The first car I bought in college cost me $250. It was a ’77 Lincoln Continental. I knew almost nothing about cars, or I probably wouldn’t have bought it. It was rusty, barely ran, and blew such a large cloud of smoke when it started that a friend commented to me that she could see it from across campus. The first time it broke down was about 15 minutes after I paid for it. It was not the last time. Keeping the Continental running soon became a full-time hobby. The biggest problem with this hobby was that I had no idea what I was doing. I had spent almost no time using tools; I didn’t know that my Lincoln had a V-8 engine, and when I looked under the hood of my rusty old car, all I saw was a scary mess. However, my budget (or lack thereof) and my jalopy forced me to take action. I started out by tuning up the car. This meant buying a Haynes manual (a car fixing book) and borrowing some tools. Over the next several years, I read every repair book I could find and I asked questions of anyone who I could find who knew anything I didn’t. My uncles, other students, my philosophy professor, and the guy at the auto parts store all reached a point where they rolled their eyes at the words: “I have a quick question about cars…” Within a year, I was making extra money doing minor repairs to other students’ vehicles. In the 20 years since, this skill has served me more times than I can count. Now, it is a relative rarity for me to pay a mechanic.
This is one of several skills I’ve acquired over the years, which are purely a product of deciding I want to do it and then applying myself to learning. These skills range from mechanical to computer related talents to relationship skills, and many others. We live in an era where knowledge is easily acquired and is often free. Very little is more fulfilling to a man than learning to take on a problem themselves and then doing it. Solving problems yourself is satisfying and confidence building. I can think of very little in life that feels better than saying: “I got this” and it actually being true. A basic part of becoming a better man is incremental growth through ongoing study and effort. Along the way, I’ve figured out a handful of basic tips that can be applied to the process of acquiring a new skill:
- Read and ask questions. The great thing about knowledge is that it’s easily acquired by reading books. Libraries, the internet, and bookstores are easily accessible and serve as a wellspring for almost every area of learning. I learned more about how cars work by reading the diagnostic pages of the repair manual than from anyone I have ever asked. This truth isn’t limited to fixing cars. I learned to BBQ ribs, build a campfire, clean fish, aim a rifle, and a dozen other skills by reading books. Further, most folks who have knowledge are happy to share it. Asking questions of folks who know what they are talking about is a great shortcut. The great thing about the time we live in is that the Internet can connect you to experts all over the world, who gather on discussion boards. Further, YouTube offers all sorts of instructional videos on subjects ranging from plumbing to cars to cooking to anything else you can think up.
- Don’t be intimidated or work through it when you are. Cars scared the heck out of me when I started. Taking things apart was even worse. I found that diving in was the best way attack the problem. The problem I’ve seen in myself and other novices is the fear of just getting started. Self doubt and worry blocks the path. However, most of those fears are baseless. In 20 years, I can think of only a handful of instances in which I wrecked something because I took it apart when I shouldn’t have.
- Be patient. The biggest issues I’ve encountered in learning a new skill is when I get ahead of myself. You can’t expect to be an expert immediately and attacking a project without understanding everything involved can create a lot of headaches. Before starting anything new I make it a point to read and study everything I can find. Reading all the steps first is a great way to avoid those sorts of “uh-oh” moments. Practice is the pathway to expertise.
- Take notes. My first tune up taught me not to take things apart without making note of how to put it back together again. Since then, I’ve labeled everything, drawn diagrams, taken notes, and photographed everything. A picture makes it much easier to remember which wires go where. Relying on your memory when working in unfamiliar territory is a bad idea. This is especially easy with large projects. It’s easy to forget little details in the middle of a complicated task.
- Don’t limit yourself. It’s easy to limit this process to purely mechanical skills. This is simply not the case. A few years ago I decided to needed to step up my game as a husband and father. A couple dozen books on the subject have made me a better man in these areas. Most of my graduate school experience was done through distance learning. Essentially, this means I learned almost everything through reading books and asking questions. You can learn anything through reading and study. I often have folks ask me how they can understand the Bible better, I invariably tell them to read it. Sometimes I give them a couple of guidebooks to move them on their way.
- Reading the RIGHT books is essential. Setting out to learn theology by picking up an advanced textbook written for doctoral level theologians might not help, largely because you won’t understand it. Reading a motorcycle repair manual to fix your Honda Civic will likely be of little aid. Find the right material before you start. I have found that most folks will willingly point you in the right direction if you ask. In addition, Amazon searches and book reviews will give you some great hints regarding what level of student a book is meant to help. Finally, if you start on a book that’s too advanced for you, put it down and read a different one. It’s easy to get frustrated and quit, but you’ll gain nothing by doing this.
The biggest thing to remember is that all education is an incremental journey. We learn to read over the course of several years as children. We learn to walk, only after mastering sitting up and crawling. Anything can be learned if you are willing to put in the work needed to learn it. Any skill you have is a skill you can teach to someone else.