I talked last week about how important it is that we think carefully about the types of skills that we want to learn, and the ways in which our different skill areas can overlap. Selecting the skills that you want to devote your time and energy to is half the battle. The other half is how you approach your learning.
I mentioned that, for me as well as for my clients, the point of learning a skill is to achieve mastery. I think we all dream of that, if we’re honest. No-one starts to learn a new language with the aspiration of, one magnificent day, being able to ask where the library is and be mostly understood.
We dream of being able to converse naturally, to understand and be understood as effortlessly as we are in our native language. Whilst we might feel a sense of achievement with becoming ‘good enough’ (which I do want to talk about soon), we’re always looking for the next level.
This is the other problem I have with the idea of learning a skill just to fill time. To really learn a skill, to be expert rather than just dabble, you have to come at it with intention. You need to approach it knowing that this is something that you plan to work hard at and an area in which you will excel.
The first, and possibly the most important, thing I want everyone to consider when they are picking up a new skill is that we have all been lied to since childhood. Practise doesn’t make perfect. Practise makes permanent. Only perfect practise makes perfect.
This is key, especially when you’re learning something new. One of the best things about being a beginner is that you don’t have bad habits ingrained yet, and it’s your job to try to keep it that way for as long as possible. This means that you need to ensure that your practise is filled with good form and technique.
This is why we should never go into practising a new skill in a half-hearted way.
I’m sure you’ve all seen the military films, where the drill sergeant yells at the recruits for doing what they thought was a ‘good enough’ job and makes them re-do it until they’ve done it perfectly. This is important, because if you practise getting it ‘just about’ achieved, then it is likely to all fall apart under the stress of combat. Obviously, most of us aren’t training our skills for use in those kind of extreme situations, but the principle holds.
If you train your running with intent and focus every time, you will race with intent and focus because that’s just a natural part of how you run. If you want to work on your public speaking skills, it is important to practise with calm and confidence rather than allowing yourself to feel rushed and insecure.
One of the things my clients are surprised by is that this can sometimes mean that you need to miss a planned training or learning session. Yes, it is important to have routines and to plan your training. Commitment is vital. But if you are not able to approach your training in the way you need to, it can be better to skip it altogether to avoid learning those bad habits.
If you’re training a physical skill, think about stopping before you are so tired that you develop bad form. End your training session on a high note. Muscle memory is strongest for the last rep of a sequence, so make it the best one. If you are training a mental or emotional skill, maybe plan the beginning of your session as a meditation or whatever it takes to achieve the kind of state that you need to be in to learn best. Think about the situations that you want to use that skill in and the mindset that you will need to have.
If you can’t access that kind of mindset on a particular day, you might need to exercise a different kind of self-discipline and walk away from the task for an hour or a day.
Overall, approaching your learning and development with thoughtfulness and self-awareness will have far better results than relying on sheer willpower. If you know yourself and how you learn and perform best, you will be able to master the skills you want with much less mental and emotional effort.
And that’s a life skill that synergises with all the others.