Title: Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning

Author: Tom Vanderbilt

Completed: Oct 2022 (Full list of books)

Overview: Learning helps the brain stay young and despite the difficulties, is something the brain yearns to do. That’s the simplified version of the book. The author then goes through and tell about his experiences learning new skills in his 40s-50s. There are certainly skills that I’ve dabbled in that I keep thinking I should actually dedicate some time to learning and this book has encouraged me to go back and try them again. We’ll see if any of them are stickier this time.


  • 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.
  • A man…progresses in all things by making a fool of himself. —GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
  • I am brimming with declarative knowledge, or what is called “knowing that.” I have a lot of “knowing that”; hell, I was on Jeopardy! (I lost, to someone who knew more of “that.”) But what about procedural knowledge, or “knowing how”? I was a quick study when it came to facts, but what had I actually learned to do lately?
  • In one fascinating experiment, researchers demonstrated, to different infant subjects, the act of retrieving a toy from a container. One adult model struggled with the process, while another adult did it quickly. The infants who saw the adult struggle tried harder when it was their turn to try to retrieve the toy. The ones who saw the adult do it more easily didn’t want to try as much.
  • one example, Claude Shannon, the brilliant MIT polymath who helped invent the digital world in which we live today, plunged into all kinds of pursuits, from juggling to poetry to designing the first wearable computer. “Time and time again,” notes his biographer, “he pursued projects that might have caused others embarrassment, engaged questions that seemed trivial or minor, then managed to wring breakthroughs out of them.”
  • Learning new skills also changes the way you think, or the way you see the world. Learning to sing changes the way you listen to music, while learning to draw is a striking tutorial on the human visual system. Learning to weld is a crash course in physics and metallurgy. You learn to surf and suddenly you find yourself interested in tide tables and storm systems and the hydrodynamics of waves. Your world got bigger because you did.
  • The subjects who took the classes had larger improvements in a variety of cognitive areas, ranging from episodic memory to processing speed. It’s not that learning by yourself is bad, or that simply socializing is mind-numbing, but learning with people just seems to hit some sweet spot in the human brain. It helped, Park said, that in the activities chosen, “everyone could proceed at their own rate, and it wasn’t obvious if you were doing it badly.” Learners were motivated by the presence of other learners and challenged by the instructors.
  • The long-standing hypothesis was that infants were always walking to something: a friendly caregiver, an alluring toy. And sometimes they are. But as research at the Action Lab has shown, the majority of walking instances don’t really seem pointed toward an obvious destination. Infants walk in place, stop in the middle of nowhere, and often seem to stumble into interesting objects or destinations by happenstance. Eye-tracking software reveals that they’re rarely looking toward some goal as they begin to walk.
  • Infants live what might be called the beginner’s creed: If you don’t learn to fail, you’ll fail to learn.
  • When we practice a variety of skills, rather than long, monotonous drills in the same skill, we often do worse during the practice session but better in the long run. Because we have to work harder to remember the different exercises, and the ways we solved them, we perform them better.
  • you may be wondering about your own singing ability. I would urge you to take the online test that Steven Demorest helped create.6 It’s based on pitch accuracy, the easiest-to-measure, most fundamental variable in singing quality. No matter your score, remember one thing: It can be improved.
  • The widespread use of the phrase “tone deafness” obscures the real problem, as Sean Hutchins, director of research at Canada’s Royal Conservatory, told me. We’re incredibly sensitive listeners when it comes to pitch. The problem is not perceiving correct notes,*7 Hutchins says, but producing them.
  • According to a theory from the sports psychologist Gabriele Wulf, we do worse at an activity when we focus on ourselves, instead of some “external” target. This idea shows up in almost every sport there is. Darts players do better if they focus on the board and not their own arms; golfers do better if they focus on the hole and not their elbows. Even musicians, it’s been shown, seem to do better if they focus on overall sound rather than on their fingers strumming the instrument. Wulf, who says the findings have been replicated across 180 studies, thinks a focus on the self can prompt “micro-choking,” getting in the way of automatic movement—which is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about skilled behavior.
