Scott H Young

Should You Learn New Skills or Master Old Ones?


A recent meme in the life-advice world is that anyone can make themselves an expert. Malcolm Gladwell suggested that 10,000 hours of practice were the key to becoming world class. Anders Ericsson’s research backs this up—if you want to be good, deliberate practice is key.

A bigger question is, what’s the best way to spend those 10,000 hours? Even if you accept that the success can be gained in many fields by dedicated learning, it’s less clear exactly how you should be spending that time.

Much of the original research on deliberate practice focuses on easily measurable skills, Ericsson used professional typists in one study. As a researcher, this has an obvious advantage, gains in skill are clear, measurable and objective. Most of the follow-up research seems to similarly focus on concrete skills, like musical virtuosity or athleticism.

This makes sense—practicing layups is likely an important part of becoming an excellent basketball player. But for a programmer, writer or entrepreneur, what exactly is their layup?

Can You Be Too Focused?

I recently spoke with Cal Newport about his efforts to become distinguished in computer science. He shared with me his recent observation that the best researchers in his field had the distinction of being quick to learn new methods.

This suggests a rather different conclusion than 10,000 hours of hyper focus seems to imply. Perhaps instead of repetitively mastering a single skill, true expertise means building a cluster of tightly related skills, so that most time is spent learning new ideas instead of practicing old ones.

Maybe repetitive practice is slightly overvalued? Sure, doing the one-millionth layup might perfect that shot, but in fields that reward creativity, not just mechanical excellence, perhaps it’s more useful to continually gain new tools, instead of simply becoming the best at only one.

The Cluster Method

The cluster method is to build expertise, not through repetitive mastery, but by aggressively learning a cluster of related skills. The difference between this and the method implied by 10,000 hours is that you spend most your time as a beginner, not as an expert.

Running a business, this approach has served me well. My gains rarely come from making 3% tweaks, but from learning a new tool which allows me to create a 300% improvement.

I feel the cluster method is also reflected in my MIT Challenge. Instead of trying to go slowly and “master” each class, I try to learn as many from the cluster as possible.

The question isn’t whether, in one year, I’ve learned as much as someone with the same aptitude who studied for four years. Instead, the question is whether, in one year, I’ve learned more than someone who has only finished the first year of a four year program.

The difference between real life and a college degree is that there is no stopping point to the curriculum. There are always new things you can learn that can improve your abilities. The true benefits of rapid learning aren’t in school, but in your professional life.

Neither Hedgehog, Nor Fox

In Good to Great, Jim Collins discusses the parable of the fox and the hedgehog. The fox is said to be good at many things, whereas the hedgehog is said to be master of one. Following this, he argues that it’s better to be a hedgehog than a fox.

Clustering is a method somewhat in between. It recognizes the importance of specialization. I doubt mastering French or judo would make Cal a significantly better computer scientist. Dabbling is fun, but let’s not mistake what makes for interesting recreation as being important to your work.

But it’s also claims that expertise is mostly found in learning new things. Being an expert, then, has less to do with mastery of a specific idea, but aggressively picking up new ones.

Ultralearning

As my life as a student reaches an end, I’ve become more interested in the idea of professional learning. How do you learn, not to pass tests, but to become the best at what you do—allowing you to earn more money and demand better lifestyle privileges than your peers?

We recognize that learning is different in school than in the real world. But the concept of clustering may mean the skills for learning faster aren’t radically different from both.

Unfortunately, however, my career learning is somewhat limited by the career I already have—as a writer and entrepreneur. So I’d like to call on your diverse experience, for the readers who’ve already begun their careers:

How important is learning to your career? Has learning ever made a big difference in your career opportunities, and if so, what was it?

Please share your voice in the comments. I’d love to know what role learning plays in your lives after school, and what the biggest challenges and successes it has created for you.


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29 Responses to “Should You Learn New Skills or Master Old Ones?”

  1. bull says:

    HE’S BACK!!! Very good post. Iv’e been missing these =)

  2. Mark Petrik says:

    As a high school dropout who was later able to get a job programming at a large software company, what my managers rated as most unique on my reviews was my ability to see an underdeveloped skill that was limiting my progress, and to go work on that with confidence. Most others would see this as a trait that they “just weren’t good at” and would go to great lengths to avoid those situations that required those skills, which limited their opportunities. It wasn’t because I was good at everything, I was very deficient in many areas, because of my background and lack of education. But I was used to that, and comfortable with the learning process, and so I’d quickly become proficient in areas that I lacked. Even things one would normally attribute to personality, like obsession and devotion, I found you could move towards by reading the right books.

  3. Ben says:

    Great post! I’m a video editor and adjunct professor so I find myself spending significant amounts of time learning new post-production techniques. Clustering is an interesting way to think about it, because I do try to learn new software or tricks within a related problem area. I think of new skills as more of a honeycomb, building up new pieces upon each other and hopefully connecting new groups of skills together.
    Cheers!

  4. Tom says:

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks for another interesting post, musicians and atheletes are great for studies because there is direct competition and clear goals. The workplace has a lot more uncertainty.

