There are some things in life you’ve probably resigned yourself to never learning. I never thought I would learn how to play guitar, or learn Spanish, or know how to cook anything that wasn’t on a grill. For years, I left it at that — until I realised that teaching yourself a new skill isn’t as hard as it sounds.
Have you ever had that skill that you always wished you could learn? I’ve had a lot of those over my life. I’d listen to music and wish I could play that song on the guitar. I’d invite my girlfriend over for dinner and wish I could cook a real meal for her instead of just taking her out. I always said if I found a magic genie, all of my wishes would be to learn these skills. Unfortunately, magic genies don’t exist, but I found that learning them the “hard” way wasn’t all that hard.
This may come as a shock, but you are completely capable of learning that skill you always wish you had. All you need is the motivation to actually try and a little time set aside to practise. I started playing guitar from About.com and then moving on to tabs. I went from burning everything to cooking real, awesome food by taking one cooking class, and then trying my hand at different recipes. And I’m currently learning Spanish with a variety of at-home computer tools (although this one requires a bit more real-world practice once you get the basics down — I’m not there quite yet).
It’s stupid, but this was a revolutionary idea to me. Learning these things wasn’t easy, per se, but it was a whole lot easier than I ever thought it would be — and now I’ve played guitar in my church’s band, cooked meals that I actually look forward to, and I’m starting to speak basic sentences to my girlfriend’s Colombian grandparents. Here are a few things I’ve learned that should help you along the way.
You Will Suck At First
Learning a new skill from scratch is mentally draining. Most of us who have tried it probably quit around the same time: the beginning. Those first few days or weeks can feel like you’re trying to push a boulder uphill. This is the biggest hurdle.
It’s no surprise, really. It’s hard to stay motivated when you can’t really do anything with your skill yet. If you’re trying to play guitar, you might be able to strum a few individual chords, but you can’t move your hands quickly enough to make a song. If you’re learning to surf, you might not be able to get up on a wave just yet. It’s discouraging, and it’s far easier to throw your hands up and quit.
This is, by far, the hardest part of learning something new. So much so that we’ve written entire articles about this already. You can do a lot of things to push yourself through, but the most important advice I can give is: make peace with the fact that you’re going to suck at first. It will get better.
Work Towards Something Specific
Just like any goal, the best way to stay motivated is to work towards one specific thing. That means stay away from generalities like “I want to learn to play guitar” or “I want to learn how to cook better”. That probably won’t keep you motivated. Instead, pick a specific song or a specific dish, and try to learn that. Find something easy enough for a beginner so you don’t get discouraged.
If at first you don’t succeed — and you probably won’t — keep trying at that song or dish. If you picked something too hard, find something easier, but try not to change things up too often. The more you stick with one thing, the more you’ll be able to see the incremental improvements happening over time, even if you still haven’t nailed it. You may not be able to play that song, for example, but you’ll realise you can move from a G to a C chord just a little bit quicker than you did yesterday.
Sometimes that means just slowing down and practising the same thing over and over. Sometimes, you may need to adopt a new strategy. Then, when you finally, finally get it right, you’ll feel great and want to keep going.
Keep a Regular Practice Schedule
If willpower is the first half of the equation, the second is time. Yes, you’ll actually have to put in the time if you want to become any good — but once you get past that initial hump, it will start feeling a lot less like work and a lot more like time well spent. Occasionally, however, you may still find yourself slacking off.
My advice: Set aside a regular block of time for practice. Make it the same time every day (or every other day, or however often you’re practising). Force it into your daily routine until it becomes habit. This is especially key for skills that take a bit longer, such as learning a new language. While learning Spanish, I set aside a half hour after work every day to practise. Once it became part of my routine, I didn’t have to push myself nearly as hard to get it done. Once it was part of my rhythm, I got through 30 lessons in two months. I’m still not very good, but starting the day’s lesson takes far less willpower than it did during week one.
You Don’t Have to Be the World’s Greatest
It sounds cliché, but you don’t have to be the best at everything. Unless you’re looking to use this skill professionally, you don’t need to be the best either. The basics can get you really far. It’s amazing, for example, how many songs one can play with only knowledge of five or six chords. One or two skateboard tricks is enough to impress quite a few of your friends.
The point of this article isn’t to share my story and say “look how great I am!” In fact, it’s exactly the opposite: I found that those “impossible” skills weren’t all that impressive. I’m far from the world’s greatest guitar player, but I’ve played open mic nights with my friends and survived. I am far from fluent in Spanish, but I’m getting to the point where I can at least say some basic sentences, which is a lot more useful to me than nothing.
None of this was a cakewalk, but it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. At the risk of sounding too self-helpy, you can do it too. What’s the skill you always wished you could learn but never thought possible? Play an instrument? Learn to skateboard? Salsa dance? Whatever it is, it’s probably not as impossible as you think. The hardest part is convincing yourself to start.