Why Skill Acquisition is Hard
And why knowledge and motivation are NOT enough
Ever read a book or listen to a lecture about a topic and get to the end knowing that you definitely learned something, but you have no idea on how to act on it?
If you haven’t, you are an exceptional human being.
This is for the rest of us.
How to Ride a Bike
Let me teach you how most of us are taught other subjects via the example of bike riding.
Stand next to the bike with the brakes applied.
Keep one foot on the ground and swing your other leg over the seat to straddle the bike, and put that foot onto a pedal
Push yourself forward with the foot on the ground while simultaneously lifting pushing down on the pedal.
Maintain a relaxed grip on the handlebars and look straight ahead to maintain balance.
To steer, gently turn the handlebars in the direction you want to go.
This is how most subjects are taught. From exercise to programming to physics, step-by-step instructions seem to be the default.
You probably looked at that list, and thought it was an OK list. You might have had a slight quibble here or there with a step. Broadly this is a good set of instructions, and it’s fundamentally unhelpful to someone trying to establish a new skill.1
Now let’s say for argument that you’re an 18 year old fully capable adult who simply never learned how to ride a bike, and I give you that list. I think we all generally accept that you will fail a few times, and I think we all also accept that you might find that discouraging.
The general advice to most people after a few failures is, “Keep trying. You’ll eventually get it.” Or another way it’s said, “just do more volume, and you’ll get there.”
The problem isn’t how you’re being taught; it’s your motivation. Clearly.
Let’s say months to years go by. And that 18 year still doesn’t know how to ride a bike. For whatever reason, the general sentiment that most people would have at that point would be that the person is “unmotivated”. That is, they just don’t “want it enough.”
This is a very common framing, and it’s wrong.
Knowledge is not Enough
I know of no one who has ever learned how to ride a bike from a book or someone reading a list from a book. I’m not saying they don’t exist. I’m saying I’ve never met that person.
There is too much variation for what can go wrong for a simple set of step-by-step instructions for most skill acquisition. Any skill worth having isn’t just a process to run rote without understanding what to do when things go wrong.
Writing down all the ways that things can go wrong also gets very difficult to explain how you know you’re in a bad spot.
A book can’t help you troubleshoot a flat tire or a chain that fell off or shoe laces caught in the gears.
However, it’s not just all the failure cases that pure knowledge falls flat on for skill acquisition.
Consider the video below. (Starting around the 1:45 mark.)
You’ll notice how many of the activities the instructor does that aren’t—for lack of a better description—the task. He doesn’t just tell the kid to get on the bike and recite the instructions for how to do it. He’s doing other things around the task. And more specifically he doesn’t just jump straight to the task of bike riding.
They stumble that run fast. — Romeo and Juliet
Now these additional steps are not just to let the child gain confidence either, although that is happening. It’s also to set the child up for success: learning how to fall to one side or the other and learning what the weight feels like, and what it feels like to momentarily balance.
None of those things are the task of bike riding. However, they’re all critical to the goal.
You could call this all wisdom or good teaching or whatever. I don’t care.
This all is the activity to close the gap. Without it, people sometimes stumble around for a long time to figure out what they’re doing wrong.
Options to Cross the Gap
So if you find yourself in the position of the child above, without a person to walk you through how to learn how to ride a bike, and people are talking you down for not being able to ride a bike—Ignore them.
They aren’t helping you, so you don’t need to honor their opinions. Their hands aren’t dirty in helping you out.
Find a mentor or instructor. You’ll likely have to pay them. Either way be thankful.
Watch the activity demonstrated online by multiple people. You may be able to figure out what you’re missing.
Find a group of people that’s about the same skill level as you and see what you all know and learn from each other.
Find a group of people slightly ahead of you and let them exchange ideas in front of you to see what you can learn.
You’ll notice how none of these options are to ignore other people completely. Generally speaking, learning things for yourself is the hardest way.
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I will also add that learning from a book is an excellent way to expand a skill you have already.