Diving into the black hole of a new subject can be tough. Especially if you’re trying a break into a field you don’t have experience in.
That’s what we’re addressing here. How to pick up a new skill and run with it. The process is broken up into 4 phases. I’ve even created an acronym for you to remember it.
Stay it out loud.
Not to be mistaken for DDDDD — The 5 Ds of dodgeball. (In case you’re curious, Dodge Duck Dip Dive and Dodge.)
The 4Ds stand for:
Whether you’re taking on more at work, starting a new career path, or just want to learn a new hobby this article is a road-map for you.
I used this process to learn marketing and writing. Now, I’m using it again to learn investing.
I didn’t invent this process. It’s reconfigured from researching books on the topic like:
As well as a few articles here and there.
Those books are worth reading, but this article will be much faster.
Let’s get started.
Right now, you’re an outsider. You don’t know the field. You don’t know the craft. You’re not sure who the experts are or who to go to for knowledge.
In this stage, we change that. In the discovery phase your surveying the battlefield, finding resources, and looking for mentors, models, and experts.
Start your research with a Google search.
Search what you’re trying to learn, and you’ll end up with the top content creator on that topic. A decent starting point.
The first non-ad search result will be a good broad level view of what you’re wanting to learn
Definitely read that.
Take note of the sub-topics in that article. Those are the innards of the skill and they will come up later.
Save that content publisher as a resource. They publish tons of helpful content on the topic. Also, keep an eye out for links on their content that send you to other bloggers or publications. Those other publications will be helpful resources too.
Don’t be afraid to go down the rabbit hole. You can keep going through links to more pages and resources.
Online publications and bloggers are good resources, but there is something even better.
Nothing is better than a great book.
The next step is to look for books.
Personally, I think books have more to teach than articles online. They do a better job of giving you the big picture.
One way to look for books is to open up Amazon and search the same thing you searched on Google.
Amazon is basically a database of books, so you’ll have almost every book ever written available to you.
Be careful. Most books are trash. It’s really easy to publish a book these days. Most people publish books to become experts, not because they are experts. For this reason, I avoid recent best-seller lists or basically anything that’s trending right now.
What you want are the timeless books on the topic. The ones written years ago, yet today’s experts still praise as their craft-bible.
To find those, we need to go back to Google (this is why I suggested a google search first).
Try searching, “best books on _____”.
Bloggers and content creators will have put a list together for you.
This is a better place to start your search for books. But there is still bound to be some uselessness.
To narrow your search even further, find the clear outliers in this field you’re learning.
For example, if I were learning to invest, the obvious outlier would be Warren Buffett.
Then, I want to look for the books Buffett recommends.
The first ones you’ll find are:
- The Intelligent Investor — By Benjamin Graham
- Securities Analysis — By Benjamin Graham & David L. Dodd
This is education gold. The books the top guy in a field swear by. (I’ve already been down this rabbit hole)
Once you’ve gone through this process, you’ve found plenty of material to learn from. Now, you have to learn it.
Learning from the material is simple. Read and take notes.
The ideal note-taking process
How you take notes is crucial. One day after learning something, you have already forgotten most of it. This is no good. Not only that, the next phase (we’re about to get into) requires you to have reorganizable notes on what you’re learning.
The best is Ryan Holiday’s Note Card System. This is what I use and recommend. You may prefer digital notes and that’s understandable. But I argue that physical notes on notecards are the best way to go. It’s something you can touch and feel. It’s in front of you. That’s important.
Taking notes from online material:
While I’m reading online, I highlight important pieces of information use the Evernote extension to save that to my notes. Every 2 weeks or so, I open those notes and transfer what I recorded to notecards.
Those notecards get put into a box, separated by topic, category, or theme using little notecard filing cards.
Taking notes from books:
I would say about 80% of my research is from books, 20% from blog posts and articles.
I always read with a pen and underline everything I find useful or interesting. I’ll write notes in the margins or on the empty pages of the book as well.
When I’ve finished a book I put it down for a day or two to let it digest before I go back through and transcribe my note to notecards.
