8 Lessons on Learning: How to Develop a New Skill (Without Giving Up): Part 1
Acquiring new skills is often the most difficult part of starting a new project or pushing through an existing one. Here’s the first part of how to develop a new skill without giving up — part two is here.
About a year ago, I had the idea to start a website based around my drumming and writing, with a strong video component. Skills required:
Is anybody there?
I’m not sure how I overlooked the most crucial element required to tie everything together. It was one of those things I figured I would hire a friend to do or outsource. But as I started putting together content, I quickly realized it was something I needed to learn in order to not relinquish creative control (and/or large sums of money).
As it turns out, “video production” means many things. From microphone selection to mixing audio, from camera positioning to post-production, “one” skill turned into several. A challenge became challenges.
You can relate to this, right?
Sometimes you have to start learning new skills out of necessity. And quickly. Work requires you to create a financial model in Excel, but you’ve never used the functions required. You want to launch a new blog, but you need to learn online marketing. Or maybe you want to learn a new skill purely out of interest — you’ve always wanted to learn how to play the piano and finally (now that you’ve overcome resistance and are watching fewer sports) made the decision to get started. But you haven’t thought about it much beyond “play the piano.” And that is going to make it incredibly difficult to start and stick to it. Why?
Because acquiring new skills is often the most difficult part of starting a new project or pushing through an existing one.
Especially when we don’t define our approach early on and create a set of objectives and a learning plan.
I say this because I’ve had to learn a number of new skills in the last few years and I’m finally confident in my approach.
Before starting a business, I researched everything from high level things like online marketing and SEO to the specifics of legal structures and bookkeeping. And as I continue to learn and refine the skills I’ve practiced for years — drumming and writing — I’m also developing the tools required to finally record, present and share everything I’ve learned and am creating — tools that are entirely new to me
So I wanted to share how I approach acquiring new skills and learning what I need to, efficiently and effectively.
In this first part, I’ll outline how to approach taking on something new and define your goals. In the second part, I’ll talk about how to actually follow through with acquiring these new skills (and discuss a few things I wish I knew years ago).
A few quick notes:
I strongly believe that anything is easier to learn if you are truly interested or passionate about it, be it a musical instrument or cooking. That said, if you need to learn something as a means to an end, find new ways to motivate yourself. (Example: If it’s Microsoft Excel for work, think of the amount of time you’ll save, the quality of work you’ll be able to do, and the new toolkit you’ll be developing.)
When it comes to acquiring new skills, some things are obviously easier to learn/master than others. I went from video editing noob to ninja in four weeks. I know I couldn’t go from cello apprentice to Yo-Yo Ma in the same amount of time. But I believe the same structure applies.
I’ve listed these lessons as steps in the most logical order, but learning is a fluid, dynamic process. Like a guided missile, we constantly readjust our path to reach our target as new information arises and we reevaluate our course.
1.) Find inspiration, and know what you want to learn.
If I were the first person to think of putting a camera in front of myself while playing the drums, you would most likely be reading this article in a newspaper, shortly before going to record store to buy the new Beatles album.
Point is, what you want to learn probably already exists out there, and nowadays, getting inspiration is only a few clicks away.
For me, producing videos, and more specifically, producing drumming videos, meant doing a whole lot of research on YouTube.
What separated a good video from a bad video? How many and what camera angles were being used? What kinds of tutorials are out there? What kinds of solos and drum covers were people doing? Which channels were getting the most views and why?
These are questions I asked and answered, in order to focus on the right things to learn. I want to incorporate my own ideas to create new things. But it was important to learn how to work within existing formats with proven success.
If your objective is straightforward, like incorporating a new baking technique into your cooking repertoire, this might be simple. But it might be something more vague, like our piano example above. In that case, ask yourself what style of piano you want to learn. Do you have a favorite pianist, composer? Questions like these will inspire you to gravitate towards a particular style, like classical, pop, or jazz.
2.) Research your medium and decide on your tools.
So I figured out what I wanted my videos to look like, and I jotted down some things I liked about the more popular and slickly produced videos. But what next? How do I do that?
In order to create something, you need the right tools — physical and digital. Depending on the skill, this can be tricky to decide.
Once I found the most inspirational drummers and videos, I researched the creators. I read their blogs, their comments, and even went so far as their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. You would be surprised how many people share not only why they make what they make, but how.
For example, one of my favorite drummers had a whole four part series on the gear, recording equipment, and software he used to film his latest set of videos. He had been making videos for years and found this to be his favorite setup. Perfect!
My budget and resources didn’t permit me to use the exact same tools, but it did give me ideas and steer me toward cheaper and similar alternatives. I did also did a lot of research on the programs I would use and decided to begin with the programs I already own with the most available support and documentation online.
