With the continued lockdown, there are lots of suggestions and recommendations for people to spend some of their time learning a new skill. It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I am very much in favour of lifelong learning, and I firmly support those who want to learn a new skill at any time.
Although many of the people advocating for this increase in learning are suggesting it as a way of filling up free time, I don’t think that this is the right approach, for me, for my clients or for anyone who really cares about who they are and what they do.
Leaving aside the idea that I suddenly have an excess of dangerous free time which needs to be neutralised (an idea that makes me chuckle with disbelief), I would like to talk a little bit about which skills we chose and how we go about learning them.
Almost any skill looks impressive when performed by an expert. If I spend enough time on YouTube, I could be tempted to learn juggling, blacksmithing and how to speak Swedish, for example. Becoming an expert at any one of those would be a huge achievement for me and would be something that I am justly proud of.
The trouble is, being a juggling blacksmith who can discuss the virtues of iron in Swedish wouldn’t make me any more effective in my mission! It wouldn’t help me achieve any of the things that really matter to me.
I don’t want to say that you should never learn a new skill just for the pleasure of it. Of course you should. But it’s really important to think about why that skill gives you pleasure.
Is it a whim, inspired by someone else’s skill, or is it something that speaks to you and feels right and important? This is about making sure that the skills you are going to devote your time and energy to are things that will nourish you in the longer term.
I used to think that you should really focus on only learning one new skill at a time. This can often be the right decision. You can continue to grow in areas where you are already highly proficient, but to learn a new skill from a basic level takes a lot of concentration and effort. I still believe that you should be very aware of your focus, and be conscious of the risks of trying to spread yourself too thinly if you try to learn everything at once.
If you have a suite of related skills to learn, however, you can often find that developing one of them makes it easier to move forward with the others. This synergistic effect is incredibly powerful. You learn faster in several areas at once and the effects can be dramatic.
Synergistic skills are often telling you that you’re on the right track.
If I’m thinking about learning three different skills and I find that they are all connected in some way, it’s usually a sign that there’s a bigger thing I need to learn. This can be quite practical. If I find myself wanting to spend more time developing my swimming, yoga and weightlifting, it could be a sign that I’ve reached a plateau in my running and I need to work on my cardio, flexibility and strength to overcome it.
There can also be a mental dimension to what links the things I am drawn to work on and develop. If I felt a sudden desire to learn to speak a new language, to improve my public speaking skills and to write a novel, I would consider spending some time thinking about how I communicate in general, and why I felt that this was something I wanted to work on further.
I guess the thing to think about here is what we want from a skill we are learning?
For me, and for my clients, I believe that the goal should be mastery of any skill. Mastery allows the use of that skill to become effortless, and deeply impressive. Mastery takes time and energy, so it might be worth thinking about whether your new passion is something that you care about enough to really excel at.