The Secret To Getting Good At Things Quickly
Erika Andersen, Founder/Partner
Whenever I’m teaching a group of leaders a new skill, I’m always impressed at their willingness to work on things they’re not yet great at doing in the semi-public environment of a workshop session. Being a novice, especially in front of others, can be embarrassing, awkward, and frustrating. Because once we get to be adults, we pride ourselves on being good at things. We really like feeling competent—even expert. We don’t much like having to go back to being bad at things.
But that’s what happens when you’re learning something new: you’re bad at it.
And given the speed at which everything is moving these days, we no longer have the luxury of trying new things in private. Every day at most people’s jobs, something changes: new products, new customers, new business models, new competitors, new processes and new technologies. You have to understand and learn these things right out there where everyone can see you. Yikes.
So, what’s a person to do?
One of the most important things: manage your self-talk so that you’re not making it harder for yourself than it needs to be. Here’s a post about it, in case you’re new to the conversation. That silent monologue, that commentary that runs pretty continuously inside our heads, can be quite benign or actively destructive.
Unfortunately, most people’s self-talk when confronted with learning new skills tends to be on the unhelpful, destructive side of that continuum. When trying to learn new capabilities, we say things to ourselves like, I’m such a loser—I can’t ever do anything right, or I’m going to look like a complete idiot—people will make fun of me behind my back. This kind of self-talk is unhelpful because in berating us for our initial lack of skill and telling us that everyone will judge us for not already being good, it just makes us more nervous, impatient, frustrated and embarrassed. And when we’re struggling with those demoralizing emotions, we’re much less likely to be open and focused enough to actually learn the thing.
However, some people’s mental monologue goes in an opposite and equally unhelpful direction, and they think things like, I got this—there’s really nothing more to learn or I’ll knock this out of the park first time. This second kind of poor self-talk masquerades as self-confidence, which we think of as being positive. But self-confidence is not useful if it’s misplaced. Because you’re trying to learn something new, telling yourself that you already know it simply closes you off from your actual need to get better—so you can’t learn.
It turns out the most useful and supportive self-talk for learning new skills has two parts. Part one goes something like this: I’m going to be bad at this to begin with, because that’s what happens when you’re learning something new. We call that “accepting not-good.” If you can say this to yourself, it’s liberating and soothing; as soon as you acknowledge the inevitability of your initial “novice-ness,” you’ve taken all the unrealistic pressure off yourself to immediately show up as an expert.
Part two of your supportive learning self-talk goes like this: And I’ll be able to get better at this, because I’ve gotten better at lots of things in my life. This self-talk asserts your faith in your own ability to learn and improve, to go from novice to competent.
Together, these self-talk statements are accurate yet hopeful—which is a powerful and useful combination. You’re being accurate about the present (I’m bad at this right now) and hopeful about the future (I’ll get better), as opposed to our more common learning-new-things self-talk, which tends to be inaccurate about our current state (I ought to be good at this already or I’m great at this right now) and either hopeless (I’ll always suck) or wildly hopeful (I’ll be perfect) about the future.And once you’ve managed your self-talk about learning new things in this way, much more of your attention and brainpower are suddenly available to you, and you’ll feel open, relaxed and curious. In this open and focused state, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you’ll be able to learn whatever it is you’re trying to learn.