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How to Master a New Skill


Nov. 29, 2012 Harvard Business Review

We all want to be better at something. After all, self-improvement is necessary to getting ahead at work. But once you know what you want to be better at — be it public speaking, using social media, or analyzing data — how do you start? Of course, learning techniques will vary depending on the skill and the person, but there are some general rules you can follow.

What the Experts Say
Mastering new skills is not optional in today’s business environment. “In a fast-moving, competitive world, being able to learn new skills is one of the keys to success. It’s not enough to be smart — you need to always be getting smarter,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist and author of the HBR Single Nine Things Successful People Do Differently. Joseph Weintraub, a professor of management and organizational behavior at Babson College and coauthor of the book, The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business, agrees: “We need to constantly look for opportunities to stretch ourselves in ways that may not always feel comfortable at first. Continual improvement is necessary to get ahead.” Here are some principles to follow in your quest for self-improvement:

Check your readiness
When working on a new skill or competency, you need to ask yourself two things. First, is your goal attainable? “There are certain limits to what you can learn,” explains Weintraub. “For example, you may want to be a brain surgeon, but not have the eye-hand coordination required.” Second, how much time and energy can you give to the project? “It’s not like going to the pharmacy and getting a prescription filled,” says Weintraub. Self-improvement is hard work. Halvorson agrees: “Many people implicitly believe that if you have to work hard at something, it means you lack ability. This is rubbish.” Instead, recognize that learning a new skill takes extreme commitment. Unless your goal is attainable and you’re prepared to work hard, you won’t get very far.

Make sure it’s needed
Weintraub suggests you also make sure the skill is relevant to your career, your organization, or both. You may be jazzed up about learning how to speak in front of large audiences, but does your manager value that? Unless you absolutely need the skill for your job, or for a future position, it’s unlikely you’ll get money for training or support from your manager. Gaining a new skill is an investment and you need to know upfront what the return will be.

Know how you learn best
Some learn best by looking at graphics or reading. Others would rather watch demonstrations or listen to things being explained. Still others need a “hands-on” experience. Halvorson says you can figure out your ideal learning style by looking back. “Reflect on some of your past learning experiences, and make a list of good ones and another list of bad ones,” she says. “What did the good, effective experiences have in common? How about the bad ones? Identifying common strands can help you determine the learning environment that works best for you.”

Get the right help
Eliciting support from others can greatly increase learning. Find someone you trust who has mastered the skill you’re trying to attain. And look beyond your immediate manager who has to evaluate you. Weintraub suggests you ask yourself: “Who in my organization, other than my boss, would notice my changes and give me honest feedback?” Then approach that person and say something like, “You are so comfortable with [the skill], something I’m not particularly good at. I’m really trying to work on that and would love to spend some time with you, learn from you, and get your feedback.” If you can’t find a mentor inside your company, look for people in your industry or from your network. “Ultimately, you want to go with the best teacher. If there is someone in your organization who is able and willing to provide quality mentoring, then great. If not, seek outside help,” says Halvorson.

Start small
Self-improvement can feel overwhelming. “You can’t take on everything. If you do, you’ll never do it,” says Weintraub. Instead, choose one or two skills to focus on at a time, and break that skill down into manageable goals. For example, if you’re trying to become more assertive, you might focus on speaking up more often in meetings by pushing yourself to talk within the first five minutes.

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