What Will You Learn This Year?

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with an old friend of mine that I respect quite a lot. He’s one of those people that seems to know how to do everything – he can fix computers (and write code), handle almost any home repair, play the guitar, beat almost everyone I know at chess, discuss literature extensively, and so on.

We were simply talking to each other about our reflections on the past year – both personal milestones and otherwise. I reflected on the true birth of my writing career and the growth of my children (especially the change of my daughter from a newborn to a walking, talking toddler), while he related some of his own personal successes.

Then he asked me an interesting question. What will you learn this year?

I didn’t really know what he meant by that, so I asked him to elaborate a bit. He told me that each year, he chooses a particular skill that he wants to learn and devotes an hour a day minimum to learning it at an adequate level, with a goal of devoting at least 500 hours to the skill over the course of a year.

One year, for example, he wanted to learn how to play the piano at least reasonably well from ear, while another year, he wanted to become a strong chess player.

During that year, he’d spend an hour or an hour and a half each day doing deliberate practice. Deliberate practice, as I discussed before, refers to practicing by simply mastering individual techniques within a larger skill instead of practicing the skill as a whole. For example, he might spend an entire day doing nothing but playing one basic piano lesson over and over and over again until he could do it blindfolded, or he’d spend one day doing nothing more than working on a single chess problem until he found the best solution for it. Afterwards, if he had some spare time, he might play around with his growing skill a bit, but most days the deliberate practice itself would suffice.

Thus, at the end of each year, my friend had (reasonably) mastered a new skill to add to his repertoire. Even better, most of those skills he has learned are much like riding a bicycle – you can pick them up at a later date and shake off the rust pretty quickly.

Upon hearing the idea, my wheels immediately began to turn. What skill could I learn in 2009 by applying an hour of daily practice?

I decided to give it a shot with a few simple caveats, since this is my “trial balloon” year to see how it works for me.

First, I wanted to completely master a fairly trivial skill rather than becoming merely adept at something more complex. No matter what I choose, I’ll likely show some improvement over the year, but I’d like to be able to move from almost completely unable to do something to being able to do that thing at a very high level in a year with an hour of practice a day. Doing it this way would allow me to clearly demonstrate to myself (and to others) how effective a policy of an hour of practice a day for a year really is. This means focusing on a fairly narrow skill.

Second, I wanted to focus on something fairly novel that I could use as a parlor trick of sorts. In other words, I wanted something I could very easily show to others, either as a conversation starter or as an inspiration that anyone could do this. What sort of narrow skill could I build? I ran through a long list of ideas, from the incredibly esoteric (shuffling a deck of cards with one hand) to the rather useful (improving my vegetable chopping speed).

Finally, I wanted something I could easily practice almost anywhere. This eliminated several of the options. I was left mostly with things like shuffling a deck of cards with one hand (as it would only require me to have a deck in my pocket) and other such tricks.

So, what did I finally decide on? What sort of skill am I planning on learning in 2009 by devoting an hour a day to it? Don’t laugh…

I’ve decided to master the Rubik’s Cube, with the goal of being able to solve it in three minutes or so from any position.

Why choose that skill? First of all, it’s something I can do anywhere. The only piece of equipment I actually need is the Cube itself, particularly once I get the hang of solving it. Second, it’s something that’s easy to demonstrate as a skill to others. Third, solving the Cube promotes logical thinking skills as you’re doing it. And, finally, it’s something I’m not good at at all … I can currently solve a side with about five minutes’ work, but after that, I’m stuck.

So, each day, I’m going to spend an hour attempting to master solving the Cube. I’m going to take a three minute video each month to show my progress as well, starting with a video showing me fumbling about with the Cube. At the end of the year, if all goes well, I’ll make a post showing all of the videos (or a selection of them) to show how an hour’s worth of practice can make your skill progress.

Now, how about you? Could you devote an hour a day this year to learning a new skill? Spend some time thinking about it… and come up with a plan.