Your biggest competitor is your brain.
I remember the day everything began. I was in my steamy room in Siem Reap, Cambodia, walking back and forth like a mad man. My mind was racing faster than a F1 car.
I had just come across a TEDx talk by Josh Kaufman, demonstrating that with only 20 hours of practice, you can learn a wide variety of skills. I was inspired.
That same day, I vowed to learn three new skills for the month of October.
Bold move, especially considering I wasn’t a particularly skilled learner. Every time I tried to learn something outside the scope of software development, I failed — and never got back up, staying right there flat out on the ground.
The vow to do the “impossible” happened back in 2017. Since I was living in a coworking/coliving place, work was the predominant activity in my life. I always worked at least 12 hours per day, even during weekends. Then I came across that idea, which turned out to be the biggest lightbulb moment of my life:
“I’ll shave 2 hours from my regular work and dedicate that time to learning new skills.”
The results from this experiment were phenomenal, to say the least.
Who knew on that day that I’d wake up completely inspired and change my life forever, which, in turn, changed the lives of thousands of others.
My first month doing it was a bit spread out. It was a classic tale of a dog chasing its tail. I didn’t research anything. I went around in circles. But I did it consistently over the next 30 days.
The real breakthrough happened after only about ten days of practice.
I could hear and feel an imaginary barrier in my mind crumble as I was drawing that Sunday morning. Brick by brick, that wall was dissolving and suddenly I understood. I understood what learning new skills really was about, and most importantly, that it’s not as hard as we really think it is.
Due to the overly satisfying results from my experiment, I decided to do it again the next month. This time, I was smarter in my approach. And again, the results at the end of the month turned out to be glorious. My motivation and energy levels went through the roof. My confidence had skyrocketed.
The benefits of skill learning turned out to be a lot more than just about becoming more skilled. With that renewed confidence, every aspect of my life started to improve.
On October 2017, a new Danny was about to be born.
This step by step guide is my answer to everyone asking me: “Danny, how did you do it? How do you learn new skills that easily and that quickly?”
These steps are the result of many experiments. While they can be executed in a different order, it’s recommended you follow them in the proposed order. I had to learn it the hard way, but if you trust me on that, things will be easier. Steps 1 and 2 are absolutely foundational and are the main reason the vast majority of people fail to follow through.
Are you ready?
Let’s do it!
Step 1: Just do it
“Just do it” — Nike
Here’s a simple two-step process to get you to do something “bold”:
- Ask yourself: “What’s the worst that can happen?”; then
- Do it.
The simple truth is, if you are not doing, you are not learning. I know this isn’t quite the groundbreaking revelation you were hoping for, but it’s a truth we have to remind ourselves constantly. In Step #3, we’ll learn how this physically happens in the brain.
But I know it’s easier said than done.
In step #2, we’ll go into more details on how you can more easily act.
But for now, if you can simply take consistent action, no matter how smart the action is, you’re already equipped to learn most skills. It won’t be optimal, but the habit of doing something consistently and repeatedly is the foundation of learning any skill.
When I started drawing back in October 2017, I did it daily, no matter if my practice sucked or not, and no matter if I could see improvements or not.
I just did. And it worked. And it has been working since.
Never give your brain more reasons to procrastinate, it already has plenty.
If you succeed in the first step, you more than double your capability to learn any skill.
Step 2: Shatter your limiting beliefs
“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” — Henry Ford
This step is at least as important as Step #1. If you are good with the previous step, this may happen automatically, as it did for me. Remember that mental barrier I shattered in the intro? That’s what I’m talking about here.
Here’s a fact: unless you have the best confidence I’ve ever heard of, you are always better than you think you are or can be. Always.
If you give up saying that you didn’t succeed, you are wrong. You didn’t “succeed” because you thought you never had a chance to begin with and didn’t push through. We’re all guilty of having done that in the past. And likely today as well.
Do I doubt that I can be a world-renown trumpeter? You know what, I don’t.
