An Unusual But Effective Approach to Becoming (A Lot) More Skilled
If I told you that you could become a better pianist by learning touch typing, would you believe me? Most people would agree, but some would be happy to debate that.
And how about this: if I told you that you could learn Spanish more easily by learning French, would you believe me? Well, you better believe me because it’s true. Here’s a chart showing you similarities between romance languages:
Pretty convincing, right? Looking at this chart, you can see that learning Catalan first is the ultimate cheat for learning other romance languages.
I often brag (yeah, let’s call it bragging) about having learned 90 new skills in the past three years. In reality, the most impressive part of this isn’t the skills that I’ve learned but the library of sub-skills that I’ve built.
When I say, for example, that I’ve learned the skill of writing on Medium, what I’m really saying is that I’ve learned the following sub-skills:
That’s not even all of them. It’s just what I was able to brainstorm in five minutes. So, when people ask me: “how can I get better at writing on Medium?” The answer lies in the sub-skills above. The full answer is here.
Some people will have a headstart simply because they already have a certain level of proficiency in the sub-skills. Check out the following two examples. You tell me after which of the two will have an easier time becoming a more skilled writer on Medium.
Background information: Juliette is a native English speaker. She has never written articles online before, but she’s fluent and has done well in school.
Note: The numbers in the map below indicate the proficiency level on a scale of 0–4. No number means “0”.
Background: Pradeep’s first language is Kanada, from Karnataka, India. He learned English in school but hasn’t yet used it much professionally. Pradeep writes children’s books for a living. Like Juliette, he never wrote on Medium.
Who’s going to learn to write better on Medium first?
My vote goes to Pradeep, with zero hesitation. While Juliette definitely has the advantage of knowing the language more, that doesn’t mean she’ll be able to write better on Medium or any other platform.
Pradeep formats his work daily for a living. He’s a professional storyteller. He also knows how to edit his work. Plus, he types fast, allowing him to practice his craft more than Juliette.
If you sum up the points from above (and assuming all sub-skills are as valuable), Pradeep has a lot more points than Juliette. Juliette has 23 points while Pradeep has 47 points.
It really boils down to this simple fact: The more proficient you are in the sub-skills of a skill, the easier and faster it will be to learn it.
How to break skills down into sub-skills
This is the part where most people struggle. Whatever you say you want to learn, I guarantee you that you can break it down some more. Lucky for you, I’ve written plenty of articles on the topic.
In How to Figure Out Everything You Need to Know About a Topic, I show you my exact process for knowing what I should be learning when trying a new skill out. The process looks like this:
Concepts, facts, procedures
For every link you find in your research, you want to look for concepts, facts, and procedures.
- Concepts: Things you need to know
- Facts: Things you need to remember/memorize
- Procedures: Things you need to do/practice
To find the concepts, you can scan articles, books, and courses for a table of contents. Chances are they’re filled with concepts. Then, go through articles and scan the headings and bullet-points. There’s a good chance those are concepts too.
To find the facts, go through articles and search for the nouns in sentences that are definitive. When you scan for the nouns, ask yourself: “Is this something I must memorize?” If so, record it as a fact.
To find the procedures, go through articles and search for action verbs. There’s a good chance they’re going to be things you’ll need to practice and get better at. YouTube is also a great source for finding procedures for most skills.
In Use Skill Trees to Learn New Skills In a Fun and Painless Way, I go into every step to create an effective skill tree. I use skill trees to better visualize a skill’s sub-skills.
Let’s take the skill of “Riding a Bicycle” as an example. After doing the previous activities, we’ve come up with this:
After rearranging everything, we came up with the first draft for a skill tree. It looks like this:
Here are a few more examples from SkillUp Academy (all fully interactable):
How to figure out how difficult a skill would be to learn
Assessing sub-skill parity between skills
In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to think about that. Part of my research with SkillUp Academy is to identify what sub-skills are common between the different skills. I’m recording that on our website. However, it will take a lot of time to do it for every skill, so I’m explaining my method here so you can do it yourself.
In this article about a concept I call skill recycling, I shared about how Kobe Bryant learned to tap-dance to step up his Basketball game. At first look, that may seem strange, but it’s not. Bryant’s trainer identified a weakness in his ankle and around that area. The best way to reinforce it, it turns out, was to do tap-dancing.
For physical skills, it’s about identifying the muscle groups involved in a skill and how that muscle group is being used. For example, both Salsa Dancing and Ultimate Frisbee heavily use hip movement. Because of that, learning either helps you learn the other one.
Cognitive skills are tricker to pair together. Essentially, it’s about distilling down into “techniques”. Things like abstraction, arithmetic, logic, algebra, speech, structure, etc. If two skills or sub-skills use the same technique, chances are you can just learn to get better at the technique to become better at both skills.
For example, being a programmer myself, I have an easier time structuring articles I write or stories I tell because programming is all about structure and abstraction.
Assessing sub-skill proficiency
When you build your skill tree and note the sub-skills involved in the skill, you should note your proficiency, as I did with the example of Juliette and Pradeep.
I like to use a scale of 0 to 4:
- 0: You know nothing
- 1: You are a beginner
- 2: You are intermediate
- 3: You are advanced
- 4: You are a master
Of course, this is subjective. To make this process less subjective, involve others you may be able to assess your proficiency. You’d be surprised to see how bad we are at judging our own proficiency.
The goal here isn’t to be fully accurate, but give you a big picture of where you need to improve and where you’re already doing well. This will help you choose what to learn next.
How to choose the right skill(s) to learn next
There are a few methods for choosing what you want to learn next. First, identify your preference:
- I prefer to focus on my strengths
- I prefer to focus on my weaknesses
- I like to balance my strengths and weaknesses
If you prefer to focus on your strengths, look for skills where you’ve identified sub-skills you’ve rated 2–3 and try to push them to 3–4. Also, you can find skills that use the same sub-skills where you’ve rated yourself 3–4.
If you prefer to focus on your weaknesses, look for skills where you’ve identified sub-skills you’ve rated 0–1 and try to push them to 1–2.
If you prefer to balance your strengths and weaknesses, do a combination of the above.
Most people aim to learn broader skills without thinking about what their sub-skills are. When you are aware of the sub-skills and focus building a library of those, you are more equipped to identify your proficiency in the skill and know what to learn next.
Switching to that way of thinking requires a mindset shift, but once you’ve made it, you’ll be surprised at how effective a learner you’ll have become. Try it out.
You can do this!