Many people today pay lip service to the idea of lifelong learning. As the world of work is transformed by multiple trends, new technologies, new business models, and climate change, it’s increasingly hard to imagine that a person can last a whole career only with what they learned in the first stages of their life. Companies say they will spend more on training and education in the future. They find it hard to recruit new, qualified candidates, so investing in the training of their present employees may be a cost-effective solution. Also employees want it.
Yet by and large the overwhelming majority of those who go to school and start a new activity are young. Adult beginners arouse condescension and a touch of pity. Most of us prefer to stick to what we’re good at and cultivate an image of expertise. We are so scared of being bad at something we’ve never done before that we give up the profound pleasure of discovering a new world, of being a beginner. What a waste! Each of us could gain so much from being a beginner all our lives!
When he became a father, Tom Vanderbilt, a New York-based journalist and author, embarked on a personal learning quest. Inspired by his daughter’s curiosity and growth, he decided he could not be satisfied with just being a spectator of her learning. So he started being a beginner again and took up new activities in a “playful journey into the transformative joys that come with starting something new, no matter your age.” His must-read new book, Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning (2021), is an inspiring, Gonzo-style account of his learning adventures and the many lessons he drew from them.
As he takes up chess, singing, surfing, painting and juggling — all activities not directly related to his work — he explores the psychology and science behind the early stage of mastery. Both his personal account and the theory he shares make for a convincing read about the benefits of lifelong learning. Every HR professional, manager and individual learner will find inspiring arguments to take lifelong learning much further and offer learning opportunities to people from all age groups, not just the Gen Z cohort.
“There is magic to the early stages. In the beginnings of a love affair, we are in what has been called an ‘extreme neurobiological stage’: the brain is jacked on a supersized hyper-caffeinated energy drink of dopamine and stress hormones . . . Learning a new skill is curiously similar. Your brain is in a state of hyperawareness, bathing in novelty . . . As you plunge into learning some art or skill, the world around you appears new and bursting with infinite horizons.”
The beginner’s mind: ready for anything, open to everything
Of course being a beginner can come with a degree of humiliation. As Vanderbilt takes up chess together with his eight-year-old daughter, he describes the mix of pity and condescension that his playing in tournaments elicits among the mostly younger participants. “At chess tournaments, I saw a dynamic that was all too familiar from the world of children’s activities: kids doing the activity, adults like me staring into their smartphones . . . I wondered if we, in our constant chaperoning of these lessons, were imparting a subtle lesson: that learning was for the young.” Learning chess anyway was a form of transgression that caused his ego to suffer.
Bruised ego aside, he found that being a beginner was also curiously liberating. Indeed when you know nothing and are seen as a beginner, “you’re freed from the worries of impostor syndrome because no one actually expects you to be any good. You’re liberated from expectation, from the weight of the past.” That’s what the beginner’s mind is all about: you start a journey of not knowing (also not knowing what you don’t know) with the freedom of the beginner. You give yourself more leeway, more room to maneuver and experiment.
The zero-to-one stage is fantastically fertile. The learning curve is steep because your progress is fastest at the very beginning. The gains made early on usually exceed those made in later stages. The steepness of the curve is closely associated with the embarrassing status of the beginner. “For most of us, the beginner stage is something to be gotten through as quickly as possible, like a socially awkward skin condition.”
This “awkward condition” of the beginner comes with open-mindedness and humility: when you know you don’t know, you’re open to novelty. Therefore there are many psychological and philosophical benefits to being a beginner. The author wants to encourage his readers to preserve, even cultivate, the “spirit of the novice: the naïve optimism, the hypervigilant alertness that comes with novelty and insecurity, the willingness to look foolish, and the permission to ask obvious questions.”
In short, it’s extremely valuable to keep the beginner’s mind. In everything we do, there are benefits to cultivating this approach, looking at something with the eyes of a beginner, asking “obvious” questions, listening carefully and not taking anything for granted. Our digital age of fast-changing models and technologies could well be a “golden age” for learning. The beginner’s mind may be the best way to handle novelty and make future innovation possible.
What is the aging brain really capable of?
Neuroscientists agree humans can learn at any age. And learning increases brain plasticity. Continuing to learn at all ages is critical to maintain one’s ability to learn. The sheer act of learning comes with tremendous health benefits. But it doesn’t mean people of all ages learn the same way and reach the same results. You are very unlikely to become a chess grandmaster if you start learning chess after 40. You’re not likely to become a professional ballet dancer if you take up ballet after 15.
