The Benefits of Mastering a Skill

The Benefits of Mastering a Skill

This winter I brought an article about a basketball coach to my piano teacher. It was about Tara VanDerveer, who coached the Stanford University women’s basketball team for 39 years and recently became the head coach with the most wins in college basketball history, women’s or men’s. In the article she credited her own piano teacher as an inspiration. “Twenty-five years ago, at Christmas, when I was in my mid-40s, I decided to learn piano.” I had just started lessons myself, and reading about how important learning a new discipline was to this very successful woman made me feel validated for spending time and money on my own very new, very optional hobby.

Luckily, Tara and I are not alone. There are a host of books and articles promoting the benefits of cultivating hobbies outside of work; there’s even a branch of science called “leisure science”. And there are lots of other adults out there mastering new skills that have nothing to do with their roles at work or at home. I’ve been fortunate enough to make friends with other late-starters across many different disciplines, and we all have a few things in common: we’re willing to put in hard work for something we may always be not-great at; we have the privilege to do so (as the New York Times says, “it’s easier to have a hobby if you have things like a steady salary, affordable rent and reliable child care”); and we understand the tremendous benefits associated with chasing mastery.

Here are three reasons to work towards mastering skills (outside of your job):

You learn to learn all over again.

By the time we’re adults with responsibilities, we’ve generally stopped learning wholly new things and are instead building on skills we began mastering long ago. To many of us it’s a relief not to have to stretch beyond our comfort zones. We don’t have to deal with feeling like we’re bad at something, to struggle with moving our bodies or using our brains in new ways, which is often uncomfortable and awkward. As Adam Gopnik says in The Real Work: The Mystery of Mastery, “Much of what feels like mastery in adult life is actually the avoidance of a challenge. The ‘flow’ in which, if we’re lucky, our daily work is situated, is a narrow current within a broad river that we ceased navigating adventurously long ago, having capsized too many times to try again.”

However, I would argue that learning a new skill as an adult is fun because you’re guaranteed to be bad at it, at least for a little while. Beginners have few expectations, which removes some of the pressure many of us put on ourselves to succeed. And you’re almost certain to make big improvements in a short period of time, which is hugely motivating.

Plus, working on something you’re bad at (or at least new at) means that you have to be fully present, particularly if it’s slightly risky. I recently took up horseback riding after a 30 year break. Being around those big, intuitive animals is therapeutic unto itself. But it’s even easier to live in the moment when I’m cantering around the ring or trotting over low jumps, skills that are new and challenging enough to temporarily erase the to-do lists from my brain.

It’s fun.

I like to refer to my hobbies as “fun for no reason”, as in, I’m not doing them to get fitter or richer or more successful. I’m doing them because they bring me joy. Often our rise-and-grind American culture promotes an always-on mentality. Even if you don’t need the extra money (but especially if you do), you’re encouraged to monetize as much of your time as possible (“Make it a side hustle!”) And even if you’re not able to monetize your time (say, when you’re parenting your children), you’re still encouraged to optimize it. I remember the first few times I pursued something purely for the fun of it while my children were small. I felt joy followed immediately by guilt. I was doing something that wasn’t for their benefit or the benefit of the family unit.

But of course I was looking at it all wrong. Pursuing hobbies I love makes me happy, which directly benefits them. There is even research showing that “more time spent on leisure activities was correlated with lower blood pressure, lower levels of depression and stress, and overall better psychological and physical functioning”.

In my experience, seeking mastery as an adult is particularly fun because the stakes are so low. You’re not doing this thing because you need a college scholarship; you’re doing it because you love it. I don’t need to practice my scales on the piano. If I want to stop taking lessons, I can just tell my teacher I’m going to stop. But I do it because I enjoy the feeling when I finally figure out a piece of music or the short break it gives my brain from the computer screen.

It does actually help your job.

While having fun and learning are the main reasons I enjoy trying to master new skills, I’ve found that they help me at work too. Research has shown that hobbies – including those that have nothing to do with your profession – have been linked to positive outcomes for memory, cognition, creativity, and problem-solving. Doing something different from work also helps your brain reset and get ready to tackle the next challenge. I’ve been surprised by how many times something I’ve learned in one area of my non-working life has helped me solve a problem in my working life. Who knew that trying to master flip turns in the swimming pool would make me calmer when dealing with a challenging person or project?

Are you thinking about trying something new? Afraid you might look like a fool? Worried you should be spending that time and energy on something more “productive”? Well I’m here from the land of Adult Novices to tell you that you may look silly, and you’ll probably be bad at whatever it is, but if you can embrace a Beginner’s Mind, you’ll be rewarded in health, happiness, and, yes, even productivity.

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