Want to get to the next level in your career?
Be a life-long learner.
After working in sales for five years, I noticed that every time I learned and used a new skill, my personal brand improved. It was known that I wanted to learn something new, I made visible efforts to illustrate my progress and coachability and then I was a resource for others who wanted help in that area.
In our ever-changing business environment, the ability to adapt and be a life-long learner can boost your career immensely. Yes, time and resources are limited, so the key is to be deliberate and diligent.
In the book The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman*, Kaufman discusses the 10 steps needed to learn a new skill quickly and gives several real-life examples to illustrate them. Now, do not think this is some magic trick that gives you instant mastery after 20 hours (I wish!); instead, Kaufman argues that the process of learning a new skill gets easier after you get over the 20-hour hump.
Full disclosure: I read this book because I needed to learn a new skill for my personal life. However, by going through the defined steps of skill acquisition, Kaufman’s technique can just as easily be used to learn new career skills.
The steps for deliberate practice toward your desired skill are:
- Choose a lovable project.
- Focus your energy on one skill at a time.
- Define your target performance.
- Deconstruct the skill into sub-skills.
- Obtain critical tools.
- Eliminate barriers to practice.
- Make dedicated time for practice.
- Create fast feedback loops.
- Practice by the clock in short bursts.
- Emphasize quantity and speed.
In order to elaborate on each step, I will walk you through my example: learning to speak Croatian.
1. Choose a Lovable Project
Okay, not every skill you need to learn is lovable on the surface, but you need to find a way like parts of the new skill. Why? If you don’t at least enjoy it a little chances are you will not stick with it.
Last Spring, I found out my husband and I were moving to Croatia. In order to prepare, I decided I would teach myself Croatian. In school, I did not enjoy my language classes and I did not retain the years of education. What makes Croatian different? I focused the opportunities I would have by speaking the language: interacting with new people, visiting local businesses (like yoga and art studios) and traveling to more remote places (with incredible food and wine).
2. Focus Your Energy On One Skill At a Time
When looking at the next level in your career, you may find that there are several skills you need to acquire. However, it is important that you are only focusing on one at a time. Prioritize which one you focus on based on available time, resources and urgency. If there are four skills you want to learn and one of them is a requirement for the job you want, do that one first.
Gearing up for our first international move, there were many things I wanted to focus on: speaking Croatian, building a website for my blog, taking tennis lessons, learning how to take portraits indoors and maintaining a personal travel blog.
When evaluating those skills for time, money and urgency, it was clear that I needed to start learning Croatian first. The personal blog did not actually require a large amount of time to learn, and the rest could be done after we moved.
3. Define Your Target Performance
As with most things in your professional career, it is important to set a goal. You have to have an idea of what success looks like.
Knowing that I would not be investing the time needed to be fluent, my Croatian language target performance is to speak at the level of a Croatian first grader.
My vocab, grasp of grammar and ability to converse should put me right there with the other seven year old kids.
4. Deconstruct the Skill Into Sub-Skills
The skill you are pursuing is probably complex, at least to you. In order to tackle it in record time, you have to break the skill down into smaller, manageable sub-skills. Figure out the order in which you want to focus on them.
Since Croatian is a “medium” level language, I knew it was important to prioritize the sub-skills. Here are the sub-skills and the order: letters/pronunciation, common phrases, common verbs, verb tenses, grammar cases.
5. Obtain Critical Tools
Now that you know what you are learning, figure out how you plan to learn. Gather resources and reach out to people who can help. This may include free and paid courses, phone apps, textbooks, classes, worksheets, a tutor or mentor and new tools.
Thankfully, we live in a world with Internet. In order to teach myself Croatian, I gathered tons of resources, free and paid: borrowed textbooks, iPhone apps, borrowed Pimsleur lessons, created my own worksheets, online quizzes, language blogs, YouTube videos and my husband (as a mentor).
The biggest excuse for not practicing? “I don’t have time.” Well, you best find that time! Evaluate how you spend your 168 hours per week and make adjustments to allow yourself time very day to focus on your target skill.
Last Spring, I was working a full-time job and trying to build a few blogs in my spare time. I used “I don’t have time” as an excuse almost on the daily. To combat that, I kept a time log for two weeks and discovered that hours every day were wasted on social media and television. It was time to cut the fat and focus on my new skill.
7. Make Dedicated Time to Practice
Now that you have nothing in your way, plan out how you will practice your new skill. To create a short-term goal, figure out how you are going to reach the first 20 hours: an hour a day for 20 days, half an hour a day for 40 days, etc.
When learning Croatian, I committed to spend at least half an hour every day studying. It was long enough to complete a lesson but short enough to keep my attention. Honestly, it turned out that I was so interested in the lessons I usually studied for an hour each day.
8. Create Fast Feedback Loops
Wouldn’t it suck if you spent all of this time learning a skill only to realize you have been doing it wrong? It is important to have checkpoints throughout your acquisition process so you can course-correct, have reinforcement and better guidance.
While studying, I would test out phrases and words with my husband. Although Google Translate is not perfect, I found it very useful if I wanted to see the meaning of a Croatian word or phrase (super helpful for spelling). I created my own quizzes and flashcards to test my memory.
9. Practice by the Clock in Short Bursts
Time yourself. Take SHORT breaks if needed. Disable ALL distractions. Focus.
I did all of those things when studying Croatian every day. No multi-tasking or shortcuts.
10. Emphasize Quantity and Speed
Many research says that after mastering 80% of a sub-skill, you move on to the next. In this process, make sure you do not get stuck trying to be perfect.
I have spoken English for 28 years, and I still do not know all of our vocabulary and idiosyncrasies; I cannot expect to know all of the Croatian language in a few months. But in order to make a dent, I had to try and learn several new words every single day. Like, 20 new words every day. No pressure. But again, I needed to take giant bites out of the vocabulary to move quickly.
As a result of my deliberate practice, I was able to interact with Croatians when we arrived. Granted, the conversation was rudimentary and many times I had to ask the person to switch to English – but it worked!
The best part? Even when life got in the way and my practice became inconsistent, I was able to recall the words and phrases I had learned months prior. By practicing with intention using those 10 steps, the Croatian I learned was not just speed learning; it was long-lasting knowledge.
Try it out. Identify the one skill you want to learn before the end of the year, plan it out using those 1o steps, and GET IT DONE. To make the process easier, I created a worksheet to help you plan out your practice (sign up for access!) and Kaufman also has several resources on his website.
Sign up for the free resource library to get this worksheet and more!
*This article contains an affiliate link for the book, The First 20 Hours! As a bookworm, I only recommend books I really enjoyed reading. I hope you enjoy them, too!