How to Kickstart Your Skill Learning Journey Like a Pro

Learn skills in 15 to 20 hours

A lot of people think skill learning goes like this:

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or like this:

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The first one is completely wrong.

The second one is closer to reality and probably the most widely accepted, but it’s also wrong. This is just a perception of our learning and is actually quite demoralizing, because the reality is more like this:

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You’ll reach what people call “plateaus” on a regular basis during your skill development process. Most people stop around that time, thinking that they’ve reached their limit.

The truth is, limits are all in our heads. We can do so much more than we think we can. We see the limits pushed all the time in sports or athletics. Once someone beats a record, suddenly “everyone” can reach that “limit”, pushing it further than ever before.

Remember, everyone thought the 4-minute mile was impossible, but Roger Bannister proved them wrong, and opened the door for 26 more people to do it soon after.

Let’s now dig deeper into the steps to learn new skills in 15 to 20 hours:


1. Think things through

When you went to school when you were younger, you were fed with answers. You were told an exact way in which you should be learning a concept. Out of school, we don’t think much on how we learn new things. We search for online videos and hope for the best.

This is NOT the best way to learn. Heck, it wasn’t even the best way in school!

The best way to learn any skill is never the best way for everyone.

The best way to learn a new skill is to figure out how the skill can be learned from your previous set of skills. More on that in section #2. Build SkillUp Trees.

Before jumping on your next course, hoping that you’ll learn a skill from there, take time to craft a learning plan. Think about the following:

  • What would it mean to master the skill?

  • Can I break it down in small sub-skills?

  • What resources can I use to learn it (notice the plurality)?

  • How can I track my progress?

  • How can I be deliberate and consistent in my practice?

Don’t limit yourself to these questions. Think of other questions on your own. Personalize your learning based on your strengths and weaknesses. Be realistic and scale a skill down as needed.


2. Build SkillUp Trees

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Semi-complete SkillUp Tree of sub-skills I needed to learn to become good in Portrait Photography

In a previous article, I went into details about the SkillUp Tree principle. It’s a powerful method to be more aware of what your current skillset is and how to move forward from there.

To learn any new skill in under 20 hours, you have to know what you’re currently capable of and analyze what you should learn next. It’s unrealistic to think that you can learn portrait photography in 15 hours if you’ve never picked up a camera before.

Let’s use this very simple skill idea to illustrate the concept:

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Read from left to right. The numbers indicate the level at which the previous skill should be learned before the current one can be easily learned.

From the Walking branch, we can branch further:

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It is impossible for you to learn the “Running” skill if you don’t know the “Walking” skill.

For more examples and a more in-depth explanation on how to do it, check this video out:


3. Follow through

Once you’re aware of what is required to learn a new skill and have a clear vision of how to learn it, it’s time to put everything into practice. I can’t stress the importance of consistency enough here. In learning anything, the more you practice, the easier it gets and the more connections your brain will make.

There is no shortcut. To learn a new skill, you can’t avoid deliberate consistent practice.

Execute your plan from Step 1 for a week. Reflect on your learnings — see what went right and what went wrong. Adjust as needed. Always measure how well your practice session went. As needed, use a tool like the SkillUp Journal to record and measure your progress.

Add some accountability to help you follow through. Share your progress with your entourage or online. Join like-minded groups of skill learners and compare progress. Remember, the first time you’re going to do anything in life, you’ll be bad at it, and that’s normal. It’s the people who pick themselves up after their “failures” who learn best.

As needed, update your SkillUp Tree when progress has been made. It’s incredibly rewarding to visually see how your learning has progressed.

Whatever you do, don’t stop when it hurts. That’s when the learning truly happens.


4. Improve your memory

In this section, we’ll touch on memory and how, as you might imagine, it plays an important role in learning. I’ll show you 6 ways to improve your memory:

1. Creating long term memories

It is common knowledge that we have two memory “systems”: the short term memory (or working memory) and the long term memory. Without going too scientific on you, the short term memories happen mostly in the prefrontal lobe:

And long-term memories are stored in the hippocampus:

“Memories” always start as a short term memory, and in order to consider something acquired, it has to go from short term to long term memory.

But how do we make that happen? It turns out there are many ways, but here’s an image that sums it up:

To simplify things: short term memories become long term memories by recollection. The more you expose your brain to a piece of information, the more complete the information will start to form in the hippocampus, where long term memories are stored.

Once information is stored in your long term memory, it can still change, but not as easily. It’s called “neuroplasticity”.

Knowing that, it’s never a bad idea to “reactivate” a memory “frequently”. You’ve probably seen that in action when doing a skill you haven’t done for a while, like riding a bicycle, or playing a sport or an instrument.

You still remember the techniques, but you’re a little “rusty”. After a few minutes, it’s as if you never stopped doing it.

That’s what reactivation is all about.

What happens then in your brain is it resends the “newly found” information and sends it back to the long term memory to reinforce the knowledge. If you ride your bicycle the next day, you won’t be “rusty” again.

