Acton Institute Powerblog

How to learn new skills in a challenging economy

People all around the world have embraced new responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some continue to work providing needed goods and services, while others are discovering new ways their work can meet those needs while they are physically distant from their colleagues and those whom they serve. Some have embraced new roles caring for relatives and neighbors or educating children who are home from school. And far too many find themselves without work as businesses struggle and governments intervene to stem the tide of this global pandemic.

Each of these groups is called to grow in wisdom during uncertain times, deepening their understanding of themselves and the world. This duty is universal but also particular to each person’s unique circumstances. Some will be called to learn new skills on the job; some must gain new skills in volunteer service and care for others in their communities; and still others have to acquire new skills in the hopes of gaining employment or beginning an entrepreneurial journey.

To meet these challenges, here are three helpful principles to guide your learning.

First, make a comprehensive map of precisely what you are trying to learn. To do this, think about both what and how you intend to learn.

In considering what you want to learn, think of this the same way athletes approach training. Basketball players don’t simply show up at the practice court and play. They break down the game into its component parts: They practice layups, jump shots, and three-pointers. Getting specific helps you focus on what you really need to know.

In his book Ultralearning, Scott H. Young recommends breaking up these things into three specific categories: concepts that need to be understood, facts that need to be memorized, and procedures that need to be practiced. This will help you strategize just which sort of pedagogical methods to employ to learn the specific things you need to learn.

Figuring out the how of your learning is in many ways easier than ever. The internet is awash is courses, syllabi, and reading lists. (See my own for natural law, economics, politics, and Christian anthropology.) Be sure the various resources you consider for “how” you intend to learn align with “what” you are determined to learn. Certain things covered in them may be superfluous for your needs, while you may have to compensate for things they do not cover by using additional resources.

Second, and most difficult, you must do the work. “Pay careful attention to the condition of your flocks, set your mind on your herds” (Proverbs 27:23). We are easily distracted, because “the human mind is more deceitful than anything else. It is incurably bad. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). This lack of focus can be debilitating, “for all day long his work produces pain and frustration, and even at night his mind cannot relax. This also is futile!” (Ecclesiastes 2:23).

Procrastination is a form of distraction which begins before the task has even begun. I have found breaking tasks up into small increments helps. Just tell yourself, “I’ll write the introductory paragraph,” and before you know it, you’ve written a page!

Distractions that draw your attention away during your task result largely from one of two sources: your environment or your mind. The key to dealing with both is largely the same. For distractions from your environment, set aside a particular time and place for your learning in which you can be isolated with your task. For distractions from your mind, simply note any impulse, emotion, or thought that might distract you and calmly bring your mind back to the task at hand. This can be difficult (which is why they call it work), but it will get easier with practice.

Finally, align your learning as much as possible with the practice of the actual skill you wish to acquire. If you are studying natural law, write an essay or a lecture to teach others. If you are learning a craft, design exercises that break the craft down into that parts necessary for its practice. If you are learning a piece of software to train for a new career, create projects that approximate the product’s professional use.

In challenging times like these, it is imperative that we turn to God in prayer—and then get to work on the challenges He has presented to us. By learning, we must use the gifts He has given us to serve ourselves, our families, and our communities.

(Photo credit: COD Newsroom. CC BY 2.0.)

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.