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7 strategies for learning new skills

By Jessica Lau · April 25, 2023
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It's a common misconception that there's a cutoff age for learning new skills. For example, the idea that if you want to become fully fluent in a language, you have to start learning as a kid (not true). Or, if you want to become a gymnast, you basically have to hit the mat the moment you're out of diapers (also not true). 

Sure, it might be trickier for an adult to dedicate the same amount of time to learning as, say, an eight-year-old with no responsibilities, but given the right environment and the right mindset, people can learn new skills at any age. For example, at the ripe age of 30-something, I learned a new language, learned how to knit, and even became skilled at writing with my non-dominant hand—all equally important life skills. 

If you've been wanting to learn a new skill or even strengthen existing ones, here are the seven tried-and-trued strategies I used to boost my expertise—and how you can, too.

  1. Set clear goals

  2. Adopt a growth mindset

  3. Use active learning strategies

  4. Use different learning mediums

  5. Learn from someone with more experience

  6. Practice

  7. Take frequent breaks

Why is it important to learn new skills? 

I could write an entire article devoted to this question, but that's not why you're here. However, if you'll entertain me, here are three of the most compelling reasons I keep yearnin' for more learnin'. 

Brain fitness 

When I get out of bed, my body makes so many snaps, crackles, and pops you'd think I was pouring milk over a bowl of Rice Krispies. That's why my main goal for working out is simply to build enough strength and mobility to keep moving efficiently—and with fewer aches and pains. The same mentality applies to learning a new skill: I view it as a fun way to keep my brain sharp and healthy for as long as this world will have me. 

Career flexibility and advancement 

If you've spent any time on LinkedIn, you've likely seen your fair share of stories detailing rescinded job offers and layoffs. And if you, like me, have been fortunate enough to keep your job, you may have asked yourself, "How can I make myself a critical part of this team?" This is where having a diverse set of skills can be a true asset. 

Let's take Zapier's secondment program, for example. To meet Zapier's 2023 hiring needs, a full team wasn't required. But to avoid laying off a portion of our Talent Acquisition team, Zapier was able to leverage their various skills and experiences to add value to other business-critical departments. 

A diverse skill set also keeps you adaptable to change. For example, the onslaught of artificial intelligence (AI) is impacting nearly every job. And while the fear of being replaced by AI is very real, if you have the skills to learn a new skill, you can actually learn to embrace AI at work—not fear it. 

Tip: If you're a software engineer—or an aspiring one—AI is undoubtedly going to change the game for you. But that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Here are a few ways you can make your work even more fulfilling and effective with AI

Confidence boost  

I haven't pored through the research, so you'll have to trust my gut (and yours) on this one. But think of what it takes to even approach learning a new skill. It often means stepping out of your comfort zone and pushing past any self-doubt. That knowledge alone fills me with a sense of pride and accomplishment—and I hope it does for you, too.  

7 strategies to help you learn new skills

If you've ever struggled to learn something new, let's get one thing out of the way: you're the furthest thing from alone. Even the "greats" struggled their way to the top. Now that we're on the same page, let's dive into the seven strategies you can use to learn a new skill or enhance the ones you already have.  

1. Set clear goals

There's an episode of The Office where one of the main characters, Michael Scott, literally declares bankruptcy to make all his money problems magically disappear. But as his colleague points out, "you can't just say the word 'bankruptcy' and expect anything to happen."  

Similarly with goals, simply saying (or declaring) that you're going to learn something, doesn't just make it so. Instead, set a SMART goal (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound), so you can get clear on what you're trying to achieve. 

Now take your goal one step further by writing it as an affirmation. Here's how: 

  1. Use "I" statements. Make these goals personal to you. 

  2. Make it positive. Write your goal in terms of what you want to achieve—not what you don't want. 

  3. Write it in the present tense. Write your goal as if it's happening now instead of in the future. This will encourage you to work on achieving the goal immediately rather than putting it off. 

For example, instead of the goal, "I will stop working as a law clerk, and I'll no longer have to commute for an hour into the office each day," your affirmation might be, "I work from home as a software developer for a video game company." 

But don't stop there. Once you set your goal, create an actionable, trackable plan to help you make progress towards it. 

Tip: As venture capitalist John Doerr puts it, "a plan is only as good as its implementation." With your plan in hand, use these tips to help you build the necessary daily habits to achieve your goal.  

2. Adopt a growth mindset 

It can be daunting to learn a new skill. You might be tempted to tell yourself, "I wish I could, but I don't have the talent to do [insert skill here]" or "it's too late" (which, for what it's worth, it's never too late).  

This is where adopting a growth mindset comes in. The term, which was originally coined by academic scholar Carol Dweck, refers to a way of perceiving challenges and setbacks. In Dweck's words

"Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts)." 

Let's say you wanted to join the circus as a trapeze artist (I can't be the only one). If you believed that only people born with the gift of strength, flexibility, and not wanting to hurl when thrown around 50 feet in the air could successfully make it, you likely wouldn't bother even attempting to swing upside down. But if you believe that there's room for you to develop the necessary skills, you'll put in the effort to learn, which, in turn, helps you build the required skills. 

3. Use active learning strategies 

Let's say you're studying quantum physics (um, wow!). Now imagine if the only way you learned about it was by listening to your teacher go on and on about atoms and subatomic particles. Not only would this type of passive learning put you to sleep, but you'd probably have a hard time developing any true understanding of the material. 

Enter: active learning strategies. At its core, these strategies require you to engage in different hands-on activities, such as group discussions and role-playing, to promote a richer understanding of the content. Why? Because knowledge sharing benefits everyone. It forces you to truly process a subject, examine it, and nail the fundamentals.  

This strategy doesn't always have to go from theory to practice either. You can also reverse the order. 