I’ve never played a brass instrument before and I’m definitely not musically gifted. If I follow the steps in this guide, I will get there. I have no doubt in my mind.
This guide you’re reading would never exist if I didn’t shatter my limiting beliefs. In January 2018, I decided it was time for me to improve my written English. As a native French speaker, I thought it would be really valuable to become better at writing in English.
I applied the steps in this guide. It led me to, over time, become a top writer in over 20 categories on Medium. For the most part, I owe my current success to writing and the steps in this guide.
If I can do it in writing, I can do it in other things. In my mind, talent doesn’t exist.
Step 2.1 If you don’t believe you can, you won’t be able to
Reframe your self-talk. Instead of saying: “I can’t do it”, ask yourself: “How can I do it?”
But that’s only one part. It’s good to know how you can do something, but if you don’t care for it, there’s no point. You won’t believe you can do it.
I’m certainly not the first to say that. Every single self-improvement book out there tells you to believe in yourself.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t work for everyone. Or, at least, it’s not the start. You can’t believe in yourself unless you build true confidence. It turns out, building that confidence is the result of all the steps in this guide, not a step within it. We are not born confident. Or, rather, we don’t keep our confidence growing up.
In the last year, I’ve seen my mom go through a major transition in her life. She used to be afraid of everything. I’m not exaggerating. Now she knows she can do things out of her comfort zone. She’s not achieving that through self-belief or confidence. She’s achieving that through faith. Through the belief that she is being guided.
And that works great for her. If you can’t believe in yourself as you would in something else, let that something else guide you.
Step 2.2 Talent doesn’t exist
When I hear someone say about someone else that they’re talented, it makes me cringe. I find that borderline insulting to be honest.
You think they are good because they were born good? Pffft!
They’re good because of Step #1 and Step #2.1, and likely because of the following steps as well. When you are born, your brain’s a virgin. You are not born with the required connections in your brain to perform skills without practice. Don’t get me wrong, I wish it weren’t true!
People who hear that I learned over 60 new skills in the past 2 years think I’m a genius. Ask my school teachers who gave me Ds and they’ll tell you I’m not. Not that school is a good place to judge who’s a genius or not though…
Da Vinci, Einstein, Franklin, and many many more we now consider geniuses were not considered geniuses from day 1. They grew into that through years of honing their skills.
Genes may help you learn things a little faster than others, but there’s no limit. Limits are a product of your own or collective thoughts. Can I run faster than Usain Bolt? Heck yeah. I just haven’t figured out how to yet. His achievements are not the limits of human capabilities. We’ll see that in the near future, as we have previously.
Change your self-talk, change your life.
If you succeed at this step, you are seriously on your way to learn any skill. Most people never get to Step #1, and much less so Step #2. Take this very seriously.
Step 3: Learn to learn
When I started my approach, I was disorganized, but at least I took action and recognized that my limitations were of my own doing. Essentially, I didn’t know how to learn.
Step 3.1 Understand your brain
I won’t go into great scientific details here on how learning happens in your brain. I am, after all, not a neuroscientist. However, I will give you the highlights.
How to make connections in your brain
We all know that the skills we’ve acquired are controlled by our brain — through neural connections. Since you don’t have immediate access to your brain, you have to let it create them on its own. As such, it’s not a process you can easily “force”.
But here’s what you need to know: the brain is an organ that behaves like a muscle. How do you grow muscles? You push them to their limit and rest so it regrows stronger. This is the same for your neural connections. Practice hard, rest, do it again.
Resting doesn’t necessarily mean sleeping. It means doing any activity that removes the focus on the skill you were practicing. Jogging, meditation, showers, taking a bath, etc. are good examples of ways to rest your brain.
What these connections signify
Alright, so you’ve made connections. What does that even mean? Think of it as an access point. You want to stand up? Your brain accesses the right connection to make that happen for you. Your brain acts as a librarian on fire. It finds what you’re looking for at the speed of light.
