start here

How to Learn Any New Skill

How to Learn Any New Skill

Ask successful indie authors what tasks sit on their to-do list on an average day, and many will give you a list. That’s because the book trade is complicated, encompassing countless interconnected companies, systems and services, many of which a self-published author must understand to run a profitable business. Some industries are simpler, with participants having to master only a handful of components. Carpenters, for instance, need only know how to craft wood to make a living. And fishermen can get by understanding only a practical knowledge of quotas and fishing procedures.

By comparison, few modern authors can run a profitable company solely by composing manuscripts on typewriters, snail-mailing them to publishers and signing contracts. Thanks to the internet, we can achieve more than ever, but we also need to know far more and practice life-long learning to stay on top. Authors who succeed these days often do so by overcoming editing, typesetting, graphic design, project management, distribution, licensing, technology, internet marketing and other daily challenges. The whole process is daunting even when you know what you’re doing.

Many of us get overwhelmed, not just at the mountain of work ahead but also at the unfamiliar path that leads to the peak. We often know what we need to do but not necessarily how to do it. If there were set maps we could follow, the journey would be easy. The problem is that the ground shifts beneath authors on a regular basis and maps don’t stay accurate for long. It’s not learning set skills that challenges us; it’s the meta-process of learning how to learn so we can keep reinventing ourselves. Codifying that process isn’t easy when each new obstacle differs from the last. However, it is possible to build a framework that works every time. Today’s blog post will help you create a system you can use to keep learning and stay ahead of the game.

Use First Principles

Elon Musk is widely regarded as an innovator, but his ideas don’t come to him as divine visions born from a vacuum. Many already exist. Or, at least, pieces of them exist, buried in well-worn processes that he takes great care in learning. Musk simply spots those pieces and fits them together in novel ways. He doesn’t just learn processes established by Ford and NASA who came before him. He breaks down the fundamental concepts or assumptions on which their methods are based to figure out which parts really matter and which are falsehoods that other people overlook. This is an example of using “first principles” ideology. Musk didn’t invent it, but he has repopularised it in recent years.

First-principles thinking is a transferrable ideology that, far from being limited to engineering, can help you optimise any skill, or even learn one from scratch. Want to learn how to write a bestseller in a week? You might think it’s impossible, but many pioneering authors have managed it by breaking the writing and editing process into first principles and rejecting assumptions promoted by the publishing industry for decades. What about gaining a million TikTok followers for a pen name without showing your face? Again, first principles and clever tactics can make that happen. Learn to question everything you think you know and you will find that many goals are easier to achieve than you imagine.

Consult the Horse’s Mouth

Plenty of “gurus” hang out on the internet, promoting consulting sessions and promising the Earth. Some are imposters who claim they can teach you how to achieve a feat they haven’t managed themselves. Others are genuine and have a track record of great results. No matter how good they are, however, none have all the answers all the time. Their systems often deliver fantastic results, but much of what many do is based on trial and error – stuff that has worked for them but won’t necessarily work for everyone. This scenario is particularly true when it comes to social media platforms or online retailers, both of which run on algorithms that evolve on a constant basis, rendering successful strategies ineffective over time.

If you want to learn about the inner workings of any company, approaching the company itself will often give you accurate and up-to-date information which you can use to form your own strategies. There are two ways to go about it. Firstly, you could read resources the companies publish themselves. Amazon, for example, shares guidelines to help authors maximise their KDP results, and BookBub showcases author success stories, detailing strategies you can copy from those who perform highly using their ads platform. Secondly, you could contact the companies directly. Many have trained employees who offer insights over email that aren’t public knowledge. Getting your information from the horse’s mouth can be slower than trusting unofficial sources, but doing so provides you with accurate information and minimises your chances of your breaching terms of service.

Pay for Courses

Aim for the horse’s mouth where possible but know that many online retailers and social media companies guard their secrets with extreme paranoia. They know how powerful the information they publish can be when wielded by creators that have nefarious intentions and just how much that abuse can damage their corporate reputation. As scammers are often indistinguishable from honest users, a lot of companies refuse to share details about their systems with anyone. They keep quiet, not willing to expose loopholes that can help criminals game their systems. Hence, harvesting useful knowledge from the horse’s mouth isn’t always possible.

That’s where courses enter the equation. As mentioned in our previous point, many gurus make more money selling information than performing the skills they claim to have mastered. However, some honest players walk the walk and can teach their process, the Self Publishing Formula being one such example. Providing you can find a credible organisation or individual who can help you achieve your goals, then purchasing a course from them can help fast-track your learning process. Even if they don’t explain how to achieve your specific goal, some can give you enough contextual knowledge and transferrable skills to work out a solution for yourself. Sure, you could make your own mistakes and learn the hard way, but a good course can save you a lot of time and effort.

Use Trial and Error

In 99% of cases, someone will have already reached the summit of whatever mountain you wish to climb, and you can learn from them. In fact, the internet has made us so used to this happening that many of us assume there’s a course, blog post or podcast that can demystify any puzzle. But that isn’t always true, nor has it been in recent history. Search 2012 news articles from Ye Olde Kindle Gold Rush and you’ll discover that those who stood at the frontiers of the self-publishing revolution originally did so without a guide. They were forced to work on trial and error, forming fresh solutions as they encountered problems. Not many authors work this way these days. You, however, might be targeting a goal that makes you an exception.

Indeed, your strategy for bestsellerdom could be totally original. Having said that, your method for learning how to master it doesn’t have to be. In reality, most skills are measurable and outcomes can be quantified in predictable ways. For example, seeking revenue, many rival social media companies now offer advertising dashboards. They differ in subtle ways, but you can master most by tracking your cost per click, click through rate and return on investment. If you’re working with a totally new system to achieve a goal then look for ways you can test and measure as you toggle variables. Identify familiar components like the ones already mentioned. That way, you can usually learn how to optimise your process using trial and error.

Create Your Own System

On rare occasions, we all face challenges that are so alien we don’t even know where to start learning. Yet humans have managed to thrive even in situations that made little sense a first glance. Naturalists throughout history, for instance, have unlocked the fundamental building blocks of animal language through pure observation. By observing and creating their own learning systems, they’ve equated the body language of dogs to emotions and theorised on the meanings of whale song. They’ve done this despite facing a language barrier thicker than any we could experience with another member of our species.

You can broach even the most confounding challenge as an author using similar logic. Want to use social media to sell a book about the perils of social media? Many authors run businesses based on equally contradictory foundations. How about making your picture book a favourite among children without ever selling directly to children? Other authors have found out how to win this game of multi-dimensional chess by testing and observing in a general sense. Spend enough time trying unorthodox tactics and reviewing your results and you too will eventually make unexpected connections that bear fruit. The key is to think laterally and keep an open mind. Learning a new skill isn’t always easy, but follow the guidelines in this blog post and you will make progress. The fundamental action that underpins this process, though, is belief. To succeed at learning, you must believe you will find an answer that works for you… eventually. Understand that the only real way to fail is to give up. The more complex and original the challenge, the stronger you have to believe. Remember, as one of history’s greatest learners, Thomas Edison, once said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.