Thought Catalog
May 15, 2017

10 Ways To Pickup New Skills Like A Master

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Unsplash / Brad Neathery

As a child, I played the piano, guitar, tennis and swam often. I would like to even think I was quite good at all of those – although, I don’t intent on going through an old dusty box in order to find my grade certificates right now. I also learnt to speak, read and write in Japanese as my mother is Japanese.

Interestingly, I don’t remember having to go through tremendous amounts of effort or stress in order to pick up any of these skills. They were simply things I spent a percentage of my week improving on. Over the past few years, no longer having my parents supporting me financially in paying for or driving to weekly lessons – my rate of acquiring new skills has rapidly decreased. But this has not come from not wanting to acquire new skills. In fact, speaking to loads of people over the years, I’ve noted that there is, quite often, a mention of wanting to learn something entirely new. Whether that comes in the form of being able to speak a new language, cook, speak in public confidently, play a musical instrument or even something as simple as learning to shuffle cards like a casino dealer or magician. I knew that I had to take this topic head on and explore ways in which we inhibit ourselves to learn new skills and what I could do better when tackling something new.

Recently I’ve been able to rapidly increase my rate of acquisition and maximise my retaining of those skills effectively. (If you head to my ‘impossible list’, you’ll see a section labeled ‘skills’ in which you can track my pursuit to learn new skills.) So how have I gone about learning effectively and what have I learnt not to do? I’ve compiled a list of the 10 masterful ways to go about this:

1. Set a goal

‘What’s the point driving a car at high speed if you don’t know where you’re going?’ Okay that metaphor might be debunked by a load of gear-head readers, but the take-away would be that visualising a goal is key to creating efficiency in acquiring a new skill.

So for the example of learning a new language, I avoid statements such as ‘I want to learn Spanish’ or ‘I wish I could speak in Spanish’ but rather use clearer and more specifically defined goals like ‘I aim to hold a 5 minute conversation with a stranger in a bar in South America’ or ‘I aim to be able to read a national Japanese newspaper.’ I have clearly defined the target in which I am aiming to hit, but what I am also doing, is reminding myself as to the benefit of even acquiring a new skill in the first place: Is it to communicate with people I wasn’t able to communicate with before? Is it to simply test my learning limits? Or is it to have a new skill in order to advance my career?

My specifically defined goal will allow me to eliminate inefficiencies whilst actually instilling focus into my new skill acquisition journey.

2. Break it down

Much like having a non-specific goal, not breaking down the skill into ‘mini-skills’ is a quick way of demanding a loss of focus and/or motivation. Having a big challenge ahead like ‘learning a new language from scratch’ to me is quite overwhelming. I’m immediately thinking about the amount of hours I’m going to have to dedicate and all the various ways in which I could lose focus (which I’ll discuss how to abolish in number 4).

The first step for me to eradicate this feeling of overwhelm and often confusion as to what route to go about acquiring this new skill, is to break it down into ‘mini-skills’.

Here’s an example of me breaking down a skill I want to learn into ‘mini-skills’:

Desired skill: ‘I want to play a chess grandmaster and not get my ass handed to me’
Mini-skill 1: Chess openings – ie, learn all the best ways in which to start a game of chess strong
Mini-skill 2: Chess endgames – ie, learn the best ways in which to finish and checkmate an
Mini-skill 3: Study instructive chess games – watch previous winning games on how to attack the king during a game and apply pressure to an opponent
Mini-skill 4: Study most common mistakes – thus eliminating room for error and making me more aware of opponent weaknesses

From breaking it down and using ‘mini-skills’, I’ve already made the rather large skill goal that I had set myself: easier to approach and less over whelming.

3. Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule)

One extremely effective technique is known as the ‘Pareto Principle‘. In this, I look for the 20% work that would give me 80% of the results. In 1906, Italian Economist, Vilfredo Pareto discovered that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. Quickly, other powerful analysts noted that the same ratio was apparent in their own field of expertise with (for example) 80% of large company sales coming from 20% of their client base.

Here’s how I use the Pareto Principle to affect my skill acquisition: when learning a new language, I try find the most commonly used phrases and ‘filler’ phrases such as ‘errm’ and ‘the thing is’ in order to make the most progress. The commonly used phrases will cover most basic conversations whilst the filler phrases will allow me to extend my use of the language whilst thinking about how to say something. This way I don’t become lazy and lose sight of being practical with my newly found skill.

tl;dr: Identify the 20% work that will give you 80% of the results. In learning a language it does not take long to realise that there are a few very key words that pop up over and over again. You can do a quick search for “most commonly used French words” for example and begin to learn them first before adding on the rest.

4. Think of all the ways you might give up down the line

Now that I’ve setup a goal, broken it down and established the 20% I need to go after; I need to make sure that I am continuously motivated and not give up. Unfortunately there are almost an infinite number of ways in which I could give up during the process of learning this new found skill.

At this point, taking a breather and just thinking about all the possible ways that I could eventually give up once my excitement peak starts to drop, is really important. I think for me, I just assume that ‘future Justin’ is going to make bad decisions, get lazy and just binge watch House of Cards – so before I do, I need to make sure that I create an environment that prevents me from making any more mistakes.

