The process of learning a new skill is as much mental as it is physical. Take swimming for example. Knowing how to hold your hands and kick your feet is the physical side of learning to swim. Keeping your head underwater while not feeling as though you are going to drown is the mental side of learning to swim.
In my coaching and consulting work what I’ve found is that people have a greater difficultly with the mental aspects of learning a new skill as opposed to the physical aspect. Whether learning to lead, become a high-performing team member or giving feedback, having a process allows us to not only learn the new skill, but to master it.
If you have something you want to learn, here are my 7 steps for doing so:
1. Find an exemplar: An exemplar is someone you respect, admire and who is really good at what you want to learn to do. This can be a coach, a consultant or mentor within your organization. The key is to not reinvent the wheel. Find someone who is exceptionally good at what you want to learn and who has the disposition to help others learn the skill they have.
2. Observe the person in action: Be curious about what your exemplar does as well as what they don’t do. Observe them and take mental pictures of what you see. Since a picture is worth a 1000 words, observing your exemplar creates an impression of what the skill looks like when performed well.
3. Interview the person: Whenever possible, ask your exemplar what makes them successful. What are they thinking, what is their frame of reference and what do they believe makes them successful? Since learning a new skill has a mental component, learn as much as you can about their mental frame of mind.
4. Focus on progress not perfection: Learning a new skill requires that you accept not being good at the skill at first. What’s required is isolating two or three things to practice, and practice time must be viewed as a time when you will get dirty and may even look foolish. Being willing to practice without a preoccupation on looking good or getting things right is what makes your practice time valuable.
5. Ask for feedback: Ask for specific feedback, and if and whenever possible, videotape yourself performing the skill. Seeing yourself on video accelerates your learning exponentially.
6. Follow the rule of 72: When you learn something new, the potential for you to master the skill and use it effectively happens when you take action within 72 hours of learning something new. When you don’t take action within 72 hours the potential for you to be effective drops precipitously. Having a bias for taking action immediately is essential for learning new skills.
7. Rinse and repeat: The process of observing, interviewing, practicing, learning and acting, when done repeatedly leads to learning a new skill.