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Rules on Learning New Skills

Learning a New Skill by B. Imei Hsu

It happens without fail. A new client plops down on the couch in my office, then launches into a story of challenge, frustration, disappointment, and loss. After a few sessions, the dialogue of story begins to encroach on the arena of new skill acquisition, usually in an attempt to move towards problem solving, and when it does, I tread lightly. Who am I to add to already busy and stressed out people the dedicated hours it takes to learn a new skill? Yet, I always do. And sometimes, it’s daunting.

How long does it take to learn a new skill? The answer may surprise you. Photo credit Imei Hsu.
How long does it take to learn a new skill? The answer may surprise you. I received this Montblanc pen as a gift after finishing my first eBook (available on iTunes).                  Photo credit Imei Hsu.

Simply put,  there often is no workaround. A person must press into an unknown experience in order to learn a skill that moves him from a place of feeling stuck to a place offering the possibility of growth and renewal. You can’t pay someone to do the work for you, and if you don’t learn the new skill, you may lose money, a business, a friendship, or in some cases, a loving connection with a spouse, partner, or child. It’s either change or die.

I readily identify with the voice that surfaces from deep within. Sometimes, it’s the ego feeling wounded towards even the hint that one must change, “I mean, didn’t s/he marry me knowing I’m just this way?” Other times, it’s the old dog mentality, the one that says, “It is too late, I’m too old to try something new, this is going to take forever to learn.” 

While I can’t answer if it’s too late for you to learn a specific new skill, I can say that the rules have changed, and that this rule change is good news. A year of working on writing my book, piece by piece, has put me in contact with people who are proving it is time for you to learn the new rules about learning a skill.

It Takes 10,000 Hours: Or Does It? 

Since Anders Ericsson published an article with his esteemed colleagues on the subject of developing expertise at a skill, we’ve become acquainted with the theory that good performers can be created; that is, they do not need to be born with the innate skill of which they mastered. Over time, Ericsson’s initial work has been manipulated to mean if you want to be a top performer at something — anything — you have to give it 10,000 hours of diligent, focused, and codefied practice and performance. That’s not exactly what he was explaining. But that is what popular media pulled from his work.

Ten thousand hours equals about five years of doing something full time, and just about nothing else aside from eating and sleeping. I don’t know about you, but if I were to hear someone tell me that I couldn’t learn something new without at least five years of constant study of that skill, I’d become a bit discouraged from even trying. I certainly wouldn’t have started trying to write a book — a skill I had not tried before — if I had applied the 10,000 hour principle. I could see myself writing for two years to produce one book, but I didn’t bank on five years and nothing else.

Josh Kaufman, the author of Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business, presented a TedX talk on the subject of what it really takes to be “good enough” at something. How you define “good enough” is subjective, but if we were to just to talk about acquiring enough of a skill to execute it in such a way as to be understood or show a minimum amount of proficiency and some measure of enjoyment, Kaufman insists that those previously-debated 10,000 hours are really more like twenty hours of focused and deliberate practice hours.

Yep, you read that right. Twenty. Not 10,000. Two. Zero.

I would add from my own personal experience that you should probably stick with learning that new skill at least 100 hours before deciding if it is something that isn’t worth your time to learn for the promised benefit. Like Kaufman, I tend to think the first part of the learning curve is steep, uncomfortable, and sometimes downright embarrassing. By giving it a hundred hours, you’ll finally gain some comfort level, even if the skill was the learning of a foreign language in which you only knew 50 words spoken in the present tense at the level of, “See Jane. See Jane go. Run, Jane, run.”

Imagine the stakes when I tell you that those 100 hours of trying something you were going to do anyway, such as learning to listen empathetically to your spouse while having a conversation (when your previous skill set involved inadvertently messaging your disrespect of your partner because you don’t listen well), could build a stronger connection with the person you’ve promised to spend a lifetime with? How valuable would that skill be? Would it be worth your 100 hours? A hundred hours is about 9 hours a day, for 11 days (a longer-than-average vacation). Hmm. Makes you think.

My point here is that it actually takes a lot less time that you think to learn a new skill well enough to put it to some meaningful use. You might not be an expert at it. But if it isn’t for some highly technical work of which you are being paid to do, do you need to be?

Maybe good enough is just that: good enough. And you can always add on additional skill if it suits your fancy, or the situation demands it.


Can We Teach Emotional Intelligence?

Since I became a Google Glass Explorer  on July 1, 2013, I’ve been contemplating and engaging the question, “Can we teach emotional intelligence?” regarding my Glass project. Related to that question, can people who are older (or, at least older than a child) and more habituated with particular patterns of response to emotional triggers interrupt a negative or harmful pathway and insert a newly learned pattern of response (i.e. self-soothing, observing without judging, practicing presence, empathy, etc)? And if we can, how long would it take to teach someone to do this?

Obviously, I wouldn’t be in the line of work that I am if I believed that we could not teach emotional intelligence, or that people are doomed to repeat the same patterns of behavior even with training to insert new behaviors. No, I do believe we can teach emotional intelligence. But the work can be slow and sometimes painful.

The best I can answer the question of how much time it takes to be “good enough” at learning a new emotional skill is: your mileage may vary. Not only does the new emotional skill need to be practiced, corrected, repeated, and analyzed, it has the factor of being received by another person. The other person may have some deeply-embedded patterns of behavior that don’t respond well to your new skills. And yes, this makes the process of evaluating the benefit or progress of the skill highly complex for the user.

Additionally, some emotions may be so strong that they cannot be interrupted in the middle of an emotional storm. Imagine what a meltdown feels like to a child: confusing, powerful, scary, out of control. Place the same meltdown on an adult, multiply the intensity by twenty (to simulate available resources for an adult), and imagine what it would take to stop said meltdown that has already started from wreaking its usual havoc.

Tough, yes?

Impossible? The jury is out on this one.

I am not referring to people with brain chemical imbalances or syndromes that make emotional storms more frequent and intense. I am talking about the average person.   Even in the average person with a moderate amount of ego stability, emotional awareness, and social integrity, strong emotions can be overwhelming.

What I am hopeful for is that with new technologies for facial recognition and expression analysis, screencasting, and skilled reflection by a professional, we might be able to help people with the feedback aspect of emotional expression. And that could give us a window to show a person what their options are regarding emotional expression and communication.

And that would be pretty intelligent, wouldn’t it?

Are you considering learning a new skill in the coming months? As you consider your plans for 2014, are you making room for the practice hours of new skills to improve your relationships, your emotional intelligence, your business, your fitness levels, or your performance of an instrument, a language, or other skills to help round out your work-life balance?

Tell us about your first twenty hours. The rules on learning new skills should give you some encouragement to try a new thing or two in 2014.




By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, AIP Coach and PN1-NC, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 30+ years in healthcare (22+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is a two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018); she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for 100 Mile trail races and a backyard ultra. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, camping under the stars, and cooking real food.

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