Should You Learn New Skills or Master Old Ones?

A recent meme in the life-advice world is that anyone can make themselves an expert. Malcolm Gladwell suggested that 10,000 hours of practice were the key to becoming world class. Anders Ericsson’s research backs this up—if you want to be good, deliberate practice is key.

A bigger question is, what’s the best way to spend those 10,000 hours? Even if you accept that the success can be gained in many fields by dedicated learning, it’s less clear exactly how you should be spending that time.

Much of the original research on deliberate practice focuses on easily measurable skills, Ericsson used professional typists in one study. As a researcher, this has an obvious advantage, gains in skill are clear, measurable and objective. Most of the follow-up research seems to similarly focus on concrete skills, like musical virtuosity or athleticism.

This makes sense—practicing layups is likely an important part of becoming an excellent basketball player. But for a programmer, writer or entrepreneur, what exactly is their layup?

Can You Be Too Focused?

I recently spoke with Cal Newport about his efforts to become distinguished in computer science. He shared with me his recent observation that the best researchers in his field had the distinction of being quick to learn new methods.

This suggests a rather different conclusion than 10,000 hours of hyper focus seems to imply. Perhaps instead of repetitively mastering a single skill, true expertise means building a cluster of tightly related skills, so that most time is spent learning new ideas instead of practicing old ones.

Maybe repetitive practice is slightly overvalued? Sure, doing the one-millionth layup might perfect that shot, but in fields that reward creativity, not just mechanical excellence, perhaps it’s more useful to continually gain new tools, instead of simply becoming the best at only one.

The Cluster Method

The cluster method is to build expertise, not through repetitive mastery, but by aggressively learning a cluster of related skills. The difference between this and the method implied by 10,000 hours is that you spend most your time as a beginner, not as an expert.

Running a business, this approach has served me well. My gains rarely come from making 3% tweaks, but from learning a new tool which allows me to create a 300% improvement.

I feel the cluster method is also reflected in my MIT Challenge. Instead of trying to go slowly and “master” each class, I try to learn as many from the cluster as possible.

The question isn’t whether, in one year, I’ve learned as much as someone with the same aptitude who studied for four years. Instead, the question is whether, in one year, I’ve learned more than someone who has only finished the first year of a four year program.

The difference between real life and a college degree is that there is no stopping point to the curriculum. There are always new things you can learn that can improve your abilities. The true benefits of rapid learning aren’t in school, but in your professional life.

Neither Hedgehog, Nor Fox

In Good to Great, Jim Collins discusses the parable of the fox and the hedgehog. The fox is said to be good at many things, whereas the hedgehog is said to be master of one. Following this, he argues that it’s better to be a hedgehog than a fox.

Clustering is a method somewhat in between. It recognizes the importance of specialization. I doubt mastering French or judo would make Cal a significantly better computer scientist. Dabbling is fun, but let’s not mistake what makes for interesting recreation as being important to your work.

But it’s also claims that expertise is mostly found in learning new things. Being an expert, then, has less to do with mastery of a specific idea, but aggressively picking up new ones.

Ultralearning

As my life as a student reaches an end, I’ve become more interested in the idea of professional learning. How do you learn, not to pass tests, but to become the best at what you do—allowing you to earn more money and demand better lifestyle privileges than your peers?

We recognize that learning is different in school than in the real world. But the concept of clustering may mean the skills for learning faster aren’t radically different from both.

Unfortunately, however, my career learning is somewhat limited by the career I already have—as a writer and entrepreneur. So I’d like to call on your diverse experience, for the readers who’ve already begun their careers:

How important is learning to your career? Has learning ever made a big difference in your career opportunities, and if so, what was it?

Please share your voice in the comments. I’d love to know what role learning plays in your lives after school, and what the biggest challenges and successes it has created for you.


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  • Kiran Sinthakindi

    I think it’s very important to be very flexible and go with the flow rather than stick to a rigid method. So, yes, practising a cluster of skills that go with studying is a great idea!

  • Георгий Ланец

    I am a programmer and my work is learning. Seriously – on my job I have a task, I dont know, what to do about it and I need to find solution, code it and repeat. Because coding itself is too fast even with my slow typing around 100 s/min. All I need to know – how to search and to understanding the problem I’ve met and its relations with other problems in my project. If you have enough expierence, you are like bedouin or nomad, who can find water in desert. You dont know, where is the water, but you know, where to go. And once you have find the well – you move forward and never meet it again.

    This causes absence of normal criteria to recognize difference between good and bad programmer on short interview, so we judge each other by knowledge quantity and its depth(Of course, excluding work expierence and jobs – thats indirect). So – lerning makes a difference in my career every day, and every job-interview.

    If there is some probmlems with my english – feel free to ask.

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