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Tom Vanderbilt: My Fellow Beginners “Were Using This Process to…Expand Their Sense of Self…They Were Finding Magic in Small Acts of Reinvention.”

Tom Vanderbilt: My Fellow Beginners “Were Using This Process to…Expand Their Sense of Self…They Were Finding Magic in Small Acts of Reinvention.”

Interview: Tom Vanderbilt.

Tom Vanderbilt has written for many publications on the subjects of design, technology, science, and culture. He is a contributing editor of Wired (U.K.), Outside, and Artforum.

He's the author of a book that I love and have often given as a gift, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) (Amazon, Bookshop), and also Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (Amazon, Bookshop).

A few years ago, in episode 143 of the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, Elizabeth and I interviewed Tom Vanderbilt with his wife Jancee Dunn, because she had a new book called How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids (Amazon, Bookshop). If you want to listen to that great interview, it's here.

His new book is Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning (Amazon, Bookshop).

I couldn't wait to talk to Tom about happiness, habits, and human nature. And the joy of being a beginner.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Tom: Singing.

Like many of us, I was always a sort of random, mindless singer — in the car, in the shower. But I decided, for Beginners, to really go about trying to learn it in a purposeful way. Of all the skills I tried to tackle, it’s my favorite, for many reasons. You can do it anywhere, you don’t need any extra equipment, and it’s a fascinating way to explore your own body and psyche. I’m convinced that humans were literally born to sing. 

And, no matter what you think of your ability, singing just makes you feel good. It releases uplifting endorphins, tickles the all-important vagus nerve, modulates your breathing and lowers your blood pressure. Singing alone is great, but singing with people is really the special sauce — you get all those benefits I already listed, plus the positive buzz of literally working in harmony with others. 

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That I could actually be so happy at 52. Back then, I think I thought it was pretty much a downhill slope.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you — or your readers — most?

I was intrigued by the research showing what learning new things, at almost any age, does for you cognitively. But what really struck me, as I met fellow beginners in the various pursuits I was trying to learn, was how transformative these activities seemed to be for them. They were using this process to try and help redefine or expand their sense of self, or looking to shed some painful past episode and forge a new path. They were finding magic in small acts of reinvention. They were letting their guards down in a big way, reveling in that all-important psychological trait known as “openness to experience.” 

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit — or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I like the advice from W. Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game of Tennis (Amazon, Bookshop). “There is no need to fight old habits,” he says. “Start new ones instead.”

I think that moments of personal disruption — a new job, a new town — are important apertures in which to seek change. During the pandemic lockdown, for instance, I picked up yoga, something I’d always thought I was not interested in — in part because I was looking for something else that was physical that I could do inside. I now really find it beneficial, but without those changed circumstances, I’m not sure I would have turned to it. It took the interruption of my usual habits to form this new habit.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger? 

According to the quiz, I’m a Rebel! I’d be a bit leery of describing myself that way — at least in terms of my dress or outward appearance — but it certainly makes sense in some ways. Anyone who quits their regular job for the no-safety-net insecurities of freelance writing, for example, as I did three decades ago, is already living somewhat outside the status quo.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

Writers, I think, are creatures of habit. When it’s just you and the screen, you guard that relationship zealously. I need to be at my desk, at 8 a.m., with a cup of coffee and some instrumental jazz in the background. That’s when all feels right with the world, and I can flow-state all the way until lunch. If I need to deal with some plumbing emergency at 8:34 a.m., for example, this totally throws me for the day. I’ll usually do administrative tasks — or go down a YouTube rabbit hole — the rest of the day and just start over the following morning.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

About ten years ago, I was working on a story for Outside about why cyclists and drivers sometimes seemed to have trouble sharing the road. For the story, I shadowed a guy who had what I thought was this insane bike commute — three hours from Westchester County to New York City (he didn’t do it every day).

He was more than a decade older than me, but on that ride, he crushed me. As I struggled to keep up, I thought: Wow, I want to be that guy when I get to his age. But I wasn’t going to get there the way I was living — I was probably going backwards. That day basically turned me into a hardcore cyclist.

You can call it an early midlife crisis, but there was something else going on. My daughter, our first child, had just been born. As a somewhat older parent, I realized I was going to have to step up my game, fitness-wise, to try and ensure I’d be there for her over the long haul.  And in the end, it wasn’t only about fitness. Through cycling I’ve met some incredible people, had some amazing adventures, and in general have just had a more positive, forward-looking outlook. Training hard for some grueling event can make life’s daily challenges seem a bit easier.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

I’ve always liked the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s notion of how to achieve happiness: “Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.”

This was one of my guiding principles in Beginners: Don’t fixate on some new pursuit that you’re trying as a would-be passion or thing that it destined to make you happy; it may or may not be, but when you struggle with learning it, as you probably will, you might start to hate it. Just try things, and give yourself permission to be bad at those things, or to sometimes not even like them. As you plunge in, and stop thinking about it, you will likely, as Mill writes, “inhale happiness with the air you breathe.” In my case, with singing, that was a quite literal feeling.

[Gretchen: To hear my take on John Stuart Mill, read here.]

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