How To Learn A New Skill — And Actually Master It

A lack of necessary skills is almost always the gap between idea and execution.

You’ve surely experienced the frustration that happens when you see an opportunity in your life, but lack the knowledge to act on it. We all have. You know you deserve to make more money, but you don’t know how to negotiate. You have a genius idea for a business, but you don’t know how to sell.

If you’ve ever tried to research and learn a new skill, you’ve run into two schools of thought:

  • The 10,000 hour rule. This is the old school belief that to master a skill, you need to dedicate 10,000 hours to learning and perfecting it.
  • The “Just Enough” method. This is particularly popular with online coaches. The idea is that you don’t have to be an expert, you have to learn “just enough” to be functional.

Both these schools have their merits, but neither are a complete solution.

If you try to gain 10,000 hours of negotiating experience before asking them to show you the money, you’ll be a decade older with nothing to show for it. If you learn just enough to negotiate a slight raise now, you might get what you’re looking for in the short-term, but at every level you’ll still fail to earn what you’re worth.

I teach my clients a system for building skills that enables them to rapidly — within days or weeks — reach a high level of competence (relying on the 80/20 Principle), while at the same time taking the daily actions that build to mastery over time.

How do you get enough skill to be dangerous and get what you want now, and keep becoming more dangerous over time?

Step 1: Recognize The Skill You’re Lacking

Oftentimes, we assume we know exactly what we need to learn. This is typically wrong. More often than not, the area we’re lacking in is an unconscious incompetency — an “unknown unknown,” or a skill we aren’t aware we need to learn.

The most common example for many high performing professionals is communication. While most professionals have some natural communication skill, when a highly trained communicator steps into their meetings, they get dragged around like a dog a leash.

To figure out what skill you’re lacking, ask yourself a hard question: What skill are you pretending that you already have?

When it comes to skills we don’t value, we’re comfortable admitting we’re lacking (I, for example, am the most tragically awkward dancer you’ve met). However, when it comes to skills we think are important, we tend to assume we’re at least decent.

I kidded myself for years pretending I had all the most important skills. Nearly all of my clients have too. What are those skills for you? What do you most need to learn to get what you want?

Step 2: Accumulate Knowledge At Breakneck Speed

In our consulting business, I over-talk Richard Koch’s book, The 80/20 Principle.

The basic idea is that 20% of your actions will spur 80% of your success. High-performers apply this general principle to the learning process. If 20% of the information you intake will lead to 80% of your results, how do you avoid wasting time learning less valuable information?

You do this by reverse engineering the result you want. For example, if you had to teach someone very very quickly to drive a car, what are the 5 principles you would drill into them? Quick, you’ve got 2.5 minutes to get this person driving, what do they need to know?

You wouldn’t have them learn the physics of a combustion engine, you’d teach them very basic information:

  • How to make the car accelerate and reverse.
  • How to brake.
  • How to use mirrors.
  • Basic traffic laws.
  • How to park.

Now, ask yourself the same thing about the skills you want to learn? What must you know to be dangerous fast?

Remember: David didn’t train to fight the giant. He trained to be excellent with a slingshot.

Step 3: Jump In Fast And Learn As You Go

I learned public speaking by speaking publicly.

Some people think it’s harder that way, but honestly, practice speeches are only useful for practice audiences.

If you want to ski, learn enough, then go ski. Want to learn to write? Learn the basics of grammar and storytelling, and then start writing every day.

Take the skill you are learning, and figure out the minimum viable level of proficiency you need to act on it. For instance, if you only know how to accelerate, you aren’t proficient enough to drive.

If you can drive well enough to commute, but don’t know how to drift like a professional driver, you’re proficient enough to get on the road. Then, you can learn more as you go. Maybe you want to be a stunt driver and learn more, maybe you just need enough know-how to get to work.

Read one book and you’ll know if you want to read another 10. Learn one step in negotiating, and you’ll see how easy it is to learn the final 3.

This step works so well because it keeps you from endlessly deliberating. Once you’re actually engaged with your goal, your experience will dictate what you need to learn.

When you take action, you get moving, and you bring your skills along with you.

Step 4: Develop a Daily Practice for Mastery

If you’re following the steps listed above, you’re getting good fast. Now, you want to put in place a practice that enables you to keep getting better and better over time.

You want to create a daily routine that reinforces good habits and pushes you forward. For example, if you were going to continue developing your negotiating skills, you might:

  1. Pick up a book on negotiating to read each week.
  2. Every Saturday, sit down for an hour and write down in your Daily Exercises 1 good tactic from the book that you’re going to put to work each day this coming week.
  3. Find an opportunity to negotiate every day (discount on your coffee, whatever!) and test your tactic.

Imagine if you did this for one full year. Seriously! Even if you just read that one book all year and put to work a new practice every day, can you imagine how good you would get?

One year is an eternity in skills development:

Once our brains habituate a new skill (e.g. learning the alphabet), it becomes second nature to you, hence the importance of repetition, practicing daily, and using your Daily Exercises.

But What If I Can’t Find The Time?

Make the time. That’s why I suggest that every person master the skill of time management.

How many things did you do today that didn’t directly move the needle in your life? To master your life you want to master your time.

I write about him all the time — some of you guys think I actually am suggesting that you eat real frog — but read Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy and you’ll have plenty of time to learn what you need to learn.

You don’t find time in life. You make time.

In the end it comes down to how much you want it.

You can spend your life unconscious, pretending that you’re highly skilled and that for one reason or another you’re failing to get what you want.

Or you can get better. Not just to win more, but because it feels awesome to get better.