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Learning - what and how

There are too many skills to learn in one lifetime, so deciding where to focus and for how long is an important skill in itself. I’ve started the process of learning many times and I’ve built a thinking framework for determining what to learn next and how. I’ve written the framework down so you can use it to decide your next step.

Create a list

You can get a comprehensive list of skills you want or need to improve by asking yourself three questions:

  1. What skills interest me?
  2. What skills could help me in my daily life?
  3. What skills could help me in my job?

It’s important to write the answers down. Spend an hour or two prioritizing and scoring them in any way that you see fit, but don’t overthink it. Maybe you have more time and want to indulge in something personal that was neglected for a while, or you might focus on your career. Again, there is no right answer, but be intentional. You have to be able to verbalize why you’ve put something on the list.

Here are my personal examples. When I was studying fifteen years ago, I wanted to learn how to navigate with a map and a compass. I bought books, browsed the Internet endlessly, and spent considerable time practicing outdoors. It was, and still is, incredibly fun. Did it help me in my daily life? Not really. Did it help me in my job? Nope. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Today, when I don’t have as much free time, I try to work on skills that answer at least two questions, ideally all three. Writing is one such skill. It’s interesting, helps me clarify my thoughts, and is critical to my job.

Old or new

There’s a good chance your list has more items than you can realistically work on. A good way to narrow the list down is to try to estimate the amount of effort you need to put in and the potential outcome. You can estimate by knowing a bit about learning curves and asking yourself, “do I improve an existing skill or do I start something new?”

A chart with different learning curves over time.

The chart above shows an approximation of learning curves when you apply a constant effort. It makes intuitive sense—if you don’t work on a skill, it will stagnate or decline. Even though the curves are different, they have something in common: with every additional unit of time you improve less and less.

Take driving a car as an example. Let’s assume it takes 1 year to reach 40% proficiency (normal driving in traffic under most weather conditions) and 3 years to reach 80% (you can participate in car races, perform basic tricks with a car, and have no problems driving safely in all weather conditions). Just as a reminder, this assumes constant effort where you take your car every day to a parking lot, empty road, or a track to practice. Most people stop improving when they feel safe driving in urban traffic and then stay at that level forever.

A learning curve that reaches 40% of the level in one year
and 80% of the level in three years.

In addition to driving a car, let’s assume two other skills have the same progression: maintaining a car and riding a bicycle. Two outcomes are interesting to compare:

  1. Dedicate all years to improving driving a car (chart situation A)
  2. Dedicate 1 year to each skill (chart situation B)

Situation A - devote more time to one skill.
 Situation B - split time between more skills.

The first outcome conveys passion for racing fast cars or working in a movie industry as a stunt man. The second one, with related skills that augment each other, provides excellent mobility in urban environments while keeping costs low. Both options are good, but one is better if you know what you’re aiming for.

We are back to the question from the beginning: do you continue improving an existing skill or do you start something new? Are you a pianist striving to be the best in the world? Or do you, as an engineer, want to take on more responsibility by leading a team, where new skills like coaching, communication, and giving presentations improve your chances of success?

How to learn

You need two things to learn a skill: theory and practice. They are two sides of the same coin. The ratio of theory and practice varies depending on the skill you’re learning and your current level. To start driving a car, you need minimal theoretical knowledge, but a bit more practice. On the other hand, many skills in medicine require extensive theoretical knowledge before doing anything.

Where I see most people fail is working on the first part—going to lectures, talking to experts, watching online videos, or reading books—and then never trying to apply that knowledge. Nobody expects they can drive a car after watching an online video, but somehow people expect that for many other skills. You need to practice.

Deliberate practice is a structured way to improve a skill and consists of four steps:

  1. Break down a skill to manageable steps
  2. Set time aside for practice
  3. Pick a specific goal for a practice session
  4. Get feedback and adjust

1. Break down a skill to manageable steps

If you’ve never driven a car before, getting into one with a goal to pick up someone at the airport during a blizzard is an excellent way to fail. The task is too complex and out of reach. The first goal of driving should be getting into a car in a safe environment, pressing the clutch, putting it into first gear, slowly releasing brakes, and getting the car to move slowly. A beginner can manage that.

