I was asked once, at the start of a job interview, to “tell us about who you are outside of work”. Eek. Among other upbeat and trustworthy sounding waffle, I said that I like learning how to do new things. I noticed that got a slightly puzzled look from the interviewer. This really is a pastime of mine, but I’m aware it’s a bit of an odd one to some people. So does it count as a ‘real’ hobby, or just make me flighty and lacking in sustained attention?
I’ve discovered that people are often curiously impressed if you can do something to a beginner level, that they have never attempted. The response if you were at a level of real mastery would be different: either intimidation or admiration (or maybe a kind of wistful envy?), which I think makes sense. Great effort has been made, hundreds or thousands of hours spent, and abilities refined through endless trial, error and reflection. But being impressed that someone has attempted a new skill and performed it with adequate competence, that used to mystify me.
And yet there is a logic to it. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the skill itself, or whether the impressed observer (the impressee??) even wants to be able to do that same thing. What is impressive is that an unassuming everyday person has jumped the high, scary hurdle of Doing Something You Don’t Really Know How To Do.
Once you’re over that hurdle, it doesn’t seem impossible or amazing at all anymore. It’s much easier to see your limitations than your gains. Where is the joy in being a novice at anything? There are obvious frustrations: in the imperfections of whatever we make, in the feeling of clumsiness, in the mistakes. Having to go and talk to Knowledgeable People With Opinions in the relevant specialist shops can be both daunting and frustrating (they frequently think my ideas are nutty and my plan won’t work: yippee, thanks). I truly struggle with all of these. But makers keep making, and learners keep learning despite the disasters. The truth behind that may be why onlookers can see that we’ve achieved something important, even if it takes the form of a slightly wonky mug tree or a mended shirt.
So, why do it? Why keep learning new skills?
Well, there is a lot of satisfaction in jumping that big gap from “I wish I could do that”, to “I’ve tried that”. Not to mention “I survived talking to the Knowledgeable People in the shop”! It adds to our sense of who we are: being a person who can cope with new things has some intrinsic value of its own, regardless of the quality we achieved.
Probably, this relates to my second point: we feel an increasing sense of self-reliance or capability, even as we’re learning. “I can have a go at that” is really worth something to us, and maybe makes us feel a bit more equipped to handle what the world throws at us. It contrasts strongly against the helplessness of “I wouldn’t know where to start with that” I know that for myself, I hate feeling helpless.
What many of us also experience, is an urge to convince other people they can be similarly successful in doing something new. It is so joyful to see a friend you have supported in their early stages of learning a new skill, planning and embarking on whole projects. I love to see the people I care about feeling strong and capable and ambitious. Taking our own trial-and-error experiences and using them to jump-start someone else’s progress is rewarding in itself. In all his writing and speaking about leadership and human interactions, Simon Sinek talks about how for many thousands of years humans lived in societies of around 150 people. He believes that in the modern world all our instincts, behaviours and neurochemistry are still attempting to strengthen and reinforce that small society. I can see that to this older part of our brain, our friends and loved ones are still our village. Their resilience and capability helps everyone, just like ours does. So our brain rewards us with happy chemicals when we teach what we have learned and help someone else realise how much they’re capable of.
Beyond persuading and supporting eager but (sensibly) nervous friends to crack out the circular saw, spray paint or electric screwdriver, this has been a big part of what I’ve loved about my work as a health professional too. I recognise deeply the awful feeling of uncertainty when you want to do something but aren’t sure how, don’t want to make mistakes, don’t feel confident enough to risk looking foolish. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop feeling some degree of those things! And sometimes the fear of what we might lose if we fail is huge. For students and new practitioners in any practical discipline, this is such a public exercise, and there’s always a risk that this fear and hesitation will stop them showing what they’re made of at a time when they really need to prove themselves. So, one part of my work that I especially loved and strove to be better at, was to recognise the recurring theories and patterns behind what we did, and be able to put those into simple words and demonstrations. Or maybe not always so simple, because it’s very busy in my head…
My tendency to ramble and go off the subject aside, I’m fairly sure it helped my newer colleagues to have someone share their own years of observation and trial and error. I can see that I got incredibly valuable support and role-modelling from my parents, with all their amazing range of DIY skills. Growing up seeing the people I lived with make and fix anything they needed to, imprinted firmly in me the idea that that’s how I could be too.
