Life is short, so skill up fast

Much in the way of lifetime achievement can be explained in terms of compound interest. The richest retirees often were not Wall Street tycoons and made meager-to-modest salaries their entire lives — but they started saving when they were young and that money multiplied itself over the course of time.

Skills can work the same way. The sooner you master the basics, the sooner you can move on to more advanced concepts and maneuvers. After a while, once the compound effect has had time to go to work, you’re breaking new ground to the point where you can literally write the book on the subject, mostly because you invented it (or at least new applications of it).

Of course, this observation begs an important question: how do we quickly acquire skills in our chosen field? I arrived at my answer to that — which I believe can be applied to any category — in the following way.

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In June of 2015 I started work in an industry I had no knowledge of or experience in: car sales.

After struggling initially, I developed my skills and within six months was outselling industry veterans with many more years in the trade. I held the top salesman spot at my dealership for 14 consecutive months, setting a company record.

At one point during my tenure I was approached by a new hire, who asked me, “How did you get so good at selling cars so quick?”

I gave him four ways.

  1. I wanted it. Bad.
  2. I had a great mentor.
  3. I spent my free time watching youtube videos of the pros, listening to audio content from industry experts, and practicing on my wife and dad.
  4. I did everything I could to be at bat as often as possible.

Not enough to go on? I agree. Digging deeper, here’s how this worked.

A) My wife and I were out of money. A complicated pregnancy that caused me to quit my job to stay at home meant that our savings were depleted, almost entirely. Up against a wall with no choice but to succeed, I knew that all the excuses in the world didn’t matter. I had to make it happen. You could say that, given the circumstances, I wanted those skills like I wanted my next breath. That was the spark that lit the fire.

B) My mentor challenged my thought patterns, and introduced me to concepts that would have taken me months to years to develop if left to my own devices. He built the foundation and the framework for me to hang my skills on as I obtained them, dramatically dropping the learning curve and preventing me from going too far down the path of what doesn’t work by calibrating my compass to True North. Lots of analogies. You get it.

C) Jim Rohn said that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time around. By virtue of my situation, I needed those people to be great salesmen.

By consuming their content I made sure my brain was always working through problems related to the industry. Taking notes on how the pros solved the most common dilemmas helped raise me to another level of performance, and helped my subconscious mind plug into the operating system they are running on so that I could even address random new issues by running off of the same algorithms that made them successful. Practicing helped it gel.

D) I learned early that if I didn’t have a customer in front of me, I was missing an opportunity. Not just to sell, but to learn and develop. Most things you only REALLY learn from immersion — from doing. So my goal was to always be working with someone. This allowed me to overtake and surpass people who had been doing it longer than me, because I’d worked with more customers than they had in a shorter period of time. The constant repetition was a crucible that boiled off what didn’t work and left only concentrated, battle-tested principles behind.

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In sum, the recipe for rapidly skilling up is as simple as finding someone personally accessible to work under, studying the others who aren’t as accessible from afar in your down time, and spending every minute you can violently assailing the wall of experience by doing that which you seek to master.

This is not new — personal development books have written on these concepts for decades (or more). But in case you need one more case study, the above should serve to show you: it works.

Another version of this article was originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on November 16, 2016.