Home > Community > The science of acquiring skill: A step-by-step guide

The science of acquiring skill: A step-by-step guide

The success of a company ultimately comes down to skill.

Every employee at a company has a job to do. How well they do that job determines whether the company will succeed or fail.

I believe wanting to improve is a fundamental human trait, and we all have a hidden (or visible) desire to be great.

The problem is that the process behind acquiring skill tends to be seen as this mystical thing. When someone is skillful, we usually just assume they are more naturally talented than us.

This is just not true. No one is born bad at something. There is a reason for everything and acquiring skill is no exception.

So why are some people better at things than other people?

Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, researches expert performers and studies what makes these people so great.

Through his years of researching expert performers, he concludes that what separates top performers from everyone else is the amount of time spent in something he calls Deliberate Practice. He believes that “The right sort of practice over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else.”

I will spend the remainder of this article outlining Ericsson’s system of Deliberate Practice. My goal is to provide you with a framework that can be applied directly to your life or your company. My hope is that this knowledge will help you increase your performance and your chances of success.

Let’s dive in.

Deconstruction

The first step to acquiring a new skill is to deconstruct and analyze the desired skill you want.

The main goal is to look at the big picture and try to break it down into manageable components.

There are two ways you can go about this: You can either start from scratch and break down the components yourself or learn from someone who has already acquired the skill.

The recommended approach is to learn from someone who has already acquired the skill. If possible, try to get into contact with this expert to learn from them directly.

The key is to ask them specific questions on their thought processes and procedures behind how they approach their craft. Try to avoid asking broad questions that do not relate to the topic.

Getting into contact with experts isn’t always realistic. As an alternative, you can learn from them indirectly by deconstructing their previous work or by observing them in action.

Ben Franklin did this when he started writing early in his life. First, he would read an article from his favorite newspaper a couple of times. Then he would deconstruct the techniques the author used. He would put the article away and try to replicate it in a similar fashion. After he wrote his version, he would compare the results and analyze his execution.

At first this might seem unoriginal, or like stealing, but it’s not. There are baseline rules that apply to everyone when developing a skill.

Think of it like filling up an ice cream cone. Initially there are baseline requirements that have to be learned (filling the cone) but once you are proficient at the fundamentals you can add your own twists (adding toppings).

The goal of the deconstruction phase is to find the best and most efficient way to fill the cone. Trying to put on the toppings first leads to a bad ice cream experience.

Stretch goals

Once you have the skill deconstructed, the next step is to create goals.

Depending on what you are trying to improve this phase can be tricky. There needs to be three main components to a goal; It needs to be measurable, achievable, and outside of your comfort zone.

First, you need to make the skill measurable. Some skills are measurable by default. Speed reading, for example, can be easily tracked by looking at a clock. However, measuring something like interpersonal skills isn’t as clear cut. This is where a little creativity comes into play.

The key is to break the abstract skill down to specific, concrete components. What you’re looking for is a clear indication of success or failure. For example, if you are trying to improve your conversational skills, you can count how many times you say something nice about the other person.

The trick here is to make the goal achievable but tough enough where it is at the edge of your ability. This might take some time and iteration to get right. This is where your ambition can work against you.

We naturally want to improve as fast as possible which causes us to set large goals that we probably won’t achieve. It’s better to change one small thing successfully than five big things unsuccessfully.

The goal also needs to be outside your comfort zone.

The human body has a preference for stability. When there is a choice, we naturally favor the easy or automatic behavior. However, when we are in a new environment, our body will try to normalize it and make it second nature. When you are learning a new skill you are essentially hijacking this mechanism.

The objective is to consciously put yourself outside its current range of abilities and wait for your body to adapt.

Focus and attention

A common trait among successful entrepreneurs is the ability to intensely focus at whatever task they are performing. Top performers have trained themselves to maintain high focus for long periods of time.

Your attention is the video camera that you use to process the world. The better the focus, the more vivid and sticky your experiences will be. This is crucial when it comes to acquiring new skills.

When deliberately practicing a new skill, it’s better to be 100% focused for a shorter amount of time than 70% focused for longer amount of time.

Having good focus means eliminating all unwanted distractions. There are two types of distractions, internal and external. Decreasing external distractions means shutting off your phone, going to a quiet room, or putting a site blocker on your computer.