2. Remembering Techniques

Explaining all the memory techniques is way beyond the score of this article. Instead, refer to the following table for seven powerful remembering techniques:

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Resources:

3. Note Taking

Having trouble remembering the techniques above?

It takes a lot of practice, but once you’re good at them, you can greatly increase you ability to memorize things.

An easy technique, that everyone knows about, but not enough people apply is note taking when reading or watching videos. And by note taking, I don’t mean highlighting. In fact, according to Dr. Barbara Oakley, highlighting can be detrimental to your learning.

Have you noticed when you take notes of things to reference later, you tend to actually remember it without ever needing to reference it?

Without going too deep into the scientific details of why that is, you are making a conscious effort to recall it by writing it down. As mentioned above, it uses a few of your senses to create the memory.

Want to greatly improve your memory in a short period of time?

Take notes when you read and watch videos as it greatly improves your recollection by handwriting your notes.

Refer to Maarten van Doorn’s complete guide on Effective Reading.

4. Recollection

This is the most important aspect of creating long term memories and something almost everyone does wrong.

When and where should you revisit material you’re trying to remember?

Where

It turns out that most of us don’t do it the right way. Most people “study” material from the same exact environment; in the living room or in the study for example. The problem is that the brain stores the setting of the learning as a reference point to recall a memory.

Have you noticed how, as a student, you had a hard time recalling information during an exam?

One of the possible causes of this is you only studied in one environment. Successful students often diversify their environments of study: in their bedroom, their living room, at a café with other students, in the classroom, at the library, with music, without music, in a cold room, in a hot room, etc.

The more you vary your environment when trying to learn a new concept, the more deeper connections you’ll make in your brain, creating stronger long term memories.

If you practice rock-climbing / bouldering at the same gym, at the same time with the same people, do you think you’ll learn better than someone who varies the gym they go to, the people they go with, the indoor/outdoor settings, etc?

No, right?

The best athletes train for different scenarios. Same with the military. So whatever it is you are trying to learn, make it your mission to vary your study environment!

When

Now, let’s attack the “When”.

Have you ever revisited the same material over the course of a few days, hoping that it would “stick”, just to realize it doesn’t get to your head?

Right. Your brain doesn’t work that way.

Have you also noticed how when you study just before an exam, your recollection is pretty good, but a few days later, you’ve basically forgotten everything you have “learned”?

Right. Your brain doesn’t work that way either.

In both scenarios, you’ve learned nothing, or close to it.

So when should we practice recollection then?

Spaced Repetition is what you’re looking for. Here’s an image that summarizes it really well:

If you have used language learning apps like Duolingo or Memrise, you may have noticed how they’re doing that for you behind the scenes. It’s no surprise then that these two apps have shown some of the best results for learning a new language.

If you’re learning a new guitar chord today, recall it 24 hours later, then 7 days later, then a month later, then a year later. You’ll “forever” remember it.

It works the same for every skill you want to learn. Never “fire and forget”. Put it in your calendar.

5. Forgetting

Forgetting, it turns out, is one of the most important aspects to learning. There are at least two reasons why forgetting or unlearning is useful.

First, during your learning phase of anything, you’re unsure of the information you’re digesting. You accumulate information without knowing how to make sense of it. This knowledge then becomes useless once you make the right connections. If you don’t unlearn it, your brain will refer to it again and confuse what is “true” and what isn’t.

Second, forgetting your experience is essential to being able to transfer skills from one job to another.

“Our work shows that an unstable memory is a key component of the mechanism for learning transfer. An unstable memory prevents learning from being rigidly linked to one task; instead, it allows learning to be applied flexibly.” — Professor Edwin Robertson

In summary, forgetting the context in which you learned something helps apply the learnings in a variety of other concepts.

6. Sleep

Connections made in your brain happen subconsciously, that is, when you’re not actively practicing what you learn. While activities like jogging, meditating, and taking a shower help with the assimilation of information, sleeping is shown to provide even better results.

It is not a coincidence we’re all familiar with the saying: “Let me sleep on this.”

During sleep, our body rejects bad toxins accumulated and subconsciously “work on” the material we have fed it before going to bed. If there’s a concept you’d really like to grasp but can’t seem to during the day, try before going to bed. Chances are, you’ll have a deeper understanding the next day.

That being said, during the day, if you’re too tired to make sense of a problem you’re trying to solve, power naps are a great way to achieve the results mentioned above.

Einstein, Dali, Edison, and many others used this technique to get to their “Aha!” moments.

Moreover, a well-rested body and mind is more receptive to the different stimuli around, making easier to make sense of the information coming through your brain.


Conclusion

There’s really too much content here to make a short summary, but let me stress the following:

With a good system in place, learning new skills is not as hard as it seems. Learning varied skills will, in the near future, be the only way to thrive. People who start now will not only future-proof themselves, but also have the upper hand.

So what are you waiting for?

It’s time to skill up your life!

You can do this!


Ready to Skill Up?

If you want to become more skilled and be prepared for a better tomorrow, check out SkillUp Academy.