How to Master Any Skill


Mastering a skill requires both theory and practice.  Theory is important, because if you’re all about the “doing,” you’ll waste energy doing the wrong things.  And practice is important because, well, you can read 50 books about sales (for instance) and still crash and burn on your first customer call.

According to best-selling author Greg Wingard, your mind goes through six specific stages when mastering a skill–three in the “theory” segment, and three in the “practice” segment.

The Theory Segment

  • Unawareness: You are unaware that there is a skill to be learned.
  • Awareness: You realize you need to learn that skill.
  • Clarification: You understand what you need to do differently.

The Practice Segment

  • Awkwardness: You attempt the new behavior and find it difficult.
  • Familiarity: The new behavior is easier but still not automatic.
  • Automatic: You no longer think about the behavior but simply do it.

It’s when you reach that sixth stage that you have mastered a skill.  Up until that point, the skill requires requires constant and consistent practice. After that point, however, the skill is automatic, like riding a bike.  You may get a bit rusty, but the skill is always there for you to draw upon.

For example, when my father, who played concert piano, went back to college in his 40s, he spent three years without access to a piano. But when he graduated and finally bought a piano, he was back where he’d been as a pianist within about a month.

That’s a personal example, but the same is true in business as well.  Your value in the business world is directly tied to the number of skills you’ve been able to master.  It’s those automatic skills that represent your value over your competitors–who are hopefully struggling with the hurly-burly of steps 1 through 5.

The amount and time and effort it takes reach mastery varies according to the complexity of the skill.

Suppose, for instance, that you want to change a habitual negative thought (like “I’m not that good with people”) to a positive alternative (like “people really like me when they get to know me”). That kind of change can be accomplished in less than two weeks, simply through five minutes of daily affirmations.

By contrast, changing something major, like your eating habits, can take a commitment of an hour or more a day for six months to a year, or even longer. The reason that so many people never master their diet is that they never reach the point where healthy eating is automatic

What You’re Up Against

Practicing a new skill until you reach Stage 6 requires single-minded focus. Unfortunately, that kind of focus is difficult to achieve in today’s business word for two reasons. First, there’s the problem of distraction.  Life is full of interruptions constantly vying for your attention.

Second, most people over-commit.  When people attempt to make changes in multiple areas of their life, it becomes difficult or impossible to focus on a single change long enough to reach stage 6.

Think how many times you’ve heard somebody say: “Starting tomorrow, every day I’m going to run three miles, lift weights, drink eight glasses of water, stop smoking, stop drinking coffee … and eat 50 percent less fat.”

Yeah, right. I’m sure that will happen. The likelihood that anyone can keep up that regimen for more than a few days (let alone reach stage 6 on any element of the regimen) is practically nil.

To overcome distraction, set aside a very small amount of time each day–hopefully less than 10 minutes–to focus on the change in behavior that you seek.  If it’s more time than that, the reality is that other priorities will probably intrude.

To overcome the pesky problem of over-commitment, pick a single skill that you wish to master and then focus on that until it becomes automatic.  Then move to the next skill.

5 Important Steps

If you want to change a certain behavior, use these steps to make create a practice regimen that, over time, will make it automatic. With that in mind, here are five simple steps to carry you through all six stages:

1. Script the new behavior.  Write down exactly what you’d like your new behavior to be.  Be specific and make it quantifiable.  Example: I will make 10 cold calls every workday prior to 10am.

2. Practice it … perfectly. The homily “practice makes perfect” is itself imperfect.  In fact, “perfect practice makes perfect.”  To hard-wire a behavior, you must push yourself to repeat it religiously–and correctly.

3. Rebound and fix. You will probably stumble and forget at first.  Pick yourself up and keep going.  Don’t let a temporary setback turn into an excuse to fail.  Stick with it, despite setbacks.

4. Accelerate through mental rehearsal. The behavior will become automatic more quickly if you take extra time to imagine yourself doing the behavior, thus creating a positive outcome.

5. Make it part of your identity. Turn the behavior into a character attribute that’s part of who you are and what you value. Example: “I’m the cold-calling champion of the region.”

Follow those steps successively for each skill. Over time, your breadth of mastery will exceed your highest expectations.

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