9 Lessons for Learning Anything

I’ve tried to learn guitar a half-dozen times. By try, I mean I’ve pulled my guitar out of its case at least once a year. And by learn I mean I want to instantly be able to play any song like an expert.

The furthest I’ve ever made it was three days in a row of practice. My new record is 5 weeks (and counting!)


What changed? Well for one, my level of effort. For the rest, these are my lessons of learning guitar that apply to pretty much anything.

1. Replace a bad habit with a good habit

Every morning I used to wake up, check Twitter, Facebook, email and my RSS feeds. I’d blink and an hour had gone by, and at that point I was definitely awake.

I hated wasting time in the morning–which is definitely my most productive time of day.

So I decided that I’d spend that half hour each day practicing guitar instead of milling through gobbledygook 140 characters at a time.

If you’re interested in habits, I recommend The Power of Habit. The audiobook version is fantastic. 

2. Don’t break the chain

Jerry Seinfeld has a genius productivity tip. He commits to writing jokes every single day. And each day he writes a joke, he makes an “X” on a calendar. His goal? Don’t break the chain of Xs.

It’s easy enough to do. Commit to doing one thing you want to do to get better at something every single day. And the motivation of not breaking the X is pretty staggering.

For all you overachievers, don’t try to print out multiple calendars that each correspond to a new habit you’re trying to develop. It’s too much. Take things slowly. One chain at a time.

3. Push through the Dip

Seth Godin wrote a tiny, powerful book called The Dip. The idea is simple. There comes a point in doing everything where it gets really hard–and you have to decide if you want to work really hard to push through or if you should just give up because it’s not worth it.

I’ve wanted to learn how to play guitar for a long time (you can tell by the dust on the case). It was time to push through the dip.

4. Start with a low investment

Outside of the cost of the guitar (which I traded my cousin for a pair of 13″ subwoofers when I was in college), I’ve invested $4 in learning guitar.

$2 for a Learn Guitar app
$2 for a chord app
$0 for a dozen library books on how to learn guitar

I’ve decided that as I get better, I can invest more. Too often I’ve spent money on things I didn’t continue to pursue. Let your reward for your commitment upgraded gear for your hobby. But start small. Borrow from friends.

5. Ask an expert (or watch YouTube videos)

My cousin plays guitar (not the one who ended up with the subs) and he showed me some basics, made sure I was doing a few things right, and gave me some pointers. That was super helpful.

Also, I found out about this great site called YouTube. People post videos on there that are sometimes helpful (normally determined by the amount of views and thumbs-up-to-thumbs-down ratio.) I search YouTube all the time when I get stuck.

6. Get really good at the fundamentals

I want to learn to play hammer ons, and solos and every single chord. But if I can’t play clean chords, have a smooth strumming rhythm, or transition between chords quickly, none of the fancy stuff matters. That’s hard for me.

I want to be John Mayer on the guitar without being able to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

So, I keep plugging along on the boring stuff and trying to get really good at that, because a solid foundation of fundamentals always pays off.

7. Think about what to learn

I decided to skip the music theory stuff. Maybe that will be a mistake in the long run, but I don’t need to know how to read music now. I just want to jam.

In every discipline, there will be rabbit trails of things that are nice to know but not necessary to know. Distinguish between those things.

A helpful book on the beginning stages of learning anything and how to maximize your first steps in acquiring skills is The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman.

8. Pursue accountability and encouragement

Every day Niki asks me if I played the guitar. She says she loves hearing me play (even though I don’t even love hearing me play). Knowing I’ve got someone rooting for me, and holding me accountable makes practicing that much easier.

9. Learn for a reason

One day, I want to be able to lead our family in singing worship songs. It’s a humble task, but it’s something that’s really important to me. That’s my driving force that helps me keep practicing each day. Each day of strumming poorly, not being able to get it, and feeling frustrated is worth it, because small strokes fell oaks.

It’s putting into practice Starting with Why as our motivation.

Question: What has been most helpful for you learning new skills and hobbies?

Photo provided by Sydesignn

2 thoughts on “9 Lessons for Learning Anything

  1. Ty says:

    Two things: Cannot wIt to jam with you some day, and buy a poster with chords on it. That was a help for me to not have to flip through a book/app.

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