I’m a sucker for self-improvement. My partner and I have always called it “leveling up as a human,” and it’s something that we spend a decent amount of time, money, and energy on. Why? Because it’s fun! I like developing my skills, and — over the years, after learning many things — I’ve discovered that the formula for how to learn pretty much anything is super simple.
1. Clarify what you want to learn (and why).
Here’s the thing — if I say, “I want to get better at speaking foreign languages,” that’s a pretty vague goal. Sure, it’s still trackable (ish) but what does better even mean in this case? And what direct actions can I pull from this statement to help guide me.
Instead, I’ve learned to how to set goals and crush them. I do want to get better at speaking foreign languages, but — in order to make that happen — I’m now focused on this instead: “Learning to read and speak Japanese enough to watch a Japanese language TV show without subtitles and have a 5-minute conversation with a native speaker.”
Why do I want to learn Japanese? Because we want to spend a few months living in Japan in the near future. Now, I know both what I want to improve and why — which gives me a clear sense of direction for the following actions.
2. Find a mentor.
Mentors take many forms. Your mentor could be something as simple as a friend or a teacher, or it could be something a little more formal. Either way, this is a person (or a thing) that provides you guidance. Mentors help us along our journeys and provide much-needed outside feedback while helping us learn.
For me, I’ve always wanted to learn how to fight. It’s been a goal of mine for as long as I can remember, and this year I finally landed on, “I want to learn Krav Maga and reach an intermediate level, minimum.” I promptly joined a Krav Maga school, and I threw myself into regular training. After 3 months of training 2-3x per week, I’m now in “fight class” — which is exactly what it sounds like — and my “mentor” in this case is my main krav instructor.
I’ve started paying attention to more than just the skills we learn and practice in class. Because, sure, I could probably try to learn basic krav maga anywhere — including the internet — but having a mentor (or a great instructor) means I’m not only gaining the basic skills. (Like “How to throw a punch without breaking your knuckles.”) I’m also absorbing the lessons learned through their experiences as well, which helps me level up way faster than I could’ve on my own.
3. Learn to mimic (and adapt).
Imitation gets a bad rap these days, but it’s actually a pretty awesome thing. As human beings, we learn by imitation (like it or not), and the better we can mimic something, the better we can get at it.
If you want to get better at something, try looking at people who are already good at it. What are they doing? What techniques can you copy then make your own? I know you probably had a strong negative gut reaction to the word “copy,” and I don’t blame you. We often associate copying with theft when, in reality, copying itself isn’t bad.
The bad thing is what we do with it.
When I wanted to learn how to get better at graphic design, I didn’t bother with design principles or learning the basics. (Whoops.) In fact, I didn’t even crack open a single book or blog post on the subject. Instead, I looked at other graphics that I liked — especially ones used by established brands — and tried my hand at recreating them.
I learned how to make my designs look like theirs. I combine fonts, colors, white space, and different design elements — none of which I knew by name — until I had something almost identical to the original design given the tools available to me. (AKA, using the free version of Canva.)
Here’s the kicker: I didn’t post these designs. In fact, most of them never saw the light of day. They were simply practice. They helped me learn how to use Canva to create decent graphics, and I started recognizing some of the principles of good design. Sure, I might pull inspiration from a certain design — maybe I loved that color combination — but I always, always make it my own.
The same principle can be applied to almost anything. Learn how someone else is doing something, learn to identify the different elements that make it great, then figure out how you can be inspired by what you’ve learned to create something uniquely your own.
4. Identify shortcuts.
If you want to get better at something, take a look at your resources. What are the things that will help you get from Point A to Point Z as soon as possible? Shortcuts are all about maximum yield — giving you the most results with minimum(ish) effort — and pushing you toward your goal.
For me, shortcuts come in many forms. Since one of my goals is learning Japanese, looking for shortcuts involved devouring not just Japanese lessons (obviously) but also reading tips and tricks for learning a language as efficiently and effectively as possible. What did I learn? I picked up tools used by polyglots to streamline the language learning process like learning the 100 most common words in Japanese, finding a list of Japanese words that are derived from English, and started learning how to talk about my hobbies and interests in Japanese.
