December 23, 2021

Tom Vanderbilt on the Beginner’s Mindset, and Benefits of Practice

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #69

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book Beginners, in which he tackles learning skills simply for the sake of learning. According to Vanderbilt, it’s about “how small acts of reinvention, at any age, can make life seem magical.”

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Tom sat down with Sam and discussed parenting, the beginner’s mindset, and the benefits of practice.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 3 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Vanderbilt shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • You can always keep getting better.
  • Positive feedback has a stronger role than negative feedback.
  • One of the great things about being a beginner is that it creates this sense of empathy.

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: I guess maybe to start, Tom, what made you write the book? 

Tom: It’s a good question, Sam, and thanks for having me on the podcast. But you know, I was a middle-aged dad and was faced with this situation one day when I was in the library with my daughter. We were playing a game of checkers and she saw this chessboard nearby and she was quite young and it looked intriguing to her because chess looks kind of cool.

And she said, can we play that? And I was like, Yeah, I’d love to, but I actually don’t know how, and this was sort of a horrible thing to have to admit to your daughter, number one. But secondly, as a kind of a middle-aged person in mid-career when you’re supposed to be competent at everything, to sort of admit that you actually don’t know how to do something is hard.

So I quickly tried to learn how to play this game and was struggling a bit with it. I thought maybe I could use some help. Maybe my daughter could use some help. So I hired this coach, which seems kind of weird for a four-year-old, but that’s what parents do nowadays. And I said, can you teach us both at the same time? We’ll both be beginners, we’ll have all these years between us, but we both want to learn and take on this new thing. And for me, it was more than about just wanting to learn myself. I really wanted to model learning for my daughter. So I think one of the things that happens with parents in particular is that they’re often espousing these things that they themselves are not actually living in their own life, like the importance of learning, when often they’ve stopped learning new things. And so I thought, if my daughter could see me struggle, and be sort of bad at something, rather than just being this figure of constant authority and this omniscient source, I’d like to think that this would be a benefit.

She could see that everyone struggles. You may have to put in some work, but you probably will get better and here’s how to do it. And so an experiment was born and from there, I just went out and wanted to tackle some other things that had long been on, let’s say like a life bucket list. And that’s kind of where the book took root.

Sam: How long did it take you?

Tom: I mean, it was kind of several years of just doing the things. And when I say the things, it ranges from learning how to surf to singing, to drawing. I took a crack at juggling and there were reasons for doing all these things. But I didn’t want to be like, ‘can I do this in 30 days,’ I really wanted to take my time with them and go through it slowly, see what I could learn about the process itself. Not just trying to be like, ‘okay, I popped up on the board, I surfed a wave, check, that’s done, let’s move on’. Because all these things I picked, like many skills, they sort of never end. I mean, you can always keep getting better and there’s sort of a progression here and that can get more satisfying, the deeper you go. 

However, it’s also very satisfying in the early stages. And this was kind of what I’m obsessed about being a beginner, which I think is such an intoxicating yet nerve wracking condition, especially for adults, many of whom have not been beginners in quite a while, whether in their jobs or in their life, to suddenly have to go back and take a crack at something the way kids do never having done it before. And you know you’re going to fall, you know you’re going to be embarrassed, but yet the progress is also very fast. You can go from never having skied in your life to after one afternoon becoming a skier. Not a great skier, let’s say, but a skier and that’s sort of switched from verb to noun, like you’re skiing, then I’m a skier. That’s a very powerful thing I think. And so I took my time and then I finally tried to write up the findings. So it was like three years total, in answer to your question. 

Sam: Yeah. I think one of the stories in the beginning that caught my attention and I can totally relate to was, it sounded like you were, I think, at a tournament and you were looking around at other parents who sounded like they were either on their phones or sort of checked out from the activities that were happening. In the book you made the comment like, ‘why aren’t you playing? Why aren’t you practicing?’

And I have a four-year-old daughter, so I can relate to when you go to the park, or watch a youth sporting event, and again, parents are always on the sidelines, just standing there on their phones. So it was very visual for me. 

Tom: Yeah. This is something that happens all the time and I’ve talked to various people, I met someone who was in the city of Fort Worth, Texas, they were doing this blue zones program, which was to try to make the whole city healthier. And this woman would go to her son’s soccer game every week and saw the parents have these folding lawn chairs, and they’re just sitting around the whole time. Meanwhile, the community has some health issues. So she says, ‘why don’t we go for a walk’? That walk started to lead into running.

