Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning.
Nearly a year into a lockdown, the idea of pandemic learning has become a virtual cliché. Like some gap year gone wrong, we’re all meant to be using this global pause to explore long-subsumed passions, strengthen existing skill sets, or pick up some new pastime. Evidence abounds: Online courses are booming, at-home accoutrements from guitars to chess sets are sold out and, in that ultimate marker of zeitgeist norms, celebrity profiles feature de rigueur mentions of what hobby said star (they’re just like us!) has been dabbling in.
Don’t get me wrong: As the author of a book, begun well before the pandemic, that was precisely about learning new things – no matter your age, no matter your talent – for the sheer pleasure of learning them, I think this is great. In a year with few upsides, people have been exercising dormant muscles within themselves, plunging in with the newfound zeal of the beginner.
I might only ask: What took you so long? This is the question I asked myself, a few years back as I approached 50, when I realized it had been years since I’d learned a new skill.
The easy answer is time. Who has it? But the pandemic reshaped our days. People who once commuted to work might suddenly have had a spare hour; those whose normal pursuits were curtailed by lockdown had to find new ones. BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti once noted that viral videos thrived thanks to the “bored at work network.” Now we had a “bored at home network,” whose attention was captivated not by TMZ clips, but by “how to” videos.
Even more important than the changing notion of time was the disruption of habit. There are particularly charged moments in life when habit change seems more possible – switching jobs, moving to a new town, even taking a vacation. As a study in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing suggests, “successful habit change interventions involve disrupting the environmental factors that automatically cue habit performance.”
Helping kickstart this en masse learning movement was the widest upsetting of normal life many of us had ever seen. You couldn’t just ride out the status quo, you had, in some way or another, to learn: Google’s two most “how to” search terms in 2020 were, after all, “how to make hand sanitizer” and “how to make a mask.”
Still, changing habits is hard. Why would you want to try to learn something new – and not immediately relevant to your life and career – and risk being bad at it when you could safely stick with what you’re good at?
There are many reasons, most of which go well beyond the contingencies of the pandemic and have lasting utility. The first is just sheer pleasure. I’m a firm believer in the idea, espoused by the philosopher John Stuart Mill, that happiness lies not in the seeking of happiness, but in the doing of things that bring you pleasure. When I began taking vocal lessons, for example, I soon found that the lessons and practice, far from seeming obligatory drudgery, actually made me feel good (small wonder, singing is linked with all kinds of health benefits, physical and mental).
This feeling good did not necessarily correlate with me actually being any good at singing. In our performance-driven culture, with perfectionism on the rise, it can be hard to remember that satisfaction does not have be twinned with mastery. As the writer G.K. Chesterton noted, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. What’s precisely so rewarding in taking on something new is that you are freed from hitting performance benchmarks or meeting societal expectations; there’s none of that dreaded “impostor syndrome” because no one actually expects you to be any good.
Chances are, you will get better, and of the most intoxicating things about being a beginner is how much of the progress comes in the early days. Resist the temptation to place hard-set goals in whatever you take up: Let learning itself be the goal. And the goals need not be huge. What Robert Twiggers calls “micromastery” – cooking an omelet, doing some small home repair – keeps the learning muscles limber, and may lead to bigger things.
Another powerful reason to become a beginner is the promise of self-expansion. Even when you can’t change the larger circumstances around you, you can change yourself. Trying to learn a skill expands your world, almost by default: You’re speaking a new language (think of the rich vocabulary of pursuits such as sailing or fishing), moving your body in new ways and new places, meeting people you might not have met.
You will gradually see a grammatical change in yourself, moving from verb to noun. You were singing, now you’re a “singer.” But don’t get too hung up on the nouns. We don’t label children that way as we encourage them to gleefully explore any number of disciplines. Don’t think of it as résumé building, or some “side hustle” in waiting, though that temptation is always there. “Hobbies are a contradiction,” historian Steven Gelber once wrote. “They take work and turn it into leisure, and take leisure and turn it into work.”
Lastly, and especially during the pandemic, resist the temptation to think that learning new pursuits might seem trivial, or selfish. As a recent article in Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy notes, the pandemic has brought any number of potential triggers for “psychological distress,” including the isolation brought on by distancing requirements, or “a sense of meaninglessness due to uncontrollable circumstances.” One way to counter the feelings, the authors suggest, is to “connect purposefully with the world” by “engaging in hobbies” or “learning new skills.”
The world’s horizons may have temporarily shrunk, but yours need not.
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