“Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” — Henry Ford
I played piano as a kid, but my time spent on music was eventually overtaken by sports as I got into high school. About 10 years ago, though, as my own children were learning how to play different instruments, I decided I would reengage with music. I found a professional musician named Buzz who lived a few miles away from me and enlisted his help with piano lessons. He has the patience of Job, and helped me jump back in. Over the past few years, this has become one of my very favorite core pursuits. I particularly love playing with friends and essentially having live band karaoke. Playing music as an adult has been 10 times more fun than playing music as a kid.
Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but never learned? All too often, I hear from people that they feel like it’s too late to pursue that dream as adults.
Not so, says Tom Vanderbilt, blogger, journalist, and bestselling author. His advice would be to sign up for lessons now.
I had the opportunity to sit down for a fantastic interview with Vanderbilt for my podcast, “Retire Sooner.” We talked about the power of picking up new hobbies throughout life — a form of lifelong learning. His experience with and advice for trying new things is right in line with what I know about “core pursuits,” or the passion projects that retirees know and love. The lesson is simple: pick something new and dive in without fear.
His book, “Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning,” explores why, in our modern era, the expert is revered, while the novice learning something fresh and new is almost scoffed at. He explains why this rigid categorization of education isn’t helpful for a life well-lived.
Much to the contrary, the pursuit of a new hobby does much to enrich your life. And the slips and stumbles you undoubtedly experience along the way are incredible learning opportunities — both about the activity and yourself.
A true believer in lifelong learning, Vanderbilt knows from experience that if we keep looking at the world with a childlike curiosity, we’ll find new and unique things we want to do.
Let’s look at early childhood. When learning how to walk, infants fail up to 70 times an hour, yet they remain tenacious and keep trying. They have a supportive audience, and they’re just exploring without the judgment that accompanies an adult’s mind. They take a misstep, learn, and keep going until they eventually learn to walk on their own.
The idea for Vanderbilt’s book came from a child — his then-4-year-old daughter. She saw a chessboard and asked him to play. He said he never learned how to play, but didn’t like just telling her he couldn’t play. So, Vanderbilt hired a chess coach for both of them.
“Kids are sponges, and part of that is because they just don’t have anything else in their brain.
“Whereas adults, we have years of clutter,” says Vanderbilt.
The chess experience was elating for him (although his daughter far surpassed his abilities in just a year!), and it led to the realization there were other things that he wanted to learn that he had never considered before. Today, for example, he’s a pretty darn good juggler.
Vanderbilt believes there are cultural biases on learning. These biases make us feel that it’s OK for a 4-year-old to take vocal lessons, but it’s not OK for someone in their 60s, for example. “We have to do away with this bias,” he says.
And there are other barriers. Adult beginners come up with strong goals.
“It ends up crushing us. The mental voice inside our heads that tells us that we can’t get good is a larger thing than the skill,” says Vanderbilt. So, it serves us more to start small in our expectations and just lean into the process of learning.
Where do we begin on our quest toward new learning curves? Vanderbilt’s advice is to start with a short list. If someone were to ask what you want to learn to do, how would you answer? He advises not to limit your response to just one endeavor; it may turn out that you don’t like that one thing. But with a list, you’re bound to glean enjoyment from at least one of the hobbies.
As for the route of learning — and failing — Vanderbilt says to let the process be the goal and not your progress. When you hit the inevitable hurdles, don’t become discouraged; see where these setbacks take you. Try to see them as opportunities rather than setbacks. “Failures” are fertile ground for self-expansion.
“People always think that they’re always going to be who they are in that moment, but you’re always different from who you were 10 years ago,” says Vanderbilt. Having these hobbies gives you more ways to appreciate life — a new core pursuit could open the door to a whole new world.
And sure, it’s tough to be a beginner, but that’s part of the beauty. A steep learning curve to most people means discomfort, but instead, it’s a beautiful thing to encounter because it means you’re quickly making progress.
During life changes, learning new things can be all the more transformative. Vanderbilt shared a story about a man with a brain tumor who, after a successful operation, still had lost the ability to speak. While he was in the hospital, a friend brought him a CD of the band Oasis. Slowly, he began to sing along despite still not being able to speak. Later he joined a choir, which helped him relearn how to speak again.
Another story was about a woman going through a tough divorce. She decided to take up surfing, something that she had never done before — it belonged to her only. In the water, there’s physical and mental stress. But surfing helped her work through her emotions about her divorce, and she discovered a new life passion in the process, too.
A theme in Vanderbilt’s book is that beginners are often starting over in other areas of their life. (Retirement, anyone?)
I asked Vanderbilt to give all of my listeners and readers permission to start a new core pursuit. His response? An emphatic “absolutely!”
“We get so obsessed with our job resume, but what about our life resume?” says Vanderbilt.
That we tend to learn more from our failures than from our successes is a life truth. But do we live this way in our adult lives? Tom Vanderbilt says we should.
Why not write your to-learn list? Remember that, as a beginner, you’re going to make mistakes. But, like intrepid infants, you build self-confidence by failing.
As you learn, you’ll realize that it’s not always our most celebrated wins that provide memorable moments. Often, it’s how we fare early on. So, go ahead and make a beginning. Who knows? You might pick up a new core pursuit (or two).