9 Key Principles of Learning a New Skill (2024)

9 Key Principles of Learning a New Skill (1)

Source: Zjarral1 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Learning new skills can be a great way to keep an aging brain in shape. How can adults learn new skills more effectively? Learning techniques vary depending on the skill and the person.

Deliberate practice is purposeful; it knows where it is going and how to get there. Purposeful practice is not just performing the same activities over and over without immediate feedback on the outcome. Evidence has shown that deliberate practice can produce impressive results (Ericsson et al., 2018).

Here are some general rules you can follow in your pursuit of mastering a new skill (Ericsson & Pool, 2016).

1. Set learning goals. Having a clear goal in mind before you begin your journey is essential. Without knowing where you want to get to, you cannot plan. Having narrow and precisely defined goals and questions are far better than broadly defined goals and questions.

2. Start small. Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal. The key thing is to take the general goal (get better) and turn it into something specific that you can work on with a realistic expectation. Set yourself deadlines. This way, you will know if you are starting to fall behind or have plateaued.

3. Get feedback on mistakes. You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you are going wrong. Determine your weaknesses and figure out ways to address them. The joy of seeing yourself improve at something is very encouraging.

4. Stay focused. Deliberate practice is deliberate. That is, it requires a person’s full attention on a specific goal.

5. Use mental representations. A mental representation shows you "what you are supposed to be doing." Mental representations make it possible to monitor how one is doing, both in practice and in actual performance. For example, in music, mental representation allows expert musicians to duplicate the sounds of a piece that they want to produce while they play.

6. Get out of your comfort zone. Getting out of your comfort zone means trying to do something that you couldn’t do better. Doing the same thing the same way is a recipe for stagnation. When you run into an obstacle, you chip away at it gradually, until another barrier arises.

7. Mindset matters. People often shy away from learning a new skill, such as learning to play a musical instrument at a later age. The biggest hurdle for adult learning is attitude, such as a lack of confidence. Eventually, that lack of confidence may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as cognitive skills slowly decline with lack of use.

8. Sustain motivation. Maintaining the focus and the effort required by purposeful practice is hard work. When you quit a project that you had initially wanted to do, it is because the reasons to quit eventually outweigh the reasons to continue. So, to maintain your motivation, you can both strengthen the reasons to continue and weaken the reasons to quit.


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9. Exploit the power of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity has been shown to be integral to adult learning and development. The power of neuroplasticity suggests that we are not stuck with the brain we were born with but have the capacity to willfully alter our minds and bring about enduring change to our mental and emotional state (Davidson and Begley, 2012). However, that malleability decreases with age, making it progressively harder to learn. That means older adults require specific types of training (e.g., self-paced) to learn new skills.

A meaningful life

The take-home lesson is that to keep our minds sharp in older age, we need to engage in new challenges. Lifelong learners derive great satisfaction and pleasure from exercising their abilities and feel a tremendous sense of personal achievement from pushing themselves to develop new skills.


Ericsson A., Pool R. (2016) Peak: Secret from the new science of expertise . An Eamon Dolan Book: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Ericsson, K. A., Hoffman, R. R., Kozbelt, A., and Williams, A. M. (eds) (2018). Revised Edition of Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davidson, R., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life oYour Brain. NY: Avery Costandi M (2016) Neuroplasticity. MIT press.

9 Key Principles of Learning a New Skill (2024)
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