Ten Killer Tactics for Developing a New Skill

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In our everyday lives, it’s very easy to become complacent and content with our current skills and abilities. We have busy lives and often have a skill set that matches our current job, so it’s much easier to just get the work done and move on with life than to take the time to build upon our set of skills.

The only problem is that the simple path doesn’t really build much for the future.

It’s easy to understand the long term benefits of improving your skills: you open yourself up to countless opportunities. It’s much harder to look at building skills in the short term, however – skill building eats away at time that could be used being productive.

How can we get around that catch-22? Here are some tactics for doing just that.

Ten Tactics for Developing a New Skill

1. Clearly identify the skills you actually want to build.
For some skills, this will be really obvious. For example, if the skill you want to learn is “I want to learn to touch type at 80 words per minute,” you’re set to go. On the other hand, “I want to learn a musical instrument” is far too nebulous.

When trying to identify the skill you actually want to build, you need to be able to state it specifically enough so that you can easily follow from that skill to a plan for building that skill. Ask yourself “what do I specifically want to learn?” and “why do I want to learn it?” If you can answer those two questions clearly, you’ve got the material you need.

2. Set aside time every day – or on an extremely regular schedule – to focus specifically on building those skills.
If you want to actually build a new skill, you need persistence, and persistence is a commitment to tackling an improvement of that skill every day, or at least frequently enough that you don’t begin to forget what you’ve learned before the next session. If you’re not able or not willing to commit to that level of persistence, learning a new skill will be nearly impossible.

3. Develop a game plan for building a specific skill.
Once you know the skill you want to build and are willing to commit time daily to building it, you’re ready to develop a game plan for that skill. What do you need to do to get from where you’re at now to where you want to be? If you don’t know, do some research on the topic. Understand the things that need to be done to get there.

For example, let’s say you wanted to master knife use in the kitchen, enabling you to cleanly and crisply chop vegetables and meat in a short amount of time safely. It might not necessarily be clear what you need to do to gain that skill. Research is the answer – look towards sources that already know this skill and find out how they learned it. Look for institutions that teach this skill (like culinary schools) and see if you can discover how they teach it.

4. Invest in top-quality resources for learning.
Many people attempt to learn a new skill by using free tutorials or a hand-me-down book bought at a garage sale in 1972. Don’t. Do some additional research and find out what you really need for learning. Ask people who are experts what they recommend for a beginner. Identify skilled people who can help you, either for pay or just because they’re happy to mentor. Gather good resources, not whatever you stumble across.

This doesn’t mean that you should go blow $1,000 on a new guitar if you’re trying to teach yourself how to play – a simple instrument will suffice. What this means is that if you want to know how to play that guitar, don’t settle for a pile of photocopies – get the materials that experts recommend for teaching. Get lessons if you need to. But don’t skimp on the quality of the learning resources.

5. Set a clear goal that you want to reach.
Another important part in learning a new skill is to identify clear goals that you’re working towards, both short term and long term. That way, as you reach milestones, you feel a sense of accomplishment and realize that you actually are improving – that this time investment is paying off.

Let’s say you’re trying to master shooting free throws (something I did over and over and over again in my school days). The only way to acquire the skill of good free throw shooting is to simply put in the time of shooting tons of free throws – and that can be boring if you’re only looking at a nebulous goal.

Instead, I tried setting up “sub-goals.” My overall goal was to reach 90% free throw shooting over a lot of shots – I used 90/100 as a metric. When I first started, I was atrocious – something like 30% of my shots would go in. So, my first goal was to force myself to shoot properly – I asked the basketball coach to demonstrate the exact proper technique for free throw shooting, and my first goal was simply to shoot using that style for thirty minute sessions, over and over again. My goal was to simply force myself into the good technique and worry about refining it later.

When I mastered that, then I started focusing on accuracy. I’d work on sets of 25, setting a goal at first of hitting 15 of them consistently. As I got better and could make that goal over and over again (I could do five sets without missing my goal), I’d feel a big sense of accomplishment – then I’d raise the goal.

My big goal was to be able to make that 90% target, so I kept raising my 25 shot goal until I could do 23/25 pretty consistently – I made it, and it was because of little goals along the way, keeping me motivated and proving to myself that I was actually getting better.

6. Use something in the “real world” to work on as you learn.
For some skills, merely practicing will suffice (as with a musical instrument), but for others, it pays great dividends to work on a real project as you learn your skills.

For example, let’s say you’ve decided to teach yourself how to code in PHP using classes and AJAX, things you can really add to your resume if you’re a web programmer. Rather than just writing “Hello World” type of things, conceive of a small, generally useful project that could use PHP, classes, and AJAX in complex ways and write the entire thing yourself. Along the way, you’ll learn some skills and in the end have something worth using.

7. Gather support for this skill growth.
While you’re the person that actually has to put in the time and effort to build a skill, you don’t have to do it in a bubble. Look for opportunities for support in both your personal and professional life.