The idea that learning gets harder as we age may be largely true but it generates a deleterious kind of “stereotype threat” that can jeopardize the learning process and kill motivation. “There’s a pernicious, goading little voice: You’ve started too late. Why bother?” In the world of chess, for example, child geniuses are glorified. Playing against children, Vanderbilt found himself particularly intimidated, believing his child opponents to be necessarily brilliant.
Scientists have found that we go about learning new things differently as we age. The aging brain “compensates” for its various shortcomings by “building scaffolds that connect a wider range of areas in the brain,” the author explains. In other words, because older people know more things, when they try to learn something new, the memory of their different skills can get in the way. That’s why scientists who study aging and the brain distinguish between two forms of intelligence: “fluid” and “crystallized” intelligence.
“Fluid” intelligence refers to one’s ability to think flexibly. By contrast, “crystallized” intelligence depends on the person’s accumulated knowledge and all the skills acquired throughout their life. “Fluid intelligence helps you think on your feet and solve new problems. Crystallized intelligence is what a person already knows . . . Fluid intelligence is generally seen to favor the young, while the crystallized variety is rewarded by age. In life, they complement each other.”
The metaphor of the hard drive can prove useful. As you get older, there’s less and less “storage” available: “it takes longer to search for and retrieve files. I was running out of storage, and some of my pathways were corrupted.” But lifelong learning is as beneficial to the old as it is to the young (if not more so!): the sheer joy of immersing yourself in a new world and connecting with others around learning a new skill can boost plasticity and longevity. And it helps address the challenges of later life too.
The cult of expertise is a hindrance
With the industrial revolution came the increasing specialization of individuals at work. Knowledge became more and more segmented. The versatile, multipotential “Renaissance man” gave way to the figure of the expert. Today’s world of work adds pressure to constantly appear at one’s best in one’s specific field. All this leads people to choose to do more of what they’re already good at, at the expense of the skills they haven’t yet mastered. As Tim Wu, the author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads, wrote, “For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment.”
Vanderbilt is convinced that the cult of expertise puts further learning in jeopardy: “Our confidence has been so shaken by this cult of expertise and performance that when we don’t perceive ourselves to be experts in something, we’re almost expected to oursource the task to someone who does.” In other words specialization breeds further specialization as we are discouraged from doing things which other people do better. So “mastery has become a closed system.”
It’s high time we learnt to be dilettantes again! Sometime during the Industrial revolution the word dilettante became an insult. Originally it came from the Italian dilettare which means “to delight”, to take pleasure in something. In our age of high performance, we’re supposed to “maximize” our potential rather than just “take pleasure” in things. The word was no insult in the past. “With the increasing specialization of knowledge, and professionalization of everyday life, suddenly being delighted by something, or loving something, was seen as vaguely disreputable.”
In an attempt to rediscover the joy of being a dilettante, the author follows his daughter’s lead and decides to learn with her. “This co-learning can help turn potential sources of friction — like allocating leisure time — into win-wins.” Thus he also found that learning with others was also much more effective than doing it alone.
If you don’t learn to fail, you’ll fail to learn
“Learning to learn” has become a cliché. What does it really mean? How do you “learn to learn”? Vanderbilt takes the question very seriously. As he starts learning to surf in his early fifties, he learns the hard way that it means learning to fail, and more specifically learning to fall, which is significantly harder as falling can have more dramatic physical consequences.
Trying to understand what learning to learn actually means, he interviewed scientists who study learning in infants. “Babies are the ultimate beginners . . . Their ability to be bad, and have everyone be okay with that, is a crucial part of how they get good. Infants are learning machines, relentlessly curious and engineered with errors in mind.” The way babies learn to walk is particularly interesting in that regard: they fall repeatedly.
Why would “expert crawlers” suddenly risk everything to stand and fall again and again? Their bodies change so fast that learning to move with the body they have involves facing a “new normal” everyday. “If you don’t learn to fail, you’ll fail to learn” is a piece of wisdom that all baby learners embody unknowingly.
9 lessons for future beginners
- You have latent abilities that can be unlocked.
- Skills take time.
- Failure is an essential part of learning.
- You learn better by changing up your practice.
- Progress is not linear: you learn in fits and starts.
- Skill learning is rarely transferable. Start from scratch.
- If it feels easy, you’re probably not learning.
- Learning new skills helps to open up new worlds.
- Don’t be too rigid about your goals: part of life should be taking advantage of opportunities that come along.
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
More inspiration: Laetitia Vitaud
Future of work author and speaker
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