Today morning over tea, my colleague made an interesting observation about how we acquire skills. He is learning guitar these days (remember rock on?) and he made a remark to the effect that we are the biggest obstacles in our own progress.

How is it? He gave the example of swimming. When you begin to learn swimming, you tend to be quite sincere. So, you put in good amount of “sincere” effort with the “focus on learning”. Then one fine day, you find that you are able to swim. May not be as good as you would eventually like to but good enough to give you an ego boost. And there your focus changes from learning to enjoying.

Now you stay at the same level for sometime. Not trying to learn anything new but just doing it the way you are able to do and feeling good about it. After a couple of days, you feel that others around you are far better swimmers and you need to put in more effort to be able to swim better. So, it’s time to go back to learning.

However, in this duration (which could be a couple of days or a couple of weeks), you have already developed a style and more importantly, you have got habitual to a specific ego-boost-level. Now, you must throw away the style that you have acquired, come down to ego-level-zero and “focus on learning”. When you are changing your style and learning new things, you’ll not remain as good a swimmer as you were at least for sometime. This leads to some amount of disappointment (instead of getting better, it’s just getting worse!) and doubts (will I ever be able to swim like a fish? I am already losing the flow!!).

You Quit!

Here, you do one of the two things - 1) you quit because you lose interest (I don’t want to swim if I can’t swim like a fish), or 2) you get into a comfort zone and stay where you are (who wants to swim like a fish anyway? let me swim the way I can).

Comfort Zone

However, a little bit of persistence, a little bit of acceptance for that time-window when your skill turns south would eventually take you to a new height with new learnings.

Real Progress

So, the curve of skill acquisition is not a straight and upward line. It is rather a line that goes up, flat, down and up again over a period of time.

Then we realized that it’s not just about skill acquisition, it’s true about any progress whatever the field may be. Look at software development. There is a frequent need to re-architect the software systems to be able to do add some new extra-ordinary features. When a piece of software is re-architected, it may become worse for sometime because it will have new bugs that need to be found and fixed, it would not have carried forward some of the previous features because they won’t be relevant when the new features come in. But afterwards, the software product can reach new heights of functionality.

Let’s look at a person trying build a professional network. Intially, you don’t know anyone. Then you start moving around in one social community and you get to know all the people who are part of that community. Now, to know even more people, you must start visiting some other communities. Which means you wouldn’t be able to give as much time to the previous community where you already knew everyone. This will seem to take you a couple of steps backward where you are yet to establish contacts in the new community and are already losing touch with some people in the older community. However, if you persist, after some time-window, you’ll have more people in your network than you had previously.

If you are a professional blogger, you already have a steady stream of visitors to your site. If you want to get even more visitors, you’d have to change your coverage, you’d have to change the way you write, you’d have to spend time on marketing your blog which will give you less time to blog and affect the quality of your blog. Regardless of what you do, you’d lose some visitors to your site for sometime. But after a while, once you have got things stable again, you may actually have more visitors than you had previously.

For any progress to be made, some amount of destruction is necessary. The goal is to move forward. The key is to accept the time-window when progress curve heads south. It will not go north otherwise.