Let's say your goal is to hit one out-of-the-park home run. You have the strength and the hand-eye coordination, but for whatever reason, your hits just keep coming short. Instead of continually swinging and missing, you could listen to renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explain the physics (i.e., the theory) behind a near-guaranteed home run. After that, you can take another swing. 

4. Use different learning mediums 

There's a popular theory that people have unique learning styles. I've definitely uttered, "I'm more of a visual learner" once or twice in my life (mainly to stop my friends from trying to explain complex board game rules to me). But learning styles are flimflam

Instead of confining yourself to only one learning method, try this approach, courtesy of Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia: 

"Think of everyone having a toolbox of ways to think, and [ask] yourself, which tool is best [for the job]?"

Take learning a new language, for example. To learn how to write in Japanese, the best tool for the job might be a Japanese grammar textbook. But if you want to improve your listening and verbal skills, reading a textbook won't be as effective as, say, chatting with a native speaker. 

In an age where so much information is available at your fingertips, don't limit yourself to just one book or course. Mix things up!

5. Learn from someone with more experience

There are many times when I've written something where the words feel just off—but I can't quite figure out how to fix it. This is where it can be helpful to get feedback from someone with more experience. For example, if I'm writing for a new-to-me medium like video scripts, I'll ask my teammate Krystina to review my work. Because of her many years working as a public radio journalist, she's quick to spot potential tongue twisters and uneven beats.

If finding a mentor or asking someone for feedback makes you a little uneasy, I'll give you one of the best pieces of advice I've ever received: just ask. Worst case scenario, they say no, and you're no worse off. 

Tip: If you want to improve your writing, but human feedback isn't readily accessible, try asking AI for feedback instead. Here's how to create your own personal writing coach

6. Practice 

This one might seem obvious, but let's clarify the difference between two types of practice that are key to building a new skill: 

  • Rote learning. This involves memorizing information based on repetition. For example, reciting the French alphabet from A to Z over and over again. 

  • Deliberate practice. This involves intentional, goal-directed rehearsal paired with applying your learning to different situations. For example, pronouncing a randomized mix of French vocabulary using your base knowledge of how to pronounce each individual letter. And if a combination of letters is particularly tricky for you, you might seek out more words containing those combos to improve your fluency. 

While rote learning might help you, say, recite the French alphabet super fast, it won't, by itself, help you achieve verbal proficiency. Instead, this is what deliberate practice and applying your knowledge to varied, real-life scenarios will help you achieve.

One final note: it's tempting to practice what you're already good at, but be intentional about also practicing your weaknesses. Make time for it. For example, I'm very comfortable reading in French (to myself), but I'm significantly less comfortable speaking French out loud. So when I practice in my language learning app, I force myself to do more speaking exercises than translation ones. 

Tip: Feeling meh about practice? Try these practical tips to start doing the work you need to do—even when you really, really don't want to

7. Take frequent breaks

Ever get stuck doing a drill or a task? When this happens, my initial response is to double down on my efforts. For example, I might continue doing American Sign Language (ASL) fingerspelling exercises even if my fingers are tired and seemingly operating with a mind of their own. 

But a more effective response would be for me to take a break. Otherwise, I risk repeating the same mistakes, practicing incorrect movement patterns, and setting my progress back.  

While it seems counterintuitive, taking frequent breaks is just as important as practicing regularly. Done strategically, breaks can reduce brain fatigue and boost your performance

Tip: Create a structured schedule that incorporates a mix of focus periods and breaks. The Pomodoro technique is a great approach for tackling exercises that are less exciting (like practicing piano scales) or tasks that require little thought. For other tasks that require creativity, innovation, and/or problem-solving, try the more flexible Flowtime technique

Bonus: Keep a record and reflect on your progress 

Ever since I saw my high school French teacher write on the chalkboard with both hands, I've been dead set on becoming ambidextrous. Unfortunately for me, true ambidexterity is rare. But that hasn't stopped me from pursuing the ability to skilfully write with both my hands.

I've been actively working on this for over two years now, but there are days when I'll look at my left-handed writing, deflate a little, and think, "Well, it looks like a second-grader wrote this." But then I compare it with earlier writing samples, and I can quickly see how far I've come. 

A series of journal entries comparing handwriting samples from March and July. Each entry is a series of pangrams written using the writer's non-dominant hand. There's a caption on top of the writing samples that reads, "Not the worst!"

This is the value of tracking your progress. It gives you a clearer representation of how far you've come, reminding you that you're doing something right. 

Tip: If you're someone who's motivated by a little friendly competition, why not create a personal best challenge bot? It's a fun way to measure your progress and see how you stack up against the most important competition: yourself. 

Reframing failure 

To be abundantly clear, none of the above tips will immediately take you from novice to expert. (If it did, I'd be touring with Cirque du Soleil right now and signing autographs with my left hand instead of writing this article.) 

You're going to make mistakes along the way—we all do. And at the first sign of "failure," you might be tempted to doubt your abilities and stop learning altogether. 

But what if you reframed your failures as feedback? Let's go back to baseball as an example. If I keep hitting high fly balls, which are usually easier to catch, that "failure" is simply telling me that my bat is getting too far under the ball. I need to swing earlier or adjust my stance to increase my chances of hitting a nice line drive.  

This type of reframing is the same strategy former NASA engineer Mark Rober uses to trick your brain into learning more. And hey—if it's good enough for a NASA engineer, it's sure as heck good enough for this wannabe circus performer. 

Related reading: 

  • The best way to learn technology? Click all the buttons

  • 4 strategies to keep building skills for your career

  • When to give up on a goal—and how to do it

  • 7 mental models to help you make better business decisions

This article was originally published in 2017 by Farheen Gani. The most recent update was in April 2023.

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