The other group of people I had the opportunity to help with my experiences was, of course, the patients themselves. If it’s clear to a student that they’re at the sharp edge of their learning curve, having to prove they have a right to become qualified and start their professional career, the stakes are unimaginably higher for someone experiencing a life-changing medical event. I came to understand over a long time, that it isn’t what health professionals do for (or to) their patients that makes the difference in them getting back in control of their body and their life. It’s what they can learn and use as tools in that struggle that determines the outcome, often for years afterwards. So everyone in our setting needed to constantly learn, to understand, to try and struggle and risk failure, in order to keep our various villages strong and functioning. Everyone had to show determination and bravery in some way, and everyone could help one another believe they could learn more, do more, achieve more than they thought possible.
How can we begin to learn new skills?
Returning to the idea of distilling our trial-and-error learning into a formula we can share with other people, we can think about recurring patterns involved in learning new skills. When I thought about what I do to attack a new type of project, it turned out to be basically the same thought process I used (and taught) at work, to try new activities or treatment strategies with patients while keeping us all safe. Interesting how eventually everything is connected…
Here it is:
- Identify the desired outcome
- Identify the foundation skills required
- Identify the resources required
- Identify the risks that need to be managed
These can all be broken down further, to look for perceived barriers that can prevent a would-be learner from getting started. Very importantly, it’s also possible to identify ahead of time the hazards that might cost us a pile of wasted materials, a burned down house or a lost finger…
Identify the desired outcome
What is it that you’re dreaming of achieving? Doesn’t this sound so obvious on the surface? I’d argue there’s still value in thinking a bit more deeply about the outcome you really want, if you’ve been having trouble getting started. Last year author Andrew Santella gave a lovely short interview on a favourite radio station of mine here in NZ about his book “Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me”. See the link below. There’s clearly a terrible joke to be made about me not having got round to reading the book yet, but I’ll resist. Alongside fear of failure (or success), Santella proposed that ambivalence and rebellion are other reasons we might not start or complete a project we said was important. As in, we might not really want to do the thing, we’re just aware that we should, according to some set of rules we don’t fully accept. Any kind of structured cardio exercise absolutely falls into that category for me. I never get further than the nagging sense of should, basically because I Just Really Don’t Want To (in my best spoilt child voice). So any vague notion that it would be excellent to be a toned, coordinated crossfit legend gets absolutely no buy-in from the parts of my brain and body that would have to actually get up and do the thing.
And that’s my mistake. Being brilliant at crossfit is not the outcome I actually want, though I recognise the evidence says I should exercise. Even looking good is not the top priority (but, you know, I won’t object). I want to be strong and coordinated so I can trust my body to do what I ask of it, which is not a given in my naturally clumsy state. I want to have enough endurance to complete big DIY projects without getting too tired to finish, but I accept that I will get very tired and grumpy and sore regardless, and that this is part of the process. I also want to be able to manage long walks in fabulous countryside, with the capacity to carry my kids’ stuff when they get fed up, and keep their energy and determination up because there’s an epic view from the top that they will love. We promise. Or at least that’s where we’ll dish out the chocolate we brought. I have no illusions I’ll be carrying them up the hills like the closing scenes of The Sound of Music, because they’re massive and growing taller by the half-hour.
I want to be all those things into my old age and keep a functioning brain to go with the functioning body. This is do feel genuinely positive about. Especially when I look at my fantastic parents, who seem to be role modelling it all. The vividly detailed visualisation, including the limitations and the reality checks, is a huge part of getting beyond the idea into the actions. It’s an accepted part of physical/neurological rehabilitation, and I understand it also contributes to the way social workers and psychologists can help people people to make important behavioural changes they’ve been struggling with. Using the natural way that our brains activate in response to a richly detailed visualisation, and even activate in response to observing something very intently, we can experience a taste of that outcome. We can see if we like the way it feels despite its challenges. We can decide if that is a kind of success we would genuinely enjoy. Then maybe when we do start, the inevitable challenges won’t demoralise us into stopping part way through.
