when i read Tom Vanderbilt’s”Beginners: The joy and transformative power of lifelong learning‘ I found myself underlining and dog-earing statistics, notes, and quotes on practically every page. The idea is simple: Vanderbilt, in his mid-40s, decides to try his hand at many things that have always interested him but never really pursued him — from singing in a choir to surfing to making a wedding ring.
Madly in love with his bravery – and his touting of the power of the so-called “beginner’s mind” – I reached out to Vanderbilt to ask him about his quest and what it might all be telling us about our political moment.
Our conversation, emailed and edited lightly for flow, is below.
Cillizza: What made you decide to try things like juggling, singing and surfing in your mid-40s?
Vanderbilt: It grew out of a curious experiment I did with my then 4-year-old daughter who wanted to learn to play chess – something I never managed to do. I thought: What if we studied at the same time? Do kids really have that much of a head start when it comes to learning? As it turned out, we both had our strengths and weaknesses, but when the day finally came, I actually had to face her in a tournament at New York’s Marshall Club, and she beat me. And I didn’t let her win.
But as this was happening, I suddenly realized that it was incredibly fun to learn a new skill — even if I wasn’t particularly good at it — that in the middle of middle age felt exhilarating to be a beginner again, something that many of us largely leave behind when we are young. There were a number of activities I’ve always wanted to try, like singing and surfing, that I never got around to for various reasons: time or money pressure, shyness, fear of being bad at something in front of other people, the small Voice in my head saying why bother when it’s too late to really walk away or even turn it into some sort of side hustle.
As I got involved in all of these things, I discovered all sorts of benefits. They were all very enjoyable to participate in, even to practice; They got me out of my own head, off the screen. While I’m still not a great surfer or juggler, there was something powerful about just experiencing progress, like reactivating a dormant muscle. I could feel my sense of self expanding as I delved further into these pursuits; I discovered more about the world and about myself. “We learn who we are in practice,” says the scholar Herminia Ibarra, “not in theory”. And it’s almost an addictive process; As I started exploring new things, I felt like there was nothing I wouldn’t try. I ran out of reasons to say no to myself.
And I’ve come to believe that a grown beginner is even a powerful parenting lesson. There I was, telling my daughter about the importance of learning for the sake of learning, not being scared and just jumping into new activities when I haven’t done it myself in decades. I learned by myself, struggled with the learning process but didn’t give up – and I think that’s an important modeling tool. Don’t just be the parent who sits on the sidelines and tells your child things can get better. Learn something new yourself, go through the struggle, do not give up. You will feel more empathy for your child’s learning journey and they will see in you an example of the work that learning can take.
Cillizza: You talk a lot about the beginner’s mind in the book. What is it – and how can we apply it in politics?
Vanderbilt: Beginner’s Mind is a Zen Buddhist concept that refers to a beginner’s almost childlike mindset. The larger idea is that by being able to look at the world anew without prejudice, one may gain wisdom that would otherwise be unavailable. “There are many possibilities in the mind of the beginner,” writes Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki. “In the opinion of the expert, there are few.”
The possible real-world consequences of this have been demonstrated in a number of scientific studies, such as the so-called “deserved dogmatism” effect: basically the idea that experts are allowed to be more secretive because, well, they are experts. They have earned the right to rely on dogma, on what they have already learned. In one study, subjects were subjected to a political knowledge test. Falsely inflated scores were given to some subjects, and these were the very same individuals who, on a subsequent test, showed less “open minded cognition,” defined as: “a tendency to select, interpret, recall, weigh, and elaborate information in a way which is not influenced by the person’s prior opinion or expectation.”
This is not to say that expertise is bad. The problem arises when dealing with new information, and there are countless examples where experts have proven poor forecasters because they are not looking in the right place or cannot see the change ahead. This is where a “beginner’s mind” that children are naturally gifted with can come in handy. As a psychologist Alison Gopnik points out that children often notice changes in the environment because they have trouble not noticing. “We often say that little kids are bad at paying attention. But what we really mean is that they’re bad at not being careful, they’re not shutting out the world like adults do.” The people who’ve done better often try to make predictions, like Philip Telock has pointed out are “foxes” – people who know a little about a lot, as opposed to “hedgehogs” who know a lot about a big thing. The former group, more amateurish in their knowledge, is more open to questioning it.
The world of politics is of course full of dogmatism, deserved or not. There used to be at least lip service to the old adage, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” Today there is a tendency to simply ignore facts or to lead people to develop their own counterfactual worldview; they don’t change their minds, they change the facts to suit their minds (and it’s odd that lately it’s often the political novices, in a place like the US Congress, who seem to be the most dogmatic). What we need is more people, including experts, from across the political spectrum who admit they still have something to learn.
Cillizza: One of the great things about the book is that we can continue learning at any age. Should that give some peace of mind to people worried about President Joe Biden’s age — especially if he’s running for a second term in 2024?
Vanderbilt: Everyone is different, of course, but the amazing phenomenon of neural plasticity – literally the brain reshaping itself and adapting to new learning – accompanies us until we die. In the book I met people who were way beyond my age and who excelled me in all sorts of tasks. We equate youth with learning and growth, and fetishize the prodigy versus the late bloomer. I was intrigued by a comment from a singing teacher: She was surprised that many people think it’s normal for a three-year-old to take private singing lessons, “but it’s not at all an option for someone over 60.” I’m not saying that Old and young match equally well, but maybe match well differently. When it comes to the brain, perception slows but wisdom grows.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The biggest lesson my book taught me about human behavior is _____________.” Well, explain it.
Vanderbilt: “People are not closed books.”
We start so many things when we are young. We try many different sports, we sing in the school choir, we draw, we are told that our horizons are endless. Over time, these horizons shrink; sometimes out of necessity, sometimes simply because we or someone else believes we are not good enough to try something. Like a river flowing into a narrow gorge, there is a kind of exchange of experience and it is often difficult to swim upstream against it.
But we’re not done yet, our story isn’t over yet. We must not become the next Picasso – no one can, he already was. But we can create things, move our bodies, express our voice and our vision, in our own way, in our time, at any age. Sometimes people’s greatest passions are unleashed in odd pursuits that are totally outside of what they normally do. the actor who throws pots, the baseball player who starts a book club, the CEO who loves doing Ironmans. We shouldn’t look at this as a distraction or dilution of who we are, but as our real strength.