20 Essential Keys to Mastering Any New Skill
Being a “Natural” doesn’t come naturally.
For most of us mere mortals at least.
It might seem like some of the most successful, most gifted, and most amazing people we see out in the world, on tv, and in the record books were born with incredible, superhuman abilities. I mean, LOOK at those people! They’re on a whole other level than us, right?
Well, more often than not, the real difference between people who perform on a world-class level and the rest of everybody else isn’t an extra “talent gene”, but a dedicated commitment do self-development.
We can’t assume that other people are naturally gifted with skills just because they are good at something. There is Talent, which is a natural predisposition to pick certain things up well, and then there’s Skill, which is an ability that is practiced and earned.
You can’t get more talent, but you can get more skilled
And here’s the clincher:
This is the thing that gives anyone and everyone access to success: the fact that we can earn it. We all have the potential to develop ourselves to becoming more then we currently are. Besides, studies show that talent is determined far less by our genes and far more by our actions.
Sometimes, in your pursuit of growth, you discover that in order to move to the next level, you need to develop a new skill.
While it’s comfortable to stick with what you already know, certain goals and new levels of success will require us to take the leap and become more.
“You mean, in order for me to do the thing that I want, I have to learn something from scratch?!”
More often than not, YES.
Getting a new skill can feel like a huge roadblock if you’ve never done anything like it before. The learning curve feels too big. But if you allow yourself to go through the process, then you can make consistent growth toward mastering your skill.
Each skill you develop becomes another tool in your kit that allows you to accomplish what you’re doing much faster and more effectively.
In the past multiple months, different projects and life responsibilities have required me to learn and grow in quite a bit of new things:
- new software,
- web-coding skills,
- strategic copywriting,
- managing relationships,
- stewarding an online community,
- living minimally in a small space,
- and building a business with a very small budget.
Each of these needs presented itself like a door that I needed to walk through in order to get where I needed to go.
And at first, it was intimidating to start, like, “I’ve never done this before, what if I can’t do it well enough? What if it totally flops?” But because I’d already committed, I HAD to take steps forward anyway, so I just went for it and got my feet wet. And the nice thing that I discovered was that it’s OK to not know what you’re doing when you’re learning, as long as you just stay committed and adapt as you go.
I still don’t feel like an expert in a lot of things, but I do feel like I can “swim” rather than sink now, which gives me a lot more confidence. It for t of feels like, “Hey! I CAN do this!”
Learning a new skill is one of the best investments you can make.
It makes you more valuable to employers/your own business, more effective, more efficient, and amplifies your ability to make an impact.
Putting the time into learning your skill takes time at first, but the returns on that investment are exponential.
Here are 20 Keys to Mastering Any New Skill:
One of my favorite quotes about creativity is:
It’s all too easy to get stuck in the stage of looking at inspiration, or watching others do stuff, but not doing it ourselves. Unfortunately we can’t learn skills through osmosis or through download like in the Matrix (I wish!) You’re not going to get good at something by looking at OTHER people doing it.
Practicing is probably the least glamorous part of getting a skill. It’s repetitive, monotonous, the results usually aren’t pretty, but it’s SO NECESSARY. You’ve got to have discipline and patience.
Ex: Seb Lester - This guy has spent THOUSANDS of hours using these tools and drawing lettering. He has drawn tens of thousands of letters in order to be able to make these ones perfect the first time out.
Here’s an excerpt from Paul Jarvis’ Sunday Dispatches newsletter (Highly recommend):
Scientific research has shown that motivational quotes make us feel the same as actually accomplishing something. If that is correct, then that’s a very, very, very bad thing. It reduces our capacity and willingness to then take real action because we already feel good about ourselves and fulfilled (and creativity doesn’t typically happen when we feel those things). [LINK]
Don’t kid yourself: You get good by DOING, not by DREAMING.
2. Do the RIGHT kind of Practice
It’s not just the QUANTITY of hours that you’re putting in (you could go to the gym hundreds of times and still be doing squats incorrectly), mastering a skill also includes the QUALITY of your learning. You’ve got to practice using very specific and deliberate methods.
Abraham Lincoln once said,
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."
Make sure you’re not hacking at your goal/problem with a dull axe.
Sticking with the working out analogy:
Any incorrect workout techniques you’re using can actually HURT you in the long run. They create muscular imbalances and misalignments that will need to be corrected in the future, which costs you valuable time and money.
