How To Learn New Skills In Business
So you want to learn how to learn new skills? Awesome, just sign up for a five-figure, six-month on-site training and you’re all set. Oh yes, I forgot you don’t have the time or money to do that.
There’s so much you need to learn to start and grow your online business—SEO, PPC, and any number of other fun acronyms—it’s overwhelming to think about how much time it takes to grasp and execute these tactics.
What if you could learn new skills fast and start leveraging that knowledge right away to grow your business?
It all starts with an understanding of how you actually learn, and then executing on a specific set of tactics that will work to speed up your learning capabilities. That’s what you will learn in this article. Let’s jump right into it.
How You Learn and Retain New Skills
The process of skill acquisition starts in your brain.
The idea that your brain is like a muscle is a cliché, and an incorrect one. But let’s start with the idea that if you add enough stimulus to your brain, it will “grow” in its capacity and become accustomed to doing new things (i.e., learn new skills). That part is true.
In the simplest terms, the process of learning a new skill is made up of three stages:
- Retention and Recall
The first phase is the one most people think when they imagine skill acquisition. It’s during this phase that your brain takes in new stimuli—an experience, like a lesson with a teacher—and stores it away.
The second phase—skill consolidation—is the when your brain takes all that new knowledge and makes it available for you to use next time you need it. An unconscious process, skill consolidation happens outside of your training sessions, most often while you sleep.
Finally, the last phase—retention and recall—happens when you go back to your training and aim to recall the knowledge learned in the previous lessons, which proves whether your brain was able to retain the knowledge or not.
This phase is where you see the effectiveness of your training, your practice, and your neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt to new circumstances.
The whole process happens every time you sit down to practice a new skill.
For example, imagine you’re learning the basics of front-end development. In one learning session, you learn the difference between the “class” and “ID” identifiers.
In this lesson, your brain would encode the new distinction. A few days later, as you continue with your life, your brain would slowly consolidate the knowledge.
By the time you sit down to learn a few new ways to use IDs and classes, your brain will already be able to differentiate between the two, meaning that your brain had retained the previous learning and recalled it properly.
Your goal to acquire new skills fast should be to maximize the time you spend encoding new information—learning and practicing new ideas—while giving your brain time to encode it properly—by getting enough rest—so you can then retain and recall all your newly encoded ideas most effectively.
In the next section, you will learn seven ways to learning new skills fast, all of which will help you encode, consolidate, and retain as much information as possible in the least amount of time.
Adopt a Growth Mindset
We all like to believe we’re smarter than we really are—a bias known as the “overconfidence effect.”
The bias can make us believe we’re born with certain innate talents and that if we try to learn something outside them, we’ll fail.
Such mentality makes us very confident (and probably effective) with the skills we have…but very bad at learning new ones, something that can stop you from growing as an entrepreneur.
Before you can learn new skills, you need to adopt a new mindset that allows you to do so. You need to take on a growth-focused mentality; one that sees learning new skills as a growth process and not one of failure.
According to Carol Dweck, author of the bestselling book Mindset:
Growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.
In other words, Ms. Dweck asks you to believe in your ability to grow and learn. You’re not born with innate talents; rather, you’re born with the ability to learn, nothing more.
To learn, however, you must be willing to fail. Just like a child falls many times before they can learn to walk, you must fail many times before you can reap the results of your learning.
John C. Maxwell, the acclaimed leadership expert and speaker, famously said, “Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward.”
This isn’t what “failing forward” is all about.
The idea that you can—and must—fail in order to grow is the whole point behind the growth mindset; it gives you the space to discover new ideas, try them, fail at them, and learn by experience.
The growth mindset is a way to override the negative connotations associated with failure and become aware of the importance of making mistakes in the learning process:
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.
The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.
Remember, nobody is born a skilled programmer, salesperson, or marketer. Every successful, skilled person in whatever aspect of their life had to learn how to do what they now do so well. You just can’t see their entire journey, only their current success.
Daniel Coyle, author of The Little Book of Talent, puts this idea into even clearer terms when he said that you must be “willing to be stupid:”
Feeling stupid is no fun. But being willing to be stupid—in other words, being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes—is absolutely essential, because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way your brain grows and forms new connections. When it comes to developing talent, remember, mistakes are not really mistakes—they are the guideposts you use to get better.
