Learning New Skills

When Hanamichi Sakuragi from the manga Slam Dunk tries to get into the basketball club, he insists he’s a genius who doesn’t need to practice the basics and instead wants to go immediately to doing spectacular things like Slam Dunks.

Sadly, the vast majority of us cannot claim to be geniuses at anything, and we are forced to undergo a bit of hard work if we want to learn a new skill. Malcolm Gladwell says one needs 10,000 hours of work at something to become proficient, but that probably only holds true if you’re using those hours “smartly” and not just trying to brute force your way to expertise.

I try to always keep myself on a learning path, trying to pick up new skills on a regular basis. Here are some things I’ve noted down about how to work smartly towards self-improvement in any given skill:

  • Start with the basics, and keep up with the basics. When Sakuragi joined the club, they first made him practice dribbling in the corner, and despite his complaints it paid off when he actually got to play because he had really smooth dribbling. It can suck and be boring to be stuck doing simple things or studying theory or background first when you want to skip ahead to the fun, complicated, show-off stuff, but having a solid foundation to work on will help you get a lot further later on.
  • Have a target. What’s your goal when studying this skill? Do you want to become the best in the world in a competitive sport? Do you want to be able to converse in a foreign language? How much time and effort are you willing to spend? Knowing the answers to these questions lets you understand when you are pushing yourself too hard or not putting in enough effort.
  • Practice, practice, practice. I sometimes answer questions on Quora, and one of the common questions I see there is of the form “How can I get better at X”? And my response is inevitably some form of “There is no substitute for regular practice, good old time and effort.” followed by specific suggestions for the particular X. I used to play competitive Magic the Gathering a lot, and used to place decently in local tournaments on a regular basis. But that was when I had a larger playgroup that I spent a lot of time with and when I was still playing a lot. These days I will only pop in for a tournament every so often, and predictably I seldom do so well anymore. Even if you’ve been doing something for a long time, regular practice makes a hell of a lot of difference.
  • Try to improve at least a little bit every time. Every practice session, every time. Even if you improve only 0.1% every time, the magic of compound interest means those gains will scale up quickly.
  • Study how other people do things and overcome challenges. I love fighting games like Street Fighter, and one of the great things about the modern age is that fighting game enthusiasts have access to a whole lot of replays of top-level competitive fighting that they can watch and study to help improve their own fighting games. (Sadly I do not yet have the execution skills necessary to become competitively good at it – not enough practice probably, see above.) Studying other people’s work gives you insight into different ways of doing things and can unlock different pathways in your brain, allowing you more opportunities to think outside your own box and find more chances for improvement.
  • Keep pushing the difficulty. Try not to settle for the same level of skill so you can keep improving. Take small steps to improve your game. Handicap yourself in different ways and see how you can compensate. Compete against people who are better than you, and study how they fight you.
  • Study different approaches. Try out new strategies or new ideas; even if you just discard them later you will have learned something. You might find that the most common approach to learning a skill is not necessarily the best one for you.
  • Know your weaknesses and shore them up. If you have a certain style or technique you have a hard time with, practice that more or study it more intensely. While studying Spanish on Duolingo, I know that I always have trouble constructing sentences that use object pronouns so I try to special attention when such sentences come up, and I try to review them more often.
  • Keep track of your progress. While not always practical or doable, being able to track your progress, even as a high-level estimate, allows you to measure the rate at which you improve. It gives you a good idea of when you are doing well and when you are having difficulty and helps you compensate accordingly.
  • Reward yourself when you do well, and take a break every so often. As with all things, balance is something to consider.

 

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