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  • Anna Weltner

Book review: Beginners by Tom Vanderbilt

This month on the MeaningSphere blog, we're exploring the topic of lifelong learning. In that spirit, Anna Weltner reviews Tom Vanderbilt's book Beginners, which came out in 2021.

A man tips over while standup paddleboarding.

A book like Tom Vanderbilt's Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning is a rare thing. Much like Emma Gannon's summer release The Success Myth, another book we've reviewed on the blog, Beginners tackles an old topic from a refreshing, compassionate, and personable angle. There are plenty of studies on the benefits of continued learning on the adult mind and body, if you care to pore through peer-reviewed journals. But while Vanderbilt bolsters his work with research, his way of approaching this subject is to offer himself as the subject of experimentation, making for a conversational and immersive read.


In Beginners, Vanderbilt learns, among other things, to play chess, sing, surf, juggle, swim (better), and even make jewellery. He describes his humiliations, fears, and frustrations: being bested by a child at a chess tournament, the naked vulnerability of that first singing lesson, the blow to the ego of being outpaced by a much older swimmer. His experiences are funny and painfully familiar. If anything, trying new things as an adult guarantees a repertoire of good stories.


The author's experiences as a perpetual newbie also serve another purpose: they show the reader the kind of world we live in, in which learning new things as an adult is seen as slightly odd, even frowned upon. It's a world in which learning new skills (especially fun, recreational ones) is only for children. While we may pack our children's schedules with karate, drama, or swimming lessons, grown-ups are expected to stay in the lane of their own expertise, and we tend to be most comfortable there anyway.


A young boy and an older man play chess together.

Vanderbilt deftly highlights this child-adult learning divide through his relationship with his young daughter, whose many extracurriculars seem to motivate the author to do something other than wait around in the sidelines with the other parents. Vanderbilt treats their parallel acquisition of a new skill (in this case, learning to play chess) as a kind of "cognitive experiment:" While she is initially slower to pick up the rules, she steadily improves as he plateaus, until she starts to beat him easily. There are undeniable advantages of learning a skill as a child, and Vanderbilt is quick to acknowledge this. I won't try to paraphrase the neuroscience here, but it's a fact that picking up new skills comes much easier to a seven-year-old brain. Add to this the physical limitations that come with getting older and the increased responsibilities of adulthood, and it's easy to see why adults tend to stick with what they're good at.


Vanderbilt does not try to argue against these realities. Instead, he shows how embracing beginner status as an adult is simply good for you, in the way that traveling and seeing the world is good for you. His adventures lead him to make new friends, become a more humble and compassionate person, expand his mind, to be occasionally astounded by his own capability. In short, while we adults might have missed our chance to become sports legends or chess masters, it's not too late to enjoy the benefits of a beginner's mindset.


Two women laugh and enjoy a painting class.

A journalist and bestselling author (he also wrote Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do), Vanderbilt is already better positioned than most of us to embark on a year of being a beginner. Writers are often called to immerse themselves in others' worlds, becoming a temporary expert for the sake of the story. (Sometimes the excuse of "the story," and the impressiveness of the publication behind it, allows us easier access to insular worlds.) But here the author's focus is a little different. It's less about learning facts or having a fleeting experience in the field, and more about making a series of personal investments and documenting the process, leaving a blueprint behind for others to follow.


Beginners is, above all, an encouraging read. Vanderbilt's experiences shake loose the fixed notions we adults tend to hold about our abilities and our potential. Too often we feel it's "too late" to change careers, that talent is an innate thing one is simply "born with" (or not), or that looking like a fool is the worst thing that can happen to us. But Vanderbilt shows the rich life that awaits on the other side of these self-imposed barriers. And when the author has a breakthrough, we celebrate with him–finding in his triumphs a glimmer of hope for ourselves and our own private aspirations.


 

Anna Weltner is a writer and content curator at MeaningSphere.


Photo credit: Shutterstock.

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