If you want to engage in this skill-building at work, discuss your plans with your boss and ask for permission to set aside some time each day to work on the skill. Most managers are quite happy to allow you a small amount of time each week to build skills, as it’s a cheap way for them to transform you into a more valuable asset for the company.

At home, look for support from your spouse. Ask for a period of time each evening where you can focus on learning without interruption – a caring spouse will give you that freedom and space, plus offer you positive encouragement along the way.

8. Share the progress you’re making along the way.
As you begin to build your skills and achieve small milestones, don’t just keep these accomplishments inside – share them with others. Offer proof-of-concept demonstrations to your supervisor so he/she can see that you’re really accomplishing something. Play a simple song for your wife on the instrument you’re learning. In almost every case, not only will it give you some positive reinforcement, it will encourage those around you to keep giving you the space and feeding your growth.

9. Capitalize on your newly-found skill by applying it to a project that you can share with others.
As you begin to develop some real skill, apply that skill in a way that can be shared with others. Perhaps you’ve been working on a project all along – like an art project or a programming project – and the fruits of this project, developed with your growing skill, can be shared with others. Perhaps instead you can share your new skill by practicing it with an audience – playing an instrument, perhaps, or delivering a comedy routine. No matter, when you build your skill to the level want, don’t hesitate to share it with others – the best skills are the ones that raise the value of the lives of others, not just yourself.

10. Get started. Now. Not later.
Just do it. If you’re sitting there thinking, “Yeah, that sounds good, but it seems like too much effort…”, just toss that kind of thinking aside and get started. Set aside some time each day for this – even just fifteen minutes – and start digging in. Commit to it, start learning, and you’ll never regret it.

How Am I Building My Skill Set?
Right now, I’m focusing on building three specific skills, so I’ll address each one of these so you can see the tips above put to use in real-world scenarios.

Adobe Photoshop CS3
What skills do I want to build? Beyond just knowing the program cold, I want to learn how to make photographs of food really pop, especially for online display.
When am I learning? Each day, I devote a half an hour exclusively to learning Photoshop.
What’s the game plan? Right now, I’m working with the images from my bread post, and I’m also looking at a wide array of visual food resources to see how to compose better food images, but I want to maintain that “in a real kitchen” vibe that those images have.
What resources am I using? Right now, I’m using Adobe’s own Adobe Photoshop CS3 Classroom in a Book to get sharp on the Photoshop basics, then I’ll follow that with Scott Kelby‘s Adobe Photoshop CS3 for Digital Photographers. I also have an acquaintance who is a professional photographer who said she’d look at some of my images.
What are my clear goals and milestones? I want to be able to send a processed image to this acquaintance and have her write back that I’ve really nailed it. Once I do that, I’ll be content with my skill level. She’ll also help as my support along the way and also a way to show off the progress I’m making.
How will I use this skill in a project to share with others? My cooking blog!

Playing the piano/keyboard
What skills do I want to build? I want to be able to play through any song in my church’s hymnal (so I can serve as a backup pianist) and also be able to make a stab at any pop song that I hear.
When am I learning? Again, I’m setting aside half an hour each day to practice, mostly in the basement when my children are napping.
What’s the game plan? My first attempts mostly revolve around trying to teach myself with various books – I know little about actually reading sheet music and I know zero about actually tickling the ivories. If that doesn’t work well, I’ll turn to lessons.
What resources am I using? I have an abundance of resources to help me. I have access to a big pile of books on teaching myself piano and keyboard, online resources, and two great people: a friend of my wife who actually teaches lessons in the area, and my mother-in-law who is the pianist for her church.
What are my clear goals and milestones? Pretty simple. My milestones revolve around being able to flip open a book of sheet music and being able to tackle one of the songs on it, and then from there being able to flip open a book and tackle any song in it.
How will I use this skill in a project to share with others? I’ll sign up to fill in as church pianist in a pinch, and perhaps play on my mother-in-law’s piano at family events.

Short-length fiction
What skills do I want to build? I want to be able to write compelling short-length fiction, less than 10,000 words. This is by far my biggest weakness as a writer – whenever I write fiction, it just sprawls and grows.
When am I learning? I try writing a bit of short fiction each day, but my big opportunity to learn is in my free reading time. Right now I’m reading a big pile of short story compilations.
What’s the game plan? Crank out two short stories a week, not necessarily finished ones, but efforts to hone my skills.
What resources am I using? I’m going through tons of editions of Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Science Fiction, and the O. Henry Prize Stories, which are annual compilations of a selection of the best short stories of the year. I’m mostly trying to identify stories that really click with me and figure out why they click, both in terms of content and technique. Once I start writing stuff I’m actually proud of, I’ll use my wife as a “constant reader” resource: she’s probably more willing to criticize my writing than anyone else on earth.
What are my clear goals and milestones? To write a short story that I feel is good enough to show my wife, then to write a short story that my wife is highly enthusiastic about (after editing, of course), and then get one of those stories published.
How will I use this skill in a project to share with others? If I get a story published, it’s shared by its very nature.