Placing them in the same box as my other notes.
After a bit of time, you’ll have a bunch of useful notes categorized together from various sources. This way of organizing is crucial because you organize your notes by category, topic, or idea and not by their source. Helping to create associations between the topic that you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
Ok cool. So wtf do you do with all these notes?
In this phase, you’re going to break up the skill or field your learning into its different pieces using the notes you took.
Skills are usually made up of a group of smaller subskills.
If you’re learning to write for example. The subskills may be:
- Market Research — Figuring out which article ideas are useful and worth writing
- Content research — Finding great material to put in the actual article
- Article planning — Creating an outline that helps ensure your article will accomplish its purpose
- Writing — The actual writing of the article using your material and outline
- Revising and formatting — Making sure you don’t look as dumb as your first draft makes you out to be.
- Pitching — Finding someone willing to publish your article
There’s no telling how many sub-skill there are in your field. Each sub-skill may even have its own set of sub-skills underneath it.
The best way to find the sub-skills is to picture going through the process. Think in terms of completing one repetition.
To get the sub-skills for writing I asked myself “What steps do I need to take to write and publish an article?”
If you’re learning golf you would ask yourself “What steps are involved in completing a hole of golf?” or maybe “what steps do I have to take to complete a golf swing?”
You might end up with:
- Get to the tee-box
- Find the distance to the hole and pick the correct club
- Swing the club… hopefully… hit the ball.
- Find your ball where it landed.
- Complete steps 2 and 3 until your on the green
- Use your putter to tap the ball into the hole.
To do this correctly you need to have a clear objective.
“Write and Publish an article”
“Complete a hole of golf”
It must be an action, with a start and an end, that you can complete.
Congratulations. You now know what you don’t know. An important step in the process.
Here is a good place to spill the beans that this process is not linear. Once you know what you don’t know, go back to the discovery phase and fill in the gaps.
This phase is all about practice.
There is no substitute for practice. It’s the most important part of the process. If you do everything else, except practice you will get nowhere. If you only practice and do nothing else, you’ll still make progress. That’s how powerful practice is.
The purpose of the research, and dissecting your research, is just to figure out how to practice.
The best way to practice is by isolating the sub-skills and practicing them individually.
For example, while learning how to write, I took the first step (Identifying topic people want to read about) and practiced just that for a couple of hours. Most of those article ideas never turned into articles. That’s fine. The point was the practice.
After a mere few hours of practicing that, I know how to do it. Skill acquired. Next.
Why are we isolating the sub-skills?
When you’re practicing something new, the whole process is taken up by your frontal cortex. The thinking part of your brain. This part of your brain is easy to overwhelm. It cannot multi-task. It does the hard, conscious thinking. Isolating sub-skills in practice gives your frontal cortex less to worry about at one time.
At first, practice will be both boring and frustrating. You will accomplish very little and feel quite slow. You must force yourself through this slow period until you hit what Robert Greene calls The Cycle of Accelerated Returns.
The cycle of accelerated returns.
This is when you’ve practice something enough that your thinking begins to move out of the frontal cortex and into the more reflexive parts of your brain. It starts to feel natural.
Think about when you were learning how to drive. At first, you had to be conscious of your foot muscles and the pressure you put on the peddles. You had to think about what you’re supposed to do at a stop sign, or how often you should be checking your mirrors. You had to remind yourself to use the blinker or stopped using it altogether.
You probably didn’t even notice that eventually, it all started to feel like second nature. All of a sudden you didn’t have to think about driving at all. It became as natural as walking.
Greene says, and I agree, that reaching the point of accelerated returns should be your first goal. Once you reach it, practicing becomes more exciting and less stress-full. You’ll be able to practice for longer periods of time without becoming fatigued or bored. More practice means you get better faster.
Josh Kaufman’s book, The first 20 hours, is all about reaching the point of accelerated returns. He states the case, obviously, that it takes 20 hours of dedicated practice to reach this point.
To get to this point, you need only to know the basics of the skill. There’s no reason to jump into the advanced tactics or strategies. In fact, it’s actually easier to avoid advanced tactics altogether and just focus on the basics.