That makes me wonder what a sloth’s internal librarian is doing…
Are your neural connections all randomly spread-out through your brain? Not exactly. It turns out, these connections are, for a lack of a better word, connected. There’s a lot going on when you’re just standing up for example. Thousands, if not millions of connections fire up to make it happen. For the most part, it’s always the same connections that make you stand up. Some people call that a chunk. As such, a skill is really just a collection of chunks in your brain.
Step 3.2 Improve your memory
Teaching you all the memory techniques here would be way beyond the intended scope of this article. Besides, there are more qualified people than me to teach them to you. For example, check out Jim Kwik or Anthony Metivier.
That being said, improving your memory is important in your skill development journey, but it’s only a small part. Improving your memory does one thing: it helps you remember knowledge, making it faster to access. It doesn’t create the connections your brain, it stores information in your hippocampus.
As such, you can have an incredible memory, and still not be very skilled. The opposite is true too, and I’m in that camp, you can be skilled and not have the greatest memory.
Memory is a tool that, if used properly, will accelerate your learning.
I go into more details here:
Step 3.3 Skill Up!
As per Step 3.1, the more you learn, the faster you learn. It’s not so surprising now that we know chunks in your brain are accessible to a wide variety of skills.
Just to give an easy example: isn’t it true that once you know a romance language, it’s easier to learn the others. Being a native French speaker, it’s much easier for me to learn Spanish than it is for an English speaker, simply because it comes from the same root, Latin.
The more diverse your skill set, the easier it will be to learn anything new. Today, this may be the most important reason I learn new skills faster than most.
More on that in Step 4.1.
The more you learn, the larger your library of sub-skills. The larger your library, the faster you learn.
If you succeed at this step, you’ll learn quite a bit faster than most people. By knowing how your brain works, you can now make it work for you, instead of against you.
Step 4: Choose the right skills to learn
In addition to not knowing how to learn initially, I didn’t know how to choose skills that actually made sense for me to learn.
Thankfully, I stumbled upon a concept I didn’t know was secretly genius. If you look back at the three skills I started with, all of them are using different parts of my brain. One of the reasons why people are drained from learning skills is because they use just one part of their brain.
For example, as a software engineer, I use my logical side of the brain for work. If I aim to learn more logical stuff after work, it’s really hard. I don’t have the mental capacity to take more information in. On the other side, if I practice rock climbing, I’m still fully receptive to learning in that part of the brain.
Step 4.1 Balance your learning
It is important to choose skills you’ll have the energy and motivation to practice. I practice most of my new skills in the morning, right before work.
That doesn’t drain my energy for work, it actually amplifies it!
By not working on the same parts of my brain, I don’t tire the parts I’ll be using for work. Plus, by getting immediate wins at the start of my day, I’m pumped for the next few hours.
People often ask me how I get so much energy when I work. That’s how.
But more importantly, by creating connections in all parts of your brain, you are more equipped to do the following:
- Learn other skills faster and easier;
- Think creatively about solutions to problems; and
- Become more adaptable in changing situations or environments.
Essentially, the more you learn, the faster you learn. The more diverse your learning, the more adaptable you become. The more adaptable you become, the easier it is to get out of your comfort zone — leading to true confidence.
You remember why that’s important, right?
So, when you want to balance your learning out, think about how a skill fits into one of these categories:
- Logical; and
There are others, but that’s a good starting point. I don’t want to overcomplicate things.
Step 4.2 Start with sub-skills where you can use previously formed chunks
In Step #3, we looked at how the brain creates “chunks” in your brain, allowing you to piece them together to perform a skill. I like to simply call these chunks “sub-skills”.
Most people are not aware of the sub-skills they have learned and mastered. I certainly didn’t. To this day, there’s still no perfect way to document the things you know and how they relate to each other. My goal is to change that for you, through the use of what I call SkillUp Trees.
We’ll dig deeper into that in Step #5.
But for now, what’s important to understand is this: there is a path for you to take to make your learning easier. And that path is your own.
Have you ever read a tutorial or watched a video that claims it’s the best way to learn something?
Probably right? Did it work for you?