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17 thoughts on “Ten Killer Tactics for Developing a New Skill

  1. Great post. I think another important aspect of setting goals is usually creating goals that you can control. At least for my blog, I try not to set goals based on readership or visits and things, but rather post frequency, quality of posts, or time input. At the same time I don’t want to dismiss all goals that rely on others, but it is easier to get started I think with things you can control.

  2. My goal was to learn how to ski… done. My new goal is to advance from blue runs to black runs. I think that all the steps you mentioned come into play, but most of all I can relate with “just do it”. And believing in yourself.

  3. #7 is the kicker. You have to share what you are learning. Getting feedback and support is what really inspires someone to take it to the next level.

    I would like to learn photoshop someday, but its not high on my list right now.

  4. #7 IS the kicker, BUT, much easier than before (the internet). My favorite way to accomplish #7 is to find an online community devoted to the skill I’m trying to acquire (guitar playing, web site design, etc.). I’ve been surprised time after time by the level of help and cooperation I’ve seen/received in some forums. Not to mention, the time-shifting you can do online, since lots of forums have responders/contributors from all around the world.

  5. Inspiring read! The key is to limit the number of new skills until sufficient progress can be made or you may run into the “Jack of all trade, but master of none” syndrome.

    Best Wishes,
    D4L

  6. Great post. As a busy Freshman engineering student, it’s hard to find time to develop “skills”, so I’ve been trying to expand on things in the classroom to be more proficient at. I’ve found it’s more important to strengthen what you know than it is to try and touch on something new sometimes.

    For keeping schedule of regular practice things, try JoesGoals.com – I’ve been using it for a while now to try and keep track of various positive AND negative habits. You can easily create a goal like “30min Photoshop Practice.” It’s dorky, but really effective. It has helped me to begin building a workout habit.

  7. With regards to short fiction, you might try extreme word limits. Expand a 10 word story into a 50 word story. Then shrink it down to 10 words again. Then blimp it to 1000 words, and reduce to 500.

    For me, limiting word length is great practice for revising (from big to small) as you force yourself to be succinct. Never delete though, copy and paste into a different document. Use that stuff to springboard into new (but different) writing.

    People who grow bonsai do the same thing–I think it’s called air-layering. You remove a small part of the tree (through a careful process) and you can regrow it in a new pot.

  8. Trent,

    In your “30 Essential Pieces Of Free (and Open) Software for Windows” post, you wrote the following, with regards to using GIMPShop:

    “I see no reason to ever go back, even if Photoshop were free.”

    As someone who has a book explaining Photoshop on my shelf, and GIMP installed on my PC, but no PShop (guilty about downloading it for free, and don’t want to shell out the cash either), could you explain the decision process you used to go back to Photoshop?

    Thanks,

    DSW II

  9. Great post. Since you mentioned it’s better to get the best info possible, I wanted to suggest that in some cases it’s better to start off with some professional help.

    I’m referring specifically to your piano lessons. Being a music educator myself, it’s usually better to start off with a teacher so you don’t get into any bad habits from the beginning (sometimes these can take forever to fix). Learning from a teacher may also cut your learning curve considerably since they may be more focused and know what not to practice.

    Some skills need instruction that just can’t be learned from a book. After a year or so you should have a grasp of the fundamentals then decide from there.

    I wrote an article on the merits of a music education in my most recent post.

  10. I like your piano goals. Remember to be patient, as your ultimate goal as a church fill-in pianist is desirable, yet ambitious. It takes time for the ‘language of music’ to become fluent in a student musician. Enjoy the ride.

  11. A great resource for learning to write fiction is a book by Stephen King titled “On Writing.” The first third of it is an engaging autobiographical account of how he developed in his love and skill for writing. The rest of the book is valuable insight and technical coaching that you’ll want to highlight and re-read. I hope you check it out!

  12. I would really love it if you keep us abreast of your learning new skills. I just started with guitar lessons. Right now I suck pretty bad but I’m learning to enjoy it even if it’s not something I’ll pick that easily like photography. Please keep us posted on how it’s going.

  13. Trent–
    Killer post. It’s funny that you put this up just as I settled on a plan for becoming fluent with the scales on the guitar. The idea of technique before accuracy is right on, and I plan to use that approach this time around. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  14. Trent – I’ve been teaching piano lessons for over 10 years, and the very best book I’ve found for adults (or older kids) is called “67 Fun Songs” by a pianist named Jon Schmidt. The book is available at http://www.jonschmidt.com for about $16 and includes a 10-week program for learning to actually read music, rather than using finger numbers and hand positions to play the songs presented.

    You can also download just the note-reading section for a small fee.

    Good luck! I’m a big believer that piano can be self-taught, particularly for the purposes you’ve outlined.

  15. Trent, check out strobist for off camera lighting…you may not need as much post processing skill if you can control the lighting during the shoot. They also have a very active flickr group.

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