Adopt the growth mindset—the mindset that gives you permission to fail and learn from your mistakes—and you will become a much more intrepid, faster learner.
Implement the ‘Form to Leave Form’ Methodology
When you first launch your business, you will realize quickly that you’ve got a lot of new things to do, most of which you can’t do very well.
Whether it’s SEO, selling, programming, design, or management, you will be tempted to rush out and learn as many new skills as you can.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to become an expert at all of these things—if you need an expert you can always hire one—but you should try to become proficient at most of them.
So you’ll start to read books, articles, videos, webinars, and pretty much any type of content that teaches you the basics of all of the things you want to learn.
Not long after you start churning through all the information presented to you, you will inevitably get confused. Because you have put so much weight into the encoding phase and not enough into the consolidation phase, you won’t retain much information, rendering your learning useless.
To solve such a conundrum, you can use the “form to leave form” methodology that Josh Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning, developed in his journey to first become a chess master, and eventually a jiu-jitsu black belt:
A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. He or she will learn the principles of endgame, middlegame, and opening play. Initially one or two critical themes will be considered at once, but over time the intuition learns to integrate more and more principles into a sense of flow. Eventually the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived. This process continuously cycles along as deeper layers of the art are soaked in.
In other words, master the basics before you move up to more complicated and abstract tasks.
Jim Rohn, the famous professional speaker and bestselling author, once said:
Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals.
You should know the basics of whatever it is you are learning better than anyone else. That way, when it’s time to learn more complex ideas, everything will be easier for you.
Let’s say you were learning how to do technical SEO. By the time you get bogged down in the technical complexities of writing a robots.txt with regular expressions—a key aspect of technical SEO—you can always remember that the main point of a robots.txt is to tell the search engine robots which parts of your site they can access and which ones they can’t.
That idea alone will save you hours of frustration and simplify the type of technical knowledge you need to acquire to create a robots.txt. You don’t have to learn all the regular expressions; just by knowing how you can exclude a certain folder of subfolder will be enough.
Everything you learned should be tied to the fundamentals of the skill you’re learning. Encode it, consolidate it, and recall it next time you practice a new skill.
Break It Down and Commit
If I told you that you could learn to play an instrument, a programming language, a new language, or do yoga, each in just 30 days, would you believe me?
That’s exactly what Josh Kaufman did back in 2013. Mr. Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA and The First 20 Hours, explains that he was able to do all of those things and more thanks to his specific “rapid skill acquisition” methodology.
According to Mr. Kaufman, the process of fast skill acquisition takes four steps:
- Deconstruct a skill into the smallest possible subskills
- Learn about each subskill to be able to practice intelligently and self-correct during practice
- Remove physical, mental, and emotional barriers that get in the way of practice
- Practice the most important subskills for at least twenty hours
The most important part of the entire methodology is to define the specific skill you want to learn and the subskills that make it. If you are looking to learn sales, then “sales” isn’t a skill per se. It’s a topic, a subject if you will, but not an actual skill.
Cold calling, closing, and pitching are the skills that make a salesperson effective at their job. But such skills would still be too broad for you to tackle.
Cold calling, for example, can be broken down into the following subskills:
- Searching for potential call prospects
- Qualifying the prospects
- Developing a powerful sales script
- Creating an effective pitch
- Having the courage to call virtual strangers
These subskills can be broken down into further specific tasks, something that can make your learning process much easier. If you know exactly the tasks you need to implement to qualify a prospect, you can easily practice with a framework in mind that lets you improve the quality of your work done.
The point is that you must be crystal clear with the skills and subskills you’re learning so you can master them individually.
The third point is also crucial because it’s easy to fall for the idea you lack the time to practice. If that’s your case, then you need to cut the excuses and remove all barriers to your practice.
The deep work methodology can be of great use, as it focuses on batches of dedicated work that let you get in the flow and implement the tasks needed to get whatever it is you want to get done.
Finally, you have the practice itself, which as Kaufman indicates, must be done for at least 20 hours to achieve basic mastery of the skill.
