You have the ability to teach yourself anything. And we mean anything. Any skill you want.
Business strategizing, coding, graphic design, public speaking, writing a killer novel, playing the trombone, dog-grooming, jewelry-making, cooking; whatever you want to learn, you can teach it to yourself.
If you want to be a great entrepreneur, and we mean a really successful one, then you are going to need to be someone who is able to learn skills efficiently.
All of your great entrepreneurial heroes have more skills than you’ll ever know. They didn’t just learn “business”, they understood that success comes with a collection of learned skills that compliment your business.
Take Elon Musk for example. He has knowledge of lots of different industries: rocket science, engineering, construction, tunneling, physics, and artificial intelligence.
Richard Branson wasn’t born with sublime and timeless leadership skills, he worked hard and made it his mission to learn how to be a better leader along with his unique marketing and perseverance.
Heck, even Bill Gates is multi-talented enough to be able to run Microsoft and do a standing jump over an office chair. (It’s amazing, Google it if you can!)
The secret to becoming a successful entrepreneur is mastering the most important skill of all: learning.
Learning is itself a skill that not many people have a good grasp on. It’s a little odd that schools and colleges don’t have “learning” classes, where you are actively taught how to approach new material in a way that makes it stick. Just imagine how easy algebra would have been if you had a method in place to learn it more efficiently?
If you want to be better in business, better in entrepreneurship, and better in life, then you need to start learning how to learn. You need to be someone who looks at a difficult task and says: I can teach myself the skills I need to turn it into an easy task.
Below, we outline 7 proven methods that will teach you any skill you want. Whether it’s launching the next multi-billion dollar business, revolutionizing the world, or jumping over an office chair. Learning to learn is the only way to achieve it.
Editor’s note: This article was originally written by Ivan Kreimer but has since been updated by Perrie Kapernaros, our expert staff writer who is highly experienced in research and investigative articles.
How You Learn and Retain New Skills
Before we launch into the juicy stuff, let’s take a step back and examine what it is we want to achieve, and how we go about it.
In the simplest terms, the process of learning a new skill is made up of three stages:
- Retention and Recall
The first phase is the one most people think of when they imagine skill acquisition. It’s during this phase that your brain takes in new stimuli and stores it away.
The second phase, skill consolidation, is when your brain takes all that new knowledge and makes it available for you to use next time you need it. An unconscious process, skill consolidation happens outside of your training sessions, most often while you sleep.
Finally, retention and recall. This happens when you go back to your training and aim to recall the knowledge learned in the previous lessons, which proves whether your brain was able to retain the knowledge or not. This phase is where you see the effectiveness of your training, your practice, and your brain’s ability to adapt to new circumstances.
Let’s use a nice simple explanation to examine this process.
1. Encoding: In your first French class, your teacher tells you that “yes” in French is “oui”. Your brain takes that information and encodes the knowledge: yes = oui.
2. Consolidation: Over time, your brain slowly begins to consolidate this knowledge
3. Retention and Recall: The next time you sit down for class, your teacher asks you to say “yes” in French. Your brain recalls it’s consolidated information, and you proudly reply “oui!”
Let’s say you didn’t properly listen to your teacher or you didn’t sleep well after class and as such, the information hasn’t been given the opportunity to properly “sink in”. When asked the same question, you find yourself drawing a mental blank.
The way to acquire new skills faster and more efficiently is by maximizing the time you spend encoding new information, then allowing enough time for your brain to consolidate and store it, so you can then retain and recall all your newly encoded ideas most effectively.
In the next section, you will learn the 7 ultimate ways to master any new skill. All these methods will help you to encode, consolidate, and retain as much information as possible in the least amount of time possible.
Ready to take your skills to the next level?
READ MORE: Checklist for Starting a Consulting Business
How to Learn New Skills Faster
Your Mindset is Everything
We all like to believe we’re smarter than we really are. Don’t feel bad, it’s a scientific fact. This bias even has it’s own name: “the overconfidence effect.”
The bias can make us believe we’re born with limitations to our talents. It makes us super confident with the skills we’ve nailed down, but makes us believe that we are somehow bad at learning new ones.
This pesky bias is something that can stop you from growing as an entrepreneur.
Before you can learn new skills, you need to adopt a new mindset that allows you to do so. You need to take on a growth-focused mentality, one that sees learning new skills as a growth process, and not one of failure.
According to Carol Dweck, author of the bestselling book Mindset, a “growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”
In other words, Dweck asks you to believe in your ability to grow and learn. You’re not born with innate talents; rather, you’re born with the ability to learn, nothing more.