For example: I know that if I am trying to learn the skill of cooking, one of the ways in which I would give up would be buying snacks and foods that are bad for me which would lead to me not being hungry or eating a microwavable meal and skipping the cooking process altogether. So to prevent this, I would have to make sure that I ate a small meal before every time I went food shopping.

Prepare for the worst and then establish systems that you can put in place to prevent those bad things from taking place.

5. Build a daily habit

Now my journey to acquiring my dream skill has finally taken it’s first big steps! I’m riding on the wave of excitement that comes from the challenge being new and the results flying in. At this point, it’s important for me to make sure that I am aware of how I can maintain this level of results past the point of initial excitement. I need to create daily habits.

There is an incredible book I recommend and even feature in my reading list by Charles Duhigg called ‘The Power of Habit’. The book is great at explaining what Duhigg refers to as the ‘Habit loop’ which, once understood can allow you to change or create any habit by simply making a few changes to specific parts of the ‘loop’ itself. I highly recommend grabbing the book, as it’s quite possibly one of the most value-dense books I’ve ever invested in.

One thing I do to build up my good habits, is to use an online application called ‘habitica’. This app is badass! You can track your habits, daily routines and your to-do list, all whilst giving you a fun levelling up system to help continue excitement throughout (similar to one you’d find in a video game).

6. 20-Hour Rule

Malcom Gladwell wrote about the idea of 10,000 hours being a base-line for becoming the master of a certain skill. The 10,000 hour rule creates a very romantic view. If I simply practice playing the violin for 10,000 hours, I could become the next Pablo de Sarasate – but this is just not the case. The 10,000 hour rule actually brings up a lot of problems. The focus being on the extensive time means that the quality of practice suffers. Also, the idea of spending 10,000 hours into acquiring a skill will prevent you from ever picking up any other skills you may have intended on learning any time soon. In fact, at this point, I’d recommend Josh Kaufman’s ‘First 20 hours’.

In Kaufman’s book, I noted a huge emphasis on getting passed the 20 hour mark as fast as possible – mainly to prevent you from giving up and getting the learning process into your habit and routine. Kaufman said it best: ‘Do your homework, then shift to real practice as quickly as possible. Practicing the skill in context is the only thing that generates lasting results.’ But it’s also worth noting that in the book, Kaufman talks of dedicating these 20 hours to instil confidence into the person actually learning the skill. For these reasons, I highly recommend sticking by this rule.

7. Set a stake

As a child, I remember distinctively not being allowed to watch TV if I hadn’t done my guitar or piano practice. It was in having a stake that I was not only motivated to do my practice every day – but that I felt a sense of accountability and ownership over my skill acquiring process.

In my article about the lessons I learnt from bestselling author, Neil Strauss, I write how Neil states that having a deadline with real consequences or stakes is key to finishing something. The awesome thing is that these deadlines can actually be manufactured, but with the condition that it should be external, meaning someone else or something out of your control is going to hold you responsible. One way to do this is to get a stake on ‘’ – which Neil actually mentions during the interview in which he talks about deadlines.

8. Track progress and feedback constantly

I noticed that tracking progress was a massive boost for when acquiring a new skill. Having data driven results is a great way of being able to analytically study yourself and compare your progress. This kind of information is actually what can help motivate you also, as you crave and are intrigued by the future results on your data sheet. So make sure to either note your progress down in to either a diary, some form of tracking app or just using an application (that I loved to use) called ‘habitica’ which can let you track the progress you’ve made in both being consistent in your practice and also how much you’ve improved in your ability to reach certain goals.

For some skills, you’ll be able to use these measurements and tracked progress and can give yourself necessary feedback on what is important and what you need to work on. I personally love to look closely at my bottom 2 weaknesses and figure out just one small thing that could help both of them (basically following the Pareto Principle mentioned earlier). You could throw together some useful Google Forms to provide you with feedback, then adapt your approach based on the results.

For other skills, you’ll need feedback from elsewhere: a mastermind group, for instance: a group of people around you who can see your progress analytically (preferably people who have already mastered the skill) or a teacher whom you can pay to help you improve by bringing his past experience and learnings into your process.

9. Be practical

When learning a skill such as cooking and learning a new instrument – there is nothing more important than practical application. There is only so much you can learn from planning and thinking about the topic – although that is also important. But the focus here is to find someone to practice alongside with.

A close family friend is what many would consider to be a master of piano. She had actually started playing piano at the age of 4 and by the age of 8 could play ‘Sonata’ at a high-level, going on to then win national competitions. But it was not until going to music school and becoming an adult that she truly realised her music skill. For in the specific and technical ability, she had become a master – but it was only by being practical in playing with musicians and by understanding that it was the performing great music for others and not just hitting notes that allowed her to truly excel. So be practical. Always.

10. Immerse yourself – ‘live it’

In the incredible book: ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport, there is a huge emphasis of depth over shallow study. With any skill that you want to learn, you have to live. When learning a new skill or even just learning a subject that I want to be an expert in: every youtube video I watch, every podcast I listen to, every book I read and mostly, every conversation I have would be within the field that I am trying to master. This allows me to tremendously boost my progress – so immersing myself and ‘going deep’ is key during the time that I am trying to learn and pickup my new skill. TC mark