If you focus one hour a day to learning how to qualify your prospects for cold calling, then in three weeks you’ve become pretty good at it, something that will make you a much better salesperson. You will be far from a master—especially if you believe in the 10,000 hours rule Malcolm Gladwell so famously promoted in his book Outliers—but you will know more than most people.
At the end of the day, skill acquisition takes time, but not as much as you’d thought. It only takes a laser-focus and some time to practice to start seeing the results you wish to get.
As Mr. Kaufman says: “Rapid skill acquisition is not rocket science. You simply decide what to practice, figure out the best way to practice, make time to practice, then practice until you reach your target level of performance.“
Gamify Your Learning
The process of learning new skills requires many steps. You need to break down each subtask, learn about it, and practice. Such a process can be a bit dull and abstract if you’re looking for ways to motivate yourself.
Here’s where video games come to the rescue.
Yes, video games, the addictive and unproductive games you play on your computer when you’re not working (or when you’re supposed to be working).
Before you write off video games as a bad tool for learning new skills, you need to reconsider the power of them.
Jane McGonigal, author of SuperBetter, believes that skill acquisition can be as fun as playing a video game—only if you make it so. The key lies in your dopamine, the neurotransmitter commonly associated with drug addiction.
As the author explains:
Video games create a rush in the brain as pleasurable and powerful as intravenous drugs. Playing video games leads to a massive increase in the amount of dopamine, the “pleasure” neurotransmitter, in the brain.
Increased dopamine in the reward circuitry is not a sign of addiction. More commonly, it’s a sign of increased motivation and determination.
Video games, it turns out, make your brain produce a lot of dopamine, something that if you use it properly, can make you highly optimistic and motivated towards the task at hand (which, in this case, would be to learn a new skill).
At first glance, this idea seems great. You only need to play some video games and all of a sudden you’ll be motivated, right? Well, not really.
The idea is that you use the effect of playing video games during your skill acquisition, making such process as engaging and challenging as a video game.
Here’s how the process works:
Every time you consider a possible goal, your brain conducts a split-second, unconscious cost-benefit analysis of whether it’s worth the effort to try to achieve it. How you conduct this analysis depends less on the facts of the situation than on how much dopamine is present in your brain.
When you have high dopamine levels in the reward circuitry, you worry less about the effort required, and you find it easier to imagine and predict success. This translates into higher determination and lower frustration in the face of setbacks. Meanwhile, when dopamine runs low in the reward circuitry—something that happens during a period of clinical depression, for example—you weigh more heavily the effort required, often magnifying it, and you discount the importance of your goals. You also tend to anticipate failure rather than success, which can lead you to avoid challenges altogether.
Ms. McGonigal explains in the book that in order to adopt such an attitude in your skill acquisition, you need to do three things:
- Challenge yourself: Set a goal that seems hard to achieve but still somehow realistic. If you want to learn web design, make your goal of learning how to design a simple social media banner, not an entire website from scratch.
- Ask yourself “What’s the best that could happen?” Frame your challenge as an optimistic process, not one of failure and fear.
- Power up: Define what actions makes you feel stronger and use that to motivate yourself. This is similar to Tony Robbins’ peak state methodology: If you feel that jumping three times and pumping your chest makes you feel better, do that whenever you need a motivation rush.
As you start to improve in your new skills, your challenges will grow in difficulty, and the harder it will be for you to progress. But if you keep up this game-like approach, you will have a much easier time learning.
Get a Mentor, Coach, or Master to Guide You
Mentors are all the rage these days. Everyone seems to talk about the importance of getting mentors.
The whole idea of mentorship isn’t new—the first mention ever recorded of the term comes from the ancient Greek tale of Odysseus, who entrusted his son’s education to his friend, Mentor.
Their recent popularity stems mostly from an almost “magical” aura they’ve taken on. Many successful entrepreneurs swear their success is owed to their mentors, leading others believe getting a mentor is a surefire way to hack the learning process.
While having a mentor is no silver bullet, it can be very helpful, mostly because you get specific, relevant, and useful feedback.
When you’re learning a new skill, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, you “don’t know what you don’t know.” You make mistakes and you don’t even know it.