    I deliberately look for jobs and projects at the limit of current abilities (deliberate practice) and back myself to learn quickly. I took a job that required specialised software experience that I didn’t have. After 12 months some of my colleagues thought that I used to work for the developer of that software. The best use of my time now is not going to be spending the next 4 years delving right down into every detail of the software. Now I am in a spot now where I automate a lot of my work and focus on mastering related skills like communication of my work and decision making and risk management.

    Cheers,
    Tom

  5. Doc DeVore says:

    As much as I like Jim Collins, and cherish my autographed copy of “Good to Great”, I really like your thoughts here. My life experience says you are correct.

  6. Hicaro says:

    Hey.

    I’m a regular reader of your blog. Your ideas are very appealing and interesting. I read your book and enjoyed holistic learning. Your proactivity in MIT Challenge was exemplar. Congratulations! I envy your determination.

    The question about be a generalist or specialist is very intriguing. We have to ponder what we are capable of in addition to our objectives. Sincerely, self development means bullshit for me because focus more in planning than action. I guess this don’t apply to you, neither I’m in position to do such judgment. Anyway, I understand the power of little shifts and habits in life. That’s enough and all that we can get of self development phylosophy. Life itself requires a more pragmatic approach: experimentation.

    So, I want to show you a person who I consider absolutely successful. His name is Danny Choo. In this site has all his history:

    http://www.dannychoo.com/post/en/25018/Danny+Choo.html

    I’m sorry if this sounds pretentious. Perhaps you can get some insights reading about him.

    Good luck in your journey!

  7. Sandeep says:

    hey Scott,,
    Really good post..

    Regards,
    Sandy

  8. Stanley Lee says:

    Deep post, Scott. I would like to push your limits further. How would you define a cluster of related skills, let alone determining whether they are high leverage or low leverage for what you want to ultimately achieve? I think most readers would love to hear your thoughts on this question.

  9. Ravi Akella says:

    Another awesome post! I completely agree with you while schooling only gives basics, its the professional life that you learn a lot more. And continuously learning various things, implementing them and finding the results are the only ways to become expert in the subject!

  10. Hey Scott,

    I really like your posts. And that’s one thing I was thinking about lately, I’m really confused whether to just focus on “Internet Marketing” or to a more specific field like “Viral marketing online”, etc.

    This post opened my eyes for some stuff, but tbh I’m still pretty confused. See, internet marketing is a huge field where you can be a writer, coder, etc. So I don’t think your post applies here..

    What do you think?

  11. David Wynn says:

    I think learning will play a bigger role as the knowledge economy continues to grow, and the ground under people’s intellectual feet starts to shift more and more rapidly.

    I work at an IT firm that focuses on integration, and learning is definitely a key component to being successful at my job. No one can be a master of 20 separate technologies, and you never know when a client comes up with a new challenge (such as a computer that was invented 20 years ago that still keeps their accounting). In my role, you have to size up the situation, identify what you need, and learn it as quickly as possible in order to solve the problem and move on.

    That said, since the company is a smaller one, there is a great emphasis on learning new skills as a means of title transition. I’ve watched multiple people put in time towards new marketing, coding, or analytical skills to enable a move to a different position.

  12. Anurag says:

    nice article.

    agree with many points you make here.

  13. Scott Young says:

    Stanley,

    The example Cal shared with me were the variety of different techniques/sub-disciplines in computer science. Namely, not learning the proof techniques for randomized algorithms was holding him back, so clustering here meant learning a new, related skill rather than trying to get ever-better at deterministic techniques.

    For myself, I could see writing in a similar light. Even within writing there are interviews, short-stories, novels, profiles, editorials, etc. and perhaps being a great writer isn’t simply continually practicing the art of the profile, but in learning the cluster of writing techniques so as to improve yourself.

    As a programmer, this might mean learning several different languages and design methodologies instead of specializing down to mastering only one (because of the possible benefits in creative insights by having slightly more multidisciplinary approach).

    -Scott

  14. Centaine says:

    Thanks for this post…. Well I think repetition is needed in other skills like playing an instrument or playing a sport… in learning it doesn’t work because you need to link your knowledge. Repetition won’t lead you to new skills and it will “overfit” your knowledge… I think it “closes” minds.

    PS. Really thanks for your posts and your books… I improve my learning method and recently I ace an exam with a great result studying only 2 weeks 3 hours a day!

  15. Centaine says:

    pps. I’m an italian computer science student

  16. LLCoolJeans says:

    As a student taking some great art classes I’ve found it’s almost never good to master something specific. Let’s say you’re working on your charcoal by recreating some Seurat drawings (his drawings are way better than his paintings IMO) and you get to a point where it becomes easy. That’s where you stop and learn something new like wood cuts or graffiti. There’s no use in doing anything that comes easy to you, unless it can make a buck to fund a greater endeavor.

