Whether it’s a virtuoso cellist giving a concert, or a great quarterback playing in a championship game, or an inspiring speaker commanding the stage, we usually only see the polished performances of masters in their field. What we don’t see is how they developed their skill, the messy process behind their greatness. We end up believing that what they do is beyond our capabilities, but the truth is we too can learn, improve, and master anything we want.
Nick Velasquez is a passionate learner and a devoted student of mastery. He is the author of the new book Learn, Improve, Master, and he’s here today to dispel myths about learning, as well as how to learn better. It turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Nick’s writing has been featured in Time and Thought Catalog and we had a lot of fun in this conversation discussing practical self-improvement. Some of it may even surprise you.
Miles Rote: Hey, everyone. I’m excited to be here today with Nick Velasquez, author of Learn, Improve, Master: How to Develop Any Skill and Excel at It. Nick, I’m excited you’re here. Welcome to the Author Hour Podcast.
Nick Velasquez: Hey, Miles. Thank you for having me.
Miles Rote: Let’s start by giving our listeners just a bit of background on who you are and what inspired you to write this book?
Nick Velasquez: Sure. I’ve always been obsessed with learning. That’s been a lifelong passion. I guess, if we’re thinking about my origin story for learning, it all began in high school. I attended a different kind of high school, where we didn’t have teachers, we had tutors. That meant we were studying on our own. We were studying with some study guides, instead of attending lectures. Everyone would go at their own pace, so learning was in our own hands, and it was something that came from within instead of being imposed on us.
That developed that passion for learning new things because it was never boring. It was never a drag or something that I didn’t want to do. It was fun. It was something I enjoyed. My school instilled that in me, where I was not concerned about picking up a book or any subject, I just loved learning.
Then the other side was from my parents. My dad whenever I wanted something, I’d say, “Hey, I want to buy new clothes, or something expensive, or a nice watch.” He would always say no. But everything learning-related, it was yes. Such as, “I want a car.” No. “I want a nice watch.” No. “I want nice clothes.” No. “I want to go to the States and study music in this school, which is going to cost way more than everything I just explained.” Yes. Everything learning-related was a yes. Those became my luxuries. To this day, that’s what I spend my money on, is learning and then education. That’s been always my passion.
Then the book comes about because I was frustrated by how long it took to develop any skill. You can learn a lot about something, but then learning how to do it is a different thing. You can learn a lot about painting. You can read books on painting, on theory. Then learning to paint, it takes you sitting down and then practicing. There was too much I wanted to learn. I think every subject has its own magic. Every month, I will find myself picking up a different hobby. It’s like, I’m moving way too slow. This is not working out and I’m going to have to narrow down or become a better learner. The choice was to become a better learner.
That took me down this rabbit hole of reading as much as I could on learning science, neuroplasticity, peak performance, mastery, all these different things that are involved in the process of learning and mastering skills. I never intended to write a book. I was trying to compile all this information to create a guide for the rest of my life. That’s what I was going to use for everything I wanted to learn.
A couple of years into the process, I figured if I’m putting all this work into building this thing and building this manual, I might as well put it out and help other people that are on the same path, so that those people don’t have to go through the same thing I went through–all those years of research. That’s how the book came about. Had I known the amount of work that was in front of me, I don’t know if I would have done it.
I’m glad I was ignorant about the process and how difficult it was to be, going from that conception of the book until the last stages and how passionate I was about the subject because otherwise, I’m not sure if this book would exist.
Learning is a Skill
Miles Rote: I love that. I love what you said about learning as a skill. I think a lot of people don’t necessarily equate learning to be a skill. Let’s dive into that a little bit. How can learning be something that we get better at?
Nick Velasquez: Sure. Learning is a meta-skill. It’s an ability that all of us have. We’re made to learn. That’s the greatest power of the human mind. Everything we’ve built and everything we’ve created is because of our ability to learn. Then it’s just a matter of honing that ability and it is the same thing that we do with anything else. When people talk about having a bad memory, it’s not that they have a bad memory, is that they’re bad at using their memory.
One example I like to bring up is if you have a wheel, but you lay it on its side and push it, that’s not the best way to do it. We all have this wheel, it’s just a matter of knowing exactly how to make it work. There are processes and there are different techniques to hone our ability to learn. To me, that’s the skill that should come before anything else. Once we become better at learning, we become better at anything else we want to learn. It’s that idea that there are essential skills that we all have to learn in the beginning, like reading and writing, and we know that a lot of the things we’ll do in life, they come from those meta-skills, but unfortunately, we’re not taught how to learn and that’s one of the purposes of the book–teaching you how to use your mind to learn more efficiently and more effectively.
