liked that idea as living in the kind of culture we do, which is a very sort of linked-in, productivity-driven society. What, how is this gonna be good for your job? Just the idea that there’s more to your job that… What does your life resume look like? So I sort of borrowed the phrase from him.
Brett McKay: Right, yeah, learning… He’s talking it’s self-expansive, it just feels good. That’s fine, that can just be good in of itself.
Tom Vanderbilt: Yeah, just so even to talk to yourself and have this sense of self-expansion, suddenly, “Hey, I’m a surfer. I’m a singer. I’m a drawer. I’m not… ” I wouldn’t call myself an artist, but I have something of that skill. I am moving toward getting better at that. It’s just something I’m more sort of… Interesting to myself, at least. [chuckle] Like I said, my wife isn’t clamoring, for example, to hear me sing all the time, but it just… To know that there’s more to yourself than you thought there was a year ago or last week.
Brett McKay: So let’s dig into these skills a little bit more. So you’ve been talking about singing. You took voice lessons, you joined a choir. And I’ve also, I’ve thought about them, sort of this… When I read your book, before that, I was like, “I’d like to take singing lessons.” Because singing is something that humans have done for a long time, and when we were kids, we sang all the time. You don’t think singing would be hard. I think I remember, I watched Buddy, I watched Elf this Christmas, and I remember that famous line. Buddy, the elf said, “Singing is just like talking, except louder and longer and you have to move your voice up and down.” But nonetheless, singing is really hard. What makes singing so hard? Why are people bad at it? Or think they’re bad at it?
Tom Vanderbilt: Right, and… Yeah, sometimes, they actually are bad at it. But the reason they’re bad at it is not because they’re tone-deaf in 99% of cases, let’s say, or that they just don’t have a good voice; it’s that they haven’t been practicing it. And one of the things I really try to drill home with a lot of these things I was working on, obviously, surfing is a motor skill, but so is singing, so is drawing. People aren’t generally born to sing or you don’t hear someone say, “Oh, he has a God-given talent for welding or baking.” And it’s not to denigrate, those are great things, but saying somehow, with these other pursuits, we get in our head that it’s just something that people have an innate talent. Whereas, a lot of work sort of has to go into that.
Brett McKay: Okay, so what did you see as you were learning how to sing? What was holding you back?
Tom Vanderbilt: Yeah, number one, just that feeling that you’re not good, that sort of lack of mastery, and it doesn’t… And number two is that we’re out of practice as individuals and as a society. I sort of talk a little bit in the book about how public singing as a form for society and entertainment has been declining and by all sorts of measures. We just don’t sing in group settings the way we used to. The third thing, too, is that singing is a very emotionally-resonant act that your throat has… There’s just a lot of sort of nerve-brain connection going on there and just sort of open yourself up in that way, it’s a very vulnerable proposition. And it’s no surprise.
Great study I saw was trying to… Group of university researchers were trying to study embarrassment, like what it means to be embarrassed. And I thought, “Well, how do you create embarrassment?” They had people sing to the researchers, that’s just… It’s just hard. Probably even people that are good at it, excellent performers still have that moment of, “I have to get up and do this in front of someone to just quell whatever, a little bit of stage fright there.” But I would just like to put the message out there that you can sing. People can make a lot of progress. I have an app on my phone called Pitch Perfect, which you can sing into and do scales, and it will give you a one through 100 quantitative rating on how well you’re hitting those notes. And I was starting in the 60s, which is… [chuckle] I was feeling pretty bad about that, but I just kept hammering away at it and doing some of these practices. And I can do 100 now, 100%, so… And I was, I have no musical background except for singing in the shower and the car like we all do, but… So just to put out, you can do it.
Brett McKay: And a thing that you talked about, too, in the book, and that was interesting was that you took voice lessons but then, you also joined a choir. And that learning in a group, you were basically learning in a group, in a way, super-charged your learning. What was different about singing, which is one-on-one with a coach, compared to singing with a larger choir, and learning in a group?
