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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
It’s never, ever too late to pick up that skill you’ve always wanted to learn. Jobs get downsized, money comes and goes, relationships begin and end. But no one can take away the fact that you can whittle.

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Go ahead, look silly. Self-evident.
  7. 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.
These are just a few suggestions, but depending on your interests and the kind of stuff you do as your day job, your new skill could be anything from amateur astronomy to mathematics to billiards. Brainstorm away and find an activity perfect for you.

Got your own skill suggestions? Post them in the comments.

Photo by david_wilmot.


  • Anshu

    gravatarDec 20, 2007
    12:32 pm

    I agree totally. I have also got myself a jewellery making kit, and my goal is to sell at least one thing on ebay, ‘coz I am not that much into wearing this stuff. But I feel that taking a break from computer screens and exercise a different part of brain is very important. I’m also planning to knit myself a tote bag, which I can proudly carry to those malls and avoid getting things in plastic bags.

  • SJH

    gravatarDec 20, 2007
    4:00 pm

    Great idea. Very refreshing. I think as adults we get caught up in reaching goals and miss the enjoyment of the process. So I look forward to trying something new, having fun while doing it and maybe learning something along the way.

  • Jason Shen

    gravatarDec 24, 2007
    11:29 pm

    I have that Marvel Comics Drawing book! It is great! I used to love drawing comicbook heroes when I was younger – you should definitely pick up the book and start banging out some stick figures! Go for it David!

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 25, 2007
    10:32 am

    Thanks for the encouragement, Jason. I have always wanted to do a comic book about a rogue commedia dell’arte troupe in 16th-century Italy who travel the countryside defending the poor and disenfranchised…

  • Nathan Ketsdever

    gravatarDec 31, 2007
    5:02 am

    Joining a group is a soooo huge, because it allows you to access expertise and find folks who relate to you. I guess you would suggest MeetUp, Craigslist, and Upcoming as ways to find potential groups. I guess message boards and google e-mail lists are secondary alternatives.

    I’m brainstorming now trying to think of what new skill I want to acquire.

  • Ernest Gunn

    gravatarJan 9, 2008
    5:17 pm

    I started playing the banjo 6 months ago, when I turned 51. I love it. I get better on a weekly basis. I’m never going to play on stage, and I only know 4 songs, but I’m having a good time. Thanks for a great blog.

  • Daisy

    gravatarFeb 28, 2008
    8:29 am

    I have that same marvel comic book guide on my shelf! I have gone about a fourth through the book with some pencil and paper last Christmas. I’m hoping to finish the book by the time the year ends.

    And yes, it’s rewarding to realize you can actually draw things.

  • Matt Freeman

    gravatarApr 24, 2008
    8:11 am

    Great idea! After seeing my son play his game “guitar hero” it gave me the idea to actually try learning real guitar. I’ve been practicing for almost 6 months now, i’m not good, but it sure starts to improve :)

  • Ben E.

    gravatarApr 30, 2008
    10:50 am

    I’ve decided to do this throughout this summer. I have list of things I plan to learn a little bit about, including sewing, build a shelf, juggling, speaking sign language and spanish conversationally, tie knots, change oil, Doomsday algorithm, yoga, karate/self defense, card manipulation, lockpicking, etc.

    This article was a reminder for me to get my schedule laid out and to get going!!! :-)

  • how to prepare for 2012

    gravatarJun 21, 2010
    2:45 am

    I have gotten a lot of fun last summer due to this new skills i have acquired. Great article.