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Why it’s okay to be just okay at something

In a new book, Tom Vanderbilt stresses the importance of being a beginner—learning new things for the sake of learning and without the pressure of excelling at them.

February 28, 2021 / 12:01 PM IST
Dancing, chess, drawing, surfing or singing—learning something new is good for our brain. (Image: Reuters)

Dancing, chess, drawing, surfing or singing—learning something new is good for our brain. (Image: Reuters)

Since the advent of the smartphone, a lot of our time is spent using it for work or mindless surfing but there are times that this modern ill results in a deeper realisation.

When writer Tom Vanderbilt took his daughter for extra-curricular activities such as piano, taekwondo or football, he would be on the phone answering mails or playing a game. Or he vegetated—looking here and there till his daughter finished.

It dawned on him that he was not practising what he preached. Vanderbilt decided to devote a year learning new things like chess, drawing, surfing and singing. He even learnt juggling.

But the difference was that his approach to the activities was the opposite of what is recommended—it’s ok to not excel and learn things for the sake of learning and a few attendant benefits.

The result of this experience was Vanderbilt’s recently released book, Beginners. It is written from the standpoint of a middle-aged person, whose brain is past the age of easily absorbing and storing new knowledge. And so it accepts a breed that is otherwise derided—the jacks of all trades and the dilettantes.


Speaking about the moment when he was with his daughter and the penny dropped, Vanderbilt told the BBC, “I was impressing upon her the importance of having a broad education in all these different skills. But she might have easily asked me, ‘Well, why don't you do all these things then?’ "

As for his take-it-easy policy, he said, “As adults, we instantly put pressure on ourselves with goals. We feel like we don't have the luxury to engage in learning for learning’s sake.”

However, not putting pressure on yourself to ace something does not mean you do not try to improve. But how do you that beyond the obvious ways? In chess, Vanderbilt felt that hours of online games were not as useful without also observing the tactics of the pros. Analysing the reason for your losses with a chess teacher was important too.

Vanderbilt also stressed on variations in practice. It hones our skill and is also good for the brain. For instance, during juggling, Vanderbilt would change the objects in his hand or the height he tossed them to. He would juggle sitting as well as standing. This was “repetition without repetition”, a scientist told the writer. It forces the brain’s established patterns to become more flexible, allowing a person to cope with unpredictable obstacles.

Vanderbilt urges people to not get bogged down by worry about the time it would take to achieve s new skill.

“You may be surprised by the speed of your progress,” he says. “A lot of people get hung up on the idea that this is just a massive time investment—that there's no end of the road—and that's very daunting to them.”

He talks from experience. It took Vanderbilt around the same time it takes to binge watch a show to make remarkable strides in drawing.

What do you want to become? Couch potato-like everyone else or a decent artist? The choice is yours.

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Akshay Sawai
first published: Feb 28, 2021 12:01 pm
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