Maybe. Maybe not. It really depends. But what does it depend on?
It depends on previous knowledge and abilities. If I show you how to ride a bicycle and you don’t yet know how to walk, what do you think your chances of success are going to be?
Right, close to zero!
Always build on top of previously acquired knowledge to make your learning more efficient.
If you succeed at this step, you will learn most skills a lot more efficiently than the vast majority of people. If you want to play the guitar like Herman Li, you gotta start by knowing how to hold the guitar!
Step 5: Plan your learning process
If you want to be a top basketball player, you have to have a plan. You need a plan that shows you what you need to learn, how to practice it, and when you need to practice it. Without a plan, you remain a chump.
People often tell me: “Danny, I don’t care for being a top performer.”
Sure, I get that. But if you’re going to be spending time learning something, why not do it right?
Maybe I care too much about my time and my productivity, but the reality is that time is your most valuable asset. It is the one asset you can never get back.
If you really want to do something, why would you not aim to do it right? I’m lousy when it comes to cleaning my apartment. I don’t want to do it. When I’m learning a skill, I want to perform. Makes sense?
Step 5.1 The importance of a plan
A plan is a guide. It’s a set of principles you follow that keeps you on your path.
When you go to a new city, if you didn’t plan your visit, you’re lost. This can be thrilling for sure, but would you rather not at least have a GPS telling you how to get to your destination, then explore on your own?
That’s what a learning plan is telling you. It gives you the directions you should take, how to measure your progress towards your next milestone, and keeps you accountable.
Are you more productive when you know what you should work on next or when you discover it on the fly?
The former, right?
This isn’t so different from when Peter Drucker said:
“There’s nothing less efficient than doing something that shouldn’t be done at all.” — Peter Drucker
By not having a plan, you run into the risk of doing things that shouldn’t be done at all, wasting considerable and valuable time.
Step 5.2 Crafting your plan
It all starts with being aware of your currently available sub-skills.
It’s not much different from when you want to cook a meal. When you look at the recipe, you start by looking at the list of ingredients and go through your pantry to note what you currently have and what’s missing.
Your sub-skills are your ingredients that make the recipe work. The recipe here being the steps required to learn a skill.
If you want to learn to run, you first have to learn how to stand, and then to walk. But that’s not enough. To learn to walk, you need certain competencies in your ability to stand. If you fall every 2 seconds while standing, you’ll be a lousy walker. If you’re a lousy walker, you’re no runner.
See what I mean?
Anyway, here are some steps to craft yourself a solid plan:
- List the sub-skills required to get to the skill you want to learn;
- Note the level of competency you need in each sub-skill to reach the next sub-skill;
- Overlay your current set of sub-skills on top of that;
- Note where you lack. Reflect on the effort required to overcome that;
- Create a SkillUp Tree.
- Find resources that will help you learn each sub-skill; and
- Put each resource you plan to use in your calendar. Note how you can personally measure your mastery after using the resource.
That’s your skill learning GPS. If you stick to it, good things will come. That being said, always think about Step 5.3:
Step 5.3 Constantly review your plan
No plan is ever perfect on the first try. I personally re-evaluate my plans at least every week. If I fall behind or I’m ahead, it’s proof of bad planning. Sometimes you really don’t know what’s going to be important for your learning until you first start. Actually, I’d say this is probably 98 percent of the time.
When reviewing your plan, chances are you were wrong in the first step. Sadly. If I ask you to bake a cake and you don’t have a recipe and you have never done it before, you’ll not only get the ingredients wrong, you’ll use them in the wrong order. As such, you have to re-evaluate what you did wrong and start over.
The good news is, after two weeks of practice, you should have a better idea if you’re heading in the right direction. If not, chances are you chose a skill that was a little out of your league.
“Think things through, then follow through.” — Eddy Rickenbacker
If you succeed at this step, you will inevitably learn more efficiently than the majority of people who just jump to it without a guide.
Step 6: Be smart in your practice
There are many ways to be smarter in your skill learning practice. In this guide, we’ll touch on the three most important ones.
