What’s it about?

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 learning and trying something new.

About the author

Tom Vanderbilt is a prolific author with works appearing in The New York Times MagazinePopular ScienceSmithsonian, 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 ChoiceTraffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), and Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America.


Learning keeps your mind active throughout your life, regardless of your age:

Tom Vanderbilt worked as a journalist for a long time. When his daughter was born, though, he immediately realized he had a second job. He went on to become a teacher.

When you’re a parent, as Vanderbilt discovered, you’re constantly teaching your children new abilities. The fundamentals, such as walking and talking, come first. As they mature, you progress to more complex tasks such as riding a bike, cooking, and navigating social situations.

Vanderbilt recognized something about himself as he taught his daughter these fundamental skills: he hadn’t learned a new skill in years. As a result, he decided to make a shift. He set a goal for himself to master a few new skills, including chess and surfing. Vanderbilt quickly realized that being a beginner again has a lot of advantages.

We are never indeed finished learning. Even simple activities like reading the news or watching television provide new knowledge to our brains. On the other hand, this type of learning only provides us with declarative knowledge: facts, statistics, and even trivia. However, not all knowledge is created equal. Another type, which the author refers to as procedural knowledge, exists. It enables us to perform tasks like speaking a language, playing an instrument, or performing a technical skill.

We learn less and fewer procedural things as we become older. However, there was a time when every one of us excelled at learning new procedures. Childhood was at the time.

Children have a fresh perspective on the world. They approach new things with no preconceived preconceptions, which means they have nothing to hold them back.

Another factor to consider is that youngsters are not expected to be specialists in any field. This reduces the fear of failure and clumsiness in children. Finally, their minds are simply wired for learning. In comparison to adults, a seven-year-old has 30% more neurons available for absorbing new information.

Adult brains, on the other hand, are still plastic, even if they are less agile. This phrase relates to our ability to adapt to new situations and learn new things. Learning new talents as you become older is beneficial to your mental health. According to studies, when older persons exercise new skills such as painting or producing music, their general cognitive abilities improve.

Even if you only concentrate on mastering one new skill, you’ll be preparing your brain for future learning. 


Singing is a skill that may be acquired through practice:

When was the last time you performed a solo? Did you croon a little in the shower this morning? Maybe you hummed along to the radio on your way to work. Perhaps you’ve recently performed at a karaoke club and shouted out a pop hit.

Humans appear to be hardwired to sing. However, the majority of us are insecure about our vocal abilities. Scientists at the University of California asked people to perform the doo-wop hit “My Girl” to study embarrassment.

So you’re not alone if you blush when folks ask you to sing. This, however, does not have to be the case. Anyone can learn to hold a tune with enough practice.

Singing well is frequently regarded as a genetic trait, similar to blue eyes or brown hair. It’s either there, or it’s not. But don’t be discouraged. Singing, like riding a bike or typing, is a motor skill.

Humans make sound by forcing air through their vocal folds, a set of elastic muscles in the back of the throat. You can make the air vibrate at different frequencies by tightening or relaxing them. As a result, the pitch of our voice shifts. The folds vibrate 120 times per second in the ordinary guy. An opera singer’s folds can increase to 1,400 times per second when she strikes a dramatic high note.

So it’s just a matter of synchronizing your muscles and breathing correctly to strike the perfect notes and convey a melody. Beginners may find this difficult because they are not accustomed to doing it intentionally.

So, where do you begin? Most vocal lessons start with exercises that encourage students to think about their bodies. The goal is to treat the body as if it were a musical instrument. Making a lot of weird, loose sounds like oohs and ahhs can help.

Of course, this process can be humiliating – mainly because most of us despise the sound of our voices, according to polls.

As a result, people frequently hold back or attempt to sing softly. Regrettably, this will just make learning more difficult. The best vocalists put their entire bodies into their work. You must give it your all if you want to have a voice that genuinely resonates.

And, as we’ll see in the following paragraph, it’ll probably work best if you do it with other like-minded folks.


Learning new abilities is best done in a group setting:

On a Monday night in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, you could hear something weird. The sound will begin softly, but it will grow louder and louder as you walk down Rivington Street. Everything will become clear once you arrive at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center. The sound you’re hearing is 50 individuals singing Oasis’ “Wonderwall” from 1995.

The Britpop Choir is a group of singers from the United Kingdom. They’re a friendly bunch of amateur singers who get together once a week to perform songs that used to be at the top of the UK charts. They work through the songs from musicians like Blur, Pulp, and David Bowie from the previous day.

