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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“Ah! The good old time—the good old time. Youth and the sea. Glamour and the sea! The good, strong sea, the salt, bitter sea, that could whisper to you and roar at you and knock your breath out of you…

But you here — you all had something out of life: money, love — whatever one gets on shore — and tell me, wasn’t that the best time, that time when we were young at sea; young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks — and sometimes a chance to feel your strength?”
Joseph Conrad, Youth


Generosity: my experience of couchsurfing

I’m now back in Australia after my grand adventure across Europe. I was gone 84 nights, including 30 nights in Berlin. Of the 54 nights not in Berlin, I couchsurfed around 40 of them. For those unfamiliar, couchsurfing is done through a website called couchsurfing.com that connects travellers with hosts. You can send a ‘couchrequest’ to stay with a host. If they accept, you stay with them for free. Depending on the host, this may also mean free meals. More than free accommodation, couchsurfing is about interacting with your host as a different way to experience travel. Having conversations, going sightseeing together, being guided around less well-known places etc. All this makes up the couchsurfing experience.

Many people have reservations about couchsurfing because they are afraid of staying with a stranger, or imposing on a stranger’s hospitality. Or perhaps they think it will restrict their freedom to travel as they please. In my case, I had nothing but positive couchsurfing experiences. Using a combination of good sense, charm and the couchsurfing reference system (which encourages guests and hosts to give public references to each other), I ended up meeting a diverse and fascinating group of Europeans. Further, I was amazed at how generous people are willing to be for a complete stranger. Briefly, my hosts were as follows: a judge (50s), a banker (50s), a journalist (20s), a bar tender (50s), an engineering student (20s), a maths student (20s), an IT entrepreneur (30s), an opera singer (30s), a teaching student (20s), a computer science professor (50s) and a maths lecturer (30s). So, a mix of ages and positions in life.

Why did eleven strangers offer to host me for up to five nights? Why did I get free beer, free food, hours of conversation? How was it that I ended up sharing Christmas dinner with a Mexican opera singer and her eclectic group of international friends in Vienna? Or that I had a conversation about communism and the Velvet Revolution with a man who’d lived through and participated in those events himself, at midnight, over a glass of Moravian red wine? I asked this question to some of them and thought about it myself. My basic answer is that people like to be generous, in particular when there is a personal connection to the recipient of that generosity. If the motivation were purely to be charitable, the money could achieve more and help more needy people than me through other means. Couchsurfing combines ancient desires to extend hospitality, to be generous, to be helpful. Couchsurfing is generosity with a human face.

Couchsurfing is philanthropy, a love of humanity. But it is not purely altruistic. In return, hosts experience a range of perspectives, interact with different cultures and hopefully enjoy themselves. In some cases, particularly with uni students, they know that hosting someone will make it easier to find a host themselves when they travel. I admit that I hosted a couchsurfer last year for this reason.

Overall I consider my couchsurfing experiences to be the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of my travels abroad.

How to pack light for winter travel

Think winter: big coats and lots of layers.
Think travel clothes: the middle-aged American tourist look, bristling with pockets and bum-bags
Think adventure gear: functional, brightly coloured, large logos every which way
Think backpacking: an enormous hiking backpack on your back and another, smaller backpack slung across your front.

What if I told you it’s possible to achieve all the comfort and functionality of winter adventurous travel clothes without compromising on style, performance or volume? Well, that would require a serious rethink of travel. Thus, I present my guide to travelling light, even when the snow is thick, the sun scarce and the appetite for adventure insatiable.

Why travel light

First, though, why bother travelling light at all? International long-haul flights usually allow checked-baggage up to ~23kg plus carry on. Why not just take the conventional daypack and large bag/suitcase? Freedom. If you have only one carry-on sized bag, then you are free from baggage check in, the wait at the luggage carousel, the burden on your back while you walk to your accommodation. You are free from having to sort through loads of stuff each night and having to separate clean clothes from laundry. In short, you are free to experience the world in a far more intimate, raw way. Best yet, you don’t need to compromise on comfort, functionality or style. Here’s how.

Pack light, go far

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Why we should be curious

“The experiences of mankind are infinitely more complex and interesting than we could ever imagine when we gaze out from our own static narrow vantage point and it is hence a basic courtesy we should pay to the planet and its many lands to remain at all times open, curious and modest before their manifold mysteries.”
-Alain de Botton

Alain’s words evoke the spirit of errantry. It is a commandment equally applicable when reading a newspaper at home or backpacking in some far-flung place. They are words to live by in an age of meaningless distractions.

The hermeneutics of suspicion

The term “hermeneutics of suspicion” was coined by Paul Ricoeur to describe a critical, interpretative methodology of several 19th century philosophers including Nietzsche, Freud and Marx. Despite obvious differences in content, Ricoeur identified a similarity in approach. The object of suspicious hermeneutics is to unmask, to dig beneath the surface and to discover hidden truths. The hermeneutics of suspicion also conveys an intense scepticism of any commonly held views. Indeed, it can be described as looking at everything, especially that which is highly praised, with a jaded eye — not simply cynicism for the sake of cynicism, but to reveal what lies beneath.

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