How to learn any skill quickly, according to the experts

Published on January 18, 2019

With technology playing a greater role in businesses that previously required immense amounts of specialization, people are now getting ahead in life by becoming “generalists” instead:

That is, good to great at many different things, even if they’re not the best at anyone. This presents itself as an important paradigm shift: having a multiplicity of skills is of greater advantage in today’s economy than enormous depth in just one direction.

The people at the top, the ones writing the bestselling books and running the biggest companies, are not the people who are the best at anything, but rather people who are good at a lot.

Many people are told, either by their parents, their teachers, or someone else, that the secret to life is specialization: Get as good as you can at something and try to be the best at it. That way people will like you (or at least they will pay attention to you). But my advice is entirely the opposite: Don’t worry about being the best at anything. Just get good to great (or at least fairly competent) at a lot of different things. Why? Well, it’s simple: Because skill stacking > specialization and focusing on breadth of skill is just as (if not more) powerful as going deep.

Here’s the short of it: I have spent the past fifteen years of my life getting better at as many skills as I am both capable of and interested in. I committed to this—call it, an experiment, if you like—at the age of seventeen, upon realizing I would probably never be the best at anything (though I certainly tried with respect to the guitar), I figured I might as well get good at a lot of different things, and see what comes of that. This has lead to some interesting results. I’ve published books and launched business; I’ve earned blackbelt and mastered handstands, side kicks, and muscle ups; I’ve recorded music, won a few writing awards, and am now finishing a masters in systematic philosophy, with an undergrad in economics. I can even do the splits.

I’m not the best at any one thing mentioned above—not the strongest, nor the smartest—but I’m good to great at all of it, and not too shabby at many other things aside, and, because of that, I’ve been able to form competitive and creative advantages in life without having to compare or compete with anybody else. I’m able to just do me.

All this is just what it means to be a generalist, and I have been calling for me people to develop themselves in this way so they can experience how much fun it is and how many opportunities it brings. People admire people who are good at a lot of different things, people who are adaptable and can learn on the go. Therefore, being a generalist calls for a well-rounded and wide-reaching accretion of skills, a command over the various, important habits in life. Some of these will be physical, others mental, the rest spiritual and otherwise. From playing more dynamically on the guitar to lifting heavier weights in the gym and having a dedicated, ritualistic time for reflection, skills—that is, the ability to complete a task—are something a person must develop. They don’t come automatically, but they can come quickly with a procedure.

Here’s the procedure.

Repetition. You get what you practice, but also what you don’t. Everything we can be good at, everything we know or can do, comes down to this: You either use it, or lose it.

If you want to get better at something, you need to practice that something. To be a guitarist means practicing the guitar, along with a particular style. To be a Taekwondo players means tossing a lot of roundhouse kicks. Being a generalist is the goal, and I mean that. But specialization—when not an end, but rather, a means—is the tool to get us there. A good generalist is just a short-term specialist.

Resistance. To make faster, better progress, be sure to brush up constantly against the guard rails of failure. Performing repetitions at a low intensity is not enough. You need to make your practice sessions demanding, stressful even. But you must not make your sessions too demanding, since training beyond what you’re currently capable of results in slop. There is a sweet spot—call it, “challenged but successful”—where most of your repetitions should fall.

If we compare this lesson to the weight room: Exercise with a weight you struggle with, but is not impossible to move.

Restriction. As you improve at something you will naturally tend to rely on your strengths and ignore weaknesses. This is where restriction comes in. Block off (even just temporarily) what you’re already good at so you are forced to bring up whatever you aren’t good at. My guitar instructor used to bound three of my fingers so I could only solo with my pinky finger. This not only forced me to build strength in my weakest finger, but also to play more melodically. It forced me to slow down, and pay attention to my rhythmical choices: A big weakness for me at the time. But not anymore.

Same with exercise. When I first got into fitness I spent most of my time, as many guys do, performing upper body exercises. Then I snapped my forearm skateboarding. Suddenly, my program was serving up a lot of squats. Suddenly, I was no longer so imbalanced.

One of these examples of restriction was imposed artificially (bounding my fingers) the other unfortunately (breaking my forearm). Both of them, however, worked to make me better overall.

Review. We’re often unaware of the mistakes we’re making as we’re making them, and because of this we need a system of review, a way to go back later and check our work. Maybe this means reading our writing the next day and doing so aloud. Or, maybe this means recording our music sessions and listening back, or videoing our martial arts competitions and spotting our sloppy footwork. That is all self-review, and is essential to self-improvement. Review is how you come to know what you just don’t know.

But an even more powerful form of review is external-review, which really means hiring a coach. There is no better, quicker way of making progress than working with someone who been there. Coaches = short cuts. Hire one.

Rest. Neural connections aren’t formed overnight, and neither are muscles. Rest is critical to the recovery process, and something we all need. Just because you can push yourself to the limit, doesn’t mean you should. Overtime, you’ll develop an intuition for when you’ve got all the reps in that you need, so you can finally move on to something else. Listen to that intuition. Because look: if you only need to cook the lasagna for seventeen minutes, it’s not only wasteful to cook it for twenty, but possibly ruinous. Same with human skills. There is a point of diminishing returns that needs to be 1) recognized and 2) respected. That point will vary from skill to skill, and person to person, but the objective should always be to find the minimum effective dose: to do the least of what’s needed to move from A to B, and then get on to something else. Because there is always something else, always some other skill, that’s worth improving at.

A parting note: To develop a skill quickly does not mean that skill will develop immediately. Part of the process is having patience; all good things take time to settle in. So, get in the habit of practicing daily but also commit to finishing things. Trust the process, and results will come.


Pat Flynn is a Contributor at GritDaily and the author of How to Be Better at Almost Everything. Identifying as a generalist who is "great at many things, but not the best at any one," Flynn runs multiple six-figure businesses centered around his skills, including his passion for music, fitness, and meditation.

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