Miles Rote: One thing I really like about the book is you take people on a journey, starting with learning, and then improving, and then mastering. Even before that, you dispel some myths about learning in general and talk about some of the myths, like you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You explain neuroplasticity, which you already mentioned. Let’s dig into that. Is it possible to actually rewire our brains? Is it possible that we can change the way that we think and learn new tricks?
Nick Velasquez: Absolutely. Let’s take it one step at a time. For the neuroplasticity side, it has been shown that whenever we’re practicing a skill, our brain starts to adapt and starts to change, like redirecting more neural power towards those areas that we’re frequently using. For people playing string instruments, we see that the brain starts recruiting a bigger area for playing the instrument.
What’s interesting is that there’s more demand on the left hand when you’re playing a string instrument, so that’s your fingering hand, then your right hand that is usually controlling the bow. In the neural studies, they found that the area of the brain controlling the left hand becomes over-developed. What a scientist deduced from that and found out is that the brain is restructuring and specializing. That’s what’s called neuroplasticity.
Our brain is plastic, it starts to change depending on the need. This musician has over-developed the brain area responsible for that fingering hand and not necessarily for the right hand, which is the bow. That opens up the door to realize how much our brain can rewire itself to specialize in what we repeatedly do.
A key point here is what we repeatedly do. It’s not what we want to do, it’s not what we dream of doing, it’s what we do often. It comes with practice. Again, through practice, our brain will rewire and will become better at anything we’re practicing.
Miles Rote: What about left-brained or right-brained people? Some people like to classify themselves into one category or the other. It sounds like you’re saying is that you can rewire your brain entirely. What about those people who would say that they’re left-brained and can’t do certain things?
Nick Velasquez: Yes. There was this idea that some processes were specialized in one side or the other side of the brain. That’s not entirely true. We use our entire brain both sides for almost everything. While some areas may specialize, or maybe are more suited for one task than the other, they are in constant communication. For some time, people were pushing this idea that you were either a right-brain learner or left-brain learner, depending on if you are more creative, or more analytical. That’s just not true. We use both sides of the brain for almost everything and especially learning. You’re not left-brain or right-brain learner. You use both sides.
Miles Rote: It’s really not about either you have it or you don’t mentality, which also a lot of people will dump themselves into. I bring all these things up because they are traps that we can put ourselves in that you’re saying aren’t actually true. The idea that you either have it or you don’t is actually false, and you can actually garner those skills and have them if you choose.
Nick Velasquez: Yes. That’s another big point and I think that stops a lot of people from getting into a skill. It’s all these ideas and misconceptions about talent and innate abilities. We can’t deny that they play a role. They give an edge, but they’re not the bulk of developing a skill. We can all learn any skill. All skills are learnable, and we all have the power to learn. You can learn anything you want.
We have this idea that, “Oh, I was not born with it. I don’t have what it takes,” and that’s just not true. You can learn anything. How far you go, no one can tell. The only way to find out is you doing the work, you putting in the effort and seeing where it can take you, but all skills can be learned. This is a conversation that comes often with languages. “I’m just horrible at languages.” No, you’re not. You can learn it. People have been learning languages for hundreds of years and anyone can learn a language.
In fact, most people know a language, which is their first language. It is possible, but we have all these ideas that, “I’m just not good at this,” and a lot of that is pushed by this pop psychology myths. Talent doesn’t play as big a role as we’ve been led to believe. For some, we believe that talent does play a bigger role because it protects our ego. We get to blame circumstances beyond our control for a lack of progress, or lack of skill. We don’t put in the work and then we complain that it is because we just don’t have it, and that’s not true. If you put in the time and effort, you will learn the skill.
Now one part that influences here is that we’re always trying to look at the best, the top, and we disdain everything that is not the top. If someone comes up to me and asks me, “Can I be the best racer in the world?” I don’t know. Most likely not, just by statistics. But could you be a good one? Yes, for sure. If you put in the time, put in the effort, you could be a great racer. No doubt about it.
It really depends on how you’re looking at it. If you’re always thinking about being the absolute best, then the odds are against you. If you’re thinking about learning and mastering a skill, becoming really good at it, that’s within anyone’s reach. I think our obsession with “the best” is just another excuse when we’re not putting in the work.
