586: New Skills

A Thousand Things to Talk About
586: New Skills

What new skill are you learning?

Full episode script

If you’re a fan of Malcom Gladwell — and perhaps if you’ve never directly heard of him at all – you’ve likely heard of his 10,000 hour rule. That all it takes to become an expert in something is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. In the book Outliers, he argues that this practice threshold is what explains Bill Gates, the Beatles, and experts across every field.


But.. as tempting as an explanation like this is, it may not be true when it comes to learning a new skill. A meta-analysis that Princeton University researchers completed very shortly after Gladwell’s book came out found a very different story. Specifically, quote:

This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing—but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions.


In other words, practice can help — but practice time certainly isn’t the magic bullet to become a master. Just because you’re not going to become a master after you hit a magical number of hours of practice, though, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever learn a new skill. You can find plenty of reasons it is a good idea, from improving your resume to improving your brain’s function at any age.


No matter what you choose to learn, researchers from Princeton University have a tip for how to learn that skill even faster — and it may have more to do with HOW you practice than how LONG you practice. Quoting from a Washington Post article:

The received wisdom on learning motor skills goes something like this: You need to build up “muscle memory” in order to perform mechanical tasks, […]  And the way you do that is via rote repetition.

The wisdom on this isn’t necessarily wrong, but the Hopkins research suggests it’s incomplete. Rather than doing the same thing over and over, you might be able to learn things even faster — like, twice as fast — if you change up your routine. […] Trying to nail a 12-bar blues in A major on the guitar? Spend 20 minutes playing the blues in E major, too. […]

“What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row,” said Pablo Celnik, an author on the study, in a statement.

“For skills to improve, we must update an existing memory with new information,” the researchers conclude. If you practice the exact same thing the exact same way every time, you’re not layering much new knowledge over what you already know.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.