As we enter a new year with all its hopes – a new year, a new you, a new world restored – there is one thing of the horror of the past year that we must continue and even deepen: the spirit of the newcomer.
The pandemic has turned us all into newcomers. Suddenly the usual approaches were no longer possible. Governments and companies have tried to develop new protocols and we have all struggled to reinvent activities in our daily lives. From the zoom queue to the mask tag, we have seen a disturbing learning curve in the company.
Equally remarkable is the number of people who decide to learn something new in the event of such a failure. E-learning sites such as Skillshare, Duolingo and Coursera have experienced exceptional growth. Enrollment in online art and music classes increased, while aspiring bakers flooded the helplines of the King Arthur Baker Flour Company in Vermont. Even before the Queen’s Gambit, online chess training flourished. From gardening to camping, from cycling to sewing, people start doing new things with ease.
Even when we undertake new activities, we try to overcome the stagnation of the usual routines, especially when we are older.
But cultivating new skills and habits is not an easy task. Even when we undertake new activities, we find it difficult to free ourselves from the stagnation of our usual routine, especially when we are older. I had this feeling a few years ago when I suddenly realised that I was giving my young daughter all kinds of courses and lessons, from swimming to piano, and that I couldn’t remember the last new skill I had learned. I froze into a preparatory being and fell into the competence of middle age.
So I decided to become a beginner in some of the things I’ve been trying to learn for a long time, from singing to surfing. It’s hard to be a beginner – it’s better to be good at something than bad. It’s even harder for adults. There is a hint of sweet pity in the adult newcomer’s expression. It’s about learning something you should have learned by now.
Baking is a skill that many Americans wanted to learn during the pandemic.
Even if the first steps are difficult, they’re worth it: Becoming a recruit is one of the most important things you can do.
A good starting point is to start juggling. The innocent little act of throwing balls in the air has been demonstrated in a number of neurological studies to change the brain. This so-called activation-dependent structural plasticity occurs after seven days. Juggling changes not only the grey matter, the processing centres of the brain, but also the white matter, the network connections that connect everything together. Learning a new skill requires that the neural tissue functions in a new way, explains Tobias Schmidt-Wilke, neurobiologist (and juggler) at the German University of Bochum.
After that first burst of activity, the brain calms down. Over time you can perform this skill without thinking too much about it, when the density of the gray matter will automatically decrease. So you try a new juggling trick, and the process starts all over again. It is interesting to note that changes in brain density occur in both the elderly and the young.
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But there’s a caveat: The older you are, the harder you have to work. As they get older, says Dr. Schmidt-Wilke, they have to do more, not less, to maintain and develop their capacities. However, there is one happy turn of events: The more adults learn, the faster they learn, the more they become like boys.
And learning a skill, even if you don’t master it, has advantages that go beyond the skill itself. In a study by the University of Texas Vitality Center with people aged 60 to 90, the subjects were divided into two groups. One followed courses in digital photography and quilting, the other just came together to socialize. Subjects who participated in the class experienced greater improvements in various cognitive domains, ranging from episodic memory to processing speed.
Brain enlargement is not the only reason to be a beginner. There is also a feeling of growth, a feeling that you have become someone new, which you can only excite if you tell other people. Like the old joke: How do you know if someone’s a triathlete? They’ll tell you.
During my own training I met people for whom the acquisition of new skills helped them rebuild their identity after a marriage break or redefine their lives after a major setback. Adrian sang to regain his speaking skills after a brain tumor; Steve tried to juggle five balls in his 80s to remain agile.8 Patricia learned to swim in her 70s, first on YouTube, and now leaves the open sea of rides to others.
For older people, acquire a new skill, such as B. Swimming, bring a sense of personal growth.
This feeling of personal growth can also apply to couples. Research shows that couples who undertake new and challenging activities together regain some of the initial joy they felt when they first met and that the positive feelings they experience, for example, are more important. For example, when attending a dance class have lived, transferred to the relationship itself.
There is also a sense of growth when you meet new people who have the same desire to learn new things, the same desire to look stupid. In psychology this is called openness to experience. It is one of the personality traits of the Big Five – along with extroversion, consciousness, neuroticism and pleasantness – that offer different psychological models that define us. It is also increasingly associated with longevity. The exact reasons are not yet clear, but psychologists theorise that openness brings cognitive and behavioural flexibility that is useful for later tasks.
Even experts in the field can benefit from the preservation of what Zen Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki called the mind of the beginner – the absence of prejudices that beginners usually show. The potential usefulness of this world view is illustrated by the famous problem of candles in psychology, where test subjects are asked to hold a candle against the wall with nothing more than a matchbox and a box of sticks. People find it difficult to solve the problem because they see the box as a container for bags and do not realize that it can be attached to the wall and used as a shelf for a candle.