Although it takes patience to set and adjust your course early on, it’s drastically easier to set yourself on the right path from the get-go, or as you become aware of adjustments, than it is to go back and correct the course after you’re way off track.
It’s easier to turn a small boat than a large ship.
So don't feel bad about being bad when you're starting out, this is the BEST time to be making mistakes: when the stakes are smaller. Would you rather mess up in the beginning when the impact is much smaller, or after you've grown your influence to a huge level when mistakes are more public and create a much bigger ripple effect?
This doesn’t mean that you should expect to already KNOW the right way of doing things, but you do need to always be PURSUING the right way of doing things.
So as you are learn, ADJUST and IMPROVE
Reference: Read “The One Degree” by Bob and Jenny Donnelly - a free ebook that talk about how adjusting your course by one degree can alter your course by MILES.
3. Make Time For It
Whether it’s “One day a week” or “30min a day”, you’ve got to put time toward learning this skill.
Make sure that time is undisturbed too - give yourself enough time to get into a groove - like anything, it takes time to get warmed up, because if you keep having distractions interrupt you, then you’ll never find that rhythm.
Ramit Sethi, author and creator of IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com, recommends this exercise:
“Sit down, take out your calendar, and do the math. When exactly are you going to practice? What are you going to give up, reschedule, or stop doing to make the time?”
Consistency is key. You won’t always be turning out gold every day when you sit down to practice and develop, but the more often you “sift”, the more gold you will find.
What you give your time to reveals what your top priorities are.
4. Set The Stage to Resist your “Dark Side”
Many abandoned projects started with the best intentions and lots of excitement.
Our current selves are excited about the future, but to actually bring an idea to life you have to learn how to sustain your momentum.
In the article,“How to Learn Any New Skill”, the author points out that when learning a new skill, you should assume the worst about yourself. That is, assume that "Future You" is flaky, uncommitted, lazy, and not the best decision maker. Then you set up your environment in a way that will prevent the efforts of your “Dark Side” from succeeding.
5. Choose the RIGHT Skill
Pick the skills that are going to have the most impact toward your goals.
You are most likely to persevere in your attempt to learn a new skill when the skill meets the following criteria:
- It’s something that you enjoy or you’re passionate about; and
- Learning the skill will partner with what you’re trying to accomplish, or it applies directly to your life.
(ex: I CAN learn coding, I know some. But do I enjoy it? No particularly. So I’m going to instead partner with someone who DOES love it who can accomplish it in half the time instead of grinding through it. Either that, or if I don’t have resources for that, I will think of a solution that involves skills I DO have.)
You want to invest where it’s gong to give you the biggest and best return.
6. Start Small: Don’t do it all at once
Deconstruct the skill to make it less complex or overwhelming. Most skills aren’t one skill at all. Instead, they’re a bundle of skills.
For example, being a self-employed Graphic Designer requires multiple skills:
- Technical Software Skills
- Visual Composition
- Client Relations
- Effective Communication
- Conflict Resolution
- Human Psychology
- Color Theory
- Personal Development
- Time Management
- many more…
Learn the small things one or two at a time and then combine them as you go.
7. Don’t take the long route
Learn from the best - Let the knowledge of experienced people save you time by shortening the process, avoiding pitfalls, and learn tricks and shortcuts.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. After you get your foundation, then you can begin experimenting.
In The Little Book of Talent, Daniel Coyle says,
“Find somebody you want to be in two years, three years, five years, and stare at that person. See what they’re doing. See exactly what they’re doing, and steal that. Steal from them.”
Sure, there’s a certain element of “street-cred” that comes from going through The School of Hard Knocks, but how valuable is that actually?
“Congratulations, you get a gold star for making the same mistakes that hundreds of other people have made! Now you know that you could have circumvented those pitfalls and gotten here much faster.”
Your primary reward from going through The School of Hard Knocks is a big fat helping of 20/20 hindsight that shows you that you didn’t have to go through it all; that and “Bragging rights” to share with other people who are in the same boat as you are.
Yes, you will have to pay your dues, but why not stand on the shoulders of people who have already gone before you and then pay your dues by going further than they ever went?
Don’t buy the myth that hustling for hustling’s sake means you’re accomplishing anything. You’ll be like a rocking horse, lots of motion, but no movement forward.
