How can I figure out if a new skill is worth learning?

The Takachiho gorge, Miyazaki Prefecture, Japan

Is a skill worth pursuing if you know you’re never going to be amazing at it?

A friend recently came to me with this question, and at the time I gave the generic answer: As long as it makes you happy. Do what you like, don’t do what you don’t like; a binary way of dismissing the vicissitudes of life.

Obviously things aren’t that simple. Even for me, the happiness I derive from some skills comes precisely from the feeling that I’m getting better at them. For example, I love singing, and I have fun every time I sing. However, nothing beats that uplifting feeling of nailing a tricky riff, or hitting a note I was never able to hit before.

So if getting better at a skill is what makes you happy, but at the same time you know you’ll never be awesome, then is it still worth pursuing?

An unfair comparison

The biggest obstacle to feeling happy when learning a skill is when our motivation gets shattered because we compare ourselves to others.

It happens to me all the time.

I spend hours thinking up and writing articles for a tiny but lovely audience, just to then get a notification for an article trending worldwide and obsess over “Why couldn’t that be me?” Much younger writers are capable of articulating the points I want to make better than I ever could. Sometimes a friend’s first article will get ten times the reads of my most popular piece. It’s easy to list examples that feel unfair or demoralizing, opening the door for cynicism to creep in and ignite the flames of procrastination.

On the one hand, I know these thoughts are dampening my drive. Logically, it makes sense to me. If you’re starting a new hobby as an adult, whatever you do, there will always be someone younger who can do the same thing better and faster. There will always be people who start later but skyrocket to the top, fueled either by outstanding talent or sheer luck.

On the other hand, I do have to ask myself, what if I’m just sub-par at what I do? Certain people are just bad at certain things. You don’t want to be the person who has convinced themselves they’re awesome when everyone else would beg to differ.

Giving up all shame would be one way to overcome self-doubt, but I don’t recommend it. Some people admire the guy at the karaoke bar who belts off-key at full lung capacity because he’s doing whatever he wants and doesn’t care what other people think. I think that guy’s obnoxious and should at least try to get better if he’s going to insist on imposing his cacophony on others.

Instead, a better approach would be to try to put our comparisons into perspective.

First, do we really know how many hours they’ve put into their craft? I get annoyed when people tell me how lucky I am to “just know” French because I moved to Switzerland when I was ten. As if living in a country as a kid means you can absorb a language into your mind through some sort of linguistic osmosis.

Back then, admittedly my brain was more plastic and I learned faster, but that’s the case for any skill you learn as a kid. Most of my ability comes from speaking only French for years, absorbing French entertainment, sitting through hundreds of hours of French lessons, and getting terrible grades in middle and high school because I couldn’t quite catch up to the level of my native French-speaking classmates.

There’s this strange idea among people learning new skills as adults that hours spent during childhood count less, or that those who struggled in the past are somehow lucky for not needing to struggle in the present.

If you haven’t sat through years of mandatory “dictées” and manually copying conjugation tables, you don’t get to tell me I’m “lucky” to “just know” French.

In reality, it’s not a fair comparison, not because those who learned as a child were lucky, but because adults can’t learn the same way. I got good at the skills I practiced the most. I’ve finally gotten to a native level of French because I needed it to survive, so I studied and practiced directly or indirectly for tens of thousands of hours. I never became an amazing soccer player or a professional guitarist, because even though I practiced those as a child too, I didn’t put nearly as much effort as the people who actually got great.

Remember, the thing about the 10,000 hours it supposedly takes to get awesome at a skill is that most of them are spent behind closed doors.

The second thing to keep in mind when comparing ourselves to others is relative talent. Are we comparing ourselves to the top 1%, the top 10%, the average, or everyone? I see so many people whose only point of reference is the most talented person they can find. Problem is, with our global connectedness and social media culture of showing off, it’s easy to find people who are almost inhumanly talented at pretty much anything.

Back to my singing, if I let the world’s most talented singers -or even just my most talented friends — define what constitutes success, I might as well not bother.

Instead, I’ve made my peace with the sad reality of my non-awesomeness. What keeps me singing is that I know if I put in the hours, I can at least be better than the people who don’t practice, which -and I can’t stress this enough -is most people. I may not be the guy who brings a tear to every eye in the karaoke room, but at least I won’t be unpleasant to listen to, and since singing is something I thoroughly enjoy, that standard of achievement is good enough for me.

I reject the idea that you should never compare yourself to others and just do what makes you happy.

If the skill you’re learning involves you interacting with other people, then comparisons are probably in order. Just be reasonable in your criteria and adjust the expectations you set upon yourself.

Are you alright with not being mind-blowingly amazing, but just pretty good? Would you still enjoy your hobby if you’ll never be in the top 1% but can still make the top 10%? Look at the matter objectively, perhaps with the help of your friends and peers, and make a decision on what constitutes “good enough.” After doing all that, if you really know you can’t make it, giving up and looking for something else may indeed be the best way forward.

