How to Build Complex Skills

How to Build Complex Skills

Last week I recorded a fun podcast episode with my friend, Pat Flynn, in which we talked about essential skills and how important I think hobbies and skills are. I’m not sure when that podcast will drop, but I will be sure to let you know. Speaking of podcasts, the Die Living episode I recorded with the SOFLETE crew is up as well so download that here or wherever you usually get your podcast fix.

Anyway so we’re talking about skill and I suppose first of all it’s worth telling you why I think skill building is so important. Humans are by nature builders and makers. Many other mammals and animals walk, communicate, love, hump, and play. None of them build and make things to the extent that we do. There are of course other complex skills that don’t involve making things, but I’m especially fond of the alchemy involved in actually manifesting something real. Anyway.

So let’s say you want to build a skill, but where do you start? Let’s say, you want to learn to cook.

The first place I go when I want to learn something new is the Internet. You can literally type into google “How to ________” with virtually anything in the blank and find a step-by-step guide for how to do it. Google: “How to grill a steak”

Now here’s the key point. Following this guide isn’t going to make you an expert. You’re not going to be a chef when you’re finished following the guide. In fact, it might not even turn out well at all. BUT you will have learned enough along the way to refine your question in the future.

Maybe it goes well and you learn that you need to make a side to go with your steak. So you type in “What sides go with steak? How to make creamed spinach?” Or you learn that you don’t like steak at all and you go on to figure out how to bake chicken.

Pretty soon you have a repertoire of a main course and several sides.

If you say, David, this all seems so obvious why are you telling me to just google things?

Well, I have a question for you, my friend. Why is it that every time I do some magical thing like make a ring, or make limoncello, or roast a pig, or weld pieces of steel using only my bare hands (not really) – why is it that people say “David, how did you know how to do that?”

The Internet friend, the Internet.

As with so many major 🔑s, sometimes the answer is simple, not complex.

Now, when that glorious repository of information and ignorant but willfully proffered opinions fails me I have another technique. But I’ll save that for another day.

The Sting of Defeat

The Sting of Defeat

“Do you all have a ball, or something? Shouldn’t you toss around a few passes?”

“We don’t have any balls. Actually we haven’t done a warm-up yet. You can write an email about us.”

Jen’s good friend and former teammate Devin was a little cocky. They were pretty sure that age and treachery (and skill) were going to carry them to the win in this semi-final match of this past weekend’s rugby tournament. After all, a few of these women (Jen included) had played on U.S. national teams and were very, very skilled and experienced rugby players. I said, “Well, if you lose this match it’s going to be a different email.”

After the game, Jen was bummed, some of her teammates were bummed. They’d been eliminated.

This email could be about how resting on what you’ve done in the past often isn’t enough to keep up with the right now. The practices you didn’t have last week matter more than the practices you made years ago. The warm-up and ball handling you skipped this morning might have been worthwhile.

But it’s not.

You see, the same kind of thing happened last year. They lost a game they should have probably won and they all (well, most) swore that it wouldn’t happen again, that this year they’d come prepared to win.

But their behaviors as a team didn’t line up with the intentions. Their intentions said, “We’ve still got it and we’re here to win.” Their behaviors said, “Eh, we’ll just show up, have fun, and hope for the best.”

So after a repeat of the same experience, it’s worth examining the intention instead of the behaviors. Usually behaviors reflect the true motivations, or at least the inertia of habits and intentions. If they want to win but they keep showing up unpracticed and unprepared, maybe what they really want is to just play a few games of rugby again for old time’s sake once a summer and that’s it.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.

What’s wrong is being frustrated by the mismatch of your intentions with your behaviors. If you didn’t put in the work to be prepared to be the winner, why are you upset you didn’t win? You got exactly what you should have expected. Something Jen and her teammates recognized and readily admitted immediately after the loss. Jen, and a few others, had prepared individually but they hadn’t practiced and prepared as a team.

It reminds me of one of my favorite parables, the scorpion and the frog. (My friend—we’ll call him A—is thinking about getting scorpion and frog hand tattoos. I think he should do it. A is like Paulie in Goodfellas: he’s made it and he doesn’t owe anybody anything, and probably will never have to ask anyone for anything for the rest of his life.) If you don’t know it, the story holds that a scorpion asks a frog to carry him across the river. The frog is afraid of being stung by the scorpion, but the scorpion convinces them that if that happened they’d both drown so it would not be in its best interest. Suitably convinced, the frog carries the scorpion across the river and is then stung, dooming them both. The scorpion says: “Don’t be so surprised, it’s in my nature to do so.”

In other words, when results match expectations, even when they don’t match your desires, if you want to feel better (you’ll do better when you feel better) then change your desires so they match the expectations.

To your desires,

Starting is the Easy Part

Starting is the Easy Part

When I was in school I distinctly remember the sensation I’d get when I was about 80% done with a test. I’d want to literally walk out and just leave it uncompleted. Never mind that this makes no logical sense at all, and that I’d want to quit when I was almost done. That’s just the point where I felt like I had done enough so I could move on to the next thing. Of course that’s no good for your test score.

I love starting new projects. Just ask my wife. At any given time my desk alone has a half dozen partially completed projects of it to say nothing of the garage or other work spaces. The feeling of diving into something new is one of the best parts to me. I don’t mind at all losing a whole day researching a new endeavor just to get the ball rolling on it.

The problem is, most things are useless until completed. It doesn’t do my readers any good if I have a great article 80% finished in my blog drafts. You can’t eat a dinner that is three-quarters finished. Probably no one cares that you started a marathon and finished 80% of it. Neat that you started the Whole30 but the program was designed for 30 days or it would have been called the Whole21.

Finishing is, at least in this writer’s experience, the hard part. Putting the finishing touches on it and saying “Yes, this is finished. Judge it world.”

Or seeing it through to the end when the novelty of a fresh start has worn off and you’ve suffered the monotony of The Work for a few weeks.

Now when I recognize that familiar feeling of wanting to walk away when I’m almost done (now that I think of it seems like a great time to go take the dogs for a quick walk) I recognize it and put my head down to finish.

Because unless you’ve lived such a remarkable life that people want to read your unfinished memoirs..

It probably doesn’t count unless you finish.