So just to say, I think something happens with parents, or let’s say middle-aged adults, you sort of give up in a certain sense. We think learning is for the young. If we haven’t already taken a crack at something, it’s too late, we’re never going to be great. This is for the kids, let’s just sit on the sidelines. I would argue that there’s a lot of benefit to trying something at any age. 

And not that you’re going to become great at it necessarily, or it’s going to become a side hustle, cause I certainly don’t have the 10,000 hours that is the famously required benchmark for achieving mastery in something. I probably had a hundred hours to try to take a crack at some of these things, probably less than that for surfing.  But even in that short time span, there were things that I found immensely satisfying and I think benefited me as a whole, and I think would listeners as well.

Sam: I’m interested to know, you had a lot of different coaches as you went through all these different experiences. What stood out to you about maybe the actions or the behaviors of coaches to get the most out of you? What was the most effective? Is there anything that you learned through the experience of the instructor? 

Tom: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I would say coaches were a hugely important part of this process. Nowadays what’s interesting about the digital culture is that there’s a lot that can be learned online essentially without a coach, by watching videos and humans are quite good at imitating other humans. This is essentially one of our main learning strategies. And I would do that to a certain point, but at some point, a coach is great because often, you need to see someone, and someone needs to see you doing something in real time to provide that feedback. You don’t know the mistakes you’re making. You don’t know what you don’t know. 

So they’re there to even say something like singing, let’s say. This really is a motor skill, but unlike, let’s say learning to play tennis or learn to play golf, you don’t see the muscles that you’re using. You don’t really know what to do with your throat and teaching people how to sing is an art and a science, but often, coaches rely on very interesting and artful metaphors, like ‘imagine you’re on top of this fountain of water, trying to…’, and that’s very effective because you can’t just say, ‘okay, you know, compress your diaphragm’. Sometimes they actually do that also. 

So apart from the feedback, which is important, and I would say that from the research I saw, positive feedback really has a stronger role than negative feedback because beginners usually know what they’re doing. They know when they’ve done something wrong and they’re probably going to do something wrong more than they’re going to do something right. So sort of highlighting those moments when they’ve done something right, I think really opens the door for progress. 

And then a perfect feedback, just the motivational piece, I think is huge. And some of the best coaches I had just really helped instill that desire for me to keep going. Because that is part of this learning thing. You need the will to show up, to want to practice in the off hours. I think,  just whether that was from their personality or how they could show me how I was going to get better, because there were a lot of moments when I thought I wasn’t going to get better and I would get really frustrated.  

Last thing to say about coaches, I’ve just been reading this in another new book called The Extended Mind by Annie Murphy Paul, which I actually have right here, the power of thinking outside the brain. Very, very interesting book. I mean, she talks about one of the ways we learn kind of outside of ourselves is through experts, but one problem with experts, you might think that if you want to learn to play something like violin or something from someone, that Yo-Yo Ma would be the best person, but, and this is where coaches come in, Yo-Yo Ma, someone who would be so good, they don’t actually remember what it was like to be where you are. They can’t empathize with you nor can they even explain what they do. 

So I think what a great coach can do is sort of understand what the best performers are doing, but be able to break that down in a way that’s digestible to you, often literally breaking it down into these sorts of chunks of information that you can understand. Because when you’re taking something on like surfing, it really is, surfing by numbers. You have to do step one, you have to do this. There’s like 20 steps, and you’re trying to do all these in your head and it gets very, very hard. Whereas Laird Hamilton, he’s not gonna remember those steps. He just does it without thinking. It’s automatic for him. He can surf the way he breathes.  

So I think coaches provide that nice interface between mastery and novice, and kind of show us the way forward. 

Sam: Yeah. One of the takeaways I took from the book is that I’ve always believed that we can learn to do anything. Is that one of the right takeaways I should have as a reader? 

Tom: Absolutely. I think something like singing, let’s start with that. This is something that I think in our culture has become increasingly viewed with a certain, almost mysticism, I want to say where it’s this God given talent that you were born with. And people then say that they can’t sing. And I heard this so often from people, ‘I’m tone deaf’. The number of people who actually have this, I think it’s called Amusia, I’m not sure if I have that right, but the official phrase for tone-deafness is actually really small. Hardly anyone is actually clinically tone deaf. People just, they haven’t practiced. They haven’t tried to sing. So how could you be good at something that you haven’t tried? You wouldn’t walk onto a tennis court having not played any tennis and suddenly expect to be good. So people expect they should open their mouths and be able to sing, and then when they can’t, they get frustrated. 

