How to Learn a New Skill in 4 Steps

Jessica Seburn

learning skills, new skills, self-development, education

The COVID-19 pandemic has been undeniably challenging for many but has also presented the opportunity for learning new skills – either by choice or as a requirement.

If I am completely honest, I have become increasingly resistant to learning new skills as I get older! To be clear, I love the learning once it has actually occurred, but in those early stages I feel my patience, tolerance, and overall self-dignity flattening me like a freight train. The temptation to give up is mighty and when the sense of accomplishment doesn’t come as quickly as I think it should, I will give up with all sorts of pathetic adult rationalization.

However, there is considerable importance for our health in continuing to learn new skills as we age. Physiologically, we can increase and enhance our process of learning the more we engage in it. Research on dementia has highlighted the importance of continued learning to decrease the chances of developing the disease. Furthermore, the psychological benefits of ongoing learning include increased motivation, creativity, self-esteem, and overall happiness.

The psychological benefits of ongoing learning include increased motivation, creativity, self-esteem, and overall happiness.

One of my favorite models of learning is attributed to Noel Burch (1970s). This model resonates with me because it is so simple, easy to remember, and I also find it encouraging. Burch claims we move through four general stages of “competence” when it comes to learning something new:

Stage 1: We have unconscious incompetence, where we are floundering about and are unaware of the mistakes we are making. Think about the first time you learned to drive. Step-by-step, you had to learn at least 20 different items before even turning the ignition on. There is a significant sense of unfamiliarity in this stage, as we understandably don’t know what we don’t know.

Stage 2: This stage is aptly named conscious incompetence. It’s the growing awareness that we are making mistakes, but still aren’t able to take the steps to correct them. We are aware of the mistakes as we make them, (e.g., forgetting to put on our seatbelt or indicate when we’re changing lanes). Often, we become frustrated and impatient as we continue to make mistakes.

Stage 3: The third stage moves us into conscious competence. This is the point at which we have an understanding that we have mastered the skills and are methodically taking the steps to correctly apply them to the task. At this stage, there is a still a significant amount of concentrated thinking and effort as we apply the skill. For example, one would hope that when you go to take a driver’s test, that you are at this stage of the model. You know what you are supposed to do to drive the car safely, and you are carefully thinking through each step.

Stage 4: Finally, unconscious competence allows us the freedom to perform the skill without the deliberate thought or effort required at earlier stages. There is the added advantage of brain memory as our body unconsciously moves to do the skill without thinking. For example, after years of driving, the myriad of things we need to do to drive safely have become memorized and intuitive. There is this lovely freedom and ease in this stage of learning, where the process feels like “second nature.”

My frustration with learning a new skill as an adult is that I want unconscious competence immediately, or at least within minutes. I find my patience with going through the first two stages particularly uncomfortable, and this is often where I give up easily. So how do we get through those more challenging stages of learning a skill to ensure we can find that “second nature” freedom?

During the early stages of learning, expect to fail, embrace it, and look at it as a key part of the process.

Here are my four P’s for moving through those first two stages of learning:

1. Be extra PATIENT with yourself.

How we speak to ourselves during the initial stages of learning is critical. Now’s not the time to tell yourself that you’re stupid or incapable. Rather praise yourself for growing your brain, trying something new, and say things like, “You’ve got this” or “Keep going, you will figure this out.” Be your own cheerleader – you deserve the encouragement!

2. Allow yourself PERMISSION to be bad at the skill and fail (many times over).

As adults, we can often be impatient with our need to get it right the first time. Somehow, we have forgotten that everyone needs time to learn something. Yes, some will master things quickly, and others will need more time, but beating ourselves up for needing time isn’t going to speed things up. During the early stages of learning, expect to fail, embrace it, and look at it as a key part of the process. There are so many sayings about how we learn more from failure than we do from success, so ask yourself: What is the failure teaching you in this moment?

3. PERSEVERE.

Perseverance requires courage – the courage to keep going even though we have an array of emotions or barriers wanting us to give up. Perseverance asks that we do something hard and continue on. It taps into grit and resilience and expands our ability to manage challenges. My favorite mantra here is to tell myself that I can always do more than I think I’m capable of.

4. PRACTICE, practice, practice.

So many of our icons in this world have been quoted as saying that nothing good has come without hard work and practice. Practice requires hard work and, quite simply, repetition. You may be repeating all three previous steps over and over. “Muscle memory” – while a bit of a misnomer, and more about the complicated interaction between brain memory and muscles – demonstrates that with repeated action, our brain actually changes to remember certain muscle movements. Practice is a necessity to moving to that final stage of unconscious competence!

Whether it’s a new language, knitting, sculpting, or building a deck – you have an amazing brain that is wired to learn. And by learning something new, you have the reinforcing factor of enhancing your brain and overall health in the process!


For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our resources page.

Author: Briar Schulz (MA, PhD, RCC)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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