Becoming a Better Learner
Miles Rote: Yeah. Speaking of excuses, I think another one that was recently popularized is the 10,000-hour rule that claims that essentially to get really good at anything, you have to spend 10,000 hours doing it.
You have approached learning in a very different way, where you’re not trying to spend 10,000 hours to learn a new skill. You’re trying to do it as quickly as possible. Tell me a little bit about the 10,000-hour rule, whether or not that’s true and how to learn things that don’t take tens of thousands of hours.
Nick Velasquez: Right. Two things–the goal is not speed. We’ll backtrack for a second. Because I’m not necessarily trying to learn things quicker, I’m trying to learn them better. Speed becomes a byproduct of it. It’s like in martial arts, you’re focused on technique, and then speed and power will come as a result of good technique. The goal is not necessarily speed. It’s just becoming a better learner. Then the speed will come with it.
Now about the 10,000 hours, the original research was done by K. Anders Ericsson. He’s an expert on expert performance and expertise. This study was done on musicians, most specifically violinists. What he found out is that the best violinist in this prestigious music school, I think it was in Germany, they had done about 10,000 hours on average of solitary, deliberate practice.
A couple of things there–10,000 was not a mark, it was an average. These people were not the absolute best in their field. They were really good at it, but they still had a long way to go.
It was done on a specific skill, which was music, not across skills. He was not trying to set up a timeframe for mastering in general. He was trying to prove that even if you have special abilities or some facility for a subject like music, you would still have to put in a lot of time and practice to develop those traits, to develop those skills. He was trying to study more on the talent side and then showing that talent doesn’t play as big of a role. That even if you were talented for something, you would still have to put a large amount of work, because all of those great musicians, they all have done thousands of hours of practice.
His final point was, “Hey, this is where deliberate practice can take you, regardless of your innate traits, or your perceived talents for anything.” His ideas, like putting in the work, keeping those dreams on and going through the subject you like, and put in the practice. It’s very different. Then it was popularized as hey, you put in 10,000 hours and you’re going to master anything. That’s not the case. Some skills could take way more. They could take 30,000 hours. Others could take 2,000 hours. It’s not a timeline for mastery. It’s not just punching the clock.
The other side is that he was looking at deliberate practice, which is a very different practice. It’s not the mindless showing up and just going through the moves. If you’re hitting balls on the golf course for 10,000 hours, but you’re not trying to improve, you’re not being deliberate about your practice, you’re not going to get any better. That’s not going to make you a master. There’s a lot of misconceptions about the 10,000 hours. It’s a marketable idea and that’s why it caught fire the way it did, but it’s just not the truth.
Miles Rote: Yeah. You’ve talked about learning already and how it doesn’t have to take 10,000 hours. There are different strategies to become a better learner. What are some of your favorite strategies in becoming a better learner?
Nick Velasquez: Sure. The last thing about those 10,000 hours is it could take less, it could take more. You don’t know that. You have to put in the work. It also depends on person-to-person. Maybe you’ll take 20,000 hours to master something and then to someone else, 10,000 hours.
Then the point that we need to keep in mind is how much do you want it? How much do you want that skill in your life? For me at this time, I’m studying Japanese and it’s difficult. It’s a very difficult language. Someone said to me, “Look, it’s going to take you five or ten years.” Japanese is not usually a language you can learn in under a year, under two years. If someone said to me, “It’s going to take you 10 years,” I would still do it.
In a way, what is your purpose? What is your passion? Do you really want to learn this or not? Then at that point, you just forget about how long it’s going to take. You just do it, because, for some people, it’s going to be easier. For others, not so much. Do you really want this? If the answer is yes, you ignore everything else and you put in the work.
About the strategies, there are a lot of things that can be done to optimize the process. An important point to touch on is you can optimize the process, but you cannot skip it. No one can and no one has, never in history. No exceptions, none. Even Mozart had to work really hard on his music and he had a great teacher, his father, training him from a very early age and he put in a lot of work into his music.
He was not born playing piano. That never happened. We forget those things. We forget that Mozart had to learn scales and that Shakespeare had to learn how to write. They had to go from beginner to intermediate to advanced. Now there are many ways to optimize the process, but the things that would make the most impact is a long-term commitment and then doing the work, the consistency. Those two things, regardless of how good of a method you’re doing.
One example would be exercising. There are many methods that work. Getting in shape, there are many methods that work, many diets, and many exercising routines. Some are more efficient than others.
