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The #1 Secret to Building Your Skill Set is...


Yes, I've said it: self-discipline.

I'm reading a book called Disciplines of a Godly Man by R. Kent Hughes. Now as might be suggested by the title, it is a book that has at its basis, a focus on improving oneself spiritually. However, Hughes doesn't start out the book talking about spiritual exercises or anything of that sort. He starts out by talking about how he fell in love with the game of tennis as a kid. And how he worked hour upon hour to get better because he loved the game so much. He attributes his self-discipline in pursuing the game and practicing in and playing it constantly as a reason for his improvement. Of course, we all probably say, "You're just stating what is common sense." But the point the author makes is it's one thing to know it; it's a different thing to apply it.

It's not unusual to see posts by folks, or receive emails or tweets about how to get better at this or get better at that. Usually folks are asking for resources to help them get better. And collecting that information is important. You have to know what to use to get stronger in a particular skill set. But simply knowing what you need or possessing what you need doesn't actually help you get better. They are simply steps or tools to doing so. At some point you have to put in the work. Almost all of us are busy and have a plethorea of requests for our time. The thing we have to do is prioritize those requests. Again, a common sense thing. This includes building our skill set. If we want to improve our skill set, we have to invest the time and energy into it. It's not going to develop on its own.

Two Differing Examples:

The most recent conversation I had on this wasn't with respect to technical skills. It was on goalkeeping skills. My oldest son has this crazy idea he wants to be a football/soccer goalkeeper. It's probably a genetic thing, because I had that same crazy idea at about the same time in my childhood. What really scares me is my four year-old daughter clearly has that mindset, too. He asked me how to get better at handling the ball, at diving, and at ball delivery. I explained to him the techniques and showed him the drills he can use to get better. He basically said, "I know all that." To which my response was, "Great! Then you have to practice them, and practice them a lot." He knows I'll be there to help him as much as he wants. But he wasn't too enthusiastic about that answer. As a result, over these last two soccer seasons, his goalkeeping skills have progressed rather slowly. It's based on the fact that he hasn't been self-disciplined in his pursuit of one of his goals.

Now let's take my four year-old daughter. In her league they don't play with goalkeepers. They're just trying to get the kids to kick the ball in the correct goal and teach basic dribbling and shooting skills. But she will plant herself in the goal during practice or before games and dare all comers, adults included, to get a shot by her. She has watched like a hawk as her two older brothers did some of the drills. When I watch football/soccer on television, she's the one most likely to climb onto the couch with me and watch. And not just watch because daddy is watching. Her eyes are darting back and forth with every ball movement. And she tracks what the goalkeepers do. Frankly, it's a bit scary. (I said that before, didn't I?) But I've already watched her take in how professional goalkeepers handle fast-paced balls low to the ground which come directly at them and repeat the same motion to completion. I've not taught her that and I've not taught the boys, either. The first part of handling those types of shots is putting your body into position to stop the ball in case it gets through your hands. With her brothers, we're still working on that fundamental skill. She's moved on past that to where you will see the goalkeeper go prone or almost prone landing on the forearms to ensure his/her full body smothers the ball. The reason she's more advanced, at least in that aspect of the game, is she has shown more self-discipline with respect to learning the craft of goalkeeping.

Applying This to Your Skill Set:

So let's take this and apply it to improving your skill set. First, figure out what you want to learn. Then figure out the steps it will take to learn it. Third, figure out what your motivation is. This third step is extremely important! Know why you are doing what you are doing. You will need this as motivation later. And if you can't come up with very solid reasons, this is the time to ask yourself is this something you really need to learn. It may not be. If not, start back at the first step.

Those three steps tend to be the easy part. Assuming you have all the equipment and resources you need, the hard part will be allocating time to learn it and once that time comes, focusing your attention on that learning. That means putting aside all other distractions. That also means ensuring you don't choose something that's really a lower priority  over working on your skill set because it's more "fun." For instance, when that Wii or XBOX 360 or PS3 is staring you in the face as you are plodding through the minutae of all the uses of the FROM clause, you've got to forego game time. If that means taking the power cord and locking it in the trunk of your car before you start, so be it.

This all may require some work on your part to be ready to focus. Part of self-discipline is your preparation. To go back to the football/soccer parallel, think about trying to stop a rocket shot with heavy spin without goalkeeper gloves or trying to make a diving save on a muddy field when you're in penny loafers. From personal experience, it doesn't work so well. You bang up your hands and wrists and you end up slipping and sliding more than you do saving the ball. Now what about your skill set?

You may have to consider your schedule. When will you be awake enough to work on your skill set? When are the distractions likely at a minimum? How well do those two periods coincide? What about your work area? You've dealt with the power cord on your game consoles, but what else can get you? Do you need to put the TV remote in the trunk, too? What about your DS or DSi or PSP? Do you have adequate lighting? Do you have the ability to work without having to get up for every little thing? In other words, do you have food and drink handy, if necessary? Do you need a small white noise generator or soft music (without words) playing on a portable sound system to help you zone-in? Think about your needs and possible wants and get yourself set up.

Finally, get to work. And if you start to find yourself drifting, remind yourself what you're doing and why you are doing it. Those long hours I was taking shots as a goalkeeper to get better, I reminded myself that being a better goalkeeper is something I wanted to become and that those shots were the road to get there. The more I trained, the more "instinctual" my movements became on making saves. And that means the better I got in practice, the better I was in the game. When it comes to your skill set, you've figured out why you're doing it. Use that as motivation to keep you going and see you through.


K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.


Posted by Andy Warren on 29 April 2009

Totally agree. Many people do need someone to point them in the right direction and this is where a mentor can make a difference - if you can find one that fits. For most people I think once they see that they can do it, then the interest and discipline can appear, but until then, the goal seems so far away they seem reluctant to try.

Mentors and coaches help to make sure that the time you spend is in the right place and the right way. Doesn't help to practice if you're using a bad technique or not being challenged enough, or maybe only practicing the most common cases and not working the boundaries.

Posted by MarlonRibunal on 1 May 2009

Anybody want to be my mentor? Seriously, I am looking for one (a SQL Guru)


Posted by MarlonRibunal on 1 May 2009

By the way, thanks for the link of the book (Disciplines of a Godly Man). I'll surely pick that one up ;-)

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