Skill Recycling — The Real Reason Why Learning More Skills Greatly Benefits You
“Erik, have you noticed that when you learned to dance Salsa and practiced Yoga, it also improved your abilities to play Ultimate Frisbee professionally?” I asked a member of my SkillUp Mastermind.
He didn’t have to think twice about his answer. Erik Hamre is an expert learner who has been learning new skills for years — 100 hours at a time. He replied:
“Certainly. I frequently use parts of what I learn to learn other skills. Yoga and Salsa dancing opened up movements I could never do before. It made me more flexible and increased my range of motions when playing Ultimate.”
He went on to explain something I didn’t know about the famous Kobe Bryant:
“Did you know that Kobe Bryant learned to tap-dance to help him solidify his lower muscles?” he said.
“I didn’t”, I said. “But thinking about it, it makes so much sense. He applied one of the long-lost benefits of learning a variety of skills: Skill Recycling,” I continued.
When people ask me for a reason to even dabble into a new skill, this is a perfect reason. When you learn a new skill, you’re in fact learning a whole set of sub-skills that you can reuse to learn other skills.
I call this concept Skill Recycling, and it’s likely the most valuable expert learners’ secret skill. They know how to recycle sub-skills they’ve learned from other skills, greatly accelerating their growth when learning new skills.
Baowei, another member of the SkillUp Mastermind added to the discussion:
“I’ve seen the same result by learning to Salsa dance as well. But it only happened once I started being more deliberate about it. When I started practicing with a real partner, I had to improve my moves. Once I improved, like Erik, I increased my range of motions. This made me a better runner, for example.”
Isn’t that interesting?
Two learners attest that learning to Salsa dance helped them learn skills that are so different from the original skill, like Ultimate Frisbee and Running. And as we now know, Kobe Bryant became a better Basketball player because he learned to tap-dance.
Top athletes understand the concept of Skill Recycling. Football legends Herschel Walker and Lynn Swann both practiced ballet decades ago to aid their playing careers. Roger Federer was involved in a wide variety of activities before choosing to focus on Tennis.
If you’re looking for the secret to learning better and faster, look no further than Skill Recycling. Before we continue, let’s give it a proper definition:
The ability to take sub-skills learned from one skill and apply it to another skill.
Skill Recycling is, in fact, a skill in itself. You can learn skills for the sake of learning skills and never transfer abilities you develop to another skill. That was Baowei’s case when he didn’t take Salsa dancing that seriously.
However, in general, motor skills have a very high recyclability factor (R-factor). The higher the R-factor, the easier it is to recycle a sub-skill for another skill.
Let’s dig into the different types of skills. In this article, I chose to omit behavioural skills as many of them are too broad. It’s also meant to be an introduction to the concept of Skill Recycling, so it would add a lot of complexity if I added them.
A motor skill is a function, which involves the precise movement of muscles with the intent to perform a specific act. — source
Motor skills are best learned based on “muscle memory”. It means that you don’t have to think about the movement; it has become second-nature to you. Riding a bicycle, driving a car, playing the guitar, and typing on a keyboard are good examples.
How to apply Skill Recycling to motor skills
Motor skills have the highest R-factor of all skill types. For the most part, the sub-skills are applicable to other skills, as demonstrated by Erik, Baowei, and even Kobe Bryant.
The best way I know to take full-advantage of Skill Recycling for motor skills is first to be aware of the benefits of each motor skill you’re practicing. Break a skill down into its sub-skills, and then by their motion/movements.
Let’s use “playing Basketball” as a broad example.
Once you’re aware of the sub-skills and different motions/movements, you can more easily choose a skill to learn that would benefit you for another skill. That’s how Kobe Bryant chose tap-dancing. It helped with the muscles he needed stronger for his craft.
Tap-dancing and Basketball share the following motions/movements:
- Force precision
- Leg pushing
- Leg extension
- Leg strength
- Strength control
- Body balance
- Foot precision
So, does it make sense to learn to tap-dance if you want to be a better basketball player? Certainly! The same is true of the reverse. Play basketball to become a better tap-dancer. Why not?
For most motor skills, you benefit from learning other skills to become better at what you want to ultimately learn. You’ll get much stronger and much more precise with your footing by learning to tap-dance versus just playing Basketball, for example.
Pitfalls of applying Skill Recycling to motor skills
The problem with motor skills is that the movements/motions you learn become so ingrained in your body that they can make it very hard to do a counter-movement.
