Learning for Its Own Sake

Learning for Its Own Sake

Journalist Tom Vanderbilt argues the benefits of lifelong learning far outweigh the inevitable discomforts and embarrassments.

Whatever happened to the sheer pleasure of learning something new simply for the love of learning? Nearing 50 and watching his young daughter learn skill after new skill, journalist Tom Vanderbilt decided to go on a yearlong adventure of doing the same. He takes up singing, drawing and surfing; he learns how to juggle; and he has a jeweler teach him how to make his own wedding ring (which he lost while surfing).

Vanderbilt’s vibrant and detailed account of his adventures, enriched with fascinating insights from psychology and science, shows that lifelong learning brings benefits far beyond the acquisition of new skills. His engaging, honest and often funny description of being an adult learner – bolstered by scientific evidence of humans’ ability to learn new skills at any age – will encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and experience the joy and inspiration of beginning again.

Ditch Perfectionism

Learning something new as an adult can make you feel vulnerable, maybe even humiliated. Being an amateur – originally from the French aimer, meaning, to love – tends to be looked at as something negative, Vanderbilt observes. The modern focus on professionalism and specialization means most people strive for perfection in what they do and fear stepping outside what they know.

We’re afraid of being just OK at things.Tom Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt convincingly argues against the notion that something is not worth pursuing unless you can do it perfectly. Putting yourself into situations where you are a novice brings positive side effects. He cites research suggesting that dabbling in a new activity can reduce stress because it allows you to approach tasks as a child – with a sense of joy and without preconceived ideas.

Vanderbilt also explains that learning new skills can produce “self-expansion” – an increased belief in your competence and ability to achieve goals. This makes you more open to trying new things without worrying about looking silly. Vanderbilt even found evidence that cultivating an openness to new experiences may help you live longer.

Keep Your Brain Active

Recent research on aging, popularized in mainstream media, is finding an increasing amount of evidence that keeping your brain active, for example, by learning a new language or cultivating social relationships, helps stave off mental decline, even dementia, in old age.

The more learning older adults take on, the faster they seem to learn – the more they become like younger adults.  Tom Vanderbilt 

Vanderbilt echoes these findings, explaining that learning new skills – particularly, in collaboration with others – improves your brain’s cognitive ability. Learning several new skills at the same time, meanwhile, rejuvenates your brain.

Pursue Diverse Interests

Learning something new doesn’t just improve your abilities in the narrow skill you’re practicing; it makes you better at other things as well. Vanderbilt cites studies showing that children who learn to swim, for example, become better at hand-eye coordination, reading and mathematical reasoning.

Vanderbilt’s findings echo David Epstein’s argument in his bestseller, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Epstein presents a counterargument to the view that mastery requires 10,000 hours of deliberate, focused practice at one specialized skill. (This magic number was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.) Epstein shows that people who pursue diverse interests and skills often come out on top. They become better learners by failing, and they often are more creative because they think more broadly and have had more diverse experiences than their highly focused counterparts. 

Embrace Trial and Error

If you need motivation to learn something new, spend some time with a baby, Vanderbilt suggests. Humans are built to learn through trial and error. Babies’ bodies have padding and loose limbs, so they rarely hurt themselves when they fall while learning to walk. That means they can fail and easily get up and try again. Making mistakes is an essential part of learning, and learning how to fail is part of that journey. Practice and patience matter: Infants take about 2.6 million steps over many months, until they can walk well. Only by the age of five to seven can children finally walk with the same skill as adults.

Infants are learning machines, relentlessly curious and engineered with errors in mind.

Tom Vanderbilt

When infants start to practice walking, they work by trial and error. Their environment and their bodies are constantly changing, which means the rules that applied yesterday don’t apply today. When it comes to adult learning, introducing variability and pushing yourself to your “zone of proximal development” – the edge of your ability – helps you learn faster.

Push Yourself 

Adult learning takes place in five stages. You start off as a novice, and do things by the rules, without considering context. In the advanced beginner stage, you figure out when not to follow the rules, and what to do when no rules seem to apply. For example, when learning to surf, a change in the environment – different weather conditions, a different time of day or a different beach – can significantly affect how well you perform, because it requires adjusting your method. At this point, you often realize what being proficient involves.

You move from lack of awareness of what you don’t know to understanding how much further you have to travel on your learning journey. This is when learners feel they’re getting worse instead of better. To move beyond this stage, push yourself to the edge of your ability.

Expertise, the chess grandmaster Jonathan Rowson notes, means running out of unfamiliar mistakes.Tom Vanderbilt

Competence occurs when you take responsibility for your failures and successes. You own the choices you make about how you apply the rules you have learned. The next two stages, proficiency and expertise, are similar in that you no longer have to think about what you’re doing.

Have Fun

Vanderbilt’s book makes clear that learning something new is both a means to an end and an end in itself. Another recent bestseller reaches a similar conclusion. In The Power of Fun, Catherine Price lays out how engaging in activities for the pure sake of “fun” brings surprising mental, physical and cognitive benefits.

Do anything, but let it produce joy.Walt Whitman

Faced with an overpacked schedule and a never-ending to-do list, you may be under the impression that everything you do must have a purpose. But sometimes, playfulness brings the sense of fulfillment you so desperately seek.

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