In the end, if you follow a decent diet and exercise routine, you will get in shape. That is the essence.
For learning, the first part is having the long-term commitment, knowing that it is going to take a while, but that you’re willing to do it because you want to. That’s what you’re passionate about. Then doing the work every day and that’s going to take you farther than anything else. Then once you’re doing that process, then you start implementing the other strategies to optimize and to try to get the maximum results from the time and energy you’re already putting into the process.
This reminds me of people that want to learn speed reading, but they don’t read. What is the point? I mean, first, start reading and build that habit, and tell me you’re reading every day. Once you’re doing that, then come up to me and say, “How do I optimize this process?” If you’re not reading, it doesn’t matter how good you get at speed reading, you will still not be reading at the same speed.
Miles Rote: I feel like we live in a society of immediate gratification and convenience and we’re always looking for that silver bullet.
Nick Velasquez: Yes. We’re always looking for the easier, fastest method, which is another trap of learning. You’re always jumping from one thing to another, trying to find that method that takes less effort, less time and it becomes a paradox. You spend so much time switching from method to method that you’re never doing the actual work that makes you better. That’s one of the traps to avoid.
Miles Rote: Each time you switch too, it takes energy from you and takes you further along from the path, because context switching and trying to do different things is actually harder and takes away from you, than sticking with one thing.
Nick Velasquez: Yes. That’s an important point to touch on. We are not saying, to not look for optimization. Yes, we should be looking to optimize what we do to get the best out of it. At the same time, at one point we have to give some methods time to see if they work for us or not. We can’t be switching all the time, because then it becomes all about trying to learn those new techniques, and you’re just spending time in what’s not really going to give you the results. The results are in doing the work and doing that every day.
Miles Rote: Totally agree. We’ve laid the foundation with you have to make the commitment, you have to put in the time, and this has to be something that you stick to. Now let’s fill it in with some strategies and maybe some paint on the foundation. With memory, you give quite a few different strategies. You talk about memory palaces, and you also touch on how people claim that they have a bad memory, but that’s not actually true, and you touched on that at the beginning of the podcast as well. Let’s talk about memory a little bit. How can people optimize their memory and increase their recall?
Nick Velasquez: The most important part of the discussion around memory is there’s a difference between recognition and recall. Recognition is when you’re seeing something and then you recognize as having seen it before. Then recall is reconstructing something from memory without any cues. For example, you meet someone at a party and then the person says their name. A week later, you meet that person again, you recognize them on the street, but then you can’t remember the name. What’s happening? You’re recognizing the face, you’re recognizing the person, you’re just running an input against your database and realizing, “Have I seen this person before? Yes, I have.” That’s recognition.
Then recall is trying to bring back that name from memory. The name is harder to remember, because you’ve not seen the name anywhere, or you’re not hearing it so you can’t recognize it. You have to bring it fully from memory. When people say, “I’m better at recognizing faces than memorizing names,” it’s everyone. Recognition’s a much easier process than recall.
The way that translated into learning is that many times, we study something, and then we do reviews. The reviews, they’re just making us recognize the material. Let’s say for someone studying science or something like that and then rereading your notes, it’s like, “Oh, yes. That’s right. I know this already.” No, you’re recognizing it, you’re familiar with it, but you only know that you’ve really had this subject internalized when you can remember it without any cues. If someone’s quizzing you about it, someone is asking you questions about it and you were able to respond, then that’s when you have internalized that knowledge. That’s the first part of memory, the recognition versus recall.
The other side of memory that pertains to learning is there is the declarative memory, and the procedural one. Declarative deals with known facts and this in learning a skill would be understanding theory. Again, if you’re studying art and you’re going into painting, it would be, oh, well, these traces and then combining the scholars and all the theory behind how to paint, but you don’t know how to actually paint, that becomes the procedural side.
We have one part that deals with theory and concepts and then one part of memory that has to deal with the processes. In another example, if you’re going to learn how to ride a bike, there’s not much theory involved. Then you’re developing your procedural memory as you’re riding the bike and your body is getting used to it, and you have this muscle memory for how you should move your body. Different skills have a different mix of theory and concepts and then the actual execution.
We need to work on both. For some skills, in the beginning, they’re theory-heavy, and then it all falls into practice. Most of them will have a combination. If you’re learning a move in jujitsu, then you need to understand the steps involved and why they matter and that’s declarative memory. Then you’re going to the mat and you start practicing that move, then you’re working on your procedural one. Those are two separate processes and they’re both important, but they have different strategies–one for memorizing theory and the other one for memorizing the actual procedure.
