Learning new skills

How much time does it actually take to learn a new skill? That depends on the skill – and, more importantly, how good you want to get. It is said that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. That’s 1,250 eight hour days, or more than five years of full time work – an intimidating number! Yet professional athletes, musicians, writers all have to do at least that much work to become good at their trade, and most, the truly brilliant, spend their entire lifetimes. It is therefore the acme of hubris or ignorance to think that any old Joe can just pick up a paintbrush and create a masterpiece – similarly, not just anyone can run a ten second 100m.

But most people don’t set out to become masters in everything they do. To do so would ensure a limited skillset and an unbalanced life. While not glamorous, there’s a lot to be gained by achieving a novice, mediocre level of skill. If nothing else, building a very basic level of skill across a range of activities can enrich one’s appreciation for actual masters. It can be difficult to work out why something is considered great without the perspective of how difficult that activity actually is. Learning new skills also opens up new worlds and sub-cultures, each with their own argot, heroes and mythos.

There’s a trope in fiction of the Competent Man. The Competent Man is an archetypal character who has an immense breadth of knowledge and skills. James Bond is one such arch-competent man, with knowledge and skill in obscure history, art, wine vintages, gambling, sports, piloting, driving, charming and fighting. Robert Heinlein summarises the skills of a Competent Man:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”

Most characters in this mould are presented without explanation for how they gained their depth and breadth of knowledge and ability. This perhaps goes to the origin of the character, Homer’s Odysseus, who like others in that mythic age had at least a little divine blood. So is it folly to strive towards Heinlein’s standards? One may think so, but history provides numerous examples of competent men and women, who seem, like Odysseus, to possess great skill across disciplines.

At ten thousand hours per skill, it would certainly be quite a challenge to achieve mastery across several fields (although some, like Leonardo da Vinci, apparently managed). What if we set our sights lower? Heinlein’s sentiment that “specialisation is for insects” implies that our goal does not need to be mastery but simply competence. And that, fortunately, is a much more achievable goal.

How long does it take to learn a new skill? For a modest, novice level of competence, not all that long. In the past two years I’ve dabbled in several new skills: piano, (digital) painting, German, computer programming and running, among others. My results have varied, and I certainly haven’t achieved proficiency in any of these activities, but I believe that for my modest time commitment I’ve achieved quite a lot.

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