Hustling is only noteworthy if you show progress over time, if you’re different a week, a month, a year later. And that only happens with clearly defined goals and dedicated action forward.
The point I’m trying to make there is that as you hustle, use the knowledge and experience of others to shorten the time it takes you to reach your destination.
8. Find a Mentor
This is a follow-up to the last bullet point. Whereas that one references learning from other indirectly, this key talks about connecting directly with someone who can teach you.
This is the easiest and fastest way to learn a new skill: have someone teach to you face-to-face.
Most successful people are willing to pay it forward and help a newbie out. Some of them even do it professionally through coaching or consulting.
Make sure you make the most of the time that you spend with them: Ask good questions that will give you insight into how they think, solve problems, adapt to situations, and stay dedicated.
Here are some questions to start the conversation:
- Thinking back to when you were just getting started, what parts of your skill were the most frustrating to learn? Now, which of those do you use on a daily/weekly basis and which have you forgotten?
- What parts of your skill did you worry about the most when you were getting started that you now feel are unnecessary?
- When looking at other experts in your field, what specific capabilities help you distinguish experts from non-experts?
Knowledge, time and attention are extremely valuable to successful people, maybe even more valuable than money, and they will only invest in you if you make yourself a GOOD INVESTMENT.
So don’t just take from them, use what they teach you, take action, put it into practice and produce results; then, follow up with them about what you’ve done so they can see that their investment has produced a return in your life.
That return on investment will fuel them to invest in you more. Here's a little anecdote from the Bible called "The Parable of the Talents" that illustrates the contrast between being a good or a bad steward of what someone invests into you: [For perspective, some authorities say that a talent typically weighed about 75 lb. In today's standards, the price of silver is about $17/troy ounce, making one talent worth about $18,000. So, this was serious cash the parable is talking about.]
The Parable of the Talents - Summarized from Matthew 25:14–30
As a wealthy man prepared to go on a long trip, he called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone. He gave five bags of silver to one, two bags of silver to another, and one bag of silver to the last—dividing it in proportion to their abilities. He then left on his trip.
The servant who received the five bags of silver invested the money and earned five more. The servant with two bags of silver also went to work and earned two more. But the servant who received the one bag of silver dug a hole in the ground and hid the master’s money.
After a long time their master returned from his trip and called them to give an account of how they had used his money. The first two servants both explained how they had doubled what the master had first given them. This greatly pleased the master and he then entrusted them with more responsibilities and resources and celebrated with them.
Then the servant with the one bag of silver came and said, "Master, I knew you were a harsh man, and I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth. Look, here is your money back."
The master was very displeased with the servant for doing nothing because of fear, "You could have at least put it in the bank to earn some interest!", he said. Then he ordered, "Take the money from this servant, and give it to the one with the ten bags of silver. To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.'
This story is not only a lesson for mentoring relationships, but also to learn to be a good steward of the abilities, resources and opportunities that you have. If you do this, it can set you up for greater opportunities in the future.
What if I don’t have access to a mentor?
Go back to the previous point and let books, podcasts, and blogs be your mentors until you meet the right people who can teach you.
9. Do Your Research & Count the Cost
Read some books, watch YouTube videos, do tutorials, take courses, and so on about the skill that you want to learn.
Make sure that you choose resources that are high quality and ones that people say good things about. These resources will help you pinpoint which things you need to know in order to develop the skill you desire, and where you’ll need to start in order to get there.
Count the Cost - figure out what it’s going to take for you to achieve your goal
Another piece of insight from the Bible:
"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” - Luke 14:28
When you know what it’s going to take, then you can clearly set your expectations and be mentally prepared to commit to the process.
10. Use the 80/20 rule
Also known as the Pareto Principle: 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts.
Here’s how to apply it for a new skill: Identify the sub-skills that are going to be the most versatile and most commonly used for the main skill.
One example of the 80/20 rule is learning those few guitar chords which will allow you to play many different songs.
It’s a common fact that most songs are primarily comprised of only three chords, whether it’s pop, country, or punk rock.
If you focus most of your effort on learning the three or four most important chords, then you’ll be able to play most songs in no time. Therefore, your first goal is to start by learning those chords. [REF]
By focusing on the efforts that will give you the most impact, then you can make progress faster, which builds confidence and produces momentum that you can direct toward the more challenging aspects of your process.