To learn, however, you must be willing to fail. It’s probably the least appealing part of the learning process, but all those scraped knees are actually the key step component in becoming a master of skills.
The growth mindset is a way to override the negative connotations associated with failure and become aware of the importance of making mistakes in the learning process. The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.
Remember, nobody is born as a skilled programmer, salesperson, or sportsmen. Every successful skilled person had to learn how to do what they now do so well. It’s just that you can’t see their entire journey, you only see their current success.
Feeling stupid is no fun. But being willing to be stupid and risk the emotional pain of making mistakes – that is absolutely essential. Because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way your brain grows and forms new connections. When it comes to developing talent, remember, mistakes are just the guideposts you use to get better.
By adopting the growth mindset and be willing to make mistakes, you’ll become an unstoppable learning machine.
Ace the ‘Form to Leave Form’ Methodology
When you first launch your business, you will realize quickly that you’ve got a lot of new things to do, most of which you can’t do very well. Whether it’s SEO, selling, programming, design, or management, you will be tempted to rush out and learn as many new skills as you can.
You start to read books, articles, videos, webinars, and pretty much any type of content that teaches you the basics of all of the things you want to learn. Not long after you start churning through all the information presented to you, you will inevitably get confused. Because you have put so much weight into the encoding phase and not enough into the consolidation phase, you won’t retain much information, rendering your learning useless.
To avoid this information overload pickle, you can use the “form to leave form” methodology that Josh Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning, developed during his journey to first become a chess master, and eventually a jiu-jitsu black belt:
A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. He or she will learn the principles of endgame, middlegame, and opening play. Initially, one or two critical themes will be considered at once, but over time the intuition learns to integrate more and more principles into a sense of flow. Eventually, the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived. This process continuously cycles along as deeper layers of the art are soaked in.
If that was too much to absorb, he basically says that you need to master the basics before you move up to more complicated and abstract tasks. You have to learn to walk before you can run.
Also as a side note, Waitzkin is a chess-playing ninja author. How cool is that?
You should know the basics of whatever it is you are learning better than anyone else. That way, when it’s time to learn more complex ideas, everything will be easier for you.
Let’s say you were learning how to do technical SEO. By the time you get bogged down in the technical complexities of writing a robots.txt with regular expressions—a key aspect of technical SEO—you can always remember that the main point of a robots.txt is to tell the search engine robots which parts of your site they can access and which ones they can’t.
That idea alone will save you hours of frustration and simplify the type of technical knowledge you need to acquire to create a robots.txt. You don’t have to learn all the regular expressions; just by knowing how you can exclude a certain folder of subfolder will be enough.
Encode it, consolidate it, and recall it next time you practice a new skill.
Break It Down and Commit
If I told you that you could learn anything in just 30 days, would you believe me? And I am talking about anything. Want to learn Spanish? Done. Looking to be a whiz at web development? Bingo. Want to play the trombone? Sure, why not?
That’s exactly what Josh Kaufman did back in 2013.
Kaufman, the author of The First 20 Hours, explains that he was able to do all of those things and more thanks to his specific “rapid skill acquisition” methodology.
According to Kaufman, the process of fast skill acquisition takes four steps:
- Deconstruct a skill into the smallest possible subskills
- Learn about each subskill to be able to practice intelligently and self-correct during practice
- Remove physical, mental, and emotional barriers that get in the way of practice
- Practice the most important subskills for at least twenty hours
The most important part of the entire methodology is to define the specific skill you want to learn, and the subskills that make it. If you are looking to learn sales, then “sales” isn’t a skill per se. It’s a topic, a subject if you will, but not actually a skill.
Cold calling, closing, and pitching are the skills that make a salesperson effective at their job. But such skills would still be too broad for you to tackle.
Cold calling, for example, can be broken down into the following subskills:
- Searching for potential call prospects
- Qualifying the prospects
- Developing a powerful sales script
- Creating an effective pitch
- Having the courage to call virtual strangers
These subskills can be broken down into further specific tasks, something that can make your learning process much easier. If you know exactly the tasks you need to implement to qualify a prospect, you can easily practice with a framework in mind that lets you improve the quality of your work done.
The point is that you must be crystal clear with the skills and subskills you’re learning so you can master them individually.
When it comes to the methodology, the most crucial step to get ahead of is removing barriers that get in the way of your practice. The most common barrier we all face: time.