So it’s a motor skill. It requires some practice. But just in terms of, let’s take a simple benchmark. Staying on pitch, in tune, which is important in singing. I have an app on my phone called Pitch Perfect which gives you a score of zero to a hundred, and it has you sing scales and it gives you this score. So when I started this whole process, I was in the fifties. I was really off-pitch, let’s say tone deaf. After a few months of hardcore practice, I was in the nineties, sometimes hitting a hundred. So that’s just a pure, physical thing. There’s a lot more to singing, there’s emotion and expression and all this other stuff.

But I think we tend to think that we can or can’t do it. But what I want to say is that you can do it and that you will get better at it. And it doesn’t mean you have to be great. But you can get a lot of enjoyment from that. And I think another barrier might be age and people’s mind. And I did things like an open water swimming clinic in the ocean in Greece and in The Bahamas. And I met a 70-something year old woman on that trip from France who was a lifelong smoker, actually, who had only learned to swim a year before in a pool after watching some YouTube videos.

And she was killing me and the ocean, she was fast! And I thought, what am I doing wrong? And in fact, there were things wrong with my stroke, but the normal reaction for someone in her situation would be I’m, ’I’m too old. I’ve never swum. How could I do this’? She didn’t listen to that voice. And then, a year later she was not in this pool, but she was in the ocean, like out in the middle of nowhere with barracudas swimming nearby and just killing it and then looking forward to what her next adventure was going to be. So I tried to take that spirit on board as well.

Sam: In the book, and I know because I’ve read it, but do you mind sharing what the beginner’s mind is? Cause it’s a really cool section of the book where you define it.

Tom:  I mean, this is this concept from Zen Buddhism called Shoshin and it’s this idea of trying to get back to that almost like primal state we had as children in which our minds were free from preconceptions, and we had this ability to look at the world anew, and I think that becomes very difficult when we get older, because we’ve just taken so much information on board and basically become set in many ways. And so, how could you instill this sense of beginner’s mind?

People like Steve Jobs have talked about when, when he left Apple, that kind of opened up this portal where he could sort of think anew and just get out of his old habits. But I think one of the best ways for the average person is to simply try a new skill because you are forced to really think of the world differently. You’re suddenly faced with this new thing you have to do. There’s new equipment, there’s new vocabulary, there’s new things you’re doing with your body and your brain and the interface there. The sensation I had over and over again was often I was doing this thing with children, what was of being a child though, and last remembering that kind of tentative motions. And then sometimes we, as adults, we go back to things we’ve once learned as children, and it’s a form of beginner’s mind, it’s lurking somewhere in our brain that we once knew how to ice skate and then we get back out there and you kind of are wobbly at first. I find this just a great way to sort of re-energize yourself and also look at the world differently.

I’m not going to claim that I had amazing breakthroughs by learning to surf, but I just want to mention some interesting research by Robert Root Bernstein, which looked at Nobel Prize winning scientists. He compared that group of people to scientists, to sort of a regular controlled group of scientists who had not won the Nobel Prize. And he found that the Nobel prize winners were more likely to have participated in some kind of amateur pursuit, whether that be dancing, singing, or trying to be a magician. There were a lot of flood of things, but the question is, why? And whether those people were sort of more open-minded and adventurous to begin with, or whether they might’ve picked up some insight from this, the side thing they were doing, that they brought back into the research.

I mean, there could be various explanations, but I find that I find that relationship very interesting. And that’s why when people ask ‘are you doing this for your career,’ and I was like, ‘well, not really, but indirectly, maybe so,’ because you just never know. And I think doing some of these things outside of work, even if it doesn’t directly benefit your job, it benefits you.

And there’s some interesting research that you can build up this kind of resilience by doing these things that will then help you navigate, let’s say some of the waves you sort of conquer and surfing might help you sort of navigate some of the waves you find in your career, just to put it bluntly.

Sam: I just see so many parallels to the book, to this moment right now, where you have so many folks that are out of work coming back to work. Companies restarting that, thinking about how they don’t just re onboard employees that maybe worked for them months ago, but re skill, because maybe the job people are coming back to is changing now.

So that was when I thought about talking with you, that’s what was running through my head because in so many ways, if you’re a company that wants to restart right now, you have to have a beginner’s mind In order to get the most out of your people. Any advice to build on for talent leaders out there on that point?

Tom: I would just kind of go back to that basic message of, I think this is one of the reasons why it’s so important to harness this beginner’s mindset, so you can navigate these things. Not even just going back to work, but going back to society, knowing how to interact with people face to face, we’re all going through this sort of interesting moment. 

