Pursue What Matters
Episode 121: Book Review – Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Are you comfortable with being a beginner? Well, most of us aren’t. But today I’m going to share with you why you should have a beginner’s mind.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:11
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters Podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So beginning again, being a beginner learning new things, for most of us as adults, that feels really uncomfortable. And in fact, there’s a lot that we can do to actually actively avoid being a beginner because it doesn’t feel very pleasant. But I’m hoping to shift your perspective on that today, as I review an excellent new book that really makes the case for being a beginner. And so what is the book I’ve got for you today, the name of the book, as you might imagine, is beginners, the joy and transformative power of life long learning. Now, you probably know if you’ve listened to any of the podcasts that I am totally a geek about learning. I’ve, I’ve broken a promise already to my guy friend to get no more education. But I think my last degree, you know, sealed the deal on that no, no more degrees for me, but I love learning. But I don’t necessarily love being a beginner. And I don’t think I’m wrong in that. And if you’re you know, at a certain point in your career, you’re probably pretty expert at it, you’re probably very competent, you’re probably very confident, and you probably have a level of expertise. And with that, of course, right comes that confidence. And it’s one of the reasons we kind of resist being a beginner. But in this really fresh and funny book about being a beginner, Tom Vanderbilt, who is the author makes a really great case for why we should always be a beginner in some area of our life.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:29
So every day, every week, actually, with the podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead. I try to do that in one of three ways. First, leading with clarity, connecting to purpose, what are you doing? And why does it matter? Second, leading with curiosity, this is all about building self awareness, self leadership, and self care skills, because you got to have a secure foundation. And then the third area is building and leading community. So what are the specific skills that help you to be an effective leader. And so today with the podcast, we’re doing a book review. And the main area that this really can help us to strengthen our confidence to lead is in the area of leading with curiosity. So when we think about curiosity, it is our internal work it is what’s in our heart, what, what are we aware of about ourselves about others? It’s really about embracing a growth mindset. Because when you’re a beginner, you’re going to get a lot of things wrong and right, there’s a lot to learn from that. Right? We learn humility, we learn to abandon the ego, we learn to ask for help. And so all of these things help us to build a secure foundation when it comes to self leadership. And so I’m really excited about this book, and just want to share that it was a pleasure to read it didn’t feel like it was, you know, a scientific research book. It was so fun is so approachable. And he just he had a way of sneaking the research in when you weren’t looking and so I always appreciate that that’s that’s a sign of a well written nonfiction book if you ask me.
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:24
So let’s learn a little bit more about this book. It is called Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning. It is by Tom Vanderbilt. So this book just came out. I think it came out in 2021 and some of the advanced praise for Beginners. First, we have something from Malcolm Gladwell best selling author of Outliers. So, “Tom Vanderbilt elegantly and persuasively tackles one of the most pernicious of the lies we tell ourselves: that the pleasures of learning are reserved for the young. Beginners belongs with David Epstein’s Range on the list of books that have changed the way I understand my own limitations.” So there’s a great endorsement. And of course, I’ve done a book review, I think I did a book review, I’ve talked about David Epstein’s book Range, I’m pretty sure there’s book review there. And this is similar to that in terms of some of the research but this account beginners is much more autobiographical. So Tom is talking about his experience of being a beginner in several different areas. So like surfing, singing, he even does jewelry making. And it’s really great. And that’s what I mean when I say he kind of sprinkles in the research because you’re hearing his story. But it’s great. And it’s funny, and it’s clever.
Dr. Melissa Smith 5:47
So, from Daniel Pink, the best selling author of When, Drive, and To Sell is Human. This is what he has to say about the book, “many people talk about lifelong learning. Tom Vanderbilt has done something about it, and he’s got the broken bones and bruised ego to show for his heroic efforts, whether he’s atop a surfboard or hunched over a jeweler’s bench. Vanderbilt is a winning and insightful guide to the mechanics of mastery. But beginners is ultimately about more than learning. It’s about the possibilities that reside in all of us.”
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:19
And I really like that, because there’s the skill that you learn in the process of being a beginner, but it’s also who you become in the process, right, just like any good worthy goal. And that is a really valuable perspective that is carried through this book. So now let’s learn a little bit more about Tom Vanderbilt. He is a writer. So he has written for many publications, including New York Times magazine, The Wall Street Journal magazine, Popular Science and Smithsonian. So he has written in a couple of other books. And he’s been on a lot of television. And like I said, this is his first person account of being a big dinner. And it’s really, it’s really delightful.
