How to Be a Beginner, With Journalist Tom Vanderbilt

How to Be a Beginner, With Journalist Tom Vanderbilt
Photo: Knopf/Penguin Random House
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When is the last time you tried something new? This week, we’re talking about why we lose that lust for learning past a certain age and what we can do to reignite it, with help from journalist Tom Vanderbilt. Listen to hear Tom lay out the reasons why we should continue pursuing new skills and hobbies, including the cognitive benefits that come from doing so, and what it can mean for your overall engagement with the world.

Tom is the best-selling author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), and You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, and his latest book is Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning.

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Highlights from this week’s episode

From the Tom Vanderbilt interview:

On the immediate benefit of trying something entirely new:

I found that to be incredibly pleasurable and just put me off my guard…And you sort of have no alternative but to try and learn. I mean, it’s the purest form of, you know, the Buddhist concept of “beginner’s mind,” really being able to look at the world again with with fresh eyes the way a child might.

On the importance of being able to quit a new pursuit that isn’t bringing you joy:

Don’t be afraid to walk away, on the other hand, if it’s something that turns out you don’t really feel a penchant for. There’s kind of a lot of anti-quitting rhetoric, one often hears. But, you know, life is short. Your free time is, you know…I mean, this is the one thing we have control over. So you should be able to do with it exactly what you want.

On how learning a new skill might help you become more engaged when you need it most:

I just found that, like everyone who’s sort of in the modern age, that I’ve had moments where I just felt completely distracted by various devices around my house, finding it hard to be engaged in something like a book…But the things I found interesting about working on this book was that engaging in these activities, something like drawing, I found that it really required the entirety of my attention to just, there was so much visual information to absorb once you really started looking for it that I had no time for anything else and that hours would pass and…I would look up and go, “Wow, where did the time just go?” And again, it’s hard to describe. It just felt cleansing. And I felt like a more whole person and sort of like I had been to a gym in some way for my brain…And so it just was another way to engage with the world on another level. And I think especially during the last year, you know, [I was] just looking an article in a psychotherapy journal…talking about learning skills as a way to keep engaged with the world in this very isolating time. So I think there’s a huge element of self care here, which I don’t think we should view as narcissistic or whatever, but is really essential.

To hear more about why we should be learning new skills, we highly recommend listening to the full episode.

Episode Transcript

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