A mentor, just like a coach, can tell you the specific things you’re doing wrong, the best ways to improve on them, and any other key information that will speed your learning process.
Anyone who’s more experienced and knowledgeable than you at any given task can show you the path they’ve taken to get to that level.
Nathan Chan, Foundr’s CEO and founder, is a big believer in mentors. When he started Foundr, his mentors helped him in his path to growing the site into one of the leading digital magazines on entrepreneurship.
As Mr. Chan explained, the key to finding a mentor is to “serve first; ask later.” Instead of asking someone way more successful than you to become your mentor, pay it forward with anything you can provide them.
If you know a lot about marketing and you see a potential mentor could improve on something, offer a friendly suggestion. Help them for free, without asking anything in return.
Only after you’ve proved yourself and become acquainted with the potential mentor, can you start to develop a relationship in which both the mentor and yourself help each other.
Whether you get a mentor, a paid coach, or any type of advisor, getting fast and useful feedback will speed your learning process.
Lack of talent is one of the first excuses people turn to when struggling with a new skill. They take a few classes, read a few books, try the new skill, and when they fail, they simply tell themselves they’re “not talented enough.”
As I noted earlier, none of us is born with talent. The reason people seem naturally gifted at something is that early on, they likely became “ignited” in the learning process, and kept their motivation high throughout as a result.
According to Daniel Coyle, who we mentioned before:
Talent begins with brief, powerful encounters that spark motivation by linking your identity to a high-performing person or group. This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world-shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them.
When you’re first getting started, you want to achieve that ignition as quickly as possible. You want to identify with success, which will power your intrinsic motivation.
A reason you want to start with small, achievable goals, as we explained before, is that such success will breed more success. You will see, feel, and taste success right at your fingertips.
When you’ve finished designing that social media banner you can use, or after you’ve finished the mockup of your new site, or after you’ve edited that video for your marketing campaigns, you will feel like you can become a skilled designer, programmer, or video editor. You will become ignited.
Find successful people you’d like to emulate, read their stories, and even talk to them. You will soon see you’re just like them; the only difference is that they took the time to master their skills.
After you do that, you will soon realize you could be like them. And that’s how you ignite your learning process, something that will motivate you to learn.
Aim to Be Better, Not Good
Among the self-proclaimed self-help “gurus,” a commonly shared idea is that “persistence is the key to success.”
Um, this is not real.
But is it true? How can you persist when you can’t see beyond the forest that surrounds you? How can you see through the fog to where your future successful self stands? How can you persist when you never seem to get to where you want to be?
Everything you do never seems to be as good as you want it to be. You’re never “there.” You’re always a step behind where you want to be.
According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, one of the many experts who participated in the book Maximize Your Potential, this is the wrong attitude to have. You can only adopt one of two attitudes:
We all approach the goals we pursue with one of two mind-sets: what I call the Be Good mind-set, where the focus is on proving that you already have a lot of ability and that you know exactly what you’re doing, and the Get Better mind-set, where the focus is on developing your ability and learning new skills. You can think of it as the difference between wanting to show that you are smart versus wanting to actually get smarter.
The “Get Better” mindset is very similar to Dweck’s Growth mindset, one where learning is seen as a stretch, but one that you can (and must) go through if you only put the time and effort.
A Get Better mind-set…leads…to self-comparison and a concern with making progress: How well am I doing today, compared with how I did yesterday, last month, or last year? Are my talents and abilities developing over time? Am I moving closer to becoming the creative professional I want to be?
See your progress as a journey, one where, as Sun Tzu said, you have a thousand steps to take.
Your journey is uniquely yours. It may take you longer than others. It may cost you more money. It may require more energy than others. But it’s yours and yours only.
And when your only job is to become better than the day before, you will only see progress ahead.
That’s how you can persist and win.
Start Small and Win
Learning a new skill will be challenging, and it’s meant to be that way. If your brain made it easy for you to absorb every single stimulus around you, you’d collapse in a second. You need to allow time for your brain to encode and consolidate your new skill.
When everything seems daunting, remember the words of Daniel Coyle: “Small actions, repeated over time, transform us.”
Start small, take action, and grow. The sky’s the limit.