Taming internal distractions means not letting internal thoughts consume your time. This can be done by practicing meditation or having a notebook to write down whatever is on your mind and come back to them later. The key is to build a distraction free environment and have a plan when a distraction inevitably pops up.

Perform

A lot of people forget this but the only way to get better at something is by actually doing it.

People can confuse acquiring knowledge with acquiring skill. Knowledge is useful but it isn’t a substitute for attempting something.

Knowledge, in many ways, gives you a sense of false progress. You can sit from the comfort of your home and watch the stack of business books pile up, but in reality you are no better at performing than you were before you read those books.

Acquiring skill requires you to go out into the world and apply what you have learned. This is not as easy as it sounds. Practicing something new will attack your ego, because initially you will be bad.

Learning a new skill shouldn’t feel comfortable. If the goal is set properly, there should be a sense of discomfort while performing the task. This should be expected since you are using your brain and body in unfamiliar ways.

In fact, it’s safe to say if you feel comfortable while performing, you aren’t improving.

Feedback

Once the attempt is complete, it’s time to get feedback. Feedback is crucial and often overlooked. Imagine trying to improve your golf game but you are unable to see where the ball lands. It’d be impossible. Feedback is not an option. It is a requirement for improvement.

Having clear and measurable goals lead to clear and measurable feedback. Try to have a coach or manager monitor your progress so you don’t have to monitor yourself. Most of the time we avoid giving feedback because we are afraid the other person will take it personally. Having a measurable goal helps avoid these uncomfortable interactions. Having clear cut data to refer to helps people accept the feedback. The numbers don’t lie.

The phrase “fail fast” is thrown around a lot in the startup world. I think this statement is a little misleading. It should be “get feedback fast”. Whether it is validating designs, implementing code, or trying out new sales techniques, feedback is ultimately what you are after.

Adjust

Feedback is worthless if you don’t actually use it. Based on the feedback you receive, it’s important to take some time to think about the gap between what you wanted to do and what actually happened.

Our initial instinct is to try harder. This is only effective to a point. If you are not getting the results you want, try attacking from a different angle. It might take some experimentation to get it right.

Think of it like you are trying to move through a dark room. You start walking, bump into some furniture, adjust your route and try again. It’s not how fast you can do it, it is how slowly you can do it correctly.

Repeat

Performing the desired behavior once isn’t enough. The only way it will get incorporated into your life is by repeating it again and again.

The goal is to do it until it is habit and you don’t have to think about it anymore. This is where a lot of people fail when it comes to acquiring new skills.

What ends up happening is that you perform the new behavior successfully a few times, count it as a success, ease off the attention, and eventually the new skill fades and the old habits start creeping back in.

The repetition stage of acquiring skill is not easy. It’s not supposed to be. You are consciously trying to reprogram your habits and your body will fight against this.

It’s important to consistently perform the new skill with high focus and sufficient feedback. There is no such thing as a behavioral vacuum. So if you are half-heartedly trying to learn something new, all you are doing is reinforcing undesired behaviors.

It’s better to spend 50% of the time at 100% focus than spend 100% of the time at 50% focus. So stay focused, make sure you are hitting your goals, adjust based on the feedback, rinse and repeat.

Conclusion

The process of acquiring skill is simple, but it’s not easy. You are your biggest enemy in the process. Old habits are hard to break. Each new skill is its own battle to be won.

The road to excellence is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes consistent effort to get where you want to be. Following the process of Deliberate Practice outlined by Dr. Ericsson will give you the straightest line from where you are to where you want to be. The key points to follow are:

  • Create clear and measurable goals
  • Put yourself outside your comfort zone
  • Focus intensely
  • Get feedback often
  • Adjust
  • Repeat

Applying these concepts is not only important for your own personal development, but it’s important to the success of your company.

At my employer, Agape Red, we set aside 4 hours every Friday to work on new skills. This is not wasted time because it’s important to invest in acquiring new skills.

By approaching the skill acquisition process systematically, you are providing the best chance to improve. When you improve, you succeed.

I also gave a talk about this topic at BarCamp Omaha this year. You can find it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Wb1IQ0IMhQ.

Feel free to email me at vic.cassone@gmail.com or follow me on twitter @victorcassone.

Victor Cassone is a software developer at Agape Red in Omaha, Nebraska.

  • Great article, Victor. Thanks for sharing. I’m definitely keeping this process in mind when it’s time to learn my next new skill. Actually, I should put it to action with some current skills I have which are pretty mediocre. Alright … here we go!