November 13, 2013

Don’t Worry About Being an Instant Elite Ninja Master of the Universe

We’re sharing excerpts from a  post on Ramit Sethi’s blog by Josh Kaufman (read the whole thing here). Yesterday, we shared Josh’s thoughts on the 3 barriers to learning something new. Today, he explains how to get in the right mindset to learn (and live grey). 

Let’s get one huge misconception out of the way right now: when learning a new skill, you don’t have to worry about “mastering” the skill or becoming an “expert.”

Say you don’t know how to paint, but want to learn. Here’s the absolute worst way to go about it: compare your current level of ability (nouveau third grader) with Picasso, Michelangelo, or any random artist that posts on deviantART. Anything that you produce will look like garbage in comparison, so why bother?

Even worse, you may have heard that it takes “10,000 hours” to master a skill. That’s at least 4 hours of practice every single day for almost 7 years. Who has time for that?!

Here’s the thing: you probably don’t need to be an expert.

Skill acquisition is tied up in many ways with social status: being good at something is a status signal, so our brains track our perceived competence vs. others constantly. When you don’t think you’re as good as other people at something, it’s common to feel self-conscious, and your mind starts looking for ways to protect your fragile ego from feelings of inferiority.

That’s why you get so uptight when you try to learn something new: your brain kicks into social comparison mode, even though it’s unnecessary at best, and counterproductive at worst.

Most of the time, you don’t need to be an expert – you just need to practice enough to get the results you want, whatever they might be. Comparing yourself against other people during the beginning stages of skill acquisition is wasted energy, and it’s a very real barrier to improving your skills.

In the vast majority of cases, people decide to pick up a new skill to either (1) get a particular valuable result or (2) have fun. That’s it. Social comparison is meaningless – who cares what other people can do if you’re able to get the results you want?

Here’s a simple example: I recently learned how to cook on the grill. I wanted to grill burgers, chicken, steak, vegetables, etc. for my family, so I could help out around the house. It only took a few hours of practice, as well as a few simple tools, to get really great results. (Pro tip: using an interval timer and a fast digital thermometer makes grilling anything way easier.)

Am I the most mindblowing expert ninja grillmaster who has ever lifted a spatula? No.
Am I now an internationally recognized celebrity chef? No.
Do I need to be in order to cook a delicious dinner for my family? Absolutely not.

When you decide to learn something new, you’re not competing against other people: you’re competing against your own previous lack of ability, and any improvement is a win.

Once you grok that early phase skill acquisition isn’t a competition, leveling up your skills and abilities becomes much, much easier.

[Ninja Image: Jeyhun85]



Josh Kaufman is the bestselling author of “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast” and “The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business.” You can find more of Josh’s ongoing research at



  • This is a great article. This really is a bad way to live. The fact is that there is always somebody better than you somewhere.

    The cool thing is that it means there is always somebody to learn from. Thanks for sharing this article!

  • I mean… Comparing your self and skill level to others is not a good way to live.

  • Live in the Grey

    Good point, Tim. What you’re saying reminds us of the part in our philosophy: “Learn from others. (Everyone’s a teacher.) Teach others. (We’re all students.)

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