Home » Perfect Me

Learn Something New

25 October 2010 No Comment

My business life as a trainer and coach is all about helping people learn and I’ve been doing it for many years now. I think I’m pretty good at it and one way I keep ‘in shape’, as it were, is to take my own self development and learning very seriously.

Since my mid thirties one thing I do is take on a new learning project every couple of years. Currently I’m learning how to build and maintain my physical health, before that it was blogging. Previous projects included Italian, Polish, Scuba-Diving, Yoga, Meditation, Playing Guitar and Skiing.

Of course the learning continues to this day for most of these projects. The level I’ve reached varies and ranges from what I consider to be great successes through to mild successes down to abject failure. The failures are only temporary though, and one day I will learn Italian!

I want to share some things I find useful when starting out to learn something new.

Be Clear About The Starting Point

Human beings are like very complex and sophisticated Swiss Army Knives.

We carry with us a vast toolbox of skills, knowledge and attributes we use in different combinations whenever we take on a new task or activity. Knowing what’s in my toolbox – and what’s not – is really helpful as preparation for learning.

Whenever I start to learn something new I never start from scratch.

1.   Transferable Skills

I own a small Swiss Army Knife myself. Some of the blades are useful for a wide variety of things, such as the screwdriver which I’ve used for such tasks as prising off bottle lids, scraping off unwanted dried paint, cleaning the dirt under my fingernails and I’ve even used it for screw-driving!

It’s easy to take that screwdriver for granted because it’s so damn useful. When I take something for granted I don’t look after it and I may even forget to use it.

In the same way it’s easy to overlook some of the fundamental skills we already possess and are going to be extremely helpful when learning something new. Things such as making meaning out of the sensory information we receive, co-ordination, picturing things in our mind, logical reasoning, concentrating on a task etc. etc and etc..

Never underestimate the depth and breadth of transferable skills and attributes you bring to bear when learning a new task.

2.   Task Specific Skills

There’s one little hooky type of thing on my knife and I have no idea what it’s for. Neither does anyone I ask. It’s so specialised, in fact, that until I find that one task for which it was designed, it will sit there unused – except as a conversation filler when the party is slowing down.

Some of our skills and knowledge are very specialised but that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about the thing we’re about to learn. For example, when I learned scuba-diving I had some idea what to expect even though I’d never done it before. I could swim for a start, and I’d watched Jacques Cousteau programmes so had some vague idea about the equipment. I also bought a book and read up about it.

It’s pretty rare you’ll start without having some idea of what you are about to start.


Prepare a personal inventory of all the skills, knowledge and attributes you already have that are going to be useful in your own learning project.

Be Realistic

My language projects failed (in terms of learning the language) simply because my expectations were too high. I wanted to be perfect and, of course, not even native speakers is perfect.

I put up a barrier for myself preventing me from practicing the language until I was proficient and, of course, I couldn’t get proficient because I didn’t practice. I know it makes no sense but that’s my reality. (Please don’t leave advice in the comments – I’ve had so much advice on this topic and it just makes it worse!)

I was running a leadership workshop for a group of managers in a large multinational a couple of weeks ago. One of the group was trying to increase their assertiveness and was having a hard time.

‘It’s no good,’ she said, ‘I guess you’re either naturally assertive or not.’


I hear the same thing said about any advanced skill or activity.

It may be true that the level you can reach, for example, as a public speaker, is influenced a little by genetics. But it’s more influenced by the amount of practice you put into it and your commitment to learn. You might never be one of the great orators of history, but you can master the basic skills pretty easily and from there, no matter how skilled you are, you can always improve!


Set your sights high enough for it to be motivating but not so high you’re going to get disappointed and give up.


Remember you can always set your sight higher once you’ve reached base camp!

You never reach perfection. There is always something to learn.

Tailor Your Own Learning Experience

Schools (generally) take a shotgun approach to learning – one where the pupil is expected to just sit there and get knowledge shot at them in the hope it sticks. There is little or no scope for the student to tailor their learning experience, other than to opt in or out. This approach doesn’t work for children and doesn’t work for adults.

