The New Book That Captures the MEA Ethos.
Today, we have six generations of adults inhabiting our planet. The original 20th-century premise of adulthood learning revolved around the simple idea that we would learn until early adulthood and then use that learning for the rest of our lives.
Of course, that’s like suggesting a banana will stay ripe for years. And we all know what happens to a too-ripe banana: it ends up in a smoothie, just like a too-ripe adult ends up in an unemployment line.
Author Tom Vanderbilt should be teaching at MEA. The subtitle of his new book says it all: “The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning.” The actual title is” Beginners,” by which he means a bold new way of being and thinking that could grant us all an extra decade or two of life...and a happier life at that.
Sharing his personal story of learning chess with his daughter forty years younger, Vanderbilt weaves in compelling social science research, demonstrating our capacity to learn something new at any age. He makes the distinction between knowing that (facts) with knowing how (experiencing life), with a caution that as we get older, we tend to give up the “how” for the “that.”
Why? Because of our fear of trying something new, which for many of us equates to looking like an idiot.
He also launches into an ambitious curriculum of skill development, focusing on singing, surfing, juggling and drawing, with briefer diversions into open-water swimming and jewelry crafting. No bread baking, improv, or meditation, but this author definitely would fit in here on the MEA campus. He even espouses the social value of being bad as a beginner amongst other adult newbies. Being bad in a group of newbies makes you feel less bad,and shifts you into having fun which offers the threshold to skill development.
Vanderbilt goes on to remind us that babies are not self-conscious when they learn to walk. “Their ability to be bad, and have everyone be okay with that, is a crucial part of how they get good,” he says. He also quotes scholar Tim Wu, who suggests, “To permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment.” And, I would add, a rather dull cage at that.
Yes, we indeed lose one neuron per second from age twenty on (and that’s before the nightly margarita). Of course, part of the value of learning is to keep those synapses firing in our noggins, but the real pleasure comes in trying something new and approaching it with fresh eyes. The goal of becoming a beginner is not just about getting smarter or more proficient at something (for whatever reason still exists in our ego). Becoming a beginner allows us to re-engage with life in new ways and rediscover both the intrinsic wonders of the world and the natural talents we can build at any age. Becoming a beginner gives us confidence at the exact time we need it most. The banana turns back the clock. We’re perfectly ripe again.
P.S. This book surfaced a question that I will start asking at cocktail parties (when those start up again):
In what ways are you a beginner right now? What hobbies, skills, or topics have you started exploring for the first time in the past year?
It’s also a question I will continue asking myself.