11. Teach someone else how to do it
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” - Albert Einstein
If you ever want to see how smart or good at something you really are, try to teach someone else. It will solidify what you’ve learned in your mind when you teach. And you don’t have to wait till you are an “expert” to start teaching.
You only need to be one step ahead of someone to show them the way forward.
Teaching others ends up really teaching yourself. It teaches you adaptability, patience and to see problems and solutions in totally new ways because the people you teach will ask you questions you don’t know the answers to, which will drive you to keep learning and growing further.
12. Don’t Fear the Suck
Let yourself be bad at first. Almost nobody picks something up the first time.
You’ve got to give yourself permission to let your skills catch up with your imagination. – Every beautiful vase starts as a lump of clay.
Also, don’t forget a little step in the process called “Revision”. You make it rough at first, you adjust, you tweak, you refine, and repeat, until you have what you envisioned.
My high school math teacher, Mr. Ball, used to always tell us kids,
“It doesn’t have to be perfect to be excellent.”
That little quote has stuck with me since and allowed me to have grace on myself with the process of growth.
13. Evaluate Your Progress
Identify which things you enjoy/are picking up quickly and which things you feel like need more focus, then adjust accordingly to use the easier aspects to gain momentum and confidence to tackle the more challenging aspects.
This will also let you know which elements of learning might be a good idea to ask for some help with.
In addition, if there’s a sub-skill that you’re having trouble learning, look for other resources you can use until you find one that explains the process to be followed in a way that’s easy for you to understand.
14. Look for the Discomfort Zone
This one is borrowed from Marelisa Fabrega.
In The Practice of Practice: How to Boost Your Music Skills, Jonathan Harnum explains that you have to practice in your discomfort zone.
Your discomfort zone is the level that you’re pushing yourself to get better at a skill, but doing this without going into the zone at which the challenge is greater than your current skills’ capacity.
In simpler terms, this means that you don’t want to spend your practice sessions simply repeating things you already know how to do. You constantly want to be pushing yourself to step slightly out of your comfort zone.
Here’s a quote from Marelisa Fabrega:
"When training, you want to be successful about 60 to 80% of the time. If you’re failing less than that your practice sessions are probably too easy, and if you’re failing more than that they’re too hard.”
15. Set A Deadline
Whether it’s a date you will share your skill with others, use it for an event, or perform it, having a deadline will keep you accountable to the process of developing your skill.
For example: “Learn to speak French eventually” isn’t as motivating as ordering a plane ticket to Paris in 6 months.
Now that example is a bit extreme, but you get the idea.
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” - Parkinson’s Law
This basically means that you will use however long you have to accomplish a goal to finish it. Remember back in school when you had a month to write a paper, then you procrastinated until the day before to write it? Yeah. ’Nuff said. Deadlines create essential urgency that keeps us accountable to finishing.
16. Learn YOUR Way
Your process might be different than others - are you more hands on? Visual? Do you need facts/stats? Does a bullet list help most, or for someone to show you?
Be ok with the results looking different then your inspiration or reference.
Each of us are unique, and so we will create things in a unique way. Even if you are inspired by someone else, do YOUR version of what you’re trying to do. Be ok with the imperfections, nuances, and individual style that comes from the way that you do it - that’s what makes it UNIQUE to YOU!
17. Define what it means to “Master” the skill
Be Specific. Having a clearly defined goal will help you know how to measure your success.
It helps you know when you’ve actually reached your goal, or if you still have more to learn. It will also make it much more rewarding when you do reach that point.
- Instead of “Learn Guitar” > Learn to play a specific song
- Instead of “Learn to cook Better” > Cook dinner for my friends
- Instead of “Draw better” > Draw my tattoo design using crosshatching
- Instead of “Become more Outgoing” > Meet 2 new people this week and learn one new thing about them
- Instead of “Learn Photoshop” > Create an inspirational quote poster for my room
In his article “How to Learn Anything: A Real-World Guide to Mastering Any New Skill”, Jeremy Duvall explains that he wanted to learn to code. But, “I want to learn to code” was too vague of a goal. So he made his goal more specific: “I want to learn CSS positioning so I can redesign some elements of my website”.
He recommends that in order to make your goal more specific, you ask yourself the following questions:
- What specific problem am I trying to solve by learning this skill?