Identify the foundation skills required, identify the resources required
For this part, the intermittently wonderful world of the internet can be a great ally. Chances are someone else has already tried the thing we want to try, and put a video on YouTube or written about it on a blog. How very helpful, thanks! This sadly won’t allow us to absorb those skills by osmosis. I know this because I have watched many many hours of self-decribed ‘amateur’ woodworker (in reality absolute master craftsman) Paul Sellers making beautiful wooden things with an understated and steady-handed grace [https://paulsellers.com/paul-sellers-videos/]. I am not noticeably any better at physical woodworking as a result. It’s just like when I went to see Riverdance many years ago and came out feeling like I could just set off across the carpark in the style of Michael Flatley… Erm, it doesn’t work like that. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one trying it though.
So if we can’t steal the physical skills just by watching, do we just get demoralised or intimidated instead? Well, everyone should watch Paul Sellers videos if they need to reduce their blood pressure and induce a state of zen-like calm.
Thinking more broadly, what we can actually gain from watching other people work is the ability to make a list of the things we would need, to get started with our new skill. Look closely at our ‘role model’: what tools are they using, and what basic techniques? We might find simple things we could already start to practice: measuring and scale drawing on scrap paper for an aspiring furniture maker, or finger dexterity exercises for a budding musician. What space did they have for the activity, and are they roping in helpers? We might be able to move some furniture/pointless rubbish from the spare room, or start asking around for a partner in craft. Is there serious safety gear involved, or a trained teacher? We can come back to that idea in the ‘risk management’ section, but it tells us we might need to plan ahead more than we realised. Can we figure out the cost and source of the materials and tools they use? We might be making a shopping list or looking around for someone to borrow from, depending on our level of resources and commitment to the project. In my opinion, window shopping for tools is never wasted time, and the practice of borrowing and lending tools is part of the joy of community. It’s beautifully captured in this article: https://www.treehugger.com/culture/borrowing-cup-sugar-benefits-everyone.html
Having said that, it’s probably helpful to search some variation of “Learn to [insert shining ambition here] for free/cheap/on a shoestring”. It might be possible to make a convincing start without buying out the running shoe section of our favourite online sports retailer or selling a kidney to finance a state of the art workshop. Or borrowing every bit of relevant gear your like-minded friend owns with no clue when you’ll be ready to return it, which might not be great for your friendship.
Identify the risks that need to be managed
Arguably this is both the least exciting and the most important part. It’s the key to setting ourselves up to succeed, or at least remain in one piece, once we have identified our true desired outcome. I find the simplest way to do this is to play a mental game of What Could Go Wrong And How Would We Deal With It? In grown-up Occupational Safety and Health world this is sometimes known as hazard identification and risk mitigation, and it’s a good way to avoid getting prosecuted for doing something stupidly and predictably dangerous. In business and investment settings, it might be called a risk-benefit profile. If it works for all that, it’s likely to be useful for preparing for our journey into Learning New Skills Land.
I’m good at this game because I’m a natural worrier, and I use catastrophising not only for scoring big points in Doubles Scrabble but for helping me spell out my fears and plan around them. As I said, I also used this strategy to allow me to do new and challenging treatment activities with my patients, which kept us all entertained, motivated and moving forwards with our goals. Did we try some outwardly crazy and very ambitious things? Oh, yes we did. Did we end up regretting it, in a damaged pile on the floor of the gym? No, we very much did not. Win!
We hesitate to start when we have fears about the process or the outcome (as per Andrew Santella and his theories on procrastination), so chances are we know subconsciously what our ‘risks’ are. Not all of them are issues of physical safety, but it might be best to start with those. As previously noted, we want to acknowledge and make appropriate arrangements if our online ‘role-models’ or the people in the craft books from our beautiful local library had specialist training and/or serious safety gear. It’s just not worth skipping this step.
Alongside that we can also note good practice in the way we do things: an important stretch or warm up sequence as a preventative for a well documented injury that catches out lots of new barefoot runners, or a hard and fast rule about always unplugging power tools before ever adjusting anything. Ever. You heard me. Kitchen timers for new home chefs who know they get distracted are also a good idea…and everyone needs working smoke alarms anyway.