We all learn in different ways and need different approaches.

My way to learn is to read, listen and process in my head before putting it into practice. Other people have different, but equally valid, styles of learning, for example diving in and then briefly reviewing what worked before diving in again.

And we all have different starting points which also need different approaches.

As a public speaker, for example, I would rate myself as much better than the average but someway to go before reaching ‘inspirational speaker’ level. I have no special talent for public speaking, just lots of practice. If I wanted to improve, my learning plan would include watching videos of myself for feedback and asking a colleague for a couple of Coaching sessions.

I’d like to learn how to make podcasts. I’ve not done it before but I’m not starting from zero because I’ve already got some tools (I can write a script, some IT proficiency and I can speak). My learning plan is very different from the public speaking one and includes lots of reading, listening to other podcasts and finding an expert who is willing to pass on some of their knowledge. Oh yes, and lots and lots of rehearsing!

The point is you need to design your learning approach according to your current level and learning style.


Prepare a learning plan (doesn’t need to be written down and could be in your head).


Make sure you tailor activities and sources to your learning style and your current level in this field.

Set Goals

This section is short.

I don’t like goals and I think they take the joy out of learning. I don’t do it.

I know plenty of people who swear by them, though, so set goals if you really must but be realistic! You don’t need to set your initial goals too high because once you’ve met them just set new ones.

Voices In Your Head

Oh yes! Those voices in your head. Don’t we all have them?

When I learned to ski at the age of 38, many of my fellow students were young enough to be my kids or grandchildren. I had a lot of self talk going on during this time!

‘You’re too old to be doing this. This is for kids! Just look around, man!’ My favourite was the one that kept telling me: ‘If you fall over you’re going to look a complete idiot in front of these kids’

Now I doubt there is anyone in the history of alpine sports who hasn’t fallen over at some point!

But here’s the interesting thing. If I had taken the great advice from my Inner Guardian then would I have thrown myself into learning to ski? Of course not.

Our Inner Guardians have one purpose and only one purpose.

To keep us safe.

If I allowed my Inner guardian to live my life I would be covered in bubble wrap and laying motionless next to my bed for the rest of my life. In case you’re wondering, next to the bed is much safer than on the bed in the case of an earthquake, and that’s something my Inner Guardian frets about.

‘SKI!!!!! You fat, unfit slob of a human being. You couldn’t last 15 minutes on those slopes, you wimp!’

We have an Inner Critic as well who has pretty much the same job as the Guardian but is meaner and knows exactly which buttons to press!

I find the best way to deal with those guys or girls (for some reason my Critic always has a female voice) is to listen politely, thank them for their positive intent and then tell to shut up.

Actually I find it more effective to tell them to shut up unless they see something REALLY dangerous! I mean it’s best to keep them occupied on something.


Working with your Inner Critic and Guardian is usually best done before starting to learn to prevent them interfering too much and taking away from the joy of learning.


Have an actual dialogue with them. Out loud or on paper. It feels a bit odd at first but really works.

Support Network

The learning projects I failed at where the ones I tried to tackle on my own. With all the others I paid attention to the support network around me. I found there are three groups of people and a well functioning network will include all of them:

  1. Fellow learners – for encouragement and to have fun with!
  2. Teachers/Guides/Coaches – the style depends on my level but generally they are there to show the way and impart knowledge, advice and feedback
  3. Supporters – those we share our life with who support us, create space for our endeavours and share our celebrations when we succeed.

Pay attention to each of the three parts of your network and make sure you have at least one person in each.


Try out a learning project with you partner or family. I did that with skiing and loved every minute, even when I was falling flat on my face for the 89th time.

This has been one of my longest posts yet so thank you for staying until the end and I really hope it was worth it for you. I’d love to hear your tips and hints that have helped you when you’ve started learning something new.

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.