Miles Rote: Yeah, that makes sense. Thank you for that distinction. It’s a unique way to think about it and then try to apply it. You gave the example of jujitsu. What’s another practical example, just with life and applying that and allowing people to think of things through that lens?
Nick Velasquez: Sure. A nice example would be sales. You can study what a sales visit involves. You show up, you greet the people, then you present the problem, then an idea, then how it works, then the benefits, and then the close. That’s a theory of a simple sales pitch. You can remember that very easily, but then putting it into practice is something different. You learn the theory, what you should say about your products, about the benefits, about what solution it is bringing to your life, but then another thing is actually going into a sales environment and having to explain these things.
It’s like on one side, we have the theory, on the other side, we have the practice in developing that muscle, same with negotiations, and all these different communication skills. You can study the theory and that’s all good and you need that part. Then at one point, how they say, the rubber meets the road, and you have to be applying those concepts and then practicing those concepts. There are skills that have very little theory, but they take a long time for you to become good at them. Developing the skill, it takes a little bit longer than just learning the theory. Those are the two different sides.
Now when you ask me about how to become better at memorizing things, the main point is, our memory responds a lot to emotion and then to visual images. Anything you’re trying to remember, and they do this a lot in medical school, and we do it in languages, learning languages, you have these concepts, and these different things that you have to memorize, like the names of muscles and bones and all these things. They’re just abstract. There’s no cue for them. You’re just hearing a noise and you’re supposed to memorize it.
The way they memorize all these different parts is that they create images of things that sound similar. One example is, and this would be on learning languages, but if you want to learn the word for market in French, it’s marché. One way to create a visual image to stick to that sound is marching. We have the idea of marching somewhere, like a military march.
If we can think of ourselves as marching military-style through the supermarket, so that becomes a very visual image that reminds us of this sound. That’s what we’re trying to do with these mnemonic techniques, we’re attaching visual images to the sound of what we want to memorize. Whenever something is very theory-heavy that is very abstract, like remembering dates, remembering names, things like that, and we can associate with something that is very visual, and also that steers our emotions, our memory will always respond to emotion.
That’s why when we travel, we record so much of the experience. When we’re in our hometown and weeks pass unnoticed, it’s because they don’t have the emotional strength to make a mark in our memory. That’s one of the most important strategies.
Then I discuss more structured systems for memorizing. One is the memory palace system and the other one is the BOA system, which is structure systems that memory athletes have developed through the years. They’re more organized and they’re really good at memorizing large amounts of information.
For now, for someone just starting now, just elaborating on any memory, on anything you want to memorize, adding emotion to it, or adding a visual representation, that’s going to improve your memory a lot more. For someone, let’s say the example we brought up of going to a party, and when someone is giving their name. Let’s say the last person’s name, and this is tied to a scientific study, let’s imagine the person’s name is Baker. If we only hear the name and we make no association, nothing. It’s very easy that we forget it.
However, if we take Baker and we associate it with the idea of being a baker, for example, so someone that bakes bread, does all kinds of pastries, and we imagine this person covered in flour and baking these delicious goods, the moment you hear that name and you make that connection it is going to be much easier to remember next time. Anything that we can turn visual and emotional is going to have a stronger hold in our memory.
Miles Rote: That’s great. It’s basically leveraging what we’re best at as humans and how our brains work. Then using that as the way that we actually remember things.
Nick Velasquez: Exactly. Our memory is really good at spaces, whatever is visual and whatever is emotional. It’s just that, and this would be an entirely different discussion for another time, but when people wanted to build mass education, they wanted the whole population to be educated. They were trying to come up with how they were going to teach people. Then these memory techniques, because they’re so personalized, it depends on what you like to imagine, what you like to create visually, the emotions you want to attach to things. They can’t be standardized, necessarily.
The principles are the same, but the way you apply them varies depending on each person. Back in the Victorian era when they were developing the educational system they said, “No. We’re going to be memorizing the root learning. We’re going to repeat and repeat and repeat until it stays.” Education became this assembly line and they weren’t using the best techniques.
We know of these mnemonic techniques, they’ve been used since ancient Greece, and they’re the best ways to memorize. It’s just that we forgot them, and we did not include them in our current educational system, which is still based on an outdated system, going back to the 1800s and late 1700s.
