My 61st birthday is this week. Last year I celebrated turning 60 in South America. This year is different but I have not stopped traveling. OK, so I haven’t actually left my city, or even my home, but I’ve taken my mind on tour. And I’m not talking about virtual visits and travel videos. I’m talking about learning. Taking classes to learn how to do something new. The effect on your brain from learning how to do something new is the same effect as when you travel someplace new.
When I read Tom Vanderbilt’s book Beginners – The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, I knew he was on to something. Vanderbilt convincingly compares his experience traveling to a foreign country with the way he felt when learning how to do brand-new skills. In his case, he committed to learning how to sing, juggle, surf, draw, and play chess. Not to improve on or practice an existing skill, but to learn how to do these things for the very first time.
My mother would say I need to learn how to “stop cussing” and she would have a point. But I’m taking off the table all the bad habits I need to learn how to stop doing, because in my mind that is unlearning something. F*ck that. According to Vanderbilt, when we learn how to do a brand-new skill we learn about ourselves. As beginners, we have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable in new territory. That definitely sounds like travel to foreign countries around the world to me. There’s something called beginner’s mind in Zen Buddhism, writes Vanderbilt, which celebrates the purity of a curious mind. I call it Traveler’s Mind. An open, curious mind is central to appreciating travel — and to learning how to do something new.
I once met a man (one of those online dates I wrote about here that don’t pan out but are good meetings nonetheless) who took mountain climbing lessons in Switzerland in his 40s, learned to scuba dive at 60, and started learning to pilot an airplane at 67. He derived as much joy from learning to do new skills as he did from traveling to see new places.
There are many things I’d like to re-learn and improve, but these don’t count for learning as a beginner, according to Vanderbilt. On my Instagram I posted about wanting to learn how to swim again, after taking lessons in middle and high school. I took classical piano lessons for seven years in elementary and middle school, and would like to get back to that now. I have a baby grand piano. In my early 40s I hired a Russian piano coach, and for our first meeting I practiced playing from my book of Bach Two- and Three-Part Inventions For the Piano for the first time in decades. She responded, “You are making noise, not music.” Really, bitch? You teach much?
As a child I sang in The Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Choir, and I’d like to re-learn that skill as well but I think I’ll pass on hiring a coach. Over the years there have been pottery lessons, photography lessons, acting lessons, and even drawing lessons at the Cleveland Institute of Art. All skills I would love to re-learn and improve, but they wouldn’t check off the beginner box needed for my brain to experience the same high as traveling to new countries.
So instead, I’ve spent this time getting two new certifications in previously unknown skills. OK, so Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and Digital Marketing both are related to my previous careers, but the required skill sets are new to me and I am truly a beginner. I learned how to write the teensiest, tiniest bit of code to change the look of a Web page template, and now have enrolled in a beginning coding class. I am learning how to speak, read, and write Portuguese because I hope to eventually move to Portugal. And when in-person learning opens back up, I’m signing up for golf, kayaking, and juggling lessons (good idea, Tom). Yeah, I could learn juggling by watching YouTube, maybe, but I, like Vanderbilt, want the real-time feedback and encouragement of an in-person instructor. I recently learned how to do the Lindy Hop by watching YouTube, but I’d definitely benefit from in-person lessons!
My journey of new learning has certainly been an adventure for me. Even starting this new blog for the first time (a course requirement) – on the Internet, out in public! – is new territory for me and scary as hell. Unknown, uncomfortable, and then exhilarating as I start to figure stuff out, still make many mistakes, but slowly find my way. I’m taking my beginner’s brain on tour, one learning destination after another, without a passport or vaccination.
Because of the pandemic, international travel has been slashed to new lows, but enrollment in (free!) online courses at top universities has skyrocketed. Are you taking your brain on tour?
Check out Instagram for how I’m doing “South America” for this year’s birthday.
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