Tom Vanderbilt: Right, and they both definitely have their place, singing with a coach and I had a great coach who either… Number one, it feels good, you feel like you have this hour that someone’s just there listening to you, and like I said, sort of you’re doing these breathing exercises, and it’s just sort of a very restorative kind of thing. So I’d recommend it just on that front. But you’re really getting that one-on-one feedback. My coach was looking at my mouth and my throat and my tongue as I was singing and, really, I felt like I was at the dentist, sometimes, ’cause… But this is what’s sort of required ’cause there’s a whole infrastructure in your body going on there that has to be activated the right way just to really get the best result for what you’re doing. So we were doing just a lot of drills, drilling, drilling, drilling.
And then to think about if you’re trying to learn how to play soccer, I think if you do a lot of one-on-one drilling with a coach, well, that’s great, and you can get pretty good at it. But then the time comes when you have to play in a game, you have to see if you can apply what you’ve learned into a very dynamic, changing situation in which people are also trying to defeat you. So that’s what I thought with choir, “I wanna get out and try to put the skill into the real world.” And of course, no one’s trying to defeat you in choir, maybe the alto are a little loud, sometimes, for basses but sorry, that’s just a choir joke. But no, it was just very important and productive to be, I found, among a range of people, people that were much better than me. And then after I was there a little while, people that were also coming in new. Suddenly, I had a little bit of experience, a little bit of knowledge I could try to teach them.
And that’s one of the things also struck home here is that teaching is just one of the greatest learning tools. This is a thing that people know about, but I hadn’t really experienced it that much, personally. So yeah, I just seemed like I was getting… There’s something about just going through that in a group process, learning from other people as it’s happening. It just, yeah, like you said, it super-charged it and also, just felt… I felt a certain greater sense of responsibility. If it was just me and my teacher, I could slack off a little bit because, “Well, it’s just, she might yell at me that I didn’t do my scales, but if I don’t learn this part, well, the whole choir is gonna be let down.” So that’s where it’s… The group setting can really help bring home that sense of responsibility a little bit.
Brett McKay: So you’re able to… Yeah, as you said, learning, we… Most of our learning is done observationally, that’s where we get most of our learning. Yeah, you can read a how-to book with steps and… I think there was, they’ve done studies on that. I think it was with the juggling. So they took some people and they said, “Okay, here are some step-by-steps on how to juggle,” and they couldn’t do it. And they took another group and they just said, “Just watch this person juggle,” and they were able to figure out. So learning in a group allows you to get that observational benefit. Also, you get feedback in real time ’cause you’re able to see, “Okay, I’m doing this wrong,” or, “I’m out of pitch to that guy next to me,” and so you can correct on the fly. So you get observation and feedback right away when you’re learning in a group.
Tom Vanderbilt: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, as you mentioned, as anyone who’s bought a piece of furniture, let’s say, from IKEA, or some kind of electronic device that has this insane manual, no one wants to read through the manual. I’m not even sure why they’re written at this point. People nowadays, they go to YouTube and watch someone who’s bought that same thing. They unpack it, they figure out a way to put it together, so they share that knowledge, and that’s such a much more effective way. Humans are mimicking creatures. We share that with primates; monkey see, monkey do. [chuckle] And it’s very powerful to learn and often, in choir, like you said, I was basically just trying to echo what the leader of the bass section was doing, or just to look at Charlie, who’s the choir leader, and sort of really see what she was doing. And I almost felt like sometimes, we were looking at each other in the mirror, she would come right up to me and like, “Okay, now, do what I’m doing.”
And that also makes it a lot easier, in a sense, because… And this is another important thing to point out about skill learning is often, overthinking, basically, gets in the way of being able to learn something. And when it just got reduced to that level of, “Tom, can you do… Just sing this the way I’m singing it right now. Just make this basic sound,” that was much more effective than… I could get out of my head and just stop thinking about it and just basically follow the simple instruction. ‘Cause going back to why we feel bad about singing, another thing that happens is that when we’re learning, when it hasn’t become automatic yet, like I said, we try to… Tend to overthink it.
So I was having trouble with high notes, for example. I have, sort of, a lower voice and… But these were notes that I could use in speech. These weren’t notes that were physically impossible for me. But as the note would be coming up in a song, I would start to freak out. My throat would clench, my whole body would tense up, I would… My teacher told me I was literally reaching my head upward to try to hit this “high note,” but all that stuff was just throwing off my body to produce this note. So my teacher gave me great instruction which was: As that high note approaches, bend your knees down and sort of do this little dip down as just sort of a little trick to forget what you’re trying to do and just sing the note, worry about bending your knees. It kind of… Very counterintuitive sort of notion, but it actually worked amazingly well.