Or go find something to do on your own, like me with my singing.

Setting the expectations that work for you

The other major obstacle to achieving long-term goals is the fear of not meeting our own internal expectations. I see this pattern all the time: A friend will set a super ambitious goal, convince themselves it’s doable, then lose motivation when things don’t go according to schedule.

Setting goals, especially short term, has proven to be a very effective way of getting big things done. Start with small boxes that you know for sure you can tick off easily, then gradually add difficulty. Don’t stop when you’ve done the bare minimum, but rather when what you’re doing is no longer enjoyable. Then track your progress over time and adjust your short-term goals accordingly. There’s plenty of research and advice from reputable academics on how to do this, so I’ll refer you to the experts.

The trouble starts when you doubt if your small steps will get you as far as you want to go. What if you’re on a great big journey that ends short of any real destination? What if I’m spending a dozen hours a week practicing something that I’ll never be good enough to show anyone? Or what if my hours of practice are not the right way to do what I’m doing, and some small tweak could get me improving twice as fast?

Plenty of feel-good gurus will simplify the problem and tell you that happiness is in the journey. Achievement is only the end, and focusing future dreams means you’re sleeping through the present. I’m sure there’s some deep-seated wisdom in that way of thinking, but for all of you who don’t have the emotional control of a Buddhist monk, let’s talk results.

If you’re worried that you’ll never get far enough, one of two things is happening. The first possibility is that you’re just wrong. You’ve underestimated either your own ability or overestimated that of others, and with grit and perseverance you’ll make it eventually. If you just work harder, put in more hours, you’ll get there eventually.

The second possibility is that you’re right. You will indeed never reach the goals you’ve set. In that case, ask yourself: Does it matter? If I tell you that although you’ll make it somewhere, it won’t be the very top, would that make you stop? If I tell you you’re slow and are going to have to work harder for the same amount of progress as your peers, would you rather spend your precious time on something else?

You probably won’t be able to come up with a clear answer. Nobody can predict future results with complete accuracy. But at least you’ll get a conversation going. Then, once you’ve figured out your priorities and how much you’re willing to lose, you’ll be rid of a lot of the dread and anxiety of gambling with your time.

Make the odds be forever in your favor

At the end of the day, investing time in a skill is basically a gamble. You set an expectation and bet hours of your existence on whether you’ll reach it. The riskier and more outlandish the bet, the bigger the satisfaction if you succeed.

There are a few ways to rig the dice in your favor. First, if you’re serious about getting better at a skill, get a teacher. They themselves don’t have to be the best in the world, but it’s important that they’ve spent time helping others get better.

In our effort to make progress, it’s natural to seek out ways to optimize our learning hours. But beware, as there’s often no clear answer, and it’s easy to get bogged down in opinions, theories and research on how to get better.

A simple way to think about it is that every hour you spend learning how to get better is a lost hour of practice. Will you be able to make up that time with the efficiency and productiveness you’ve gained?

In the beginning the answer is ‘yes’, but very quickly it becomes a solid ‘no’. The reason is simple: When your only reference point is yourself, it’s hard to get an objective view on which methods work for you and which don’t. Trying out a million different techniques by yourself and on yourself is not just frustrating; it’s a waste of time. That’s why you want to get a teacher. Not an app or a YouTube channel you like, but an actual human being who has taught other actual human beings, and is willing to look into the particularities of your individual situation.

I can already hear some readers complain that teachers are expensive. You’re right, especially with so many free resources available online. However, a teacher’s added value isn’t in the information they have, but rather in the way they organize and convey information to support your learning style. Why spend dozens hours of your own time reading and researching ways to get better when you could just pay a teacher and skip that step entirely? We’ve gotten too accustomed to think of cost in terms of money, when really, our ultimate currency is time.

My other piece of advice is to be radical in your decisions. If you’re going to gamble your time on learning, do it. If not, spend your time on something else. From a cosmic perspective, there’s a pretty big chance either path will bring you happiness, whereas you’ll be miserable if you flounder in the middle.

There may be a lot of ‘what if’s that need considering, in which case consider them early and make a plan. I like to use a tree of possibilities. If in three months I’ve met my internal expectations, then I ask myself if I should be aiming higher. If not, I allow myself to reconsider whether to invest more time or to give up.

For those three months, I try my absolute best not just to get better, but also to not think about whether or not my bet was worth it in the first place. Find the duration that works for you (don’t reconsider every day though, that’s the same as ruminating) and draw out your tree if you need to.

If I end up giving up, I’ll readily admit that I lost my bet, but I won’t regret taking it. At least I found what I cared about, put all the chances on my side, and took the best shot I could. I’ll lose a lot, but when I win, I’ll win big. Not to mention I’ll get to experience that unforgettable feeling of profound, unadulterated happiness.

Originally published at http://theforeignrational.com on April 1, 2021.

Mostly thinker, sometimes writer. Aspiring author. Polyglot. Background in Human Rights Law. Find me on twitter @alexstwrites or at www.theforeignrational.com

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