You may find yourself saying “I don’t have time to learn this”. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot, making time for learning is the key to success. The deep work methodology is great to combat this, as it focuses on batches of dedicated work that let you get in the flow and implement the tasks needed to get whatever it is you want to get done.
Finally, you have the practice itself, which as Kaufman indicates, must be done for at least 20 hours to achieve basic mastery of the skill.
If you dedicate one hour of active learning on how to qualify your prospects for cold calling, then in three weeks you’ve become pretty good at it.
You may have heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 rule: that if you practice something for 10,000 hours you will become a master in it. Unfortunately, this rule is completely misconstrued and actually doesn’t mean what many think it means.
When it comes to learning, its quality over quantity. 100 hours of active learning will outstrip 10,000 hours of passive learning.
Think about how long you’ve spent writing things by hand. Has your handwriting gotten any better? Probably not since you spent time in class as a young child actively practicing how to write. The same goes for any other skill, passive practice won’t garner improvement.
At the end of the day, skill acquisition takes time, but not as much as you’d thought. It only takes a laser-focus and some time to practice to start seeing the results you wish to get.
Gamify Your Learning
The process of learning new skills requires many steps. You need to break down each subtask, learn about it, and practice. This process can be a bit dull to say the least, and you might find yourself getting irritated with the monotony of the task at hand.
Here’s where gaming comes to the rescue.
Before you write off games as a bad tool for learning new skills, you need to reconsider the power of them.
Jane McGonigal, the author of SuperBetter, believes that skill acquisition can be as fun as playing a great Xbox game. The key lies in your dopamine, the neurotransmitter commonly associated with drug addiction.
Games, especially video games, have the power to create a rush in the brain as pleasurable as an intravenous drug. Gaming leads to a massive boost in the amount of dopamine, the “pleasure” neurotransmitter, in the brain.
Increased dopamine in the reward circuitry is not a sign of addiction. More commonly, it’s a sign of increased motivation and determination.
Video games, it turns out, make your brain produce a lot of dopamine, something that if you use it properly, can make you highly optimistic and motivated towards the task at hand (which, in this case, would be to learn a new skill).
At first glance, this idea seems great. You only need to play some video games and all of a sudden you’ll be motivated, right? Well, sorry to burst your bubble but it’s not quite that.
The idea is that you use the effect of playing video games during your skill acquisition. Make your learning into an engaging and challenging game.
Here’s how the process works:
Every time you consider a possible goal, your brain conducts a split-second, unconscious cost-benefit analysis of whether it’s worth the effort to try to achieve it. How you conduct this analysis depends less on the facts of the situation than on how much dopamine is present in your brain.
When you have high dopamine levels in the reward circuitry, you worry less about the effort required, and you find it easier to imagine and predict success. This translates into higher determination and lower frustration in the face of setbacks.
Meanwhile, when dopamine runs low in the reward circuitry you weigh more heavily the effort required, often magnifying it, and you discount the importance of your goals. You also tend to anticipate failure rather than success, which can lead you to avoid challenges altogether.
McGonigal explains the way to level up in skills, you need to do three things:
- Challenge yourself: Set a goal that seems hard to achieve but still somehow realistic. If you want to learn web design, make your goal of learning how to design a simple social media banner, not an entire website from scratch.
- Ask yourself “What’s the best that could happen?” Why are you being so hard on yourself and punishing yourself for something that hasn’t even happened? Positivity is always a better process for learning. Frame your challenge as an optimistic process, not one of failure and fear.
- Power up: Define what actions make you feel stronger and use that to motivate yourself. This is similar to Tony Robbins’ peak state methodology: If you feel that jumping three times and pumping your chest makes you feel better, do that whenever you need a motivation rush. Just make sure you move the furniture so you don’t break anything.
As you start to level up in your new skills, you’ll face harder challenges (just like in a videogame). Keep going, keep pushing, and make sure you go out of your way to make it fun.
Get Yourself a Mentor, Coach, or Master to Guide You
Luke Skywalker had Yoda, Harry Potter had Dumbledore, even Po had Master Shifu.
Never underestimate the importance of having someone to guide you through your learning journey.
The whole idea of mentorship isn’t a new fad brought on by Disney as a means of subtle exposition. In fact, the first mention ever recorded of the term “mentor” comes from the ancient Greek tale of Odysseus who entrusted his son’s education to his friend named Mentor.
Their recent popularity stems mostly from an almost “magical” aura they’ve taken on. Many successful entrepreneurs swear their success is owed to their mentors, leading others to believe that getting a mentor is a surefire way to hack the learning process.
While having a mentor is no silver bullet, it helps you to garner specific, highly relevant, useful feedback.