Miles Rote: We’ve touched on learning for a bit now and you’ve given us some cool strategies. Let’s move in to improve a little bit. In your book, you also list a ton of different strategies we can use to improve ourselves and our learning in learning a new skill. Some things you include are the metrics, and ranking things with priorities, and testing things, recording ourselves. Maybe dive into this a little bit and share some of your favorite techniques to improve when it comes to harnessing a new skill.
Nick Velasquez: Sure. The most important concept about improving is feedback. That is at the center of improving anything. We need to know how we’re doing things, what we’re doing wrong, what we’re doing right, and what needs some fine-tuning. Out of that principle, then we can stream a lot of different techniques.
One of them, and they use this in many skills, is working with a mirror, where you can see what you’re doing as you’re doing it. In boxing, you’re shadowboxing, you’re looking at your technique, you’re looking at how you’re doing things. In magic, this is extremely important. You spend hours and hours in front of a mirror doing card work because that’s the only way for you to tell if you’re doing it right or not if you’re flashing something that you shouldn’t. Close-up magicians, they spend a lot of time in front of the mirror. They need that feedback. They need to see what they’re doing.
Another way of getting that feedback would be recordings. Almost any skill can benefit from this. We see it in professional sports. The best athletes and the best coaches, they’re obsessed with watching video. They’re always looking at what happened, why it happened, how it’s done. There is this great story from Michael Phelps, that right after the Athens Olympics, he goes up to his coach Bob and he said, “I want to see all the video.” Then he says, “I was looking at the video and it was evident to me what I was doing wrong. I saw exactly what I needed to correct.” The way we improve is having that feedback and it can come from different ways.
Another one, which I think is one of the most valuable ones, is having a coach, or a mentor, or someone that can look at our work from an objective perspective and tell us how to improve it. “Look, this is what you’re doing wrong. This is what you’re doing right.”
At the moment, that’s something I’m trying to do with my writing. I got a little bit more into writing as I was working on this book. I wanted to expand a bit on those skills. I started writing short stories and different pieces of fiction. That’s not what I want to write, I want to keep writing non-fiction, but it’s a way of expanding on those skills and becoming better at storytelling, which can also be weaved into non-fiction. Everything I write, I send it to an editor, and I want to know what they have to say about it such as, “What’s wrong? Where it could be improved?” Because otherwise, if you’re just writing every day–that’s a good start–but if you’re not looking at it, if no one’s telling you, “Here’s where you can improve,” then you might be writing for years and never notice all these mistakes.
We need that feedback and it can come from different ways, but we must absolutely look for it. It’s sad that in many skills, people don’t even want to look at their performances, because it’s difficult, and I get it. If I film myself playing guitar, sometimes I hate all my technique you think, “I’m bringing my thumb way too high. This is not okay.” You become frustrated.
But you need to see that to become better. It’s hard work, but that’s how we improve. We need to see what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and that’s going to give us a glimpse into how to improve it.
Miles Rote: We live in such a unique time, where we get to have a sense of feedback like never before. As you mentioned, through recordings and everything else, we can literally watch ourselves on video and see the things that we’re doing right or wrong, or listen to ourselves and find ways to correct ourselves. Whereas in the past, we’ve never had access to anything like that.
Nick Velasquez: Yes. It was way harder. This ties in with what we were talking about at the beginning. People have been learning skills and improving them for generations, and they didn’t have these things. All these things we have now are ways to optimize the process. If you’re not doing the work already, they’re not really going to help. Even with imperfect methods, you could learn, and you could improve. People have been doing it for ages. Then the beginning is just putting in the work, doing that commitment, working consistently. As you’re doing that, then you find ways to optimize the process.
Miles Rote: Okay. You’ve walked us through how to improve our learning and our skills. Then towards the end of the book, you get into mastery. Tell us a little bit about that. First, what do you mean by mastery, and then how can we move closer to it?
Nick Velasquez: It would be difficult to condense the idea of mastery in a short talk. The chapters where I talk about mastery is with all the different elements that are recurrently present in mastery. To me, you can’t really put it into a definition. There are just some different traits and different conditions that are often seen in mastery, such as proficiency, consistency, sophisticated mental representations for the skill, but different, not necessarily requirements, but different things that show up again and again in masters of whole fields.
That just gives us a goal to aim towards. To me, it’s more important than discussing what is the path to mastery. That begins again with long-term commitment and consistency. The path to mastery, even though we think of mastery as something magical, there’s nothing magical about it. It’s the same learning process, just taken to the extreme. If you think about it, mastery is just a high level on the learning spectrum. It’s continuing to learn for a very, very long time and refining your skills until the point that everyone else considers that you have mastered that skill.