Brett McKay: Alright, so takeaways there: Don’t overthink things. And then if you’re learning a new skill, consider joining a group or trying to do it with someone else as well, that can help a lot. Another skill you learned was surfing, you’ve mentioned that before. And surfing’s one of those skills I think you talk about in the book, surfers have this sort of idea that if you don’t pick up surfing before you’re 14, basically, you’re never gonna be a surfer. So what…
Tom Vanderbilt: Okay, that was from my one… William Finnegan’s book, Barbarian Days, but go on.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, so what was it like learning how to surf as an adult? And what insights about learning new skills did you get from that experience?
Tom Vanderbilt: One nice thing is that, the message has gotten out to some extent already on this, and there are a lot of adults out there trying to learn to surf, at least at Rockaway Beach in New York City, which is not to say it’s the same everywhere, but I was heartened by that. If you go, obviously, if you go in the summer, for example, there are a lot of kids’ camps, and it tends to be sort of dominated by children learning, but the rest of the year, there were always adults out there, some of whom were not always so good, so you didn’t feel… And maybe that’s because of Rockaway’s not… And I was going on days when the waves weren’t so huge, so that it sort of weeds out some of the experts anyway. So if anyone’s feeling that intimidation, I would just say it, don’t believe hype on that surfing is so exclusionary. There are places you can go where there’s a lot of people just like you.
But one of the challenges here, though, is that I talk in the book about kids learning to walk, infants learning to walk, and how they can take up to 70 falls per hour. It’s been documented by studies at NYU. And usually, without much harm. Infants are built to fail as a means to learn. Adults don’t have that same luxury. So I have taken my fair share of beatings out there. And as someone with questionable freelance health insurance, this was always a little bit scary to me. But the worst case was one day, I sort of got tipped upside down and had my head planted into the ocean floor and had some compression on my spine, that which was very concerning and could have led to a much worse result. So that sort of… Obviously, chess or singing, in this regard, is a safer path, but again, yeah, the benefits I’ve gotten from surfing were, to my mind, worth those risks, which unfortunately, are greater the older you get. Your body’s just not as engineered to handle failure as the young learner.
Brett McKay: And one idea about learning you explored with your surfing was this idea of the U-shape. So when you’re a beginner, you often make progress really fast, and then you reach a point where you actually start getting worse, and that’s when, a lot of times, people give up. And then, but if you keep going through that, you start getting better again. What’s going on? Why is it that you reach a point with your learning as a beginner that you start getting worse? Do we know what’s happening there?
Tom Vanderbilt: Yeah, there could be a couple of things going on. Number one is that with surfing, for example, you begin to want to go on bigger tasks and you want to… In the beginning, the instructor is basically pushing you into waves and all you have to do is stand up on the board, which is not that easy, but once you do that, it feels amazing. After he’s pushed you 20 or 30 times and you’re starting to get good at it, then you’re thinking, “Okay, I should probably try to catch my own wave.” This is about 10 times more difficult than simply popping up, maybe even more. So right away, you thought you were doing great; now, you’re taking on this bigger challenge, so you have this sense that you’ve sort of gone backwards a little bit there, and it continues. Then the next thing would be, “Okay, not just catching my own wave, but actually paddling to where there’s going to be a good wave.” That’s another skill that takes time to develop and cultivate, and I’m still not that great at, admittedly, but that’s 10 times harder even still. So the idea that we have to push past those moments when we’re gonna be plateauing.
And another thing that happens, too, is that… And we do go backwards just even with the same task. The studies from juggling and my own experience show, for example, that learning three-ball juggling, people hit 50 or 60 cycles in a row and think they’ve got it nailed. Suddenly, they’ll pick it up the next day and they can’t get five or six. And there’s just, the researchers call it a bug, like as in a computer. And who knows what’s actually going on? It could be the brain is still sort of consolidating the information and you just actually need to step away from it a little bit, and then come back and have that retrieval where you’re pulling it back. Yeah, it’s a… A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, as the cliche goes.
