The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Learning New Skills Quickly

Learning New Skills Quckly

“Come to the edge.”
“We can't. We're afraid.”
“Come to the edge.”
“We can't. We will fall!”
“Come to the edge.”
 And they came.
 And he pushed them.

 And they flew.

  Guillaume Apollinaire,   1880-1918

 Using a similar strategy as Tim Ferris in the 4 hour Work Week, 4 Hour Chef and 4 Hour Body, Josh Kaufman in his new book The First 20 Hours, gives a lot of practical, actionable advice in using Deliberate Practice to hit the ground running in the acquisition of any new skill.

We all have limits on our available practice time, so we want to make the most of the time we have. 

His suggestions make a lot of sense when you are developing your own training plan.

Here is a link to a presentation that can be downloaded from Below are a few excerpts from that presentation.

I’m willing to wager there’s something in the back of your mind you’ve always wanted to learn how to do.

Maybe you want to learn how to speak a new language. Maybe you want to draw or paint.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to be able to fly an airplane, execute a spinning karate kick, or scuba dive.

Maybe you’d like to cook a dish or bake a pastry, or maybe taking great photos is your style.

Perhaps the skill you’re interested has a professional use, like learning to code, design, speak in public, or pull off a complex statistical analysis: something that would make your coworkers consider you with awe, and make your employer want to shower you with raises, promotions, and other benefits.

I’m also willing to wager you feel you don’t have enough time to learn this particular skill.

You’re overworked already, and time is tight. You have work to do, family to take care of, friends to hang out with, and too many responsibilities as it is. By the time your work and family obligations are satisfied, you’re tired: after you eat dinner and watch a little TV, it’s time to call it a day.

So much to do, and so little time.
“Deliberate practice has three key components: setting specific goals; obtaining
immediate feedback; and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.”
—Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubn er, Sup erfreak onomi cs

I wish there was a Matrix-style method of uploading new skills into the human brain.I’d be the first to sign up.

Unfortunately, that’s not how skill acquisition works. If you want to develop any new skill,
physical or mental, you have to practice.

No practice, no skill acquisition. It’s as simple as that.

The type of practice that results in rapid skill acquisition is deliberate practice: focused,
intelligent effort that attempts to improve the most critical parts of the skill in question.

No distractions, and no nagging doubts: just the task in front of you.

The reason most people don’t acquire new skills very quickly is simple: they don’t spend
much time in deliberate practice. They dabble for a bit, get frustrated or distracted, then do something else.
Here’s a useful litmus test to decide what to learn first: ask yourself if you’re willing to rearrange your schedule to complete at least 20 hours of deliberate practice in the next 30 days.

Sit down, take out your calendar, and do the math. When are you going to practice?

What are you going to give up or reschedule to make the time?

If you “don’t have time,” or aren’t willing to accept the necessary tradeoffs to make the time, I have news for you: you don’t really care very much about acquiring that particular skill, and as a result, practice will be a constant struggle.

There’s no shame in that: quite the contrary. If the skill isn’t a true priority, there’s no sense in pursuing it—by being honest with yourself, you’re saving energy and frustration on a project that, most likely, won’t be a success.

If you’re not willing to commit to at least 20 hours of practice, then drop the project and learn something else. Life is short.

On the other hand, if you’re willing to invest at least 20 hours of focused effort, precommitting to putting in that time is a very effective strategy. Once you start, you have to keep going until you either (1) develop the level of skill you want, or (2) complete at least 20 hours of practice.

That precommittment is an extremely effective way of completing the frustrating early hours of practice. You can precommit to yourself, or tell others about what you’re doing.

Add consequences to dropping the practice if you feel you need an extra push: whatever keeps you practicing.

By precommitting to at least 20 hours, you’re ensuring you’ll practice long enough to see results.
Most of the things we think of as “skills” are actually bundles of smaller subskills.

Take golf for example—in the course of a single game, you do many different things: driving off the tee, selecting clubs, chipping out of bunkers, and putting on the green.

Each of those activities is a skill in itself.

Instead of being overwhelmed by the complexity of the activity, just break down the skill
into more managable parts, and practice one at a time. Not only will the practice feel less
frustrating, you’ll be able to track your progress more effectively.
Once you break down a large skill into smaller subskills, it makes sense to practice the
most important and frequently used subskills first.
For example, when learning a language, it’s useful to know that languages follow a power law distribution called “Zipf’s Law” – a small handful of words are used the vast majority of the time.

In English, the 25 most common words account for over 33% of usage.

Most skills follow a similar pattern: a few subskills are critical, while the remainder are rarely used or contribute less to the end result. Learn the most important subskills first, and you maximize your overall rate of skill acquisition.

It’s usually not very difficult to identify the most important subskills: just pick up a few books or training resources, and spend an hour or so skimming them. You’ll see the same techniques and methods mentioned over and over again—a strong signal that they’re important to know.
Once you’ve decided what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s in your best interest to jump right in and get your hands dirty as quickly as possible.

In the early stages of practicing something new, it’s tempting to be conservative. Failing at anything is uncomfortable, so we usually try to protect our egos by attempting things we’re pretty sure we can do.

The trouble with that approach is that it slows your rate of gaining experience with the
important elements of the skill. By preserving your pride, you’re diminishing the results you get for your effort.

It’s useful to jump in as quickly as possible, even if you’re horrible at first. Your early failures (as long as they don’t harm or kill you) give you useful feedback about what’s really important.

One of the things I learned how to do this year was windsurfing. Instead of over-analyzing
books and resources, I figured out how to rig up my sailboard, then spent as much time as I could on the water.

The first time I tried to windsurf, I was horrible: I fell in every possible way. Maintaining balance was a constant struggle. I couldn’t move, or steer, so I was at the mercy of the wind. I drank gallons of nasty lake water.

I also learned a ton about what not to do, as well as how to deconstruct the process into
smaller subskills. Fourty-five minutes of temporary frustration accelerated the rest of my learning considerably.

By failing fast, and laughing off your early mistakes, you’ll be able to learn much more per unit of time. You are strong enough to handle a few mistakes, so get out there and try.

That’s not to say you should try to make preventable errors. Often, a few minutes considering what you don’t want is time well spent—if you can find a way to avoid or prevent bad things from happening, that’s a win.
Want to supercharge your rate of skill acquisition? Unplug your TV. Disconnect your internet. Put away the games. Set aside the frivolous time sinks.

I’m not a luddite or puritan—I’m not about to say that these things aren’t fun or worthwhile every now and then.

My recommendation is based on simple math: minutes spent doing these things are minutes you’re not spending improving your prime skill.

If you feel that you have more than enough time to watch TV or play video games AND put it your practice time, then fantastic. Otherwise, something has to give—I recommend eliminating the TV time.

Time is not “found,” in the sense of discovering some bonus block of extra time, like finding a misplaced $20 bill in your coat pocket.

If you want to get better at whatever you care about, you must make time for practice: there is no other way. That means choosing not to do other things, and the easiest things to eliminate are the activities that provide the least value.

It’s tempting to think of these sorts of schedule rearrangements as making a “sacrifice.”
It’s actually quite the contrary: you’re trading a cheap amusement for a more valuable, longterm treasure.
Here’s a simple truth: the only time you can choose to practice is today.

Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month or next year. Today.

When you wake up in the morning, you have a choice. You can choose to invest your time acquiring skills that will make your life more successful, enjoyable, and rewarding…
or you can squander your time doing something else.

What will you do today?

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