If you’re learning a new skill solo, how are you supposed to know what to learn? You end up making mistakes and you don’t even know it.
A mentor, just like a coach, can tell you the specific things you’re doing wrong, the best ways to improve on them, and any other key information that will speed your learning process.
Anyone who’s more experienced and knowledgeable than you at any given task can show you the path they’ve taken to get to that level.
Nathan Chan, Foundr’s CEO and founder, is a big believer in mentors. When he started Foundr, his mentors helped him in his path to growing the site into one of the leading digital magazines on entrepreneurship.
As Nathan explained, the key to finding a mentor is to “serve first; ask later.” Instead of asking someone way more successful than you to become your mentor, pay it forward with anything you can provide them.
If you know a lot about marketing and you see a potential mentor could improve on something, offer a friendly suggestion. Help them for free, without asking anything in return.
Only after you’ve proved yourself and become acquainted with the potential mentor can you start to develop a relationship in which both the mentor and yourself help each other.
There’s a reason why professional sports stars still consult their coach even when they are at the top of their game: the learning process never stops, and external advice can help you to see the cracks.
Whether you get a mentor, a paid coach, or any type of advisor, getting fast and useful feedback will speed your learning process.
“I’m not talented enough.”
“I can’t do that because I’m not smart/strong/disciplined/talented/flexible enough”.
Any of this sound familiar?
Lack of talent is one of the first excuses people turn to when struggling with a new skill. They take a few classes, read a few books, try a new skill, and when they fail they simply tell themselves that the failure made sense because they weren’t smart enough.
As I noted earlier, none of us is born with talent. The reason people seem naturally gifted at something is that early on, they likely became “ignited” in the learning process, and kept their motivation high throughout as a result.
According to Daniel Coyle, who we mentioned before:
“Talent begins with brief, powerful encounters that spark motivation by linking your identity to a high-performing person or group. This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world-shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them.”
When you’re first getting started, you want to achieve that ignition as quickly as possible. You want that fire to ignite within your mind and your soul, and to identify with success to power your intrinsic motivation.
A reason you want to start with small, achievable goals, is that these small wins will breed more success. A flicker of success will create neural pathways that encourage you to light a fire. You will see, feel, and taste success right at your fingertips.
When you’ve finished designing that social media banner you can use, or after you’ve finished the mockup of your new site, or after you’ve edited that video for your marketing campaigns, you will feel like you can become a skilled designer, programmer, or video editor.
With those small tasks completed, you’re on fire!
Find successful people you’d like to emulate, read their stories, and even talk to them. You will soon see you’re just like them; the only difference is that they took the time to master their skills.
After you do that, you will soon realize you could be like them. And that’s how you ignite your learning process, something that will motivate you to learn.
Aim to Be Better, Not Good
Among the self-proclaimed self-help “gurus,” a commonly shared idea is that “persistence is the key to success.”
But is it true? How can you persist when you can’t see beyond the forest that surrounds you? How can you see through the fog to where your future successful self stands? How can you persist when you never seem to get to where you want to be?
Everything you do never seems to be as good as you want it to be. You’re never “there.” You’re always a step behind where you want to be.
According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, one of the many experts who participated in the book Maximize Your Potential, this is the wrong attitude to have. You can only adopt one of two attitudes:
“We all approach the goals we pursue with one of two mindsets: what I call the Be Good mindset, where the focus is on proving that you already have a lot of ability and that you know exactly what you’re doing, and the Get Better mindset, where the focus is on developing your ability and learning new skills. You can think of it as the difference between wanting to show that you are smart versus wanting to actually get smarter.”
The “Get Better” mindset is very similar to Dweck’s Growth mindset, where learning is seen as a journey you can (and must) go through if you only put the time and effort.
Your journey is uniquely yours. It may take you longer than others. It may cost you more money. It may require more energy than others. But it’s yours and yours only.
And when your only job is to become better than the day before, you will only see progress ahead. Above all, don’t forget to celebrate improvement.
Start Small, Be Big
Learning a skill is tough, if it was easy then everyone would be a virtuoso, athlete, business mogul tycoon. We know it’s tough, and we know it takes effort.
But the way to master the art of learning (and we mean really master it, have it down pat, be a whiz at it) is to change your approach towards it.
If your brain made it easy for you to absorb every single stimulus around you, you’d collapse in a second. You need to allow time for your brain to encode and consolidate your new skill.
Start small, take action, and grow. The sky’s the limit.
What skills are you trying to learn? Share them in the comments below!