Why is it so hard to learn a new skill in the beginning?
When I started blogging three years ago, I struggled a lot. It was taking me 7 to 8 hours to write a post. I would get frustrated, write sentences repeatedly, try to make the paragraphs flow, and work late at night so that I could publish the damn thing.
When I started sketching, it was even worse. My skeches were terrible, and I would feel horrible posting them on Instagram.
When we try something new, we are usually terrible at it, and we know it. We get disturbed at the prospect of being horrible at something, so much so that we quit to escape from the feeling of angst.
The early times of trying something new are always challenging, but a little persistence can result in huge increases in skill. The human brain is optimized to pick up new skills extremely quickly. If we could persist and practice systematically, we can experience dramatic improvements in a very short time.
I recently started writing books. For years I was convinced that it takes at least a year to write a book. Until one fine morning, I woke up and decided to write a book. That too in one week. And I did that.
I treated the book as an experiment to learn the process of writing a book. Taking the same approach as writing blog posts, I broke the book into smaller chunks and concentrated on one chunk at a time.
In the beginning, I struggled. I was all over the place. I was writing and rewriting and had no idea what I would cover in each chapter, but as the days passed, I was beginning to develop a routine for myself.
There were times I was trying not to throw my computer across the room when I got overwhelmed but then pushing through the early frustration, I developed simple techniques to meet my daily quota of writing.
First, I figured out I only have 4 -5 productive hours a day, so I made sure I didn’t waste them. Second, I learned that if I cover the core concepts first, I can fill in the blanks with research later. Third, I realized I concentrate on the smaller chunks at a time I can go through more in the given time.
As a result, I finished my book in time to publish it within a week.
So successful was this approach that I am now using it to write a book a month.
It didn’t take me 10,000 hours to master the skill of writing and publishing my first book.
Malcolm Gladwell was the first to make Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s 10,000 rule famous through his book Outliers. Through several examples, Gladwell found that it takes around 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to reach the top of ultracompetitive, easily ranked performance fields, such as professional golf, music performance, or chess. In those fields, the more time you’ve spent in deliberate practice, the better you perform compared to people who have practiced fewer hours.
But there is a caveat.
Most of the time, we are not seeking to become world-class golfers or chess players. I didn’t write a New York Times bestseller in one week. I just wrote a book. My focus was on solving a problem (mine as well as my readers) and hence I wrote a useful book.
In the process, I learned a skill in one week.
To learn a new skill, you need to figure out what is the focus. In my case, the focus was on solving a problem.
If you are learning career skills, your focus may be on performing well enough to produce a result that’s meaningful to you and useful to your employer.
If you are learning personal skills such as a hobby, your focus should be on enjoying the process and having fun.
Rather than Malcolm Gladwell’s (aka Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s) 10,000 rule, I subscribe to Josh Kaufman’s “20-Hours rule”.
Josh Kaufman, the author of The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast states that it takes you just 20 hours of deliberate practice to learn a new skill.
The concept of the “10,000-hour rule” is very intimidating. It can serve as a barrier to learning anything. If you believe it takes that long to see results, you’re less likely to start in the first place.
And the idea of “mastery” is also a deterrent. We don’t have to “mastery” every skill we ever learn. Developing new skills in a way that allows us to perform “well enough for our own purposes.” This approach is by far the most practical approach for skill acquisition.
According to Josh Kaufman, you can learn just about anything if you commit to “deliberately practice” for 20 hours.
About 40 minutes to one hour a day is all you need to get the results you’re looking for. It is not to attain mastery or for competitive performance but to get good enough.
Jeff Kaufman suggests 10 Principles of Rapid Skill Acquisition in his book The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast!,
- 1. Lovable project — It’s important to pay attention to what you’re personally most interested in learning. Even if you think you “should” focus on learning something else, when you’re naturally interested in a particular skill, you’ll learn extremely quickly. So follow your interests where they lead, and avoid forcing yourself to grind through abilities you’re not interested in exploring.
- 2. One skill at a time — Don’t choose multiple skills at the same time. Concentrate on one skill at a time and give it your full attention.
- 3. Target performance level — Decide what you want to be able to do. It is called a “target performance level.” If you have a clear idea of how good you want to become, it’s much easier to find specific practice methods that will help you get there as quickly as possible.
- 4. Deconstruction — Most skills are really just bundles of smaller subskills you use at the same time. Break the skill down into smaller parts. By breaking down the skill into manageable parts, you eliminate the early feelings of overwhelm and make it easier to get started.
- 5. Critical subskills — Practice the most important subskills first. A few subskills will always be more important than others, so it makes sense to begin by practicing the things that will give you a significant increase in performance. By focusing your early practice on the most critical parts of the skill, you’ll see a dramatic increase in your performance after a few hours of practice.
- 6. Barriers to practice — When learning a skill, there will always be barriers that interfere with the learning process. These barriers could be internal such as fear or self-doubt, or external such as distractions (a ringing phone, knock at the door, TV). Eliminate any hindrances for one hour.
- 7. Make time — The exact amount of time it takes to acquire a new skill depends on your desired performance level — if you don’t make things harder than they really need to be, it’s not at all uncommon to reach your initial objective in a few hours.
- 8. Fast feedback loops — Find a way to get fast feedback on your progress so that you can correct yourself quickly and stay on the path of speedy learning. You can hire a coach or take time to reflect on your mistakes and correct them.
- 9. Short bursts — Numerous studies in the fields of motor and cognitive skill acquisition have established that the first few hours of practicing a new skill always generate the most dramatic performance improvements.
- 10. Quantity and speed — Practice quickly and often and do not focus on achieving perfection. It’s better to recognize that you’re likely a beginner, and you shouldn’t expect yourself to be an expert from the start. By prioritizing quantity and speed, you’re less likely to get frustrated and subsequently demotivated during the initial stages of practice.
Kaufman field-tested the “First 20 Hours” on a wide variety of skills in several contexts — fine and gross motor movements, cognitive processing, personal hobbies, and professional skills.
The general pattern looks like this – when you start, you’re horrible. But you improve quickly as you learn the essential parts of the skill. After reaching a certain level of skill quickly, your rate of improvement declines, and subsequent improvement becomes much slower.
This phenomenon is called the “power law of practice,” and it’s one of the most consistent findings in skill acquisition research. According to Kaufman, this effect has been known since at least 1926, and it’s been replicated many times in studies of both physical and mental skills.
Even when you have learned a new skill, you will lose it over time if you don’t continue to practice it.
Skills deteriorate over time is a given, but it is also easy to re-acquire a skill after you’ve learned it. It usually doesn’t take much practice to bring your skills back up to past levels once you know what you’re doing. An hour or two every few months is usually sufficient to maintain your current level of performance. You’re just reconnecting parts of your brain that haven’t been connected in a while. The neural wiring is still there; it’s just a bit rusty.
Is there any skill you would like to learn?
Would you be game enough to test Josh Kaufman’s “First 20 Hours”?
I would like to hear about it here.
You can write your first book in one week. I did it. So can you. Want to know how? Just download the book and get going.