One of the great things I think about the pandemic, and that sounds like a strange sentence, but I think, because so many of our habits were interrupted in a massive way, people suddenly couldn’t go to work, they were at home, they couldn’t do a lot of the things they normally like to do. This external disruption, forced habit change. And habit change is very hard, but one of the ways that it often does happen is by changing the context and we all had our context pretty radically change, which I think you saw during the pandemic. It wasn’t just that maybe some people had some free time. But they suddenly were forced to look at things differently, and all kinds of things were happening that were not just people pivoting in their careers or taking up new careers, there’s just an article in the paper about all the star bakers that emerged, people that were like actors and things, and suddenly got into baking. Things like guitar sales were off the charts, any form of learning enterprise out there had a very good year because suddenly people were interested in tackling this thing. 

So obviously the pandemic was a great negative event, but the one positive we could take out of this, I think is that it did for many people, encourage taking up that beginner’s mindset when they might not have thought to do so in their normal life.

Sam: Yeah. What was the hardest? I bet you’d probably get this question a lot, but what was the hardest thing to learn?  

Tom: Well, I think in a physical sense, it would be surfing because surfing really is a lifetime thing that it really helps if you’re growing up in Hawaii as a kid. To take it on board as a 40 something, 50 something, just getting your body to move in that way and overcome some of the fear is very difficult, but I think overall something like singing was actually the most daunting because this is something that, when scientists have wanted to study the concept of embarrassment and they want to make people embarrassed, you have this question, ‘how can we get people to be embarrassed?’ They often have them sing in public. This is like the most terrifying thing for many people, and it was for me as well. So I think overcoming that was probably a greater hurdle than the physical challenge of surfing. 

Interestingly, thinking of companies, there’s some vocal leaders out there, some choir leaders who run seminars that are, I think, very powerful tools for work companies running off sites, bringing 15 or 20 people together over the course of a day and trying to get them to sing a couple of songs as a group.

I mean, this is number one, it really gets you out of your comfort zone, gets everyone out of their comfort zone. And I think it sort of reshuffles the deck in a way, and you have the manager, you might, you might have someone who’s much lower down in the totem pole, but actually turns out to have this amazing singing ability. So it allows people to shine in a different way. And I think that the act of singing literally in harmony is one of the most powerful sort of social glue mechanisms there is. You’re really exposing your own vulnerability in front of your friends or coworkers. And I think that people number one have fun with it, but really come through that, I think. And that can kind of go back and think about that kind of great sense of comradery, and it’s such a powerful, emotional moment that I think it really lives on as a memory because the brain tends to encode those sorts of things a lot more strongly. So I would recommend any company out there to try one of these group singing exercises.

Sam: Yeah. I’m gonna definitely look that up. My team’s in trouble. It will be a great idea. Last question. I’m also interested in also, as a parent going through this exercise and writing the book, how has it changed you as a parent, as you interact with your daughter, I believe, right?

Tom: Yes. It’s a great question. Kids change of course they develop and I say this because my daughter is now in the tween years and it’s harder. She has developed a lot more autonomy. So it’s harder to get her to immediately be my sidekick in everything. And that was one of the goals of this whole project, if I could speak bluntly, is that some things I wanted to do, I wanted to have someone there with me and also do parenting at the same time. So I think this is a win-win for all parents to do things with their kids, to learn new things with your kids.

And as I kinda mentioned earlier, it allowed her to see me in a new light, as kind of this, ‘oh, I can struggle also with something, even though I’m a grownup,’ but it also allowed me to see her in a new light because often we drop her kids off at some class or school and we don’t really know what their learning process is like. We don’t know what their true strengths are in that environment, but when you’re trying to learn something with your kid, you see that happening right in front of you. And when they actually get better than you in a short time, as my daughter did in chess, that’s very humbling.

I think that is one of the great things about being a beginner also, is that it creates this sense of empathy and it makes you a more empathic person because once you’ve gone through that and you know how hard it is, maybe you get better. Then you look at the people around you, they’re just starting and you can actually feel like, ah, I know what you’re going through, man. I went through that myself, you know?  So I think that rather than being just that parent that has very high expectations, even though they’ve never done the thing that they want their kid to excel at, now I can understand a little bit better and have more empathy toward what her particular struggles might be.

And I think it’s perhaps just kind of deepened our relationship and made me a more empathic parent if that’s a thing.

Sam: Tom, great to meet you. And thanks for taking the time. 

Tom: Hey Sam thanks a lot. Take care.

Topics Discussed: Leadership, Business, Competition, Coaching, Practice, Parenting

Dana Safa Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle