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Grace Notes: Why It Might Be Easier to Learn Something New if You’re Helping Someone Else

Finding the motivation to learn a new skill is not always easy. The thought of helping someone else can provide a powerful incentive.
by Joshua H. Phelps | Jun 3 2020

We’re often led to believe that our decisions are zero-sum equations of benefit and loss, e.g. if X advances someone else’s career then it might negatively impact mine. In this frame of mind, the possibility for altruism becomes suspicious or even absent. However, altruism can in fact be an important driving force for change for ourselves and those around us.

On a recent episode of Blinkist’s in-app series, Checking In, Video Lead Kaleb Wentzel-Fisher spoke about trying to learn something new at the beginning of the year: playing the cello. He’d enjoyed listening to and playing music when he was younger and wanted to reconnect with that side of himself. His lessons had only just started when the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to see his instructor. Many people would have decided to call it quits then and there, writing off cello as another “My plans vs. 2020” meme.

Altruistic Motivation

However, Kaleb decided otherwise. He paid for lessons he would take in the future. That way, it would help his instructor to get through the crisis (social distancing makes music lessons difficult), set up something to look forward to after restrictions were lifted, and the prospect of looming future lessons motivated him to practice.

While it seems counter-intuitive, difficult circumstances actually tend to increase our altruistic behavior. As Matthieu Ricard writes in his book Altruism, living through a challenging situation makes us more apt to act in ways that help alleviate the suffering of others. Through our support for each other, we can still learn to find new strengths or abilities within ourselves when the worst has passed.

This personal growth can be seeded in small acts. We’ve seen this in stories of how people have decided to learn how to bake bread or cook new dishes for their families. Even before the pandemic, people devoted themselves to learning new skills, so they could help others. Teens have learned to drive to help their families with chores such as grocery shopping or taking siblings to extracurricular activities.

Many companies also recognize the value of supporting each other through developing new skill sets. Some businesses offer educational stipends to their employees. Through continual learning, one can help to fill needs within a team or strengthen one’s own role. The pandemic has also shown how dynamic the business environment can be. Chances are many of us have had to familiarize ourselves with the ins and outs of teleconferencing through Zoom or another platform. And while it’s not always easy at first, taking on the challenge will likely help us continue to support each other in the future.

Counting on Accountability

Taking an altruistic view towards learning a new skill functions a bit like having a workout buddy, too. Say you’re training up for a run. Having that other person there helps to keep you motivated and on course for your goal. You stand less of a chance to backslide when you recognize you’re part of that team effort. You’ll still be running, but it’s more than just your race.

And what is building up your ability but another kind of mental or physical (or both) workout? That same sense of accountability applies.

Jason and Jodi Womack devote a portion of their book Get Momentum to the role others play in our development and success. They find that having others around to encourage you along, especially if they can act as mentors or role models. Mentors can offer constructive feedback, and when you come back later with improved work, you’ll earn an emotional boost in seeing the satisfaction it provides them.

Having those future music lessons ahead of him provided Kaleb with a similar goal. By the time he went back to his instructor, he wanted to have improved his playing. He felt a sense of responsibility that encouraged him to continue practicing. Whether going back over previous material or starting to learn something new, every day offered the opportunity to progress.

And that audience is a powerful motivator. When I was a member of a writing group, it provided the incentive to continue producing and submitting new work. After I moved back to the US in February, I rejoined my group. Similar to Kaleb, I wanted to get back to a form of expression—writing long-form fiction—I had set aside for a time while I studied photography. While I admit I have fallen into some of my old habits, it does feel good to work that back into my life.

Fifteen-Minute Fix

However, it is not always easy to add a new activity to your schedule, even when you’re at home more. As much as he wanted to improve his playing, Kaleb was still working from home. And this made it difficult to devote a long stretch of time to his instrument.

A solution eventually presented itself. Kaleb found that he could fit fifteen-minute stretches here and there to practice. Maybe that meant between meetings or as a way to take a break from editing videos. Even though that might only mean about fifteen minutes for playing at a time, that also meant fifteen minutes to run through scales or a song. And to make sure motivation didn’t wane, he kept his cello in a spot where he could easily see it.

Books such as BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits recommend these types of triggers to build up habits. Like with Kaleb and the cello, Fogg also writes about using small actions to begin a new routine and then ramping it up over time if you want to. So often the amount of time we feel we have to devote to learning something new proves to be the biggest hurdle for us to clear. Time constraints on practice sessions may actually work to your benefit, too.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool describe a form of practice which they call deliberate in their 2016 book, Peak. To be deliberate, the practice has to have a clear goal in mind and to focus on the task at hand. Given how redundant actions become when we’re trying to learn something new, every day presents us the chance to hone in on what it is we hope to accomplish. Rather than mindlessly run through your practicing, try and find where improvements can be made. Fifteen minutes passes by quickly, but it can still be leveraged to maximize its effect.

Amidst the current challenges the world presents us, challenging ourselves further to learn new skills may feel daunting. Like Kaleb, though, by incorporating altruism and external accountability, you can find some extra motivation to nudge you along towards your goal. And it doesn’t need to eat up hours of your day at a time. Sometimes just fifteen minutes of devoted attention is enough. At Blinkist, we’re big believers that 15 minutes is all it takes to learn something new or make a meaningful change. How will you spend them?

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