Beginners by Tom Vanderbilt review – it's never too late to learn

Singing, juggling, surfing, playing chess … a year of gaining new skills reveals the pleasures of the learning process

Most highly skilled fields have rude names for beginners. In surfing you’re a “kook”, in chess a “patzer”, in competitive cycling a “Fred” and in the US army a “boot”. “Dilettante”, from the Italian dilettare, to delight, has come to mean a frivolous dabbler. “Amateur”, with its roots in the French word for love, now often means inept, bungling, uncommitted.

And yet there has never been a better time to be a beginner. Learning platforms such as Coursera, Skillshare and Duolingo sell you an experience that you can fit around your busy life, achieving mastery in short bursts. The enforced inertia of lockdown seems to have led to a wave of intellectual and creative self-improvement, at least for the first few weeks. As a man arrested for illegally performing cosmetic surgery put it: “Pretty close to anything you want to learn you can learn off YouTube for free.” More than 100 “Smule babies” have been reported by couples who met performing duets on the online singing app.

In this book, Tom Vanderbilt joins the growing army of beginners. Stuck in a gentle rut of mid-career competence, he decides to spend a year learning new skills. He hires a singing teacher and joins the Britpop Choir, which performs songs by Blur and Oasis. He takes up drawing, then surfing. He learns to juggle. With the help of a jeweller, he even makes his own wedding ring. None of these undertakings turn into life-altering passions. They are simply “capricious and tenacious enthusiasms”, in James Dickey’s phrase, done for the fun of it.

The spur for all this comes from Vanderbilt’s experience of parenthood, an “epistemically unique” activity which can only be learned in the doing of it. All parents are beginners, and beginner teachers, clumsily passing on knowledge to their children (never more so than this year). As he watches his daughter effortlessly picking up how to swim or play chess, Vanderbilt worries that he has left it too late. “It’s hard to be old and bad at something,” as a friend, returning to hockey in middle age, puts it.

The same doubts have plagued me as, in the last couple of years, and at a similar age to Vanderbilt, I too have taken up singing. Is it worth investing so much effort in my voice when it will already be succumbing to gentle, age-induced decline? Vanderbilt doesn’t try to gloss the hard facts about learning and ageing – babies learn best of all – but he offers some cautious reasons for hope, and shows that learning at any age is good for you.

He also passes on plenty of good technical advice. For instance, we tend to fixate on the idea of a “high” note as something just that – vertically high – when it is nothing of the sort. So when straining for a “high” note we lift our heads up, tighten our shoulders and even stand on tiptoe, reaching for that note on the ceiling – all things that make it harder to reach. The tongue, Vanderbilt finds, is the singer’s worst enemy because it gets in the way of exhaled breath and sound. So focus on the vowels; vowels are the voice and consonants are its interruption. Even if you’re not a singer, this is all fascinating.

Vanderbilt learns that beginners are all alike: they make the same mistakes. Novice archers always grip the bow too tightly and aim too long. Novice chess players always move their pawns too much and bring out the queen too early. Novice artists always overstress the things that are important to them. When drawing a face, they make the eyes too big and higher up than they are actually are, and the forehead too small. They draw the object they see in their heads, not the series of lines and angles in front of them. The good news is that, since beginners all fail in similar ways, they can all get better in similar ways.

There is a certain bittiness to this book, with each section on a particular skill feeling self-contained. This is partly because, as Vanderbilt concedes, skill learning is specific. Nothing about trying to stand up on a wobbly surfboard will help you learn to draw. Even skills like surfing and cycling, which both require good balance and body strength, have little crossover.

Gradually, though, an overall argument emerges, even if Vanderbilt is overfond of supporting it with the standard formulae “according to research” and “studies have found”. He believes, like Zen Buddhists, that we should all cultivate a beginner’s mind, as an encouragement to creativity, openness and humility. Being a beginner is good for the brain, because you are putting it through the equivalent of “a variety of high-intensity interval workouts”. Absorption in any new activity is meditative and makes you see the world differently. After his drawing classes, Vanderbilt finds himself stopping in the street to study “the subtle dynamics of a cityscape reflected in a car’s hood, or the textural pattern on the peel of an orange”.

Hearteningly, he achieves tangible results with relatively little painful effort. People appreciate his inexpert but improved singing, because most people can’t sing very well. The title of one scholarly paper he cites – “Imprecise singing is widespread” – says it all. The acid test is “Happy Birthday”, the most familiar song in the language and yet quite hard to sing, because it spans an octave and moves up and down it dramatically. Juggling is another crowd-pleasing skill that can be learned in just a few days, once you teach your brain that it is less about throwing individual objects than “throwing to a pattern, like tossing to a little algorithm in the sky”. He quickly establishes that juggling gains you instant kudos among any group of seven-year-olds.

This story mirrors mine. After you have been doing your job for as long as Vanderbilt and I have, people simply expect you to be proficient and stop praising you for your work. This is especially true in my own field of academia, where most of the feedback you get is critique; unqualified praise is rare and viewed, I have long suspected, as vulgar. But when I resolved recently, in lockdown, to learn how to play the spoons, I found out how easy it was to impress people with little clips posted on YouTube. After a couple of months spent learning a superficially difficult skill, I was receiving the kind of affirmation I had not had since primary school.

But it’s not really about the praise. As someone who, like Vanderbilt, mostly “pushes electrons for a living”, the tactility of learning a new skill is itself comforting and grounding. This is Vanderbilt’s great revelation – that in a world where apps constantly rate us and measure our performance, so that learning anything becomes another form of work, we should enjoy the process more and worry less about the product. All he achieves in the end is a modest competency in various unrelated activities. But it has brought him “an immense and almost forgotten kind of pleasure”. This book conveys that pleasure and is itself a pleasure to read. It made me want to get back to my singing, and my spoons.

• Beginners: The Curious Power of Lifelong Learning is published by Atlantic (£16.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.


Joe Moran

The GuardianTramp

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