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4 Short Lessons on How to Learn a New Skill

Repetition is not enough. You need knowledge and an outside eye.
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Learning a new skill: It's exciting, it's empowering--and it's intimidating. But don't think so hard at the get-go.

You need motivation.

Remember, the first thing you have to do is simply to begin. And your beginning probably began long before you knew you wanted to begin. And now that you know you want to begin, you have to be willing to fail, to be frustrated, to be bored, to be angry that what looks so easy for some is so hard for you.

For some peculiar reason, I was motivated to learn about public speaking and presenting. Perhaps because I'm a so-called neglected middle child, or maybe because I was the only boy sandwiched between two sisters and wanted to crow like a rooster, or maybe because my beautiful mother was not such a great listener, and I wanted someone to hear what I had to say. Or maybe because my Dad was an editor of books, a coach for writers, I wanted to differentiate myself, so I chose to be a speech coach, a guy who helps business people create speeches and presentations, and then deliver them well.

Your desired new skill doesn't have to be the same as mine, but whatever skill you're pursuing, it will require motivation.

You need knowledge about how to improve.

Creating 10,000 presentations in the course of your career and rehearsing them all with great care will not necessarily guarantee you presentation mastery. Neuroscience and common sense show that factors other than blind repetition must prevail.

For example, if your golf swing isn't any good and you hit the driving range every day of the summer, chances are that your swing won't be any better on Labor Day. Why? Because you're practicing the same thing over and over--and it's a thing that doesn't work.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, says that, "…acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions."

You need an understanding of how to apply the knowledge.

Every skill has a limited number of key techniques. In tennis, it's "racket back, eye on the ball." But to do that consistently, to turn knowledge into skill, you have to practice. Tiger Woods would hit a thousand golf balls a day. Professional musicians practice hours every day. There is growing evidence that the only difference between a world-class violinist and an average one is the number of practice hours. The reason for this bold claim is that when we do something repeatedly, we rewire our brains, grow new synapses, and build a richer, more vibrant network of associations. Learning a skill is doing the skill.

For instance, the only proven way to become a better speaker is to rehearse under performance-like pressure. The Presidential candidates do this when they prepare for the election debates. They gather their team and practice their answers to anticipated questions. Inevitably, they are shaky at the first debate and stronger in the later ones. It is hard to replicate real circumstances, but practicing your speech aloud to people who are familiar with your topic is--again--the only scientifically proven way of improving your speaking skill.

You need the ability to evaluate the outcome.

What knowledge was applied, and what knowledge was not applied? In other words, you need a coach. It is almost impossible to be your own coach. The President of the United States has advisers on everything, including people whose job it is to tell him when he's screwing up. He needs "rapid and unequivocal feedback" on his thoughts and actions.

People who use a personal trainer get fit faster. Professional sports teams pay for great coaches. Good therapists can transform a person's perspective. You can read all the how-to books you want, but then you have to implement the suggestions (which takes a huge amount of discipline, which most of us don't have), and then you have to be able to see around your own blind spots which, believe me, will take a lifetime.

So there you have it, four lessons in mastering a skill: motivation, knowledge, application of knowledge, and unequivocal feedback.

IMAGE: Tobias Ackeborn/Getty
Last updated: Aug 18, 2014

SIMS WYETH

I'm a speech and presentation coach. I write speeches, work with executives on their content and delivery, run presentation skills workshops, and give speeches about speaking. My most recent book is The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking.




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