We are blessed to live in an extraordinary epoch of human history. At our fingertips is a repository of information (the internet) that most of our ancestors could scarcely have imagined. On the other hand, ours in an era in which the aptitudes demanded by employers and businesses is in near-constant flux. The ability to adapt and acquire new skills is a necessity for anyone who aspires to get ahead in the modern economy.
But the benefits of acquiring a new skill extend far beyond the professional realm. By picking up a new hobby, learning a new language, or mastering a new technique, you can broaden your social circle and increase your understanding of the world. You may even stand a better chance of avoiding dementia later in life.
At first, the task of learning something new will often seem daunting. However, if you approach the challenge the right way, the process needn’t be all that complicated.
• Break it down.
This is one of the most important pieces of advice for anyone who faces a seemingly enormous endeavour. Many big projects comprise a series of smaller, discrete components, each of which may be completed with relative ease.
• Baby steps.
This point flows naturally from the last. Once you have deconstructed a major endeavour into a series of constituent parts, set a reasonable pace for yourself as you work toward completing each one. If your object is to learn a foreign language, or how to encode computer software, limit yourself to a lesson or two every day. Don’t concern yourself too much with the destination; focus instead on the process, and on mastering the specific baby step you’re taking right now.
Can you think of a person who excels at the skill you’re attempting to cultivate? What does that individual do very well? What are her habits? How did she get so good?
The practice of inheriting aptitudes by observation and emulation, also known as modeling, is a pattern of behaviour common to both humans and animals. Children practice a form of modeling instinctively when they learn to speak, read, write, and recognize important features of their environment. When striving to gain a new skill, it helps to think like a child (where modeling is concerned, at least).
• Be patient.
Few skills can be acquired overnight, and everyone learns at her own pace. By placing undue pressure on yourself to develop a skill rapidly, you will risk sapping the fun out of the activity. This is counterproductive; your brain won’t build new neural pathways as effectively if you allow yourself to become frustrated or distracted by “If only” thoughts. Take your time, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes in the course of learning.
• Be disciplined.
Set aside a certain amount of time each day for the acquisition of the desired skill. Make a habit of it, and stick to the plan. Even if you can spare no more than ten minutes per day for the activity in question, you will find that your progress, albeit slow, will be positive and fairly constant. However, if you neglect to exercise the proper mental (or physical) muscles for a while, rust will start to form, and you may experience setbacks in the learning process.
• Look forward, and occasionally...back.
While it’s obviously important to have a goal in mind and “keep your eyes on the prize,” it can be very gratifying to occasionally reflect on the progress you’ve made so far. This can be particularly heartening in those moments when you feel you’re struggling. After all, there’s little point in giving up if you’re already halfway to your goal.