And one thing that also happens is that the beginner… There’s studies with kids, for example, with grammar. They’re speaking great at age four or five. They’ll say like, “I ate that hotdog yesterday.” Then they learn, they start to actually learn the rules of grammar, and they think they’ve got it down, and they’ll try to over-apply what they’ve learned and thinking, “Oh, every verb, every past verb needs to end in ‘ed’,” so they’ll say, “I ated that hotdog yesterday,” or something like that. And they thought they were great. Suddenly, they’ve taken on more than they can chew, so to speak, and it bites them.
So if you’ve suddenly think… This happened to me surfing, I… The first time, outside of Rockaways, I was in Portugal, I tried to go on a new break, I was very excited. I told the guys, “Yeah, I just need a little bit of instruction, I already know how to surf,” and it was a completely different break, different waves, I was on a different board. And I sucked, to put it bluntly. I could not catch a wave. And they basically had to resort to pushing me into these waves, so I was actually back to square one, which was very humiliating.
Brett McKay: Alright, so whenever you’re a beginner, oftentimes, I feel like you can rely a lot on procedural information like, “Do this, do this, do this,” but then you reach a point… Well, and that can get you so far and you think, “Well, I’m awesome now,” and then you get thrown into situations where the procedures no longer work. I experienced this with foreign language. I took an immersive foreign language class for Spanish, and in six weeks, I thought, “Man, I know Spanish.” And then I get dropped in Mexico, and I had to have my first real conversation, and I had no clue what was going on. I didn’t, it sounded like they were speaking Russian, basically. And then I had to learn again on the… “Okay, well, that’s not gonna work. The procedures I learned is not gonna… ” I had to learn at this new school how to speak Spanish on the fly.
Tom Vanderbilt: Yeah, and that’s a great point about how much of learning is just sheer experimentation, that, going back to those infants, that they were studying at NYU, infants are just, they aren’t… We don’t give drills to teach children how to walk; we just let them roam about in a room for an hour and fall 30, 40, 70 times an hour. And then we don’t really give them feedback about why they fell, either; we just sort of let them do it and work it out on themselves. So to go back to your point, experimentation, you just have to get out there and have some halting conversations with native Spanish speakers who are going to be polite or maybe laugh at you, but you can drill all you want, but at some point, yeah, you just have to get out in the real world and it’s going to feel different.
Brett McKay: And so one final skill I wanna talk about ’cause this… I’ve wanted to do this, too, is take up drawing, learn how to draw. Because you point out that most people, when they’re kids, they draw all the time. And kids are actually, sort of for a while, their drawings aren’t, they’re not great, but they can convey things pretty well. But then we reach a point where we no longer progress, and you made this point that we all still draw like we’re nine-year-olds. And I found that true. For me, it’s like 12. I still draw the same little face that I could at 12 years old and it hasn’t gotten any better. So what’s going on there? Why did you take on drawing? And why do people find drawing so hard to do?
Tom Vanderbilt: Yeah, I guess I’ve always just… I wanted to get back, as you say, to that initial pleasure I seem to take out of it as a child, not to say that it would be a different kind of pleasure, but I was wondering, “Why did I lose that? Where did it go? And could I get it back?” And I was interested in art. I didn’t think I was good, didn’t really set out to become an artist or anything, or even really to be “creative.” I just wanted to try this manual sort of motor skill of being a draftsman. And of course, and I should say that there’s a lot of cool stuff you can buy, and that this is one of the pleasures of being a beginner, I think, is whatever you’re plunging into is just plunging into that whole world of stuff you can, just the books to read, the stuff to buy, the… And someone who works at a computer all day, just typing, pushing electrons around, just owning these pencils and a needed eraser and sharpening a pencil with a razor blade the way artists do was, to me, just very sort of intoxicating.
But just to describe really quickly an episode I had, and that I describe in the book, that that was really, to me, pretty life-changing. And it was this week-long class I took with Brian Bomeisler, who’s the son of Betty Edwards, who’s the author of a very famous book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. And the whole point of that book is that the problem we have with drawing is a problem we have with seeing and with thinking, is that if you’re trying to draw a self-portrait, which is what everyone who takes this week-long class does as the very first thing, like you said about your own 12-year-old work, it looks really crude and a little bit like a mug shot, and it looks almost like cartoon-ish. And after a week of this class, we all, the entire class turned in these self-portraits at the end that, to my mind, looked very impressive and not that far off from “artistic” people.