How to practice.
How to begin your practice will not always be clear. Learning to write was easy for me because all I need is a computer. A lot of skills will require specific material, equipment, or environments. What should you do then?
It’s hard to say exactly. This takes some creativity.
One key here, again, is the isolation of the sub-skills. You may be able to practice the sub-skills without the material required for the rest.
Remember karate kid? Think Wax on wax off.
- Practice your golf swing with a stick.
- Practice investing with fake money.
- Weight lifting form without the weights.
- Acting in front of the mirror.
- Running your route and catching a non-existent football.
- Copywriting for imaginary marketing campaigns, or imaginary companies.
- Put a pitch deck together and give a sales presentation to your cat.
- Practice standing up on a surfboard from the floor.
Although it feels weird to practice with imaginary equipment or scenarios, it’s the right way to do it. There’s an added benefit to this: there’s no risk. It’s ok to screw-up when there is nothing on the line. Once you start the real deal, mistakes might have consequences.
Eventually, you’ll have no choice but to buy the required equipment or material or put yourself in the right environment. But if you don’t yet have them, don’t wait. You must get moving. Find something to do.
At some point, you have to least the nest.
The last stage of the process is connecting with other people. To expand past the basics of a skill you need to connect with other people who are practicing or already experts in the craft you’re learning.
Collaborating with others is how you refine your practice. And now that you have the basics down, you’re not a nuisance to others who take their work seriously.
Practice is still the most important phase of the process, but this will put your practice on steroids. This is why coaches are so valuable. They offer the opportunity to get real-time feedback on what you’re practicing. Peers can offer the same collaborative effect.
There are plenty of good ways to build a mini-network to go to for help.
If you’re learning a professional skill, LinkedIn is a great place. Search the job description of whoever you want to connect with or learn from and you’ll find plenty of people who can help. They’re on LinkedIn, so they’re as interested in building their network as you are.
Don’t be the person who reaches out asking for handouts and favors. Be simple in your outreach. Connect with them, Introduce yourself, and let them know your learning how to do what they do. That’s it. Let the conversation unfold organically from there.
When you have a specific question that would be easy for them to answer, ask. But don’t ask anything big of them until you’ve developed that relationship.
If you’ve had a couple of short conversations with them, ask them if they’d be interested in a quick phone call. “I’d just like to learn more about you and what you do.”
People like people who are interested in them.
Facebook groups are a great place to meet people with a specific interest. Because groups revolve around a core interest, everybody is generally open to connecting and sharing advice.
Ask whatever questions you have in the group and just wait for the flood of responses. If someone offers helpful advice, message them directly, and build the relationship.
Reddit or other forums are a great resource as well. Mainly because someone has probably already asked your question and found an answer. It’s all there for you. If you can’t find your question make a post.
There are tons of content creators who host groups or masterminds on your topic. You have to pay to be a part of these groups, they are often worth it.
Everybody has paid to be there, which means they are serious about learning this skill. This creates a much higher intent and an all-around better environment compared to some free groups.
As with anything, some of these groups will be complete trash. Watch out for snake-oil salesman looking to make a buck online. Do a little research on the host to make sure they are the real deal.
A good way to find out if theses groups are worth it is to look at the price tag. It may be weird to think, but the more expensive the group coaching program is the better it’s going to be. The price may speak for the quality of the coach, sure. But the high price tag also represents the quality of the members inside the group. The more you pay to be in the group, the more serious everyone is.
Rinse and Repeat
There you have it. Here is your simple roadmap for acquiring a new skill and developing that skill beyond a beginner level.
Obviously, this outline is very basic. It doesn’t teach you how to get a job in the field you’re learning, but if you follow this guide you will certainly be better prepared to find opportunities.
Remember. This may start out as a linear process, but it will not end up as one. You should find yourself going back to the discovery phase adding notes when necessary. And you should basically always return to the practice phase.
PS. If you have questions or want to see more content like this, you can subscribe to my email list and reach out to me directly.