The choir’s members come from various backgrounds and ability levels, yet their differences don’t seem to matter. What matters is that they’ve all joined together to sing in harmony.

While it is feasible to learn a new skill like singing on your own, there are numerous benefits to practicing in a social situation. For one thing, engaging in a group activity – like singing in a chorus – appeals to our natural craving for social connection. People’s stress levels decrease when they work together to harmonize and breathe in sync. They also benefit from an increase in oxytocin production, a hormone linked to happiness.

But the advantages don’t stop there. Practicing in front of an audience or a group can also help you improve. Humans learn best by observing and receiving feedback from others. When you sing in a group, you can do both at the same time. You can hear voices all around you, and you’re constantly matching your tone and pitch to the rest of the chorus.

Social facilitation refers to the gain inability that comes from working in a group. It’s also not confined to rehearsal spaces. It was initially noticed in the field of sports by social psychologist Norman Triplett. Professional cyclists always obtained their best times when riding with others, he discovered.

One of humanity’s oldest and most popular group hobbies is singing in a chorus. So, if you want to improve your talents, joining a local club is generally a good idea.

You may also use the Internet for assistance: apps like Smule allow amateur singers from all over the world to rehearse together, no matter where they are.

Log on, and you may be singing a duet with someone from Sweden or Indonesia in minutes. If your voice isn’t flawless at first, don’t stress. As we’ll see in the next blink, learning isn’t always a simple process.


Learning the fundamentals is only the beginning of a long journey:

Imagine yourself on the beach, bobbing in the sea off the coast. You’ve been taking surfing lessons all week and are starting to gain confidence after hours of practice. As the next wave approaches, you leap into action.

You start by paddling alongside the rising swell. Then you fix your gaze on the beach and keep your body still. Finally, as the wave crests, you yank yourself down and into a squat. For a brief moment, everything goes according to plan. Then, all of a sudden, you’re crashing into the ocean.

What went wrong, exactly? You did an excellent job of following your instructor’s instructions!

As it turns out, your strict adherence to the regulations was precisely what sent you crashing into the waves.

Professors Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus of California have spent decades researching how adults learn new abilities. They looked at everyone from jet pilots to chess players and discovered that learning a skill usually happens in five steps. People begin as novices and work their way up through the phases. You start as an advanced beginner, then progress through competence, proficiency, and expertise. Making the transition from novice to advanced beginner is more complex than it appears.

However, if you want to become an advanced beginner, you’ll need to start applying your new skills in the real world, which is complex and messy.

Consider the experience of learning a new language. You’ll pick up vocabulary quickly and memorize grammar quickly initially. However, speaking with a native speaker will soon reveal how many exceptions and anomalies you still need to learn.

The frustration of realizing that the past tense of talk is not spoken but spoke will be remembered by English learners.

Thus, while becoming a novice is simple, progressing to the advanced beginner stage might be more difficult. As a result, persons learning a new skill are frequently discouraged by their lack of progress and give up too soon. Only 5% of people who know to surf return after their first lesson!

You may get over this initial hurdle and start to enhance your talents if you have patience and dedication.


Practice until the movements become automatic to master a skill:

Consider this scenario: you’re riding your bike along the street when a ball bounces into your path. You must turn left to avoid a disastrous collision. After all, all you have to do is turn the handlebars, right?

Well, not quite. You must bend your body to the right before jerking your wheel to the left. This small action balances you by redistributing your weight. Of course, if you’re a good rider, you’ll do it without thinking.

These kinds of unconscious behaviors are at the heart of every technical competence. When it comes to learning a new talent, it’s frequently about getting so good at it that the nuances slip away.

The essential idea here is to practice until the movements become automatic to perfect a skill.

Juggling is a favorite test case for learning scientists. It’s an essential talent that almost everyone can pick up. In addition, practicing and monitoring in a laboratory setting is simple. So, while tossing and catching balls repeatedly may appear simple, it might reveal a lot about how we acquire talents.

For one thing, experts have discovered that over-thinking can be a significant impediment to learning new skills. When learning a new skill, such as juggling, people put forth a lot of effort. They attempt to be aware of every movement they make, whether it’s tossing a ball, following it, or catching it. This type of focus distribution might cause the brain to become overworked. The basic movements, on the other hand, come naturally to more experienced jugglers. This allows them to concentrate on the overall juggling pattern.