Ask a professional golfer to swing differently and they’ll tell you it would take years of practice to do. A junior, however, could learn it in weeks of practice. That’s because a junior hasn’t yet “built their body” to move a certain way yet. They’re easier to “mold”, like clay.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but know that over-practicing one method may make other methods that much harder to learn and master.
Cognitive skills are the core skills your brain uses to think, read, learn, remember, reason, and pay attention. — source
“One of the reasons I’m a good writer is because I’m an expert programmer,” I told members of the SkillUp Mastermind.
“How so?” asked Prithviraj, confusingly.
“I often find that people have a hard time organizing their thoughts in their articles. They have to prepare an outline in advance to have a good structure. And even then, they re-adjust during the editing phase. In my case, it all happens “naturally” as I write my articles in flow,” I told them.
“Through my 15 years as a programmer, I’ve learned to think logically. In my writing, I’m able to balance creativity and logic, which gives me an unfair advantage many other writers don’t have,” I continued.
“So, you’re saying that to be a good writer, you need to be a logical person? I don’t think I agree with you here,” replied Prithviraj.
“True, you don’t need to be logical to be a good writer, but it does make you a more efficient one. And I’d also argue that when you write non-fiction, being more logical allows you to be less abstract when explaining concepts,” I explained.
How to apply Skill Recycling to cognitive skills
The above example is a perfect example of two cognitive skills helping each other when combined. Let’s analyze some sub-skills from both skills:
Do you see the similarities? If you learn to write, you learn to become a better programmer. If you learn to program, you become a better writer.
That is not immediately obvious because writing requires a good amount of creativity and programming requires a good amount of logic. So, until you’re creative or logical enough, you might not yet benefit from the sub-skills.
Here are two other examples you’ve likely experienced yourself:
- Learning languages from the same root. If you know French, it’s much easier to learn Spanish after, for example.
- Learning physics or chemistry is much easier once you’re good at math.
So, the principles for using Skill Recycling is pretty much the same as with motor skills: first, identify the sub-skills and cognitive component of the skills you know or want to learn. If you refer back to my example above with writing and programming, you’ll notice the many similarities.
Then, you choose a skill to learn based on the sub-skills from another skill that will help you best learn your intended skill.
Pitfalls of applying Skill Recycling to cognitive skills
The reasoning from one cognitive skill to another might be quite different. The more cognitive skills you learn, the more unintended biases you build. This often leads to closed-mindedness: you think you know all the answers and you have a harder time seeing other points of view.
A simple example is trying to apply the principles from one language to another that’s of a different root.
My mom keeps saying that English has the syntax all reversed from what it should be. Her first language is French, so the order of words in a sentence is different from English. She thinks English is wrong. English isn’t wrong, it’s just different.
Good luck trying to apply what you know about English and Mandarin to Hungarian. Language is probably the simplest example, but it exists for all cognitive skills.
Why is Skill Recycling so important?
We wrapped up our mastermind call after an hour-long discussion talking about what skills would be most important in 2021 and how best to learn them. Skill Recycling, it turns out, just might be a very important skill to learn in 2021.
Now that jobs are being taken away by both the coronavirus and artificial intelligence, being able to transfer parts of what you already know to things you want to or should learn becomes critical.
Robert Greene, in his book Mastery, said:
“The future belongs to those who learn many skills and combine them in creative ways.” — Robert Greene
He couldn’t be more right, but here’s what he’s missing: how about you don’t start from scratch when you can avoid it? Learning new skills is good, but what if you created a larger library of recyclable sub-skills instead?
Figure out what your library of sub-skills is. Then reconstruct them in creative ways to figure out which skill(s) would be easiest to learn after. You can do that by cross-referencing sub-skills from one skill to another. A Venn diagram is perfect for that.
When you become adept at Skill Recycling, you start to learn much faster than others. You also start mastering more skills effortlessly.
Don’t be close-minded and push a skill off because you think it’s unrelated to what you’re trying to learn. Kobe Bryant learned to tap-dance to help him with his Basketball career. That was a perfect example of using Skill Recycling.
Break every skill down into its smallest component. Only then will you know how multiple skills connect to one another. Most of the time, it’s not immediately obvious.
The more you use Skill Recycling, the faster you’ll learn simply because your library of sub-skills will be larger than anyone else. If you’re looking for expert learners’ secret cheat, well, this is it. Apply it.
You can do this!