January 12, 2021

Tom Vanderbilt

Harvard Book Store's virtual event series welcomes TOM VANDERBILT—author of the bestselling books Traffic and You May Also Like—for a discussion of his latest book, Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning. He will be joined in conversation by Emmy Award–winning writer, actress, and comedian FAITH SALIE.


Why do so many of us stop learning new skills as adults? Are we afraid to fail? Have we forgotten the sheer pleasure of being a beginner? Or is it simply a fact that you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

Inspired by his young daughter's insatiable need to know how to do almost everything, and stymied by his own rut of mid-career competence, Tom Vanderbilt begins a year of learning purely for the sake of learning. He tackles five main skills (and picks up a few more along the way), choosing them for their difficulty to master and their distinct lack of career marketability—chess, singing, surfing, drawing, and juggling.

What he doesn't expect is finding himself having rapturous experiences singing Spice Girls songs in an amateur choir, losing games of chess to eight-year-olds, and dodging scorpions at a surf camp in Costa Rica. Along the way, he interviews dozens of experts to explore the fascinating psychology and science behind the benefits of becoming an adult beginner. Weaving comprehensive research and surprising insight gained from his year of learning dangerously, Vanderbilt shows how anyone can begin again—and, more important, why they should take those first awkward steps. Ultimately, he shares how a refreshed sense of curiosity opened him up to a profound happiness and a deeper connection to the people around him—and how small acts of reinvention, at any age, can make life seem magical.

About Author(s)

Tom Vanderbilt has written for many publications, including The New York Times MagazineThe Wall Street Journal MagazinePopular ScienceThe Financial TimesSmithsonian and The London Review of Books, among many others. He is a contributing editor of Wired UKOutside, and Artforum. He is author of You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) and Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America. He has appeared on a wide range of television and radio programs, from the Today show to the BBC's World Service to NPR's Fresh Air. He has been a visiting scholar at NYU's Rudin Center for Transportation, a research fellow at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, a fellow at the Design Trust for Public Space, and a winner of the Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, among other honors.

Faith Salie is a four-time Emmy-winning contributor to CBS Sunday Morning and a regular on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! Faith will star Off-Broadway in 2021 in her solo show, Approval Junkie, based on her memoir of the same name. Faith has interviewed thousands of people as the host of a dozen podcasts and has been interviewed by Oprah, Anderson Cooper, and Bill O’Reilly (consensually). She’s performed at Carnegie Hall, sung with the Boston Pops, and swum with the Weeki Wachee mermaids. Faith is a Rhodes scholar who received her MPhil in Literature from Oxford University, after which her cohort became things like 2020 presidential candidates and Pulitzer Prize winners, while she went to Hollywood and landed on a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine collectible trading card worth hundreds of cents.