Dr. Melissa Smith 7:10
So let’s jump right in. And I’ve got some great take home points from this book. And if you’re just looking for a good book to listen to, or read, this is your book. So first of all, Tom shares why he wrote this book and who this book is for. So “beginners is a book for anyone who ever started out who was unsure, who was afraid to ask a question in a room full of people who all seemed as if they knew what they were doing. It’s for anyone who had to be shown the ropes, however many times who didn’t know what they were doing, but did it anyone anyway, it’s a handbook for the clueless first aid kit for the crushed ego, a survival guide for coping with this most painful, most poignant stage, the awkward, self conscious, exhilarating dawning of the novice.”
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:03
And isn’t that true? It’s hard to be a beginner. And so he says that this book is not a how to do book as much as a why to do book. So why should you be a beginner, it’s less about making you better at something than making you feel better, as you try to learn. It’s about small acts of reinvention at any age, that can make life seem magical. It’s about learning new things, one of which might be you. So I love that perspective. And so, you know, I think the invitation with this book is to not take yourself too seriously, to be open to learning and growth. And, and see what see what can happen for you. And, you know, so I have been powerlifting for I think it’s been about six years now. And I’ve definitely gotten much better at it. But I consider myself still a beginner, I send video to my coach every week, and I’m always getting really great feedback to help me improve. And I think it could be easy to say like, hey, I’ve been doing this, you know, for several years now, I’ve got it figured out. But boy, oh boy, I do not have it figured out. And it is it’s a humbling thing, to not have things figured out, especially when you are perhaps an expert in other areas of your life, right for many of us. At this point in our careers, we have a lot of competence, we have a lot of confidence. And yet it can be very helpful to shift positions into that of a beginner because it helps you to broaden your perspective. And it you know, one of the things that I love about our team is sometimes we get clinicians who are newer to the field. And you know, they are eager, and they’re excited. And they bring such valuable perspectives to our team meetings, perspectives that sometimes those who are more experienced or more expert can tend to miss because we set our expectations. So I want to talk a little bit about that. And, you know, he gives some recommendations about how to be a beginner.
Dr. Melissa Smith 10:24
So first of all, he says what all of us kind of know intuitively that being a beginner is hard, it feels much better to be good at something than to be bad. And so, you know, we just want to acknowledge that from, from the start, that being a beginner can be really challenging. And so if you don’t create opportunities for yourself, at this point in your life, you probably don’t need to be a beginner in most things. But it will be a loss for you. Because there are a lot of benefits of beginning something new. And he also makes the argument right that being a beginner can be a wonderful thing, that there is a magic to the early stages of learning something you’re more present, you’re more engaged, you can have the experience of Ah, so if your life feels stale, if you feel like I’m just doing the same thing, I’m just going through the motions, they’re really good recommendation is to begin something new. So maybe it’s a hobby, maybe it’s a community course, maybe it’s a sport, and that will help to shift you out of the stuck in a rut mentality. So of course, one of the arguments that Vanderbilt makes throughout the book is that as you learn new things, of course, you’ll learn skills, right? But you’ll also learn new things about yourself, maybe things that you didn’t know before. Maybe you open up new chambers of your identity, and that can be a beautiful thing. So he also talks about a beginner’s advantage, right? That when you have a beginner’s mind, you are open to multiple possibilities. And so this is where he talks about the Dunning Kruger effect. So if you have any experience with psychology, you’ve probably come across this, this is a really important concept to be aware of, because many of us fall into this trap.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:27
So this is based on the work of David Dunning and Justin Kruger. And they famously showed on many cognitive tests that the people who did the worst on those tests, were also the ones who most grossly overestimated their actual performance. So the Dunning Kruger effect is, when you are unskilled and unaware that you’re unskilled, that’s a dangerous place to be because you have confidence without having competence. And competence and confidence are not the same thing. As they looked at this, there was additional research that was done. And additional research later showed that the only thing worse than hardly knowing anything, was knowing a little bit more. So having a little bit of knowledge can help you to feel more competent. It can help you to feel more confident, even though you’re not actually more competent. And people make a lot of errors in those situations. But being able to approach something as a beginner, you have you’re under no delusion, that you’re competent, you don’t have any confidence in this area. And that helps you to be a humble learner. That’s what we learn about from Buddhist tradition is that we can have a beginner’s mind. And so the habits of the expert so this comes from Zen master, Suzuki, the habits of the expert can be an obstacle, especially when new solutions are demanded, because the problem is experts come to see what they expect to see. And that is definitely a phenomenon that we see in many different areas. So the habits of the expert can be a real problem. And by being a beginner, you don’t fall into this trap.