- Are there certain aspects of the skill that are more applicable to my situation than others?
18. Tell others about it…maybe.
This one is borrowed from Jeremy Duvall.
Sharing your goals with a close friend or even your entire social network can help keep you accountable. Right? Not so fast. It could actually hurt your progress more than help.
A study published by New York University demonstrated when we tell someone about a goal, we assume a “premature sense of completeness regarding the…goal.” We unknowingly ease up.
One way to avoid sabotaging yourself is to state your goal as a commitment rather than progress towards the finished product. The former publicly commits us to an attitude, which we’re less likely to change later on. The latter hints we’ve already taken steps to achieve our goal, which might cause us to slack off.
- Commitment: “I will run a marathon in 2015.” – Instead of –
- Progress: “Just signed up for my first marathon! Can’t wait to run Chicago in October.”
While the statements convey the same overall idea, the first statement makes a firm commitment to the end product. The second statement indicates we’ve already made progress (signing up) and lures us into a false sense of accomplishment.
19. Join a Group
Being part of a community of people who have common goals and pursuits as you can be extremely helpful to your process.
You can find accountability, they can empathize with your struggles, they can offer encouragement, you can learn alongside each other and share tips and shortcuts, you can feed off of each others’ inspiration and commitment – research shows that working in groups increases your internal motivation, and as a result, you’re more likely to persevere through challenges and difficulties.
Here are some ways to find applicable groups in your industry: [ref]
- Search Facebook for relevant groups and events
- Pay attention to inspirational people you follow on social media channels and see what events they attend, and if there are any in your city/area, then check them out
- Ask your mentor what professional organizations or meetups they frequent.
- Search meetup.com at the beginning of each month for meetups that might make sense for you.
- Go online to communities and forums, like Reddit, which have very specific topics and interests, and connect there. Groups don’t have to be in-person.
20. Patiently walk through the 4 Stages of the Learning Process
The four stages are these: [ref]
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence:
At this stage it’s very difficult to self-correct as you practice since you don’t know enough to identify what you’re doing wrong. Here’s how to characterize this stage: “I don’t know that I don’t know how to do this.”
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence:
This is the hardest stage, but it’s also the stage at which real learning begins. Here’s how to characterize this stage: “I know that I don’t know how to do this, yet.” At this stage you’re aware of what you’re doing wrong.
Stage 3: Conscious Competence:
At this stage you know what you’re doing, and you’re doing it well, but you still have to pay attention and do things mindfully in order to avoid making mistakes.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence:
At this stage you’re so good at the skill, that you can do it without thinking. Most experiences of the state of flow (being "in the groove") occur at this stage.
In order to move from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence as soon as possible–that is, to start learning as soon as possible–try doing the following:
- Learn enough about each of the sub-skills you’re going to be working on in order to be able to practice intelligently and self-correct as you practice.
- Try videotaping or recording yourself so that you can replay your practice sessions and observe carefully what you’re doing.
- Watch the pros and ask yourself what you’re doing differently. You can do this by watching YouTube videos or going to live events.
- Find someone who knows how to do the skill and who can spare a few moments to critique you.
- Do additional research to help you identify what you should be watching out for.
Here are some great resources for learning efficiently and effectively:
- The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life - by Tim Ferriss
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love - by Cal Newport
- The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast! - by Josh Kaufman
- Teachable.com - Loads of courses and lessons from pros in nearly every conceivable category
- TED – With its slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading” the TED Conference (stands for Technology, Education, Design) features world’s leading academics, teachers and innovators in easily digestible 18-minute lectures.
- Creative Live – Live workshops taught by world class experts. Free if you mark the talks on your schedule and watch the live streams.
- Creative Mornings - a breakfast lecture series for the creative community. There are locally hosted events in literally hundreds of cities around the world.
- 100+ Self-Education Resources For Lifelong Learners
Whatever your goal is, keep your eye on the prize, and as always, give yourself grace with the process.
The pain of discipline is worth the satisfaction of success.
What are some new skills that you are trying to learn/master? Share in the comments below!
Need help in your learning journey?
Introducing STEP 0: A guide to overcoming obstacles that stop you before you even get started. It is designed to help streamline your process by removing the invisible walls that stop you from taking action. It will also help you create the space in your life/schedule/mind for actually learning and mastering new skills!