Deconstructing a skill is the hardest of all four steps. Many skills were taken apart a long time ago, and you just have to follow instructions up to a certain level. For example, driving a car with an instructor or learning to play an instrument follow a clear progression. But what about leadership or communication? What is your first step if you want to improve them? It’s not as obvious.

2. Set time aside for practice

I attended a company course last year. The instructors have been giving it for years, and they shared some insights into how previous participants performed after the course. One common attitude among participants is, “I’ll just absorb everything from the workshop and then use it in my regular job.” It turns out that doesn’t work. When deadlines loom and stress builds up, everyone gets back to their old behavior just to get by. You need to dedicate time to practice.

3. Pick a specific goal for a practice session

You’ve set an hour aside for piano. What do you do? If you don’t have a specific goal that pushes you to your limits, it’s not deliberate practice; it’s just playing piano for fun. Picking a goal is easier if a skill is deconstructed well.

4. Get feedback and adjust

You have to know how you’re doing at all times. If it’s too easy, you’re ready for the next step. If it’s too hard, slow down a bit, ask for guidance, or revisit some of the previous exercises.

You can get feedback in many ways:

  • Immediate and direct. You can always see, smell, hear, or taste the food you’re cooking.
  • From someone. It’s hard to examine your posture or movement when doing sports, so having a spotter helps.
  • Testing. Learning math and not sure you understand everything? Take a test. Even though many people hated tests in school, recent research indicates that frequent testing improves learning.

Ask others for help

Coaches, teachers, and mentors provide guidance and feedback, which is precisely what you need for deliberate practice. Don’t necessarily look for people who are on top of their field, especially if you’re just starting out; anyone who is more skillful than you will do the job if you know how to ask the right questions.

Some teaching relationships come naturally or as a part of common training curriculum: tennis coaches, guitar teachers, and foreign language instructors. However, that relationship is not clearly defined in many work environments, especially in companies that don’t have resources, knowledge, or motivation to educate their employees. It’s up to you to find mentors who can help you learn.

The biggest hurdle in finding a mentor is not asking. We sometimes never think of asking and sometimes it’s just the fear of it. To help you get over the fear, imagine you know a topic well and someone comes to you for help. Will you say “no” if you have enough time? I’m assuming you’ll be happy to help.

Mentorships come in two forms: informal and formal. An informal mentorship forms when you spend time with a person who is willing to give you tips and feedback, but there is no plan or structure to it. Working next to an experienced colleague who is always ready to answer your questions in the first few months on a job is an example of an informal mentorship. On the other hand, you have to be more intentional for a formal mentorship. If you notice a person—inside or outside of your company—who could help you improve, reach out to them and ask. It’s useful to write a short document outlining what would you like to learn, how often should you meet, and when the mentoring ends. Writing just four or five sentences down clarifies your goals and sets expectations. If a mentor is reluctant to accept, defining an end date gives the impression that you didn’t plan for this to go on forever, and if the mentoring works out for both of you, you can always extend.

I started a few formal mentorships in the last few years. My only regret is that I didn’t start them earlier.

Teach

Teaching is not a required step in learning, but is valuable in many ways. You might have learned something informally over the years and haven’t followed a strict process, so deconstructing a skill for others could reveal gaps in your understanding. In addition to that, you’ll get a lot of questions that test your knowledge. You’ll be able to answer many, but some might challenge you, and those will open new learning opportunities.

Even if you don’t learn anything new from teaching—which is highly unlikely—the satisfaction of seeing your students acquire and use new skills is extremely satisfying.

Summary

I hope this guide will help you decide and plan your next learning adventure. Here is a concise list of steps we covered:

  • Create a list of relevant skills
  • Decide if you’re starting something new or perfecting the old
  • Break down a skill to manageable steps
  • Set time aside for practice
  • Pick a specific goal for a practice session
  • Get feedback and adjust
  • Ask others for help
  • Teach

Further reading


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Edge vs. stress cases

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