Another risk is the financial cost. I have a yearning to play an instrument, and at the moment I think I want to play the violin. I am aware from friends who play instruments that you do get what you pay for, so initially I thought my options would be to a) buy a good quality expensive violin, b) buy a cheap poorer-quality violin, or c)buy a second hand cheaper good quality violin. The first of these options is a gamble on my determination to keep playing once I started. How can I know? The second option is destined for disappointment, in a way I might not be risking with other cheap tools, as demonstrated in an excellent Paul Sellers video I re-watched last week about how to sharpen cheap chisels until they can nearly slice atoms (like Death’s scythe in a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel). The third option carries the risk that a second-hand violin might not be as advertised, or might not have been maintained well, so good value for money is still not assured.
Thankfully there are other options though. It turns out, one very musical friend tells me, that you can hire good instruments for long enough to find out what they’re like to learn/play. The lesson there is to ask around and do your research in figuring out what you would be committing to your project. I’m realising I also need to ask all my musician buddies how much practice they have to do to notice any improvement with a new instrument. And how much of a problem it’s going to be that I can’t read sheet music at all (another item for the essential foundation skills list from earlier).
I should also acknowledge that my husband has lived in a house with a learner violinist. As loving and supportive as he always is, he thinks I do not want to play the violin, or at least that the rest of the family does not want to be there for it if I do. I will definitely need lessons, another financial risk/implication. Alongside that, I would clearly need to plan my practice so that enough of it happens for me to improve satisfyingly and my family doesn’t leave me.
A less tangible risk is to our pride. Are we afraid that people will laugh at our bold aspirations to learn to dance? Or that what we build in our workshop will be too wonky to use after the time and money we’ve sunk into it? (“I can see that you made that yourself” is not actually a compliment) Or that the process of proudly making croissants will mostly result in a two day wait, an oven that smells of scorched butter and a much better understanding of why they’re so much more expensive than other bread. As a random, imaginary example…
The fact that there’s so much to think about could easily explain why so many dreams never get to the action stage, even for people who really do want to learn that skill. Once we’ve done all the thinking above, maybe some goals can help us.
SMART goals are a popular concept in many fields (that is, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed, or variations on those). The theory is that SMART goals bridge the gap from a fuzzy wish or aspiration to an actionable plan. So taking my violin dreams as an example, it would help to be Specific about what I wanted to be able to play. I would love to be able to play simple folk or bluegrass style pieces, more than I want to play classical. ‘Play well enough that other people don’t leave the room’ might be the Measurable outcome. Achievability would rely on my having the right number of functioning limbs and some hours in my week to go to lessons and practice, and on the financial considerations above. The Timed aspect might be dependent on figuring out the cost of hiring a violin, finding out when it would be available, finding a music teacher and matching all these costs and timings up against family plans and household finances. Then, it’s more likely to be Realistic enough that it will happen and not be endlessly put on hold.
Learning new skills is a survival skill
Life throws a lot at us, as it always has, and we can feel overwhelmed and unsatisfied with how we find ourselves living. The mindful practice of a favourite craft or hobby can be a place of calm and restoration if we’re feeling ragged and worn down, regardless of whether we’re very good at that activity. Making things that help others, and supporting others to make things that improve their lives or self-esteem even in small ways, offer a sense of purpose, connection and community that we need as much as our ancestors in their small societies did. Learning how to live in a way that is gentler on the world around us, and less reliant on big businesses we have lost trust in can lessen the sense of doom and helplessness about the environment and build momentum for more of the same to happen, on the massive scale it needs to. Life-long learning is emerging as an activity that protects our brains from ageing processes, just as the physical activity associated with it can also maintain our brains and our bodies. Personally I also believe that a little bit of hard-earned showing off is good for the child craving approval within all of us.
And like my former patients, any of us might one day be dropped (unprepared and unwilling) at the basecamp of a terrifying climb back towards safety and security. With years of practice being ambitious enough to knit our own cosy winter jumper, or build those shelves instead of paying a handyman, or try that complex recipe for a heavenly loaf of bread (maybe not croissants), our ability to try new things, reflect on our process and improve the results might give us the resilience to claw back our health and independence or provide our loved ones with food and shelter.
There are so many positives to learning something new, these days I understand why even the acquisition of very basic new abilities is greeted with such admiration by people who haven’t yet made that leap.