Motivation Monday: How to Level Up and Learn New Skills

As Gaming has clawed its way into our culture, the term ‘level up’ has taken on a whole new meaning.  Suddenly a level up is not just a desired progression point in a video game, its a term we use to describe exciting milestones in our own lives, most notably with learning skills.

A big part of skill building and progression is the transition through the following levels:

1. You don’t know what you don’t know (unconscious incompetence) – You have no idea what the skill involves, and you have no idea how much you don’t know about it.  You continue happily living with your lack of understanding.

2. You know what you don’t know (conscious incompetence) – Maybe it was interesting to you, but you started to explore the skill a little bit, and you realize how much of a n00b you are.  You had no idea how much there was to learn on the subject, but now your ignorance is conscious and you know that you have much to learn.

3. You know what you know (conscious competence) – You have learned so much on the subject, and you consciously perform the skill with decent ability.  It’s all in your head, but mastery is still far ahead. You categorically know you’ve covered it all, organized it in your mind, and put it to good use, but you’re not done.

4. You don’t know what you know (unconscious competence) – This is potentially the longest step in the process.  You’ve learned so much about the skill but the real difference now is that it’s second nature to you, natural, effortless.  You are a master.  Truly the master’s journey is never over, but you are envied by others who see you in action.

The four levels above are essential to building any skill, but how long they take depends on a few things: Time, saturation, and efficiency.


Everything we learn takes time, and a lot of it.  You’ve heard of the ‘10,000 hours’ principle that says to truly master a skill it takes 10,000 hours of practice.  This works out to just under 417 days of practice.  And not 417 days of spending 30 minutes learning that skill, this is 417 days, 24 hours a day.  So essentially it takes far longer in reality.

So how do some people become masters so quickly? Are there better ways? Is it 10,000 hours as a hard rule?

I don’t believe it is.  Granted it will take years to truly master a skill, I believe there is a way to maximize your time.


For one, those who live and breathe their skill can absorb things more quickly.  For example, imagine the musician who plays in a band for a living, it is their job to play and make music.  Or the gymnast who spends every morning in the gym for three hours and watches technique videos all afternoon.

Saturation means devoting as much time as possible to the skill, and having a passion for it will allow for that devotion.  This doesn’t mean we can only master things we are passionate about, rather we have to live and breathe something to truly excel at it in time.   It’s generally very hard to do this for something we do not like, which is why most of those who truly master a skill are said to ‘do what they love.’

But even with saturation, there is another way to maximize the skill learning process.


This may be the most important part of the skill building process.  It can be the difference between using an hour a week of your little free time, or three hours per week.  Any busy person can tell you that this is a huge difference.  So how do we fit three hours of skill-building into a single hour?

Efficiency involves finding the right ratio of two things: Theory and Practice.

Theory involves the study of the skill by hearing the words of the masters who came before you.  Why do you think the top people in every field can sell books? It’s because people want to learn how they did it and follow in their footsteps.  For music this could be learning music theory and structure, or attempting to compose a song.

Practice involves doing it. Practice is physically learning the skill while mindfully considering the theory.  This is important so I’ll say it again – learning the skill while mindfully considering the theory. 

This is the essence of efficiency.  You learn the theory with the practice you’ve done in mind, and then practice with the theory in mind.  It’s a cycle of feedback.  And if you do it the right way, picking up a skill can be much quicker and easier than the 10,000 hours expected.

Efficiency does change on a skill by skill basis though, and it’s hard to say where the happy medium is.  For skills like swimming, the master would clearly require much more time in the pool than they would reading books on technique, where as someone learning to write stories would benefit greatly from reading many books by exceptional storytellers, and then practising their own writing.

The more I study skill building, and put it into practice (seems redundant, I know), the more it seems that practice outweighs theory in most skills.  I would say a 70% practice 30% theory split is best, but it does vary greatly depending on the skill.  Still, I doubt there are many, if any, skills that require more than 50% theory work.

So there you have it.  In terms of levelling up, set your own goals, and make them SMART goals (See my post here).  And most importantly, don’t make your journey a chore, revel in it.  The journey is far more important than the destination.


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