The Challenge of the Learning Curve when Learning a New Skill

Ah, the learning curve. That wonderful thing that tells you how learning progresses through time even though your brain would much rather fart around and do nothing all day.

The Handy Millennial is happy to jabber on about handy things like personal finance, DIY repair, arts and crafts, or general life knowledge. But the Handy Millennial is also aware that that 98 99.99% of this advice/knowledge/jibber-jabber will fall on deaf ears.

Don’t get me wrong, I hope that you enjoy these posts and that you are thoroughly entertained. But the fact is that most such content is read, digested and simply discarded into your personal thought bin of history. And why? Because while it’s enjoyable and perhaps inspirational to read about doing things, it’s actually hard work to do them.

Moreover, a greatly underrated aspect of the learning curve is mental fatigue. That’s that feeling of I just can’t get this all in my head and I want to quit that you get when you try something new. So while it’s fun to read about how the Handy Millennial replaced his own oil, changed the brakes, or instructs people on being handy, it’s harder to go out and actually do it yourself for the first time.

But here is the thing about the learning curve: it’s kind of like compound interest. “Those who understand it harness it and propel their life forward – those who don’t are forever its slaves and wallow in mediocrity,” to paraphrase Einstein.

You see my dear reader, conventionally, people would say your learning curve looks something like this.

The trouble is that this curve doesn’t look quite right to me. The Handy Millennial has started and stopped learning many different skills in his life. And the pattern of learning and quitting on a new skill has always been the same:

  1. Become excited about a new skill.
  2. Learn quickly a lot about this new skill.
  3. Become exhausted from non-stop learning.
  4. Slog for a week or two trying to learn more.
  5. Realize you are not learning as fast as you want.
  6. Realize there is a lot more to learn than you thought.
  7. Quit.

So, lets try to reconstruct a more realistic learning curve.

  • We start out fast and hard,
  • then build slowly as we wade into the difficulties of the skill (this is where it’s easier to quit!),
  • at some point we have accumulated enough knowledge to really leverage ourselves into learning fast,
  • we finally almost plateau, at the point where you are keeping up with new developments or learning the most advanced minutia of this particular skill.

Most people quit here:

When this happens it is usually because of mental fatigue. Assuming that you started learning for a good reason (for example, to save money on your car repair, to become better at managing your finances, to become a better cook, to learn how to travel smarter), you are not quitting because what you’re doing is not worthwhile. You are quitting because learning is hard, and because like any other muscle, your brain would rather not move. It would prefer watching TV in a near catatonic state.

So how do we combat this? We fight our natural urge to stay complacent and lazy by reminding ourselves that:

  1. Learning is a marathon, not a sprint.
  2. It’s okay to take breaks, but no more than a few days.
  3. Our brain is really good at convincing itself of what it wants. Therefore we need to do the hard work of re-convincing it that this skill is important. (Write down a list of reasons why you want this skill.)
  4. After some time, our seemingly slow rate of learning will pick up and we will succeed!

Real Life Case Study

Let’s finish this blog post with a real life case study: The Handy Millennial. The Handy Millennial only recently began to blog. Blogging has proven to be an exciting creative outlet and a challenging new skill to build.

At first, I fell for the many posts written out there about how to start a blog. “Its Easy to Blog,” “Start a Blog in 3 Minutes,” “Start a Blog for $3 a Month.” All of these somehow suggest that blogging is easy.

But Blogging is not easy. I should rephrase this: writing content is fun and not too difficult, but(!) running a blog is hard.

When the Handy Millennial began to blog, he enthusiastically wrote 6 posts right away. And this seemed like it was just about the greatest number of posts to start with. But the initial WordPress theme (what makes a WordPress blog/website looks the way it does) that the Handy Millennial picked for his blog was full of extraneous stuff that didn’t seem to apply. After a month of learning about blogging in theory and writing content, the Handy Millennial found himself here:

So the Handy Millennial decided to cut out any theme extras that didn’t seem to apply and to launch the site. After a couple days of minimal visitors, the Handy Millennial complained to Millennial Rosie that this site was not working out. In a somewhat maternal tone, Millennial Rosie inquired, “Are you promoting it? How should people know you exist?”

So the Handy Millennial embarked on a journey to learn about social media and content promotion. And let me tell you, if you’ve never used social media for promotion, well, let’s just say that social media is getting the better side of the deal. So the Handy Millennial found himself here:

Now after a few weeks on social media and with some more blogging experience, the Handy Millennial’s rate of learning is again slowing. It’s certainly not that I have mastered how to blog, I am simply realizing how much more there is to know.

But the Handy Millennial started blogging as a creative outlet that allows him to help people and to share of the knowledge he is discovering. For this reason, he refers early and often to the learning curve on his journey of becoming a better blogger.

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