Step 6.1 Choose the right time for you
This took me a while to figure out. For as long as I can remember, I was always trying to practice after work, but I was exhausted, which led me to skip many more times than I wish I had.
When I started waking up earlier to practice my skills, it worked out a lot better for me. My wife has been trying to emulate that with no success. For her, learning in the evening is easier.
So, instead of trying to copy someone’s schedule, make your own. We’re all different. The right time for me is not the right time for you. So experiment until you find what it is for you and stick to it for a bit. Make it consistent. And even after you found your right time, still try to vary and see if there might not be an even better time.
You know it’s the right time for you when you are motivated to do it and are more energized after your practice, not less.
Step 6.2 Use spaced repetition
Take a moment to analyze the following graph:
If you do not recall what you have learned, you basically follow the forgetting curve. If you retain 70 percent of what you learned right after you learn it, within 24 hours you’re already at about 20 percent, and within a week, you’re at less than 10 percent.
This is cause for alarm, no?
Part of the reason you have homework in school is to partially help with that, putting you in the Review 2 curve, increasing your retention by at least six times!
Isn’t it amazing?
So, when you practice something you’ve learned after 24 hours, then after one week, and then after one month, you’ll basically retain your learning for years to come. It takes such a minimal amount of time for you, yet the results are phenomenal.
So the next time you schedule your learning, think about spaced repetition and place “recalling sessions” in your calendar as well. That’s how, after not doing any video editing in a while, I’m able to just get back into it and remember how it’s done.
Step 6.3 Use the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule)
The Pareto Principle has been talked about extensively in the past few years, with reason. If you’ve read about it in the past, I’d consider reading this here again.
Everyone understands it, but no one really applies it. Here’s what it is:
20 percent of the effort yields 80 percent of the results
Not so fast!
If, when starting your learning, you don’t spend a chunk of time defining what the results are, and just Google “best way to…”, that’s not reaching for 80 percent of the results in 20 percent of the time.
Let’s take playing the guitar as an example.
If my goal after 20 hours of practice is to be able to play three beginner songs, how do I go about it?
My first course of action would be to find three songs that use the same chords, using the same strumming pattern. By limiting my learning to four chords and one strumming pattern, I’m greatly reducing the effort required to reach my goal. Is the proportion really 80/20? Probably not, but it should be pretty close.
This is one example, but it applies to pretty much any skill. That’s how people learn languages so fast.
So, next time you want to learn a new skill, think deeper. The extra 30 minutes of research will truly accelerate your learning.
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” — Albert Einstein
If you succeed at this step, you are starting to become a superstar skill learner. You’ll be more motivated and energized than almost everyone, and you’ll retain more things faster and for longer.
Step 7: Measure your progress
How do you know you’ve progressed towards your goal of losing weight? You use a scale to measure your weight, right?
You note, on a regular basis, what your weight is. Then after a few days, you may start seeing changes in the number you note. It’s either a positive or a negative sign. If it’s positive (the number is lower), you know you’re on the right track on you keep going. If it’s negative (the number is higher), your plan or execution isn’t working. You have to change one of them, or both if you want to succeed.
Nothing groundbreaking here so far. We’re all familiar with weight tracking. What we’re not familiar with, however, is tracking basically anything else that doesn’t use a scale, which is, probably more than 95 percent of the skills you’ll practice in your life.
Step 7.1 Define what that means for you for each skill
Can you use a scale to measure your progress towards doing 10 perfect bank shots in a row at a 19 feet radius? No, but you can certainly measure it. My best today was 6/10. Then the next day, still 6/10. Then a week after 7/10. Progress!
If you shoot without aiming, you’re not going to score! Always know your aim and how to get there.
Each skill has a different way of tracking its progress. And the way you measure it doesn’t have to be the same way someone else does it.
Take the (overly broad) skill of learning to speak Spanish. One’s goal may be to master 100 words within 15 hours of practice. Another person’s goal might be to sustain a 10-minute long conversation in Spanish. Both are going to practice by speaking with another person, yet they’ll measure things very differently.
