How to Improve Any Skill

Posted August 29, 2012 by Marcy Farrey in On the Ladder

Think you could never learn to play an instrument, write a book, or bake the perfect cake? We all walk around thinking that we don’t have the talent to do certain tasks or activities. We think that talent is something we’re born with. But the truth is, we can learn almost anything — if we’re willing.

Jeff Haden of Inc. Magazine quoted from Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent, which explains how a person can learn and improve a skill:

Talent begins with brief, powerful encounters that spark motivation by linking your identity to a high-performing person or group. This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world-shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: ‘I could be them.’”

The key is motivation — something inside drives us to pursue a goal. We often discussed this idea in my writing courses. My classmates and I asked the question “Can anyone learn to be a good writer?” We all agreed that yes, someone can learn to write, but to write well, he or she needs the passion and drive to continue with it — a real writer actively makes writing a part of his or her life.

If there is a task you’re passionate about and hoping to learn, you shouldn’t simply practice it over and over again like you would in school. You need something more than simple repetition. Haden says you should follow the R.E.P.S. gauge that Coyle recommends:

R: Reaching and Repeating

E: Engagement

P: Purposefulness

S: Strong, Speedy Feedback

While all of these are important, I’ll take a look at two that helped me build my writing skills: Engagement and Purposefulness.

Whenever you’re trying to learn something new, engagement is what will keep you coming back: As Haden says, it will keep you emotionally invested. You could try practicing the same thing over and over again, or you could set goals for yourself. For example, I’ve had several writer friends who tried the “Book in a Month” challenge, in which they forced themselves to write that novel they’ve always had inside of them in one month. Rather than looking at their novel as a faraway goal or as another item on their To-Do list, they decided they were taking charge. They didn’t worry about how good each sentence they wrote was — they just wrote. In one month, several of my writer friends who participated had a complete first draft of their novels.

When you truly engage with what you’re trying to learn, and create goals you want to attain, you will see better results:

Make sure the outcome of every practice session is something you will care about: You’ll try harder and be more engaged, and you’ll improve more rapidly.”

You must always practice with a purpose. How will each practice session help you toward that goal? Haden uses the example of public speaking:

Although solo rehearsing certainly helps, the only way to perform well under the pressure of an audience is to actually practice speaking to people. No amount of solo practice will prepare you for the nerves you’ll feel when every eye in the room is on you.”

If you want to practice public speaking, it doesn’t do you much good to practice a speech over and over again in a room by yourself. You have to also practice in front of small groups and build your way up. For writers, it doesn’t do any good to write and never share work with a reader who can provide feedback.

Haden’s advice reminded me of a book I read a couple of years ago by HLN Anchor Robin Meade: Morning Sunshine!: How to Radiate Confidence and Feel It Too. She mentioned that, as a child, she hadn’t enjoyed public speaking and was afraid of it. Today, she reads the news to the nation every morning. Clearly, we aren’t all born with a natural ability — we just want and love something enough to overcome our fears and take ourselves to the next level.

What skill have you always wanted to learn? If you’re willing to push yourself and ignore self-doubt, you can learn it —  and who knows, you might even become an expert!

To read more about the R.E.P.S. gauge, check out Haden’s article on

About the Author

Marcy Farrey

Marcy Farrey is a videographer, writer, and editor. In her previous life, she worked as a broadcast news reporter and producer in Lincoln, Nebraska and as a writer and producer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University and a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University. Learn more about Marcy on her website

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