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How effective are you at mastering a new skill?

You can always learn something new. But, if you’re like most people, you struggle to find the time to reach mastery. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that fully mastering a skill takes 10,000 hours of practice. If you think of mastery that way then you’ll never feel like you have enough time to master a new skill.

Instead, what if you thought of skill acquisition like a designer? Designers use a four-step process to solve problems: observation, ideation, prototyping, and testing. Fortunately, this approach has practical application for anyone striving to reach mastery. Here’s how you can take a designer’s approach to gain and hone new skills.


Before you take on a new project, do you immediately dive in and start doing? Chances are, even the most action-oriented among us stop to figure out what needs to be done first. When you’re learning a new skill, the path to mastery may not be immediately clear, but it can become more apparent with observation.

First, use observation to decide where your energy would be best spent. At any given time, there are dozens of new skills you probably want to learn. Your job now is to figure out which skill to focus on now. As you go through your workday, spend time with family and friends, or take on new projects, look for the gaps. Is there a skill you’re missing that would improve your work or home life? Which skill would be most beneficial and most interesting to learn right now?

Once you’ve settled on a skill or skill set, turn your observation lens outward. Look to experts in your field and seek out resources, online and in print. Don’t try to consume all the resources you find at this stage. Instead, skim and get a sense of the general topics covered by professionals who’ve come before you. Then you’ll learn where to start, even if you don’t understand the details yet.


After listening to experts, speaking with others, and browsing through resources related to your desired skill, you should have a rough idea of what you need to learn. Make note of which concepts appear more than once. When multiple sources mention a concept, you can be confident that it’s important for developing mastery. Generate several ideas that might lead you down a path to mastering your new skill. Designers would call this stage idea-making or ideation.

Ideas about skill acquisition naturally lead to sub-skills. Every skill is composed of several smaller skills. For example, learning web design includes learning at least HTML, CSS, JavaScript, visual design, UX, and SEO. Figure out as many different components of your skill as you can and then get ready to begin improving.

Work with others to generate ideas


In the design world, a prototype is often a sketch or 3D model. When the problem you’re trying to solve is skill mastery, your prototype may not be anything physical, but it’s equally as important. From the ideas you generated in step two, decide which sub-skills are the most important to help you improve. You might start with the recommended basics you found in a book or focus on a known weak point.

The second part of your prototype is setting aside the time and space to develop your skill. Set a schedule, commit a few hours each week, or sign up for weekend classes. Your prototype is your plan. Sometimes prototypes (and plans) fail and you have to go back to the drawing board. But you won’t know until you test it.


The final stage to design-based skill mastery is testing your prototype (or executing your plan). Follow your schedule, dedicate yourself to practicing your skill in the allotted time, or show up for class. After at least a week of testing, evaluate. If your chosen learning process isn’t achieving the results you want, go back to the drawing board. You may have overestimated the amount of time you could spend developing this skill. Or you may find that before focusing on CSS, you need a stronger foundation in HTML.

We’re quick to blame when we don’t progress as quickly as planned but take a step back first. Apply experiential learning practices and evaluate your design first, then make changes that will help you achieve your goal.


Take the designer’s approach to master a new skill and you’ll be better prepared and ready to adapt as needed. Building up a skill doesn’t have to be a grueling process, but it should be a smarter one. For more tips on business productivity, email us or call 02 8073 4416 today.

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