The first one may measure the number of words they managed to use successfully. The other may measure the time they managed to sustain a conversation.
If you don’t know what to measure and how to measure it, you’re not deliberate in your practice, you are just dabbling. Dabbling is not good if you’re serious about your skill learning.
Step 7.2 Don’t skip a day and review at least once a week
It’s surprisingly easy to forget to take note of your advancements towards your learning goals. Make it a habit to note your performance every day. Not only that but also note what went right and what went wrong.
At the end of the week, you should always take a moment to reflect on your daily notes. This allows you to re-adjust your learning plan based on your actual performance.
I personally spend about 30–60 minutes per skill every week to understand where I stand currently. I use this time to find new and better resources to keep going for the next week.
“Self-awareness is a key to self-mastery.” — Gretchen Rubin
If you succeed at this step, you’re part of the skill learning elite. You are 100 percent deliberate in your learning and you know exactly how to approach learning any skill.
Step 8: Collect honest and constructive feedback
Constructive feedback never hurt anyone. Not doing something right doesn’t mean losing.
“I never lose. I either win or learn.” — Nelson Mandela
That’s the attitude you need to step up your skill learning!
Step 8.1 Be accountable and share your progress
One of the reasons why my learning was greatly accelerated when I decided to improve my written English was because I was writing publicly on Medium. People were reading what I wrote, so it had to be at least decent, otherwise, I’d make a fool of myself. And no one wants that.
If you’re just practicing in the corner with no intention to share your progress until the end, you’re not going to learn as much.
I’m certainly seeing that with my Ukulele practice. I initially wanted to post a video of my progression every day but ended up not doing it because of construction downstairs and because it was taking a long time to film and edit. Both excuses, of course. Needless to say, today, 26 days later, I’m far from being where I hoped to be, even if I was doing all the previous steps.
If I did publish a video every day, today I’d be playing Zombie like Feng E!
Step 8.2 Ask for feedback
Sharing is great, getting feedback is better. The more honest the feedback the better, of course. Sadly it’s not that simple for two reasons:
- People are too afraid to tell you the truth; and
- You’re too afraid to receive it anyway.
People who master the art of receiving feedback rule the world. They surround themselves with people who are not afraid to tell them the brutal honesty.
I’m lucky to be part of groups of people who tell me the truth about my performance. Every time I make a new video and I think I aced it, someone points out a few things I haven’t thought about. And I’m better for it.
To know if someone’s good at giving you feedback, just do a weak performance for them and ask them for feedback. If they sugarcoat it and don’t point out what you did wrong, never ask that person for feedback again.
I know this sounds extreme, but if you’ve reached this step, it’s because you care about your skill development journey. Fake feedback is more destructive than no feedback at all. We’ve all seen kids on talent shows who thought they were good at something but were seriously horrible. Guess why they thought they were great?
People who master the art of receiving feedback rule the world.
If you reached this step, you are a master amongst skill learners. There is nothing else I can teach you. The only thing I can ask from you now is this: will you be my mentor?
Let’s do a quick reiteration of the steps here:
Step 1: Just do it
Step 2: Shatter your limiting beliefs
Step 3: Learn to learn
Step 4: Choose the right skills to learn
Step 5: Plan your learning process
Step 6: Be smart in your practice
Step 7: Measure your progress
Step 8: Collect honest and constructive feedback
It’s important to also note that even though I call them “steps”, you can actually do them in a different order. The steps are merely a suggestion based on my own experience and that of others I’ve worked with.
Constantly improving your skill set is one of the only ways to future-proof yourself. If you follow this guide, you’ll be better equipped to learn anything you’ve ever wished to learn.
In my mind, there’s no doubt you can do it. Drop the excuses and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Dare try. Dare go out of your comfort zone. Ask yourself: “what’s the worst that can happen?” Be honest with yourself. So go out there and skill up!
You can do this!
Thanks for reading, sharing, and following! 🙂