Why Some Skills are Harder to Learn than Others


Learning that skill was hard, but performing it is pretty easy. Sure there are levels of mastery, but it's not brain surgery to strike up a great conversation. Anyone can do it, if they can learn it.

A much easier skill to learn was playing piano. I got a teacher, got some books, and sat down in front a keyboard, doing what my teacher told me to do. It helps to have a certain kind of intelligence, but the hardest part of learning an instrument is being persistent and being willing to work on the things you have trouble with.

Learning is slow, but it's not very difficult. Actually PLAYING piano, however, is a very complex skill. Each hand is doing something different, you have to play perfectly on the beat but still convey emotion and there are so many levels of nuance and expression.

These are just my personal experiences, but I know that most people find it very difficult to learn new social skills and fairly easy to learn the basics of an instrument and a few songs. Successful social coaches make a lot of money, there is a high demand for their skills, and a lot of people complain about not being at the level of social skill they want. Most people aren't comfortable approaching strangers and when they do meet and connect with people, it tends to be circumstantial, not a choice.

On the other hand, almost everyone I know can play music in some capacity, either guitar, a song on piano, or an accordion piano hybrid that terrifies me (I have one friend who can play a viking horn). Clearly, LEARNING an instrument is a pretty easy feat (mastering is it another matter).

So, what makes it so hard to learn social skills and easy to learn an instrument?

For most of us, the cost of mistakes in socializing are high and painful. Rejection hurts. Most of us will do anything in our power to avoid being embarrassed. Humans are so sensitive to social failure some of us would rather die: exile was considered a punishment worse than death in some cultures.

So that's the first problem: we avoid making mistakes in social situations and mistakes are the foundation of learning.

On top of that, it's very difficult to practice one element of social skills without dealing with the rest. Adults can't just focus on being polite without also having to listen, understand, respond, emote, speak, etc. (kids do, because adults will let them. A shopkeeper will wait patiently as a child's parent coaxes him to "say thank you").

If you go out and try to meet someone new, you have to think about where you're going, deal with the normal behavior around that (how you make an introduction at a bar at midnight is very different than how you'd do it at a park in the middle of the afternoon), and be realistic about timing and having a functional conversation. You can't easily slow it down or break it into it's parts to focus on one or another.

Music, on the other hand, literally can be slowed down. You can break out the parts and focus on just the melody or the rhythm. No one will punish you for that (depending on how understanding they are about your practicing). Music that is decent is very simple so even in the early stages, it can be fulfilling.

Super simple social interactions aren't very fulfilling: "How are you?" "I'm good, thanks."

So that's the second reason a skill can be hard to learn: even at a basic level, the skill has a lot of moving parts that cannot be separated from each other or slowed down.

So, to recap: skills are hard to learn because:

  1. Failure hurts, making us unwilling to make mistakes to learn, and
  2. You can't break them apart and practice each element on its own, forcing you to expend energy on maintaining the performance at the same time you try to learn something new.

The mark of a great teacher or learning program is eliminating these obstacles in creative ways.