There is a part of mastery that has to deal with either comparison or competition, it’s how we’ve seen someone going to the highest levels of a skill, but it’s still within the process of learning. We still see mastery as something so special, because we look at masters and the way they execute this skill with so much grace, and with consistency, and proficiency.
What’s important to note is that the process is not any different. Everything we discussed throughout the book with practice and memory, all this is the same. What’s different is the attitude and the commitment we have towards our skill that is going to make the difference in that path of mastery.
The feedback techniques are the same, the practice is the same. It’s how long you take this process. I think that’s very important to note. To a big degree, it has to do with just being committed for the long term and then doing that work every day. When you think about it, it is not that hard. It’s a couple of hours a day of deliberate practice.
What’s hard is doing it day after day after day for years, sometimes a lifetime. That’s the part of mastery that eludes most people because they’re willing to do the work for a couple of months, maybe a couple of days, but they’re not doing it for years. That’s what makes the difference and no master is created in a vacuum. No one was born a master in anything.
The example again of Mozart is worth bringing back. He had to work really hard to get to his mastery in music. He kept working hard at it for years. It doesn’t just happen. No one becomes a master by chance. It’s also a decision that we need to make. We have to put in that commitment. Otherwise, the path of mastery is going to elude us. It’s not just going to happen, “Oh, yes. I’ve been writing and then I became a master writer.” No. Everyone that’s become a master at anything had to put in the work and the sacrifice. It doesn’t happen by chance.
Miles Rote: Yeah, it’s so true. So much of pop psychology can tell a different story and talk about how learning should be fun and easy, and you’re saying no, that’s not the case. That it can be hard and challenging, and that’s okay.
Nick Velasquez: Yes. Exactly and that’s okay. That’s the process. What I think about is learning can be fun, but it’s not required to be so. Many times, it’s going to be frustrating, it’s going to be boring, it’s going to be really tough, but that is the process. I think the emotion we should be after is enthusiasm. If we find something we’re passionate about, if we find our purpose or calling, then we embrace it with everything it brings, including all the challenges.
I’m concerned about these different programs and especially, I see it in learning languages, of trying to make it fun. The problem with that is the day that it’s not fun anymore, people stop. Learning shouldn’t be geared towards fun. Enthusiasm is more accurate. It’s that we want to learn. We’re happy about learning. This brings us some sense of joy, but there is also a struggle. In a way, you can think about it as video games. If they’re too easy, we don’t play them, we don’t like them. We like them to be difficult and to make us better because they’re difficult and that’s where we find the fun is getting better at the game and being able to pass the stage, and then that brings satisfaction.
I think if we see the process for what really is, on one side, we become more forgiving of our mistakes, and on the other side, we’re more committed to sticking with it, because then we understand what it entails. A part that I think discourages a lot of people is that they have these unrealistic expectations of what it takes to learn a skill. They go into, let’s say, playing guitar and then after a month they say, “Well, I still can’t play anything. This is horrible.” Yeah, that’s the process. It takes a while before you make some half-decent sounds.
If someone told you that from the beginning, and they’re like, “Oh, it’s okay. You’re telling me the first month, I’m not going to sound good?” Yeah. No, you won’t and that’s okay. If you think you should and then you find out that you don’t, then you turn it against yourself like, “Maybe I don’t have it. Maybe I’m not good at this,” or, “I hate this. I’m not getting any better.” We have these unrealistic expectations of how quickly we should be learning and that creates its own set of problems.
I’m very sad for people that get into a skill and then they go to two classes or three classes and then they say, “Oh, no. This is just not for me. I’m not good at this.” No one is. That’s the process. It takes some time to get better.
If we knew that, if people were more transparent about what it takes and the difficulties that we’ll face–let’s go back to the enthusiasm. You’re like, “Okay. It’s going to be difficult and I’ll find some challenges, but that’s all right because everyone goes through the same thing.” It’s the unrealistic expectation that then creates this negative perception of the skill and of ourselves.
Miles Rote: To me, and one of the things you allude to in your book, and it sounds like really, the bow that wraps everything together in your book, is that it’s about the process and not the outcome. It’s about trajectory and how progress should be your goal and not necessarily one specific goal.
