How to learn a new skill quickly and effectively

new skill

To learn a new skill, it’s not enough to just put in the time. It’s tempting to imagine that learning is like filling a bucket: the more you spend studying, the more you add to your knowledge, and the further you get from emptying the bucket. Most of us have non-linear learning curves. The rate at which we take in new ideas starts slow and then gets much faster as we approach our capacity limit for that topic. then drops off as we bump up against our limit.

The key to learning a new skill is repetition

It’s not just showing up every day that counts. What matters is whether you’re getting better. There are plenty of people who go to the gym every day but don’t get any stronger. And there are plenty of people who practice the piano for hours daily but don’t get any better than when they started.

The key to learning any new skill is repetition. If you want to learn to program a computer, you have to sit down at your computer and spend long hours programming. The fact that most people who start learning a language never get good enough to use it in conversation is not just because they’re lazy, or too old. It’s because the cost of using the language with other people is too high: you have only a small number of friends, and if you make them all speak to you in your new language, you won’t have any friends left.

By contrast, if you want to learn a new skill that doesn’t involve other people, there’s no limit on how many hours a day you can practice. Most of us don’t want to spend our evenings and weekends sitting at home working on some project by ourselves. But that’s the only way we can learn new skills whose payoff is years in the future.

Make a plan to learn what you want to learn as a new skill

You could probably learn a new skill in as little as twenty hours if you tried hard enough. The reason most people don’t learn skills quickly is that they don’t try hard enough. They do an hour here and an hour there, but they never try to learn as fast as they possibly can.

The best way to get results is to have a plan and stick to it. You need a clear idea of what you want to achieve, so you can measure whether you’ve achieved it or not. You need to be able to track your progress. And you need to have a way of making yourself work at it even when you don’t feel like it.

To make a plan, you first have to find out how people who already know the soft and hard skills learned it. The only real limit on what you can do with your life is the amount of time it takes for you to do something someone else already knows how to do. But if other people know how to do what you want to do, why haven’t they done it? Usually, they have tried and failed because they didn’t have something crucial, like money or connections or mentors or experience. These are the things you need to get by learning the skill in question.

Learning a new skill can be the best way to find what you like

It’s best to learn things the way you discover what you like to eat: by trying a little of everything and seeing what you want more of. In a world where most people’s jobs are not that interesting, there is an implicit pressure not to be too interested in your own. This can cause people to feel embarrassed about their enthusiasm for something that seems silly or a waste of time. Some people don’t want to admit they like playing games or watching TV, because these things seem childish or passive. But if playing computer games is what you do for fun, it’s OK to work on making games for a living. If you think TV is trashy but keep watching it anyway because there’s not much else on, it’s OK to work on making better TV. There are worse things than being criticized for doing what you love: for example, being criticized for doing something else.

Of course, at some point in your career, you’ll have to make choices based on reason rather than a passion: if there aren’t any jobs working with computers in your town, it doesn’t matter how much you’d like one. But mostly when people say they’re being practical they just mean they’re being conservative.

Set goals, track progress

If you want to learn a new skill, you need to set a goal. The goal should be something you can track: ideally, you should be able to measure your progress in the same units you use to measure your eventual success. For example, if you want to get better at playing the guitar, it makes sense to set a goal like “learn Smoke on the Water”, because then when you achieve your goal of learning it, there is no doubt that you are better at playing the guitar than before.

But as well as setting goals, you also have to track your progress towards them. If you just set a goal but don’t keep track of how much closer it is, it’s easy to become discouraged and give up.

One way to track your progress is to benchmark yourself periodically against an objective standard. You can play Smoke on the Water for people who know what it sounds like and ask them how close you are. This approach has the advantage that it measures not just whether you are getting closer but also how far away from the goal you are. But there is a big disadvantage: if your performance varies widely (and performances by beginners usually do), then one bad day can make you lose all confidence in yourself.

Set a small achievable goal that you have an interest in so you keep going

Some people think they can just go through life and find a good job and work hard, and everything is going to work out fine. This approach is not wrong exactly, but it won’t lead you to an interesting life. Sitting around waiting for interesting things to happen is not the same as trying to make interesting things happen.

So what are you supposed to do instead? You could try to make things happen by starting a startup, but there’s no guarantee that will be interesting in itself: plenty of startups are about as exciting as pushing string uphill.

But even if you don’t start a startup, you should still try to make something happen. You should pursue your goals with energy and focus, rather than sitting around expecting them to fall in your lap.

If you’re in college or high school, the best way to do this is probably to set a small achievable goal that you have an interest in. I’m not saying don’t have big plans for what you want to achieve in life. But if you want those big plans to come true, then at each step along the way you need some smaller achievements that are actually within reach. Otherwise, your big plans may never happen.

 Developing skills keeps your mind sharp

Skills are like mental reflexes. When you practice a skill, the movements involved become automatic. What’s interesting about skills is how different they are from knowledge. When you learn something new, it often feels like progress, but I think that’s an illusion.

When the brain receives new information, it takes time for it to sink in. You have to move the information from short-term memory into long-term memory before it becomes permanently accessible. This is not just hard, but tedious. And once you’ve moved an idea into long-term memory, there’s not much more you can do with it. It becomes passive knowledge that you can use, but not build on.

The ability to develop skills has become so important that it now dominates our culture. Almost everyone in America today is engaged in some kind of formal education, almost all the time. And the reason is not just that we’re trying to avoid making mistakes by acquiring more and more experience. It’s also because we’re increasingly aware that the only sort of experience worth getting is skill experience (and even then, only if it’s relevant). In practice what this means is that we are spending ever more time on formal education and training, on learning by doing.

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