Photo: Lindsey Bahia

The Lost Art of Becoming Good at Things

Updated: January 6, 2012

Corbett Barr

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The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. – Alvin Toffler

This site is about gaining expertise, and I know it isn’t for everybody. Here’s why: people want to become experts at all kinds of things, but the truth is most people don’t actually want to put in the effort becoming an expert really requires.

Here’s my question for you: has the art of becoming good at things been lost on today’s instant gratification society?

And if we have become a society of armchair experts, what does that mean for those of us who actually like to get good at things? Is it easier or harder to acquire new skills given all the resources (and distractions) that exist today?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Guitar hero or Guitar Hero™?

More and more our society craves entertainment. We love to be spectators.

The pride and satisfaction of really learning and practicing something long enough to become good at it is competing with all forms of entertainment, and entertainment is winning.

Americans on average spend two months per year glued to the TV set. Kids spend nearly 8 hours a day consuming media, including TV, playing video games and surfing the internet.

Learning and doing are losing to watching and playing.

Sure, TV and the Internet can be used to learn useful things, but they can’t replace real world experience. And let’s be honest, how many of those 8 hours a day do you think are really spent learning?

Actual skills and knowledge have taken the back seat. Real world skills are losing out to video games, and knowledge is losing out to beliefs. Guitar heroes have been replaced by Guitar Heroes™.

Intellectuals are losing to those with the loudest beliefs. We know stunningly less and less and yet have stronger and stronger beliefs.

We’re experts at passive consumption of media and belief without fact, but little else. If consumption alone were a business, we’d all be wealthy entrepreneurs.

But as fun as the consumption of 1400 hours of Glee and American Idol each year may be, it doesn’t make us experts on anything besides who Finn is dating now, and who replaced Simon Cowell.

Hardly knowledge that will impress your friends or land you a job, let alone make a blip on the radar when you look back on your life.

I point out these sobering statistics on the lazy state of society not to depress you, but to counter an argument we all hear (and use) all the time: “I’m just too busy.”

I’d love to get in shape, or learn the guitar, or spend more time with my kids or learn another language, but I’m just too damn busy.

Really? How many hours of TV did you watch this week? How much time did you spend mindlessly surfing the Internet?

Getting Good at Things Again

Let’s set aside the broader societal points for a minute. What everyone else does might be depressing, but we can only really change our own behavior.

But most of us could use more doing and less consuming. If you want to acquire new skills, live an interesting life and do adventurous things, you have to get good at putting in the effort it takes to actually do those things.

Side note on definitions of “expert:”I’m a big believer in relative expertise. For most purposes, you don’t need to be the world’s foremost expert on something to benefit from what you know. Being expert enough means knowing enough or being good enough to accomplish your goals, however modest or grand they may be.

Think about all the things you’d love to be good at or know how to do. I’m talking about real renaissance person kinda stuff, or James Bond level skills.

What’s on your list of cool things you want to know and do?

Now think about how many of those things you’ve really put effort towards over the past year. When I say “effort,” I don’t mean that you read 27 articles about it or watched a tv show on the subject. I’m talking about real learning, real doing, taking classes, practicing and asking someone who knows more about it for help.

How much of that level of effort have you put in?

If you’re lacking some of the abilities from your renaissance person list, I’ll hazard a guess that you haven’t really put much effort in. Or, maybe you put some decent effort in, but you’ve been bouncing around from one pursuit to another or from one method to another without seeing results.

In either case, there’s hope.

You can learn to do practically anything you want to, it’s just a matter of deciding what you want, focusing, putting in the time and getting serious about measuring your progress. It might also involve cutting out a little media consumption time, but I bet you were thinking that already 🙂

With deliberate practice progress can be made, in astonishing time. For example, over the past three years I’ve learned how to sail, taken acting classes, taken up surfing, built three successful blogs (and a location independent business), got a lot fitter, learned enough Spanish to be useful and traveled the world for 15 out of 36 months.

That’s not to say I’m an absolute expert in any of those things, but I’m expert enough to have used those skills and knowledge to dramatically impact my life.

This all started with a conversation I had with myself about the life I was living vs. the life I wanted to live.

I took a step back and thought about how I wanted to spend my time, what I wanted to learn and do, and how I could look back on my life and say, “god damn, I lived the hell out of those years.”

Have you had that conversation with yourself yet? If so, what are you doing to make it happen? If not, what are you waiting for?

Now I’d love to hear what you think.

Has the art of becoming good at things become lost on today’s instant gratification society? Is it easier or harder to learn new skills and knowledge today with all the resources (and distractions) out there?

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