Book Review – Beginners by Tom Vanderbilt


Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, by Tom Vanderbilt, is an enlightening and inspiring read that resonated with me as a business owner and manager, as well as a believer in life-long learning. Vanderbilt uses entertaining personal anecdotes and scientific evidence to show how pursuing new skills and knowledge, particularly in unfamiliar territories, can significantly enhance cognitive flexibility, creativity, and problem-solving abilities.

For business leaders, this book serves as a compelling reminder of the value of a growth mindset. In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, the ability to adapt and learn continuously is not just an asset but a necessity. Vanderbilt’s anecdotes and research combine to demonstrate how stepping out of your comfort zone and embracing a beginner’s mindset can lead to innovations and improved leadership skills.

Journalist Tom Vanderbilt embarks on a personal quest to rekindle his long-lost passion for perpetual learning, weaving together insights from psychology and neuroscience to delve into the process of acquiring new skills later in life. Along this journey, Vanderbilt captures the many benefits of always remaining a beginner in an entertaining narrative style.

The author’s exploration of the psychological barriers to adult learning, such as the fear of failure and being set in established ways, is particularly relevant for managers. It provides practical insights into how these barriers can be overcome within yourself and how you can nurture a culture of continuous learning and curiosity within an organisation.

The personal anecdotes appealed to me as they are examples of learning things for the first time that I have been learning for over 30 years! Singing, surfing, and playing guitar, in particular, are featured in the book as things that can be learned with dedicated practice. The latter two I have, in recent times, gone “back to school” to learn some of the fundamentals I may have missed in my self-taught journey. The message here for me is that the things that I can do effectively after a lifetime of learning and development have room for improvement by approaching it again as a beginner. For me, this is running my business.

The next step from being a “novice beginner” is to apply the fundamentals to your complex and unpredictable world, which the author’s (and my own) experience demonstrates most effectively through surfing. Learning the absolute basics can not matter in the wilds of the surf, where a perfect technique can lead to a wipeout. Apply this to business, and the things you feel are fundamental to success in an operational sense can be ineffective in an environment of significant technical change.

The key message underlining the book is that it is never too late to learn. The author himself introduces us to two anecdotal examples of people who, at an advanced age, dedicated themselves to learning specific new skills. This is inspiring because, well, I am now 50, and there is still hope that new interests and skills have few barriers, but also, there is still time to re-learn things I think I already know. Then, I can become better at them.

Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning is not just a book about personal development; it’s a strategic guide for business leaders seeking to foster innovation, adaptability, and a positive learning culture in their organisations. This book is a must-read for those who understand that the path to success in business is paved with continuous learning and an open beginner’s mind.

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