Dr. Melissa Smith 14:30
So Vanderbilt makes the case for why even experts should become beginners once in a while. Now, you just heard what I shared about experts sometimes making big errors. And you know, this is kind of in keeping with that thought. But the question a lot of people say is why should I do this? I’m already busy. It’s not relevant to my career. I’m already scrambling to keep up with the demands of a changing workplace and with life, but he makes the case for why being a dinner every once in a while is really good. So first, what he, what he shares is that hobbies, sports, those sorts of things, you know, don’t assume that those don’t apply to your work, because they certainly do. Learning has been proposed as an effective response to stress at one’s job. So by enlarging one’s sense of self, and perhaps equipping us with new capabilities, the learning becomes a stress buffer. So maybe you pick up the guitar, you start to learn the guitar. And your question is, how is this relevant to work? Well, it can be relevant in many ways. But the point here is that it can become a stress buffer. Because when we are in a learning mode, we can manage distress more effectively, because in order to learn you have to there are necessarily going to be gaps in your knowledge, you’re able to persist and stick with something. And so that’s one, one argument for why we should be a beginner. Another thing is that we’re free from from pre conceptions, unburdened by expectations. And we’re less categorical in our outlook.
Dr. Melissa Smith 16:17
Now, this is one of the points that they make in Range that David Epstein makes in range. And that is, you can, you can bring your vast experience and expertise from another domain, to the beginning to the beginner’s mind, and your ability to integrate. And, and pattern right recognize patterns across wide domains increases. And that is, Boy, that’s a winning formula. And so, when you’re a beginner, your expertise status doesn’t get in the way, but it actually becomes an advantage for you. Not because you’re necessarily going to be expert in this new skill, that because you bring a valuable perspective. So his second argument for why being a beginner is good for you, is it’s just good for you. So he says that the skill learning itself is good for you learning something new and challenging, particularly with a group has proven benefits for the novelty seeking machine, that is the brain our brains are always seeking novelty. And so with some study participants that were between the ages of 58 and 86, at the end of the study on learning, they had essentially rolled back their brain learning by 30 years, meaning they were much more effective learners. And this was after developing a various range of skills. And so these individuals not only sharpen their brain and their ability to learn, but they felt more confident, they were pleasantly surprised by their work. And they kept getting together so they increase their social connection. And the thing to understand about skill learning is that it’s additive. It’s not only about the skill, but it strengthens you in other areas.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:17
So again, if you’re an expert in one field, being a beginner in another field can actually strengthen your learning and your integration in your field of work, which I think is very cool. And he says that a lot of learning is geared towards children, but that he’s convinced that anything that’s touted as being good for children is even better for adults. And he said that that’s in part because we assume adults are done learning, but that we’re not and we shouldn’t be. And we need those benefits even more because our brains are starting to slow down. As we age, as we age, it does get more difficult to learn. And so this is another case for why being a beginner is good because we strengthen those skills. My dear grandmother always, always did the daily crossword puzzle and the different word puzzles in the newspaper. And she always said this is part of how I’m keeping my brain sharp, and she was very sharp until she died. So it was a that was a useful activity for her. Another reason that we should embrace being a beginner, is that it helps us to grow. And so what this is known as in the research is this sense of self expansion, where we can expand our identity. We have additional facets of our identity. And this can be so refreshing especially if you’re caught in a rut and so we can recapture some of the exhilaration that we experienced in a new relationship. Especially if you’re learning something new with your partner, we can, we can get to know new people. And we can get to know like minded people who have some of our same interests. And it just, it just brightens life a bit more. And finally, although there are more, but the last one I want to share with you is that learning new skills changes the way you think and the way you see the world. So in many ways, the theme here is that it expands our perspectives.
Dr. Melissa Smith 20:32
Okay, the last thing that I want to end with is Vanderbilt’s claim that skill learning is like high intensity interval training for your brain. So hit training, right, so if you’re familiar with this, this is instead of slogging out a long marathon at a slower pace, high intensity interval training is short bursts of activity, and a variety of activity. And he describes skill learning as a hit training or workout for your brain. And so let’s learn a little bit more about that. The real key about this is neural plasticity. Of course, neural plasticity is something we want, we don’t want a rigid brain. And so when we are learning new skills, we are, we’re creating more flexibility. So according to the researchers, it’s not that we increase the density of our gray matter so much, it’s really more about reshaping our gray matter to get things done to learn to get the job done within a very confined ground, right, which is the brain. And so just as our muscles get more efficient, as we learn a skill, so does our brain. And so, you know, when you when you do learn something, there can be a bit of an increase in gray matter density. But after that initial burst that comes with learning something new, that gray matter density actually declines. And so the the message there is that we use only what we need, leaving behind just enough to get the job done. And so the skill performance stays stable as density declines. And so the value of the skill learning is that you keep your brain active and nimble, and you’re strengthening those neural networks, so that your brain is working more efficiently and more effectively. And so when you learn a new skill, you’re reshaping your brain, then you’re training your brain to again, be more efficient. And you know, think about a time where you had a high intense learning environment. And you notice improvements in skills across domains. I certainly noticed that during my MBA program, that those are skill based learnings, right? If you don’t keep up with some of those skills, you’re going to lose that efficiency and that effectiveness in your brain. And so always being a beginner, the skills don’t have to necessarily be the same. But that can be very helpful. The other thing that we want to pay attention to, when it comes to how do we learn things is the importance of rest. We need sleep, even just a short rest, as one of our best learning tools. And so what happens for the resting brain, right? So when you take a step back from your studying, is that the brain consolidates the memories of what you were just trying to do. And so you know, a big part of any skill is remembering how to do it. And so taking a break gives your brain a chance to really integrate what you’ve just learned and to do an analysis of of the activity, while your brain is not trying to be actively engaged in another activity. And so that’s one of the first recommendations I give to students with their studying is make sure you’re building in rest periods, because that’s when you consolidate sleep, you’ve got to get enough sleep or you’re not going to retain what you’re learning. The brain is novelty seeking, right? And so the brain wants to be puzzled and wants to learn something new. The brain likes learning for learnings sake, because that’s how we keep those neural networks really running smoothly. And so, you you know, think about when is the last time you learn something new, when’s the last time you tried something new and get after it because it will make a big difference.
Dr. Melissa Smith 25:02
Okay, I have two last thoughts about this book. Again, it’s such a great book. So he talks about learning, becoming a virtuous cycle of skill improvement. So the more you learn, the more you enjoy it, the more you enjoy it, the more you practice, the more you practice, the better you get. Okay, so we see this characteristic of persistence, perseverance, showing up here, another way of thinking about that is grit. And so the more you learn, the more you enjoy it, and the more you practice, and the better you get. And so in that way, it becomes a virtuous cycle. And, you know, this, the thing about aging and learning is that as we age, right, we should actually do more in terms of learning in order to keep and maintain our abilities. Because as I mentioned, as we get older, our learning does slow down, it becomes less efficient. But here is the thing, the more learning older adults take on, the faster they seem to learn.
Dr. Melissa Smith 26:13
So if you have a life full of learning, even as an older adult, you will learn more quickly. And this is the really cool thing, the more they become like younger adults in terms of the efficiency of learning. And so his argument there is that learning to learn is a lifetime sport. And so I’m going to leave you with a challenge to be a beginner in something embrace being a beginner, without a hard goal about becoming an expert, or anything like that. I mean, you can have goals associated with it. That’s great. But be a beginner, embrace learning learn something about a new topic. For me, I’m going to share what I’m going to do. I play the piano, I just play the piano for myself. It’s a great stress reliever, I really enjoy it. But if I’m not playing consistently, it’s easy, so easy for that skill to fall away for me. And so my commitment is I’m going to start playing the piano again regularly. My family might not thank me for that. But that’s what I’m going to do because as I read this book, I realized boy, I missed that and I need some of that in my life.
Dr. Melissa Smith 27:25
And so I hope that this book review is helpful for you. You can head over to my website to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode at www.drmelissasmith.com/beginners one more time that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/beginners, and I am social. I hope you will connect with me on Instagram, because I’m always sharing more of the resources from the podcast across the week. So I’ve got some great some great learning tools for you there @dr.melissasmith on Instagram. I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai