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Tom Vanderbilt

Journalist and New York Times-bestselling author of Traffic

  • About Tom Vanderbilt

    Tom Vanderbilt writes on design, technology, science, and culture, among other subjects, for many publications, including Wired, Slate, Gourmet, The Wall Street Journal, Men’s Vogue, Travel and Leisure, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and Popular Science. He is a contributing editor of Wired (UK), Outside, and Artforum.

    His book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) became a New York Times bestseller. Based on exhaustive research and interviews with driving experts and traffic officials around the globe, Traffic gets under the hood of the everyday activity of driving to uncover the surprisingly complex web of physical, psychological, and technical factors that explain how traffic works, why we drive the way we do, and what our driving says about us. In You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Vanderbilt turns to the question of taste, why we like the things we do, and how companies are managing the torrent of online information to effectively market to consumers. In his latest book, Beginners, 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.

    Tom Vanderbilt has given lectures at colleges and business conferences and has appeared on a wide variety of radio and television programs around the world, including NBC’s Today show, ABC’s Nightline, NPR’s Morning Edition and Fresh Air with Terry Gross, the BBC’s World Service and The One Show, Fox Business, and CNN’s World Business Today, among many others.

    He has been a visiting scholar at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, 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. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

  • Speaking Topics

    Why You Should Become a Beginner (Again)

    We are all born beginners. But over the course of our lives, in our quest for mastery — or at least competence — we largely abandon the spirit of playful learning for learning’s sake that we had as children. Bestselling author Tom Vanderbilt argues that if we can overcome our fear of being bad at something, there is a powerful and potentially transformative effect — on brain and body — in the humble effort to try and learn new skills.

    Taste in an Age of Endless Choice

    Why do people like the things they like? What do these preferences reveal about them, and how can we tell the difference between what people say they like and their actual habits as consumers? In this lecture, Vanderbilt stalks the elusive beast of taste, probing research in psychology, marketing, and neuroscience to show how people make their consumption choices. Using examples from digital giants like Netflix and Spotify, Vanderbilt examines human behavior and shows audiences how companies are harnessing this information in an age where taste has moved online.

    Objects in Mirror Are More Complicated Than They Appear

    In this lecture, Vanderbilt presents findings from his New York Times bestselling book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). He discusses the dynamics of traffic flow, the social interactions of drivers, the perceptual illusions and cognitive biases that humans behind the wheel are prone to, the relationship between the built environment and our behavior, among other aspects of this complex, yet overlooked, everyday activity.

  • Video

  • Praise for Tom Vanderbilt


    We would like to thank Tom for his important contribution to the success of the 13th European Trend Day. His presentation was thought-provoking and very well received. This also showed in the enthusiastic feedback that we have received from our participants.

    Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute

    Praise for Beginners

    A great book about the power of being a beginner.

    Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project

    Tom Vanderbilt shows us why it’s never too late to be a beginner, and that there should be no shame associated with the word ‘dilettante.’ Now I’m off to learn how to play the trombone, speak Portuguese and bake soufflés.

    A.J. Jacobs, bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that I still want to be an expert at something - anything - even though life, alas, offers so few middle-aged opportunities to learn something new. Which is why it was so wonderful to find Tom Vanderbilt’s book. He explores how to learn completely new skills, how to change our world - even after we’re supposed to be done with schooling. This is a book about how to become a beginner again, and it makes you want to plunge in with both feet.

    Charles Duhigg, best-selling author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better

    Beginners is ultimately about more than learning. It’s about the possibilities that reside in all of us.

    Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author of When, Drive, and To Sell is Human

    A thoughtful and stirring look into the art and science of lifelong learning. Currently, I’m learning Gaelic, dressmaking and how to lay floors. Last year, it was knitting and coding. I’m 50, and not supposed to be a beginner any more — according to society’s conventions — but Tom Vanderbilt turns that flawed assumption on its head with the grace with which he learns to reach a high note or surf a wave.

    Rose George, author of Ninety Percent of Everything

    “[Vanderbilt] describes frankly (and humorously) the embarrassment that comes with repeated failures as well as quiet triumphs… The joy is transcendent… He will encourage you to spend 2021 finding delight in honing new or forgotten skills.

    Catherine Foster, Christian Science Monitor

    “There’s a certain poignancy to reading Beginners at the end of 2020, when merely going to the grocery store qualifies as an “exposure event”… The tone of Beginners is modest and reassuring. Vanderbilt wasn’t about to spend 10,000 hours on any one skill in order to attain mastery. He expressly sets out to become a dilettante, a word that he notes derives from the Italian dilettare, ‘to delight.’”

    Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

    A wonderful and inspirational book. The only thing that will make you put it down is a burning desire to try something new. It’s full of the sort of encouragement and wisdom that bridges the small, tricky gulf between enthusiasm and action. A book that will launch thousands of journeys that might not otherwise have happened and prove life-changing for many who take those first steps.

    Tristan Gooley, author of The Natural Navigator

    You don’t have to try all the activities that Tom Vanderbilt took on in his heroic, self-sacrificial effort to persuade us of the benefits of learning throughout life. After you read this invigorating book, you might want to take a nap. But then you’ll get up, refreshed, ready to learn a new skill. You’ll be ready to begin.

    Carol Tavris, Ph.D., co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

    Accessible and highly informative, the book is a fast-paced exploration of the science of skill acquisition and a delightful account of journalist Vanderbilt’s personal adventures among fellow new learners… Despite the inevitable setbacks, his is an empowering story that will have adventuresome readers eager to head off in search of some new challenge the moment they’ve put it down. An engaging perspective on the joys of embarking on the process of learning something new.

    Shelf Awareness

    [A] charming celebration of lifelong learning… [Vanderbilt] makes a persuasive case for the benefits—cognitive, physical, emotional, and social—of being a beginner. This enjoyable reminder to embrace the ‘small acts of reinvention, at any age, that can make life seem magical’ will appeal to those who enjoyed Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

    Publishers Weekly

    Witty, well-researched, myth-busting and curiously of the moment. Vanderbilt tells a compelling tale. Eighty pages in, I joined a choir.

    Robert Penn, author of It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels

    It’s impossible to pick up a book by Tom Vanderbilt without learning something. An engaging and fascinating mix of the personal and the general. I never thought I’d read a book that could persuade me to take up juggling, but this one did it.

    Robert Colvile

    Vanderbilt.. composes lucid prose and explains concepts… with relative ease, and his thesis is practical and worthwhile… compelling… A solid beginner’s guide to beginning.


    Praise for You May Also Like

    Vanderbilt is an intelligent writer, and there is a lot of interesting material in You May Also Like… Intrepid…Vanderbilt is able to identify two factors that have repeatedly been shown to have a significant influence on taste. One is social consensus; the other is familiarity. We get attracted to things that we see other people are attracted to, and we like things more the longer we like them.

    Louis Menand, The New Yorker

    [A] lively, wide-ranging study… The footnotes have a David Foster Wallace-like wit as Vanderbilt calls our attention to such issues as whether people find donuts less yummy if they taste them in a salmon cannery and whether rats enjoy grape Kool-Aid more if it is infused directly into their stomachs… Convincing… Quite funny… Clear and engaging… He is to be commended for the sheer range of material he makes accessible.

    Lisa Zeidner, The Washington Post

    A tour through the world of human preferences and the companies that try to divine them… [Vanderbilt is an] amiable and thorough guide to a subject that can get either fussy or murky fairly quickly, and he has an obsessive determination to get to the bottom of something we exercise so often and unthinkingly we tend to take it for granted.

    Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times Book Review

    Vanderbilt is a skillful synthesizer, and You May Also Like is full of unexpected connections... [He] bounces the insights of modern data scientists off the work of generations of critics, economists, neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists. Taste, we learn, is an extremely relative phenomenon currently swerving through an age of extreme relativity… [Vanderbilt’s] key takeaway is that taste remains a complex and erratic phenomenon that’s endlessly shifting according to environmental, physical, and social pressures.

    Felix Gillette, Bloomberg
  • Books by Tom Vanderbilt

  • Media About Tom Vanderbilt

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