“I know Kung Fu.”
“The most awesome stage”
Last year, Facebook's VP of Design thought the TNW Conference main stage was the best she'd ever been on.
Neo’s declaration is easily one of the most memorable lines from one of the greatest sci-fi/action movies in nerd history, The Matrix.
If you’ve seen it (and shame on you if you haven’t), I guarantee your head started swarming with possibilities when thinking about all of the skills you’d like to acquire if it were actually possible to download them instantly to your brain.
And come on, who doesn’t want to answer the question, “can you fly that thing?” or “do you know how to do that?” with “not yet!”
Today I want to show you how I go about channeling my inner-Neo to acquire skills as rapidly as possible. It’s the method that allowed me to do my first muscle up in under an hour with no prior training.
So, let’s see how deep the rabbit hole goes!
Identify your desired skill
Neo learned every martial art skill in a matter of minutes by downloading it to his brain like a computer program.
Obviously, we don’t have the ability to plug a USB cable into the back of our melons and learn anything we desire, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a Matrix-inspired approach to skill acquisition. Come on, we’re nerds. That’s just what we do!
So, start by making a list of things you’d like to learn:
- Your first pull up?
- A new language?
- How to cook a decent meal?
- Handstand push ups?
- A musical instrument?
Put whatever you want on your list – you’re only limited by your imagination. And I’m going to guess that you will have no problem thinking up things that make you say “hey, that would be pretty effing sweet if I could do that.”
After you create your list, try to put them into some semblance of an order based on desirability, difficulty, time required, and your current level of physical fitness (or education if it’s not a physical skill). This might require some research on your part (watch YouTube videos, read articles, talk to other people, etc.) to determine your order.
Life-hacking guru Tim Ferriss (whose 4-Hour Workweek was the catalyst for my Nerd Fitness blog) usually picks one physical and one mental skill to master at the same time (so, learning a new language and a new dance style). If you can handle (and have time) to try and acquire more than one skill, go for it.
However, if you live a full life of working, gaming, exercising, and hanging out with friends/family – you might only have time to learn one skill at a time. That’s fine; put your focus there, take care of business, and then move onto the next one – there’s always another dragon to slay.
So – start by identifying the skill(s) you want to learn, and then pick one!
Find a mentor or teacher
Once you’ve identified your talent, it’s time to track down your Morpheus – the guy who will “show you the door” to walk through.
This will require research…depending on your budget, it also might require some extra work and creativity.
If you have money to spend, there’s no better way to learn a skill in my opinion than finding somebody that can already accomplish the task to teach you personally.
Now, I understand that you might live in the middle of nowhere (and there’s no guru anywhere close), you have a very tight budget, and/or you just can’t find anybody to teach you or learn from. That’s okay!
If you don’t have a teacher present, it’s time to utilize this thing called the Internet. Apparently they have it on computers now:
- Want to learn a new language? Start reading FluentIn3Months.com and find people on Skype who SPEAK that language and start speaking TODAY.
- Want to learn parkour? Start reading EVERYTHING you can about it, watch every video you can, join parkour message boards, and so on. Become a parkour information sponge.
- Want to learn a gymnastics move? There are tutorials everywhere! EVERYWHERE! Obviously learning by watching videos is less optimal than training in a gym with a pro, but us nerds are pretty resilient and it’s amazing what can be learned without coaching if the dedication and proper effort is applied.
Try to find a coach, either in real life or online, or identify people already accomplishing what you hope to accomplish and learn from them.
Reduce the skill to bite-sized pieces
Most skills are not a single movement that results in either a successful or failed attempt. Instead, they are composed of multiple parts of various levels of difficulty (that can be scaled) that all get combined to complete the task.
Think about how Neo downloaded his skills – it wasn’t magic or the Force, but rather a systematic download of algorithms, lines of code, and systems. And how does these things get downloaded? One line of code at a time!
Your skill acquisition will take place in the same manner = Lines of code combined to form a final program:
- A muscle up is composed of grip work, a chin up, a transition, followed by a dip.
- Learning a new language is a combination of new vocabulary, verb conjugation, and sentence structure.
- Cooking is a combination of identifying new ingredients, learning a recipe, operating your kitchen appliances, and synthesizing the different parts to form a meal.
A new skill that seems impossible to learn will remain impossible…you need to recognize that it IS possible by breaking that skill down into manageable goals that can be worked on individually. Neo had to realize that “there is no Spoon.” You have to realize that if somebody else can do it, chances are that with enough practice, determination, and and dedication you probably can too. How difficult your skill is will determine how long and involved your training will need to be.
Like identifying your level 50 in life, you can do the same with skills, break it out into steps, and then work on each step one at a time until you feel proficient enough to either level up on that one part of the skill, or move onto the next one.
This is where having a great coach comes in handy. Working with Jim was awesome when trying to figure out how to do a muscle up because each step was broken down into smaller sections so I knew exactly what to do and where my weaknesses were.
If you don’t have a coach, you’ll have to make do with what you can find online for scaling the skill you’re after, so that you can practice the smaller sections. You’ll probably fail more, make more mistakes, but that “program” can still be downloaded.
Combine the skills
Once you have your separate sections, it’s time to learn how to combine them.
Like with a computer program, there are lines of code that all need to work together in order for everything to work. Your success with your desired skill will come from how well you can combine the different “lines of code” to make everything work.
Remember when Neo finally realizes “he is the One?”
He sees the Matrix for what it really is, learning how all of the lines of code come together to form the world…and then starts kicking ass. The better grip you have on all the different sections and how they intertwine with each other, the better chance of success you’ll have with the final movement.
You have a few options:
- Learn all separate skills, then work on the transitions between them.
- Learn skill #1, skill #2, then the transition between them. And then move onto skill #3 and its transition, and so on.
- Learn skill #1, then transition, then skill #2, then transition, then skill #3
If that confused the hell out of you, my apologies – I just mean that there are different ways to connect the dots that will ultimately result in you successfully completing your skill.
For my muscle up training, I was able to do ring pull-ups and ring dips, but the transition definitely presented the biggest challenge. After breaking the transition down into smaller steps, I was able to see how all the puzzle pieces fit together, and then ultimately combine everything into a gloriously ugly muscle up.
Practice, learn, adapt, repeat
After you’ve learned all of the steps, it’s time to practice the hell out of them.
This is probably the most frustrating AND rewarding stage…as you might spend weeks/months getting-close-but-not-there-yet.
A few pieces of advice:
- If you’re doing a physical skill, record yourself while practicing – it’s amazing how different “what I feel like I”m doing” and “what I’m ACTUALLY doing” can be.
- If you get stuck for weeks and aren’t showing any progress, it’s time to change things up – work on a different part of the skill, or attack the same part in a different way.
Here’s the video of my training session with Jim on completing my first muscle up…
Yeah, it wasn’t a strict muscle up – I imagine I’m still a few months away on that – but I did one! I’ve purchased my own set of rings and I’m excited to spend time down in Ecuador working on my muscle ups along with some other crazy gymnastic stuff that Jim has also taught me.
So, that’s the skill I’m working on currently – muscle ups. I’m also working on Planches and Front Levers, but I’d imagine I’m MONTHS and MONTHS away on those as well.