However, in an experiment published in 2000 in the journal Cognition, a group achieved fairly good results with the candle problem: Five-year-olds. Why is that? Compared to older children or adults, young children have a broader criterion for what can be considered an object function, psychologists Tim Herman and Margaret Ann Defeiter write. They consider the function of an object in terms of all the objectives of its users, and not in terms of a particular function originally intended.
Skills don’t have to be work-related to help your career.
We often associate the acquisition of new skills with career development, which is certainly a laudable goal. But skills don’t have to be work-related to help your career. As we expand with new activities, we see more. As David Epstein notes in his book Range: Why generals in a specialized world are at least 22 times more likely than other scientists to be actors, dancers, magicians or other types of amateur artists.
Computer pioneer and amateur juggler Claude Shannon in 1979.
Steve Hansen/LIFE image collection/Image purchase
Take, for example, Claude Shannon, the brilliant mathematician and polymathologist at MIT who helped invent the digital world in which we now live. He immerses himself in all kinds of activities and regularly becomes a beginner, an openness that is characteristic of his work. As Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman write in their biography Shannon Mind at Play: Time and again he attacked projects that might have bothered others, asked questions that seemed trivial or unimportant, and then managed to draw conclusions. One of his favorite pastimes? Juggling.
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We can get important clues from a group of researchers who are literally beginners: Toddlers learn to walk. In the New York University Children’s Laboratory, led by psychologist Karen Adolph, researchers have learned a lot about how children move. The average young child (12 to 19 months) travels about eight football pitches per hour, taking about 2,400 steps. In about 2.6 million steps they become skilled walkers.
But they’re gonna lose a lot of weight along the way. Beginners, who struggle with almost every step to maintain their balance, can have up to 30 falls per hour. They are learning machines, ruthlessly curious and designed to make mistakes. They take 14,000 steps a day with an error rate that would be extremely daunting – even catastrophic – for adult beginners trying to learn a certain skill.
If the kids had kept crawling, they wouldn’t have fallen so hard. But walking has all kinds of advantages. Babies walk faster in the first week than they crawl at 21 weeks, says Dr. Adolph. And that’s not all. So their hands are free. This way they can see more, because crawling babies usually look at the ground. It helps them to acquire a capacity for social action and gives them more control over their environment.
Surprisingly, children do not seem to tolerate what they have learned by crawling and walking. In a series of laboratory experiments, babies were exposed to all kinds of new situations, such as descending a steep slope. A striking pattern was observed. Babies who see the intimidating case of 36 degrees as a learned caterpillar will avoid it or approach it cautiously. New hikers, however, tend to rush up the slopes, or descend from the cliff into the saving arms of a seasoned experimenter.
Babies spend about one third of the day walking for six months.
Doesn’t it make sense for children to retain knowledge of these risks? Not necessarily, Dr. Adolph. Babies grow at an incredible rate – what works for a crawling baby doesn’t necessarily work for a walking baby. The most important thing, she says: You don’t want the baby to learn to stop trying. As absolute beginners, toddlers need a way of learning – of learning to learn – that is flexible, that allows them to adapt to new situations, that accepts many mistakes, often for no apparent reason.
For adults the lessons are clear. One is that skills take time. Babies spend about a third of the day practicing walking at the age of six months (and perfect it only a few years later). So don’t worry if you’re still playing tennis in a few months.
The other is the importance of changing your practice. Babies never take the same walk twice. They’re not training, they’re exploring. You don’t want to teach a baby the right way to walk so you can practice it in the castle. When it comes to learning, variability is essential. What at first appears to be clumsiness or coincidence may just be the beginning of learning a range of possible solutions, which seems to encourage faster learning.
Babies remind us that progress is often not linear. Learning takes place afterwards and starts.
Babies also remind us that progress is often not linear. The learning is done in accordance with and begins. Levels are only approximate. Evolution does not always move evenly in one direction. Babies can learn to walk and then briefly return to the crawling state. Progress is often U-shaped, which means that children (and adults) often get worse before they get better. Finally, Dr. Adolph said that young children seem to learn best when they are operating at the limits of their current abilities. In other words: Always stand on the edge of what you can’t do now.
It’s not easy. If it’s easy for you, don’t study. Babies’ lives fall after the fall until their brains and bodies, as in all situations, slowly understand how to stop the fall. Babies live in what you might call a beginner’s creed: If you don’t learn to fail, you won’t learn.
So make Rookie your slogan for 2021. Make sure, however, that your resolutions do not receive too much attention. Don’t pretend you’re a piano maker or a painter like Picasso. You can live longer than you would want in the first place, even if you start complaining about things that should change your life. Decide instead to try to learn new skills – the more the better – and most importantly, give yourself permission to be bad at it. Let the learning process itself be your goal.
This essay has been adapted from Mr. Vanderbilt’s new book Beginners: The joy and transformative power of lifelong learning, held at 5. January in Knopf.
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