And it’s, what happened was we had just been taught new ways to think and to see and to stop thinking of things, for example, like a face as a face, or a nose as a nose because that’s where it all starts to go wrong. We have all these preconceptions of what the human face looks like in our head, about the size of the forehead or the size of the eyes, or the relationship between those body parts, which actually don’t correspond to reality. So the minute you try to break that stuff down and focus on, “I’m just gonna draw this weird shape that is the inner part of your ear,” and not think of it as an ear, that’s where the success comes in. And that just makes me think of one other thing, which is with all these skills, is that breaking down and sort of not getting overwhelmed by the whole thing, the end goal, is just a very important thing to, both to not get discouraged as an easier thing to sort of conquer and achieve, but also to, as a more effective learning procedure, “Don’t worry about making it to the end of that wave, just focus on putting your foot in the right place on that surfboard.” Just chunking, I think it’s called, is just such an effective approach.
So yeah, I would urge everyone to, as I said with singing, to not think that you’re not born to draw, that you couldn’t unlock this very satisfying ability in no matter what age you are. As Brian, the teacher, said he had a person who was a quadriplegic in the class, basically, used his mouth and a pencil and achieved great results. So there’s really hardly any physical limitation here; it’s really all mental.
Brett McKay: So and what have been your big takeaways from this experience of learning all these new skills? What would be some of the practical takeaways that you can apply across whatever school it is, you think?
Tom Vanderbilt: I guess getting over that fear thing, number one, and mental barriers. I think all of the barriers, largely in my entire process, were mental. I had some one or two physical things with surfing, but again, that’s something that a lot of people have access to. It’s just getting over that sort of fear of looking bad and being willing to accept failure as an essential part of the learning process. And I should say, not that you’re always going to learn from failure, but you just have to build in an allotment for failure. If we failed 70 times an hour the way infants do, most of us would give up, we wouldn’t push on, but infants push on and they become expert walkers after their 10,000 hours of practice. So as a 50-year-old, that gets… It’s hard to put yourself out there and look stupid, and you’re sort of asking your question, “Why would I even do this? The world doesn’t need another amateur singer. My job doesn’t need this.” But I would just say that you can really unlock parts of yourself that you may not have that access to in other ways that… And sort of surprise yourself and challenge yourself in ways that might not be as possible in your career, say, because you’ve already hit so many plateaus and yeah, I could go on. But I would just encourage everyone out there to take something up.
This past year has been, of course, the golden age of learning new things because of many of us are on lockdown. And not just because we’re on lockdown, we have free time, I should note, but that our habits were disrupted. I think this is a major part, too, that our normal life got disrupted and we were able to suddenly think about things in new ways. And one of these new habits would be to try to learn something new. And I think a lot of people have taken that to heart. It sounds like you have, and I say just go for it.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, because I’m learning piano this year, I’ve decided in 2021. And I have very modest goals. I don’t expect to play some fancy piece within the year, I just… My goal is 15 minutes a day, practice 15 minutes a day, and I’m getting a little bit better.
Tom Vanderbilt: That sounds like a perfectly sound bit of advice there. And it reminds me of one last thing just to point out here, is that I would go into these things with small expectations and small goals. There’s some research that shows when people say… Let’s say you said, “I wanna learn piano. This is gonna be my new thing. This is gonna be my passion.” That many, when you try to put such a heavy weight on something, you might then think the passion, that burning passion, is going to do the work for you, it’s gonna sort of absolve you of some of the hard work that has to happen. And number two, once it does start to get hard, as it will pretty quickly, it’s going to backfire on you. You’re gonna feel a bit betrayed by this supposed passion. So just go in with very few expectations, just biting off small songs here or there, a few minutes every day.
Brett McKay: Right, When the Saints Go Marching In, I can do that, but that’s about it. [chuckle]
Tom Vanderbilt: That’s excellent. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Well, hey, Tom, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Tom Vanderbilt: Www.tomvanderbilt.com would be the best place.
Brett McKay: Well, Tom Vanderbilt, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Tom Vanderbilt: Thanks, Brett. This has been great, thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest there was Tom Vanderbilt. He’s the author of the book, Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning. It’s available at amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You’ll find out more information about Tom’s work at his website, tomvanderbilt.com. Also, check out our show notes at the aom.is/lifelonglearning, where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AoM Podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AoM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android, iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AoM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or a family member who you would think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. ‘Til next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you not only to listen to The AoM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.