The benefits of approaching this year like a total newbie

Learning a new hobby or skill can help you create a fresh mindset.

(CNN)Midway through his mission to learn chess, Tom Vanderbilt found himself facing off against an 8-year-old child.

Vanderbilt had a successful writing career, a college degree and decades of real-world experience. The kid, though, had superior skills. Vanderbilt lost in a few dozen moves.
Defeat, however, couldn't dampen Vanderbilt's enthusiasm for chess, one of five hobbies the best-selling author pursued as research for his new book "Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning," released January 5 by Knopf.
    Tom Vanderbilt's latest book, "Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning," released on Tuesday.
    In the book, he delves into the science of learning, a project inspired by his experience as a parent.
      For years, Vanderbilt had encouraged his daughter to take on all kinds of challenges. He told her that learning new things was great — even as he stuck to the relative safety of what he already knew.
        "Parents are always foisting their children into new things," he said. "We ourselves are not always following our own advice."
        When his daughter started learning chess, though, Vanderbilt finally decided to follow her lead. (That's what landed him at a chess tournament, getting matched against — and beaten by — an 8-year-old boy.) After chess, he added juggling, drawing, surfing and singing.
          Book author Tom Vanderbilt took up surfing, juggling and more: "There's this whole new world that's open to you," he said.
          His ensuing adventures were sometimes humbling: He lost endless chess matches and two wedding bands. (They slipped off while he was surfing.)
          Adults willing to undergo similar trials have more to gain than juggling skills. Research into adult learning shows the effort can pay off in increased well-being, plus mental and physical health.
          As the new year unfolds, Vanderbilt's book is, above all, a call to action for a world facing ongoing lockdowns and pandemic fatigue. That's because the greatest benefit of learning something new might be starting 2021 with a fresh pair of eyes.

          Why starting out can be scary — and thrilling

          If pouring yourself into brand-new skill sounds more awkward than exciting, you're not the only one to see it that way.
          In adulthood, Vanderbilt said, "you get used to a certain level of competence." It can be hard to give that up for something new, because beginning again means embracing repeated slipups.
          If you take up roller skating in adulthood, you're likely to end up with bruises. Try out newly acquired phrases in a foreign language, and you might get some strange looks from native speakers.
          "Chances are, you're going to look foolish in the beginning. You're going to ask dumb questions. You're going to fall down," Vanderbilt said. For him, those experiences nevertheless were easily offset by the excitement of discovering new things.
          "There's this whole new world that's open to you," Vanderbilt said. Practicing a nascent skill can be like opening a door, he explained, one that might lead to unexpected places. "You go through that door, and suddenly there are other doors that you didn't even know existed."
          When Vanderbilt learned to surf, for example, he picked up knowledge about oceanography and tracked incoming swells using obscure buoy readings. He bonded with fellow newbies struggling among breaking waves, and he felt empowered by each small success.
          In the same way, if you try a cold-weather sport like cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, you might find yourself snapping photos of ice formations or noticing winter wildlife for the very first time. In addition to new vocabulary, learning a new-to-you language can bring surprising discoveries about culture and history.
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          Pandemic-inspired learning across the globe

          When the Covid-19 pandemic paused some of his in-person learning, Vanderbilt took his skill-building online. His choir practice was called off indefinitely, so he signed up for the karaoke app Smule, which allowed him to sing with strangers across the globe.
          Vanderbilt (left), shown with Adrian Conoboy (right), sings at a New York Choir Project gathering before sessions were put on hold due to Covid-19 social distancing measures.
          If you, like Vanderbilt, plan to pursue online learning this year, you'll have plenty of (virtual) company.
          People in the United Kingdom pursued twice as much adult learning in 2020 as they did in 2019, found one long-running survey about adult education by the United Kingdom's Learning and Work Institute. (The researchers noted that this year's survey, conducted by phone due to the pandemic, differs in methodology from previous years so it may not be precisely comparable.)
          Still, it's a broad phenomenon. Online learning has surged across the globe, reported the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.