    P.S. I highly recommend that everyone take a drawing class or something in school, my drawing classes at community college were the hardest classes I ever took, and the most beneficial experiences I’ve ever had. I went in being afraid to doodle and came out having a kickass work ethic (drawings tend take me 20-25 hours to complete) as well as a new found confidence in myself that I know I couldn’t have developed anywhere else, or at least that quickly. I’m transferring for music technology but I wouldn’t trade my time in Drawing 1 & 2 for any amount of studio training.

    -Ladies Love Cool Jeans

  17. Alissa says:

    I am a speech therapist and due to the slow economy – in this field, it’s better to be a generalist. You want to be able to tackle whatever business walks into your door. Sure, you might not be really really good at one thing but you’re going to make more money when you’re competant in many things.

    I am still in the process of learning since I’m a grad student, but with my clients, I would say learning is super beneficial because therefore, I can better serve the people whom I serve. If I want to make a difference – I need to know what I’m doing and have to go out and do some research on my own. So yeah, learning totally helps but I wouldn’t say there is a monetary benefit, in this situation. It’s a matter of being good or being mediocore.

  18. Bornagainscholar says:

    I like this post but I don’t believe the 2 concepts are opposing forces. I would argue in order to have the ability for rapid learning (being at the level of the folks Cal refers to often as being exceptional in their field) one would have spent 10,000 hours honing their skills as a master student. The idea put forward in this post is not going to be effective for the average student or person. However, it will put the expert learner far ahead of their peers.

  19. Keri Peardon says:

    I have a tendency to hyper-focus on one project at a time–although you could also consider it a cluster project. Not only am I working on publishing a book, but I’ve also taken a little time off to work on some short stories and a weekly serial novel. I also blog, research, write background stories for my trilogy, read blogs, read books, and do marketing research. All of it is for one purpose: to make myself a successful author.

    So, I’m not only practicing my skill by writing every day, but I also learn when I read other people’s work, research for a book, and study marketing. I think everyone needs a combination of practice and continuing study. Think about a doctor or lawyer; they not only practice every day, they also have to take continuing education classes to learn new techniques or branches.

  20. Scott: As of now, I am trying to be good at everything it is going to take for me to be successful and turn my dreams into reality. I would love to be able to master the one thing I love doing most, but I do not have a team. No one believes in me so I must do things all by myself. No matter, I am going to do whatever it takes and make whatever sacrafices I have to make in order to accomplish my goals.
    I take one moment to think about how my boss treats me like a pawn and remember my position. I must push myself harder, look my fears in the face, step outside my comfort zone in order to grow as a person. Then maybe others will believe in me as much as I believe in myself.

  21. Mildew says:

    This is nice. I really like your blog.

    Sincerely,
    Lan Wan Qu Song Du

  22. din says:

    As a designer, everyday is a schoolday.

    With every new brief for a new project, is an opportunity to learn about how I can tackle this differently by studying what they have done in the past, what competitor is doing, market leader, best practise within the same or different categories… etc… the learning never ends.

    I enjoy every minute of it. It is more than just choosing what colour, image or font to use…

    Din
    Manchester, GB

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  24. Shim Kporku says:

    I agree with you on the point of having many skills or a broad knowledge base. Charlie Munger ,Warren Buffets business partner for over 50 decades, preaches the importance of having multiple mental models mainly derived from the hard sciences. This makes sense because you cannot think up worthwhile solutions in a vacuum. There are usually several dimensions to providing a comprehensive solution to a problem and having these mental models(over 100) makes it easier.

  25. Shim Kporku says:

    I agree with you on the point of having many skills or a broad knowledge base. Charlie Munger ,Warren Buffets business partner for over 5 decades, preaches the importance of having multiple mental models mainly derived from the hard sciences. This makes sense because you cannot think up worthwhile solutions in a vacuum. There are usually several dimensions to providing a comprehensive solution to a problem and having these mental models(over 100) really helps.

  26. makeswell says:

    I think that you are right in how whether we are a hedgehodge or a fox will depend on what field we’re engaged in. I meditate but view this as part of a larger goal to ‘train my mind’ which includes how I eat, exercise, my relationships, and so on. I think that it’s necessary to practice for many many hours before becoming great in meditation but that practicing a diverse number of styles leads to a more well-rounded mind that can adapt to various circumstances.

  27. Michelle says:

    Two points caught my attention:
    1. Perfecting one skill as compared to mastering a cluster; does this depend on the field? Can we say that playing the violin or basketball has reached a plateau of skill to be mastered? Here the repetition is useful. Whereas computer science is always evolving and being the best Fortran programmer isn’t going to make the cut anymore. Therefore a range of skills, including learning, is needed.

    2. While “learning is different in school than in the real world” when we were there, I see this is changing. At my kids primary school (5 yo to 12 yo) they have adopted the junior baccalaureate program where they investigate “units of enquiry” and all of their traditional maths, English and other classes revolve around this unit. This method does give them life skills where they set goals and reflect on them, and use different methods to gather information.

  28. Trent Darby says:

    I liked the topic in your post and I seem to be having a good time alter to dissect your blog (I a good way). Regarding the topic, I think I would often act as a specialist because I do think that I have a certain skill set. For me, it’s not exactly limiting but being best at what I do.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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