I don’t look back on classes or homework or tests with misty-eyed nostalgia. (Actually, I try not to think about school at all, if possible.) But some of my fondest memories are of learning. The perfect mental engagement of figuring out how something works or how to do something new comes more and more infrequently as we get older. It’s a special experience we take for granted as kids.
Look at any eleven-year-old and you’ll see her or him do at least one thing obsessively and joyfully, whether that’s play video games, wail on their drum set, or do magic tricks. And they get damned good at it in the process.
Remember when learning was fun?As adults, we learn new skills out of necessity, i.e. you have to be able to do A to get to B, whether B is get a raise or get the TiVo to record America’s Next Top Model.
This holiday season, take that big juicy chunk of free time you’ve been looking forward to and, instead of spending it in front of the TV, learn how to do something new. Not for your job, not out of necessity, but because it’ll be fun. Being able to do something just for the sake of doing it is a wonderful thing. (And face it, TV doesn’t “recharge your batteries,” it leaves you feeling more drained than ever.)
Here are a few suggestions. I selected them based on a few factors. They all:
- have a modest initial cost
- are portable and can be done just about anywhere
- are easy to start doing, at least partially
- provide a nice long steady learning curve
- are refreshingly analog
- can impress you peers and loved ones
- offer a world of social interaction through other practitioners
Juggling. Never get stuck for a conversation starter again. Learning to juggle three balls isn’t as hard as you might think. I recommend Juggling for the Complete Klutz, which comes with juggling balls (and which I used to learn juggling myself).
Play an instrument. No, not the piano, or the instrument you were forced to play in high school band. If portability and cost are key, just buy a nice harmonica and start noodling away. (Klutz has a book and harmonica combo.)
If you can spend a bit more time and money, rent yourself something fun, like a sax or a trumpet, and hire a local music student for some private lessons. The key here is to choose an instrument whose sound you love, and select some “goal music” you’d like to be able to play when you’re good enough. That’s a big motivator.
Coming out of my private clarinet lessons in high school, I would run into another student, a forty-something blue-collar guy who’d only just picked up clarinet but was joyfully practicing it every day and was already almost as good as I was. He was having fun, you could just tell.
Knit. Crafts are hot, and people love to knit. It’s a soothing activity that can also be social. Start a knitting group with your work friends and meet up at a bar after work for beers and purling. Best of all, you can actually use the stuff you make, whether as a gift or for sale at Etsy. (If anyone figures out how to knit a Levenger pocket briefcase, let me know.)
Magic. Who doesn’t wish they could pull a rabbit out of a hat? Read this story about David Copperfield getting the best of four muggers using his magic skills. There are many, many great sites that teach you how to do magic tricks online, and some even provide handy how-to videos. This is something you can practice with nothing more than a coin or a deck of cards.
Origami. Hiro, the beloved, portly time-stopping character on NBC’s Heroes, has used origami more than once to charm someone of the opposite sex. Even when his paranormal ability fizzles out, he can always whip out a piece of paper and make a swan.
Yo-Yo. Yes, I learned this one with a Klutz book, too. And no, I don’t work for them.
Draw comic books. I envy nothing more than someone’s ability to draw. While I’ll admit that capital-A Art is something you’re mostly born with, the ability to draw the human figure is a practiced skill, and while it may have come easier to my artist wife, I don’t doubt that with a guide and some practice I could get to a serviceable level. The payoff? Being able to draw my own comic book. (This book’s been on my shelf since high school, but one day…)
The Seven Steps to New Skill Adoption
- Choose what’s fun over what’s impressive. If your new skill isn’t fun to learn from the beginning, drop it and move on. You don’t have to impress anyone but yourself here.
- Start big. Eventually, modest regular practice will be sufficient, but with a new skill you need to start BIG. Spend every waking minute doing it. (That’s why you should start now, over your holiday break.) Come New Year’s, you’re going to be surprised at the jump-start you’ve gotten.
- Set a goal. Pick a nice, juicy goal that sounds deeply rewarding. Depending on your personality, that might be performing at a New Year’s party, giving a drawing or a hand-knit sweater to a loved one, or making a little cash from your new hobby. Pick something you really want, not something you think you should want.
- Join a group. Every skill has its adherents, its meetings, its special language. You can find others who do what you do online, but even better seek out real people you can meet with and practice together. Playing music with other musicians, for instance, takes your playing to a whole new level.
- Eyes off the prize. Don’t turn your new skill into another GTD project. Don’t worry about going pro. Just have fun. This is about doing something that’s truly “just for you” even if you perform for others. If you find yourself adding “practice X” to your to-do list, you’ve picked the wrong hobby.
- Go ahead, look silly. Self-evident.
- Stop thinking. These are physical skills, and while each one calls for a certain degree of thought and planing, the main idea is to shut down the verbal part of the brain and just do. Over and over and over. Think of it as Western meditation.
Got your own skill suggestions? Post them in the comments.
Photo by david_wilmot.