The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning

Published by Penguin Random House

Beginners by Tom Vanderbilt

“Tom Vanderbilt elegantly and persuasively tackles one of the most pernicious of the lies we tells ourselves — that the pleasures of learning are reserved for the young. Beginners belongs with David Epstein’s Range on the list of books that have changed the way I understand my own limitations.”

— Malcolm Gladwell

Why do so many of us stop learning new skills as adults? Are we afraid to be bad at something? Have we forgotten the sheer pleasure of beginning from the ground up? Or is it simply a fact that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Inspired by his young daughter’s insatiable need to know how to do almost everything, Tom Vanderbilt begins a year of learning purely for the sake of learning. He tackles five skills, choosing them for their difficulty to master and their lack of marketability–chess, singing, surfing, drawing, and juggling. What he doesn’t expect is that the circuitous journey he takes while learning these skills will be even more satisfying than any knowledge he gains.

He soon finds himself having a rapturous experience singing R.E.M. in an amateur choir, losing games of chess to an eight-year old child, and avoiding scorpions at a surf camp in Costa Rica. Along the way, he explores the fascinating psychology and science behind the benefits of becoming an adult beginner. Weaving comprehensive research and surprising insight gained from his experiences, Vanderbilt shows how anyone can get better at beginning again. And he shares how his new sense of curiosity opened him up to a profound happiness and a deeper connection to the people around him. Beginners is not a “how to” book as much as a “why to” book. It’s about how small acts of reinvention, at any age, can make life seem magical


“Accessible and highly informative, the book is a fast-paced exploration of the science of skill acquisition and a delightful account of journalist Vanderbilt’s personal adventures among fellow new learners…  Despite the inevitable setbacks, his is an empowering story that will have adventuresome readers eager to head off in search of some new challenge the moment they’ve put it down. An engaging perspective on the joys of embarking on the process of learning something new.”
— Shelf Awareness

“[A] charming celebration of lifelong learning… [Vanderbilt] makes a persuasive case for the benefits—cognitive, physical, emotional, and social—of being a beginner. This enjoyable reminder to embrace the ‘small acts of reinvention, at any age, that can make life seem magical’ will appeal to those who enjoyed Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
— Publishers Weekly

“Tom Vanderbilt elegantly and persuasively tackles one of the most pernicious of the lies we tells ourselves–that the pleasures of learning are reserved for the young. Beginners belongs with David Epstein’s Range on the list of books that have changed the way I understand my own limitations.”
— Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of Outliers

“This is Vanderbilt’s great revelation – that in a world where apps constantly rate us and measure our performance, so that learning anything becomes another form of work, we should enjoy the process more and worry less about the product. All he achieves in the end is a modest competency in various unrelated activities. But it has brought him “an immense and almost forgotten kind of pleasure”. This book conveys that pleasure and is itself a pleasure to read.”

—Joe Moran, The Guardian 

Beginners is ultimately about more than learning. It’s about the possibilities that reside in all of us.”
— Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author of When, Drive, and To Sell is Human

“Tom Vanderbilt’s book explores how to learn completely new skills, how to change our world – even after we’re supposed to be done with schooling. This is a book about how to become a beginner again, and it makes you want to plunge in with both feet.” 
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better

“A thoughtful and stirring look into the art and science of lifelong learning. Currently, I’m learning Gaelic, dressmaking and how to lay floors. Last year, it was knitting and coding. I’m 50, and not supposed to be a beginner any more — according to society’s conventions — but Tom Vanderbilt turns that flawed assumption on its head with the grace with which he learns to reach a high note or surf a wave.”
Rose George, author of Ninety Percent of Everything

“A great book about the power of being a beginner.”
—Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project

“Tom Vanderbilt shows us why it’s never too late to be a beginner, and that there should be no shame associated with the word ‘dilettante.’ Now I’m off to learn how to play the trombone, speak Portuguese and bake soufflés”
— A.J. Jacobs, bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically 

“A wonderful and inspirational book. The only thing that will make you put it down is a burning desire to try something new. It’s full of the sort of encouragement and wisdom that bridges the small, tricky gulf between enthusiasm and action. A book that will launch thousands of journeys that might not otherwise have happened and prove life-changing for many who take those first steps.”
—Tristan Gooley, author of The Natural Navigator

‘You don’t have to try all the activities that Tom Vanderbilt took on in his heroic, self-sacrificial effort to persuade us of the benefits of learning throughout life. After you read this invigorating book, you might want to take a nap. But then you’ll get up, refreshed, ready to learn a new skill. You’ll be ready to begin.’
—Carol Tavris, Ph.D., co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)
‘Witty, well-researched, myth-busting and curiously of the moment. Vanderbilt tells a compelling tale. Eighty pages in, I joined a choir.’ 
—Robert Penn, author of It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels

“It’s impossible to pick up a book by Tom Vanderbilt without learning something. An engaging and fascinating mix of the personal and the general. I never thought I’d read a book that could persuade me to take up juggling, but this one did it.”
—Robert Colvile

“Vanderbilt.. composes lucid prose and explains concepts… with relative ease, and his thesis is practical and worthwhile… compelling… A solid beginner’s guide to beginning.”

Beginners is ultimately about more than learning. It’s about the possibilities that reside in all of us.”
–Daniel H. Pink, New York Times best-selling author of When, Drive, and To Sell is Human