Why and How to Learn New Skills

October 15, 2019

We’ve all wanted to learn a new skill, be it a language, a program, or practice at some point in our lives. So, what holds us back?

An idea that seems to strike us as “common sense” tells us that our brains lose their elasticity and stickiness as we grow older. But, it looks like @AllahLiker’s son may have just schooled the ancient philosophers who passed down this wisdom. New research indicates it’s not age that hinders our ability to learn new skills, it’s confidence!

One of the challenges we face in keeping ourselves valuable throughout our careers is that technology, thus efficiency - the cornerstone of economic productivity, evolves faster than we do. And this isn’t a challenge only for those further into their careers: Colleges aren’t preparing graduates with “soft skills” and “transferable skills” that are major not only for client relations, but also for practically every job looking forward.

With so many of us in the shuffle together, let’s discuss how to overcome this confidence gap:


Have you ever taught a friend to do...anything? As any PR pro or marketing expert will tell you, framing matters. In an experiment at Washington University in St. Louis, a team of researchers found that people who expect to have to teach in some form tune their brains to better retain information than those who memorize only to pass a test.

And there’s a perfectly scientific, jargon-free reason for it: human generosity. Teaching is a generous act, and acting generously decreases amygdala activity. The ancient amygdala activates our response to danger, while generosity activates the vagus nerve, “which has the power to calm the fight-or-flight response.” If you don’t have someone you can teach a new program to, imagine you’re giving an informational interview to Stephen Colbert’s audience from the comfort of your bedroom.


Remember in middle school when language teachers made us repeat certain words or phrases over and over again? We bet you’d still be able to recall some of them. By repeating something, we increase “the myelin, or fatty coating, around the axioms that connect our brain cells.” Increased myelin means our cells absorb information faster.

Aytekin Tank writes, “spacing out the repetition, rather than cramming it into one session, is even more effective.” Citing Gabriel Wyner, he notes: “In a four-month period, practicing for 30 minutes a day, you can expect to learn and retain 3,600 flashcards with 90 to 95 percent accuracy.”


Researchers at UCLA found that taking notes by hand dramatically enhances our ability to understand concepts and ideas. Compared to people taking notes on laptops, writing by hand requires more time and active listening that forces us to "reframe information" in our own words (else we’ll be left in the dust) during a presentation or lesson.


Teams who make time at the end of the day to discuss lessons learned have been measured to perform “23 percent better after 10 days than those who did not.”

As creatives, we’ve seen this type of reflection in our work regularly.

Creativity offers endless lessons and challenges to us. And creativity is an exploration. In fact, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman concludes, “Our most creative ideas don't tend to come when we're consciously focused on the problem. Great insights come through interacting with people, gaining experiences and letting your mind make connections.”


These methods should help you to fully demystify some of those erroneous beliefs many of us have held for so long: it doesn’t matter where we’re at on our paths, we can always learn more. Follow the steps above and believe in yourself.

Happy learning