The first step toward building a skill is to figure out exactly what type of skill you’re building. Every skill falls into one of two categories: hard skills and soft skills. Daniel Coyle, author of The little book of talent, gives us the best insights about how to develop both of them.
Hard skills are actions that are performed as correctly and consistently as possible, every time. They are skills that have one path to an ideal result; skills that you could imagine being performed by a reliable robot. Hard skills are about repeatable precision, and tend to be found in specialized pursuits, particularly physical ones. Some examples:
- a golfer swinging a club, a tennis player serving, or any precise, repeating athletic move;
- a child performing basic math (for example, addition or the multiplication tables);
- a violinist playing a specific chord;
Here, your goal is to build a skill that functions like a Swiss watch—reliable, exact, and performed the same way every time, automatically, without fail. Hard skills are about ABC: Always Being Consistent.
Soft skills, on the other hand, are those that have many paths to a good result, not just one. These skills aren’t about doing the same thing perfectly every time, but rather about being agile and interactive; about instantly recognizing patterns as they unfold and making smart, timely choices. Soft skills tend to be found in broader, less-specialized pursuits, especially those that involve communication, such as:
- a soccer player sensing a weakness in the defense and deciding to attack;
- a stock trader spotting a hidden opportunity amid a chaotic trading day;
- a CEO “reading a room” in a tense meeting or negotiation.
With these skills, we are not trying for Swiss-watch precision, but rather for the ability to quickly recognize a pattern or possibility, and to work past a complex set of obstacles. Soft skills are about the three Rs: Reading, Recognizing, and Reacting.
The point is that hard skills and soft skills are different (literally, they use different structures of circuits in your brain), and thus are developed through different methods of deep practice. If you aren’t sure if the skill is hard or soft, here’s a quick test: Is a teacher or coach usually involved in the early stages? If the answer is yes, then it’s likely a hard skill. If it’s no, then it’s a soft skill.
To build hard skills, you need high precision. Work like a carpenter
To develop reliable hard skills, you need to connect the right wires in your brain. In this, it helps to be careful, slow, and keenly attuned to errors. To work like a careful carpenter.
A good example of hard-skill carpentry is found in the Suzuki music instruction method. Suzuki students begin by spending several lessons simply learning to hold the bow and the violin with the right finger curve and pressure, the right stance, the right posture. Using rhyme and repetition, they learn to move the bow (without the violin) “up like a rocket, down like the rain, back and forth like a choo-choo train.” Each fundamental, no matter how humble-seeming, is introduced as a precise skill of huge importance (which, of course, it really is), taught via a series of vivid images, and worked on over and over until it is mastered. The vital pieces are built, rep by careful rep.
Precision especially matters early on, because the first reps establish the pathways for the future. Neurologists call this the “sled on a snowy hill” phenomenon. The first repetitions are like the first sled tracks on fresh snow: on subsequent tries, your sled will tend to follow those grooves.
When you learn hard skills, be precise and measured. Go slowly. Make one simple move at a time, repeating and perfecting it before you move on. Pay attention to errors, and fix them, particularly at the start. Learning fundamentals only seems boring – in fact, it’s the key moment of investment. If you build the right pathway now, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and trouble down the line.
To build soft skills, you need high flexibility. Play like a skateboarder
While hard skills are best put together with measured precision, soft skills are built by playing and exploring inside challenging, ever- changing environments. These are places where you encounter different obstacles and respond to them over and over, building the network of sensitive wiring you need to read, recognize and react. In other words, to build soft skills you should behave less like a careful carpenter and more like a skateboarder in a skateboard park: aggressive, curious and experimental, always seeking new ways to challenge yourself.
Even the most creative skills —especially the most creative skills—require long periods of clumsiness.
The Brontë sisters, three of whom became world-class novelists, built their talents by writing thousands of pages of stories in tiny homemade books when they were children. The early Brontë stories aren’t very good—and that’s precisely the point. They became skilled by performing thousands of intensive reaches and reps in an endlessly challenging, variable, engaging space.
When you practice a soft skill, focus on making a high number of varied reps and on getting clear feedback. Ask yourself frequently: What worked? What didn’t? And why?
Don’t worry too much about making errors—the important thing is to explore. Soft skills are often more fun to practice, but they’re also tougher because they demand that you coach yourself.
Adapted from Daniel Coyle, The little book of talent, Bantam books