Again, depending on your desired skill, this part can take a minute or it can take weeks. I would suggest considering your inspiration and working backwards, like I did, to determine the tools you need.
Pro-tip: Don’t over-analyze and stop here!
Depending on your endeavor, one of the biggest deterrents to actually starting can be budget and obsessing about the right (and best) tools. There’s a difficult balance between having the basic tools to learn and thinking you needed the latest and greatest professional tools to succeed.
GAS — Gear Acquisition Syndrome — is a real thing. (My eBay buy/sell history would concur.) Research, read reviews, and try in person to decide on the right tools to get started.
But remember — Bob Dylan could light up a room with an old guitar and a harmonica. Begin with the basics and learn the hell out of what you’ve got.
3.) List your goals, from general to specific.
Compare the following statements from two different people.
Person A: “I just want to know how to make cool videos, you know?”
Person B: “I want to learn how to produce videos. I’ll do this by first learning the basics of audio recording and engineering to capture acceptable audio from my drumset. Then, I’ll learn how to mix tracks, using EQ, reverb, and compression to get the best sound. To film, I’ll use 6 GoPro cameras and learn how to sync one audio track to multiple camera angles. I’ll then learn how to edit using Premiere Pro and add titles and simple transitions and export my video in the correct formats.”
You already see where I’m going with this. Who’s more likely to follow through, Person A or Person B?
Person A was me last year, not producing anything.
Person B is me now, working my ass off now that I’ve found the inspiration, done the research, and defined my learning goals.
Now, goals are a tricky thing: too general and we become too overwhelmed to begin, too specific and we get discouraged when we don’t hit each one.
So I like to think about acquiring new skills in tiers. I have a general overall focus: Learn how to produce videos. I then break it down into the components: Recording & Editing — Audio and Visual. And then, within each component, I make a list of all the things I want to be able to do.
Yes, literally. A list.
For example, as I learned how to video edit, I looked at the list of things I wanted to incorporate in my own videos, like “Add visual watermark in top right,” and “Add foot cam in bottom right of screen with border to separate from main angle,” etc. After I learned the basics of my tools and became comfortable and familiar with my interface (general), I focused on the things I had chosen to learn (specific).
This obviously works better for a more objective process, like video editing, than it does for something more open ended, like learning the guitar. But if you were to approach the guitar in the same way, you might want to learn the basics/general — major/minor chords, picking, fingering — and then make a list of the specifics such as the songs, licks, and scales you want to learn. Any skill can be broken down like this into more manageable, practical pieces.
As I mentioned, learning is a dynamic process. Oftentimes, the things we list might later become irrelevant as we realize that our interests have changed, or perhaps we’ll discover that they’re currently out of reach. But just doing the exercise will structure your learning and, more importantly, give you fodder for motivation.
4.) Learn from professionals (and choose the right ones).
My first and only drum teacher had long hair, a scraggly beard, and always reeked of a distinct scent I would later identify as marijuana. But he was a pro — at playing and at teaching. I learned proper technique when I was 10 and, since then, have mostly used books, videos and my ear to continue teaching myself.
With so much information online, should you just teach yourself? Or find a personal instructor? Or join a class in person? Or join a class… online?
It’s a tough call, but an important one.
In my opinion, if it’s a physical activity — musical instruments, woodworking, cooking, etc. — it’s best to at least begin with personal instruction. There is nothing worse than developing a bad technique early on and trying to unlearn it in the future. Having a qualified instructor teaching you first-hand could mean the difference between failure and success.
For things digital — video editing, graphic design, programming, etc. — there are plenty of courses and resources that don’t require leaving your workstation. In fact, most everything I learned in the past few weeks related to video production came from tutorials at Lynda.com. After looking at the vast amount of courses on applicable topics and programs, signing up was a no brainer. The courses give wonderful overviews to the basics of your platform and then delve into the specifics.
I enjoy teaching myself and these days generally avoid organized classes, which tend to bring together people of different skill levels. I prefer moving at my own pace, not having to drag through impatiently when I already know what’s going on, or feel like I’m playing catch up when I have no idea what’s going on.
Of course, the trade-off is structure and motivation. Some people really enjoy the social element and need classes and an organized schedule in order to stick to something. That’s terrific, and two of the greatest benefits of organized classes.
Either will work, depending on you and the skill you’re trying to learn. Just consider what works best for you and your learning approach!
Can I start now?
I know. Planning isn’t fun, but sometimes it’s necessary in order to remain focused. And hopefully by now you have a clearer idea of what it is you want to learn, the tools you’ll use, and how you are going to learn it.
Now it’s time for the fun part — learning by doing.
Starting with the second installment of this piece, in which I’ll talk about the follow-through of learning skills: What to do when you hit a wall and how mistakes can be a beautiful thing. Stay tuned!