  • “Don’t beat yourself up in the sessions that went badly, and don’t pat yourself on the back too hard when you have a really good one.” It seemed like a good mantra. You just did the best you could. It might work out, it might not, but the rest was out of your hands.
  • The legendary pro surfer Phil Edwards once said, “The best surfer is the one who’s having the most fun.”
  • “Almost everyone can ride a bicycle,” observed the physicist David Jones, “but almost no one knows how they do it.” Ask the average rider how to turn a bicycle, and they’ll probably answer, “Turn the handlebars in the direction you want to go.” But this isn’t technically true. As bike geeks from Wilbur Wright onward have noted, to go left, you first have to steer to the right.
  • The more things you have to pay attention to, the faster time seems to move. But as you get better, you learn what to pay attention to. You have a better sense of what to expect.
  • we shouldn’t try to endlessly perfect that one technique that seems to work, under the same set of conditions. That’s too rigid; if one little variable changes, the technique might not work so well. Instead, we should try to solve the problem every time, which means we might even use a different technique. He called it “repetition without repetition.”
  • Our brain has a host of regions, termed the “action-observation network,” that’s sparked when we watch others do something in our “motor repertoire” (watching a dog bark, for instance, not typically being a human trait, doesn’t activate the region). We’re simulating doing the task ourselves, warming up the same neurons that will be used when we actually give it a go. The action observation network isn’t a substitute for action—only doing something will fully engage one’s motor cortex—but rather a dress rehearsal.
  • The more we want to learn, the more we prime the brain. The more curious you are to know the answer to a question, the better chance you’ll remember it. People who believe they will need to teach something that they learn seem to learn motor skills better than those simply learning them. Curiously, we seem to learn better when we watch the error-filled efforts of novices. When we watch the flawless performance of experts, after all, we’re watching someone who isn’t learning. Seeing learning happening actually helps us learn.
  • While we tend to think of feedback as a diagnostic tool for fixing mistakes, a growing body of research shows that people not only prefer to be given feedback on their successful attempts at a skill; they seem to learn better this way.
  • a whole body of research has shown that sleep, or even just a short rest, is one of our best learning tools. The resting brain “consolidates” the memories of what you were just trying to do; a big part of any skill, after all, is remembering how to do it.
  • The more learning older adults take on, the faster they seem to learn—the more they become like younger adults. Learning to learn, it seems, is a lifetime sport.
  • The artist Frederick Franck quotes the ninth-century Zen master Daie: “Meditation in a state of activity is a thousand times more profound than in a state of quietude.” Nowadays we call it flow.
  • They were soon dropped into water for a bout of swimming. Analyzing the subsequent changes to the mice’s brains (specifically proteins in the hippocampus), the researchers concluded that it looked as if the mice had swum their depression away.
  • the philosopher Seneca, writing about “feeble old men” terrified by mortality when an illness appears. “They exclaim that they were fools because they have not really lived, and that if only they can recover from this illness they will live in leisure.”
  • There’s an argument, made by Kelly Lambert, who runs a neuroscience lab at the University of Richmond, that doing physical labor with your hands is a powerful, mood-enhancing way of activating what she terms “effort-driven rewards.” We’re “programmed,” Lambert suggests, to “derive a deep sense of satisfaction and pleasure when our physical effort produces something tangible.”
  • I wanted effort. I wanted struggle. I wanted to be able to feel the little advances, the setbacks. This was a journey by foot, not airplane. To be a traveler, the writer Daniel Boorstin once observed, you need some travail—that’s French for “painful or laborious effort.” Otherwise you’re just a tourist; someone else has done the legwork for you. You’re watching the how-to video without getting your own hands dirty.
  • “In science,” he wrote, “if you know what you are doing you should not be doing it.” Meaning: Science was about probing beyond the edge of what we know. It was about experimentation and failure. There was no need to dabble in proven hypotheses. In engineering, however, wrote Hamming, “if you do not know what you are doing you should not be doing it.” Engineers are tasked with making sure things do not fail, with ensuring certain quantifiable levels of performance. No one wants to drive across an experimental bridge.
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