So, what is the most effective method of learning? Observing and doing is the answer. They are far more valuable than simply receiving instruction.

Scientists saw two groups of novice jugglers in one experiment. One group was given a comprehensive textual guide, while the other was given juggling videos to view. Which group was the most successful? That’s right, not those who just studied a textbook, but those who watched other jugglers.

Observing someone else perform a task and then attempting it yourself uniquely engages the brain, which aids learning.

You make new neural connections as you practice a new skill or simply watch someone else perform it. Muscle memory is a term used to describe the development of a skill. Your brain, on the other hand, is the one performing the heavy lifting. In the next paragraph, we’ll dig deeper into this.


Learning to draw entails learning to see the world through new eyes:

Google published a list of the most popular searches in 2017 that began with “how to…” How to tie a tie was at the top of the list, followed by other valuable questions like how to write a cover letter and how to lose weight.

Surprisingly, the fifth item on the list was a little more whimsical. Many people wanted to learn how to draw. Drawing is now one of the first skills we learn as children. Crayons and markers are available in almost every kindergarten.

So, if we all start this way, why do so many people believe they can’t draw? Most adults, without a doubt, have better fine motor abilities than children. As it turns out, the issue isn’t one of physical coordination.

If you haven’t sketched since elementary school, you are undoubtedly unsure about your ability. Unfortunately, your apprehension may be valid. Attempt a self-portrait. It wouldn’t surprise you if it turned out uneven and disproportionate. Why is it so difficult to draw a realistic face? One problem is that we remove the world as we imagine it rather than as it is.

This is demonstrated in a well-known study. It consisted of a basic drawing of two circles joined by a line. The participants were then divided into two groups and asked to recreate the picture from memory. However, there was one significant difference. The photo displayed a dumbbell in one group and a pair of spectacles in the other. After all, was said and done, each group’s designs were vastly different. Rather than the original sketch, their sketches resembled the object they were informed about.

As a result, novices frequently draw their interpretation of a face rather than how it appears in reality. They exaggerate traits that the human brain is more attentive to. The eyes, for example, stand out considerably more than other elements. Inexperienced painters will represent features with significant regards near the top of the skull in 95 percent of cases. When you look in the mirror, though, you’ll notice that your eyes are small and close to the middle of your face.

Practical drawing lessons focus on getting pupils to draw what they genuinely see to overcome this perceptual bias. Students practice sketching contours and shadows rather than drawing full objects. These drawings appear abstract at first, but their work becomes much more precise as students fill in the details.


It’s never too late to experiment with new things:

Patricia is someone you should get to know. She’s had an exciting life, including a successful career in French new wave movies. She retired to Chamonix, a rural mountain village where she could ski, play tennis, and relax. Then, at the age of 70, she desired more. She wished to go swimming.

Patrica was now a pack-a-day smoker who had never swum. She was, nevertheless, adamant. She watched YouTube tutorials because she couldn’t find a local instructor. She would walk around her flat at night, practicing strokes. She would go to the pool every morning to see how far she had progressed.

All of your hard work paid off. After a year, Patricia made a trip to the Greek islands and did something she never imagined she could do. She swam a kilometer in the Mediterranean’s calm seas.

Patricia’s philosophy in life is to never stop learning. She regularly challenges herself, even at her age, to attempt whatever interests her. She moved on to two new hobbies after taking up swimming: playing pickleball and studying astronomy.

Patricia’s attitude can teach us a valuable lesson. It’s crucial to keep learning new things as we become older.

David is another example. He had a wide range of interests as a child. He majored in philosophy, architecture, and economics in college. Following that, he pursued his passion for nature by working as a park ranger. Finally, as an adult, he enrolled in a jewelry-making apprenticeship. He spent three years perfecting traditional crafting skills, eventually becoming an expert.

He didn’t rest on his laurels, though, even as a qualified specialist in handcrafting jewelry. David got right in because the world of making had gone digital. He mastered the art of computer-aided design and began using advanced drafting software such as Rhino. These digital abilities, along with his natural knack for manual labor, opened up a whole new realm of creation for him. He can now construct things that he could never have conceived before.

If you’re stuck, keep in mind that there’s always something new to learn. Find out what opportunities are available in your area. Look in the local papers, Google it, or simply ask a neighbor.

You might decide to take a cooking lesson, learn to weld, or discover the joys of birdwatching. You never know what you’re going to find out next. “It takes a lifetime to understand how to live,” the Roman philosopher Seneca reportedly stated.