The same thing can be applied to whatever you want to get better at. Find books, blog posts, and videos that help elevate your skills. Don’t just look for how to do the “thing” better — like drawing anime characters — look for resources about how other people improved their skills in those areas.
A word of caution: It’s super easy to get trapped in a hole of research. We have a tendency to read, watch, and devour content when we’re scared to actually do the thing we want to get better at. Shortcuts are all about making the improvement process go faster, so if you realize you’re binging blog posts about how to learn a foreign language instead of, you know, learning a foreign language then you might be heading in the wrong direction.
5. Look for feedback.
This one can be a little scary, but it’s crazy valuable. Because let’s be honest — there are limits to what we can do by ourselves. As a writer, I can practice writing 24/7, find a writing coach, take classes about writing, and more…but until I let people read my writing and give feedback, I don’t actually know if the things I’m doing are working.
Feedback helps you discover things you might be missing, especially when you’re super close to a project. When I’m working on graphic design, I can spend hours staring at my screen and completely miss a mistake in my design…but someone else might notice it right away.
I get that asking for feedback can make you feel incredibly vulnerable. You’re exposing yourself to someone else, probably unsure of how they’ll respond, but — in most cases — taking that risk is usually worth it.
6. Get comfortable with experimenting.
Think about the scientific method. Learning about science and the world around us revolves around experimentation — creating a hypothesis, testing it out, analyzing the results, and repeating the process. Experimenting while you’re learning and improving your skills is just as valuable.
It doesn’t have to be a formal process. Simple trial and error, or even learning to adapt on the fly, is a superhuman skill that can transform your life. In Krav Maga, one of the things my instructor talks about over and over again is that “messing up” doesn’t matter as much as you think. It’s all about committing to action and following through! Finish the action and improve it next time.
I see it happen all the time in class (and I’m guilty of this myself). I’ll be working on a technique, like breaking a chokehold, and I might skip a step or throw the wrong combative — like an elbow instead of a punch. Sometimes it breaks down the entire action and I stop. But does it matter if I send an elbow instead of a punch? Absolutely not. In this particular case, learning to adapt and act on the fly is just as important as the skill itself.
Ugh, practice. You’d think I wouldn’t need to include it on this list, considering it’s the most obvious way to get better at anything. Unfortunately, however, it’s also the thing that most people tend to overlook. Consistently.
I know what you might be thinking, “Pffft, Jandra, of course I know to practice. Practice makes perfect, blahblahblah.” And yes, practice does make perfect…and lots of other clichés.
But it’s cliché because it’s true. I can’t tell you the number of people who have asked me how to improve their writing skills — asking for books and videos and tips — but when I ask them how much they’re writing, they just shrug. (And no, I don’t think you need to write every single day to be a writer.)
However, I do want you to think about people who excel in their fields. Think about Olympians and elite athletes — what do you think they’re doing with their time? (Practice, duh.) We get better by doing. We learn by doing. And we improve by doing. Granted, a basketball player might not spend 12 hours a day playing basketball, but they are spending time on the court, time lifting weights, time running, etc.
Danielle Steele, a prolific (and ridiculously wealthy best-selling) romance novelist has written 179 books, publishing an average of seven new books every year, and she spends roughly 20-22 hours a day working. (And no, you don’t need to spend that much time working to be successful.)
Figuring out how to learn anything requires work.
Simple as that. You don’t have to rake yourself over the coals or push yourself to burn out, but if you want to improve then you need to DO. Do the thing you want to get better at. Speak the language you want to learn. Hit the gym if you want to get stronger. Doodle on scrap paper if you want to be a better artist. Train with throwing knives if you want to be a ninja. (No judgment.)
One of the biggest limiting beliefs we place on ourselves as human beings is that we’ll do X thing once Y happens. Once I feel more confident in my appearance, I’ll hit the gym. Once I have a better idea, I’ll write a book. Stop waiting for permission, stop waiting for perfection, and start practicing.
The longer you wait to get started, the longer you’ll have to wait to reach the finish line. Do you really want to keep putting your goals on hold? Because I certainly don’t.