Nick Velasquez: Correct. Both things are important. I mean, we do something and we go into a skill because we want specific results. That’s fine. It’s like the person that wants to play a song on guitar or play in front of a crowd. That’s fine. You also need to fall in love with the process, or at least embrace the process and go through it, because most of what it is to play guitar is not about playing live. That accounts for a very small part of what it is to learn an instrument.
In that sense, if someone wants to learn to play guitar, they want to want to learn to play guitar. You want to embrace that process of, “Yes, I like sitting down and working on scales, and studying music theory, and practicing picking technique.” If you enjoy that, then yes, you’re going to get the other results.
The idea of focusing on progress and on the process is that, if you stay on the process and most of your focus is there, then all the other outcome goals you have, you’re going to be more likely. This happens a lot in sports. If you’re focused on the actual play and what you’re doing at the moment and doing it the best you can, it’s more likely you’re going to win. Instead, if you’re focusing on just winning, then your mind is just somewhere else. You’re not in that moment.
Focusing on the process, how you are doing things, the practice you put in, and then letting go of that outcome because sometimes we don’t have control over the outcomes. The only thing we have control over is the process. Incidentally, putting all our energy into the process makes all the other outcomes more likely.
Miles Rote: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. You even talked about that with writing a book and you even said, if you had just focused on the outcome or knew everything it would take, there’s no way you would have done it. But instead, you focused on the process and you got through it, and here we are with this wonderful book. If readers can take away one or two things from your book, what would it be?
Nick Velasquez: We go back to the idea of the commitment and then doing the work every day. Writing the book is a great example because it forced me to work at it consistently. You can’t write a book in a week. You can’t write it in a couple of days. You could write the first draft maybe, but you won’t get to the polished version. It forces you to pace yourself to think long-term and to think day-by-day. It requires that every day you sit down, and you renew that commitment and say, “Okay. I’m just going to write for a couple of hours and that’s going to be it for today. Then tomorrow, I’m going to do the same.”
These huge goals we have, we need to take them one piece at a time, and that requires doing the work every day and the long-term commitment. Two things that I work on the most, which is writing and then also exercising, they require that you work at it every day and that you have this long-term view. You can’t build muscle in a week. It takes months for you to have that compound effect and you need to be working consistently.
These huge goals, they humble you and they remind you that the work needs to be renewed every day, and you have to have this long-term view and, eventually, you’ll get there. That’s the part for most people that is frustrating. I see some people who are going to martial arts school are like, “How long is it going to take me to get a black belt?” It’s like, well, you’re missing the point. You want the belt, you don’t want the process, you don’t even want to learn the skill. You just want to say that you have a black belt. You’re going to be disappointed, because the path to that black belt is going to be through training all the time, almost every day, and putting in the work.
It’s having that long-term commitment. That’s what’s going to help most people learn anything. Forgetting about these ideas of talent and unrealistic expectations of how quickly you should be learning something. Yes, for some people it’s harder to learn something than for others. We can’t deny that. Some people pick up skills faster. That’s not the point. The point is do you want it? If you do, then you shouldn’t care, and you just do it.
An example that I’d like to think about, are these great artists from the Renaissance, like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Ghiberti. These people spent decades on some masterpieces. For them, it wasn’t, “How fast can I make this thing?” It was about realizing their vision. Not how difficult it was going to be and how long it was going to take. It’s, “Can I make this thing? I want to make this thing.” They just committed years of their lives to making that happen.
Miles Rote: I love that. Nick, this has been such a pleasure. I’m so excited for people to check out this book. Everyone, the book is called Learn, Improve, Master: How to Develop Any Skill and Excel at It. You can find it on Amazon.
Nick, besides people checking out the book, where can they find you?
Nick Velasquez: I’m mostly on Instagram. That will be @VelzNick. I’ll be excited to hear about people’s progress and if they have any questions or anything. Helping people learn a skill, that’s my passion. It’s learning and helping people learn.
Miles Rote: Thank you for taking the time to share it with us, and to write this book, and your lifelong quest in this world. You had such a unique start with learning and for you to be able to put it into a book for us to garner everything that you’ve learned is really invaluable. Thank you and thank you for stopping by on the Author Hour Podcast today.
Nick Velasquez: Thank you. Thank you very much. The last thing is for other learning resources, people can also find me on my blog. It’s just unlimitedmastery.com.
Miles Rote: Unlimitedmastery.com. Great URL. I love it. All right, Nick. Thanks so much, man.
Nick Velasquez: Thanks, Miles. Thanks a lot.
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