The Difference Between Learning and Practicing

August 12, 2013

I’m only 30 pages into Josh Kaufman’s book, The First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything, but here’s my favorite part so far: learning, he says, isn’t the same thing as skill acquisition.

Learning is studying. It’s reading. It’s acquiring knowledge.

But if you want to master anything, learning is only the first step. To really get good at something, you have to practice.

“If you want to get good at anything where real-life performance matters,” Josh writes, “you have to actually practice that skill in context. Study, by itself, is never enough.”

Image: Where learning meets doing

When was the last time you wore goggles to learn something?

This sounds simple, but the truth is it trips up a lot of us. Especially if you’re a geek who loves learning (raises hand) and gets easily distracted by shiny learn-able things (raises hand), it’s easy to fall into the trap of learning but never actually practicing or applying what you’ve learned.

After all, there are so many great ways to learn new things these days! There’s Skillshare and Lynda.com. There’s blog posts and podcasts and memberships. There’s ebooks and courses. Everywhere you turn, there’s a new opportunity to learn.

Here’s what’s better than learning

On my business coach Charlie Gilkey‘s (free) Monthly Momentum call this week, a woman asked about this very topic. With so many appealing online courses and in-person conferences landing in her inbox, she said, what’s the best way to decide which learning opportunity is best? How do you choose?

Charlie’s response was in-depth, thoughtful and so much more graceful than the summary I’m about to give you, but my takeaway from his answer was this: you can learn all you want, but it won’t do you much good until you put it into practice.

Yes, that means you have to say “no” to learning opportunities to carve out time to practice what you’ve already learned. You have to put learning on hold while you figure out how to apply what’s already in your brain. You have to recognize that you can’t do everything. Well, you can do everything, but it means doing everything mediocre, rather than choosing one skill and rocking it.

The challenge, then, is to push ourselves past the learning stage. To stop reading all the guides and taking all the courses and instead build something. To create rather than consume. To take all the knowledge we’ve acquired and put it into practice.

How are you applying the last thing you learned?

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7 Replies to “The Difference Between Learning and Practicing”

  • As a perpetual learner, I really have a hard time focusing enough to practice a new skill enough to become fairly competent. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at in terms of learning vs. practicing, but I think that’s a very straightforward and useful way of framing it. Thanks for the advice.

  • On the flip side, Alexis, you’ve also got those who practise but never ever learn. You know the type ““ the ones who say they’ve got “years of experience” but they actually know sweet naff all.

    In other words, sometimes you have to say “no” to practice and take time out to learn.

    It seems that many people have problems getting this “progressive learning” balance right.

    They EITHER blindly keep on doing the same thing without looking for ways to improve OR they do what you say and never really assimilate and consolidate what they’ve learnt.

  • Whenever I learn something new, I immediately do it once – badly.

    I mean, it might not actually turn out that bad, but if I quickly allow myself to fail with it the first time I do it, then it removes any fear of failure, and I get the experience points that are necessary to actually learn something.

    “Tell me and I will forget. Teach me and I will listen. Involve me and I will learn.” – Ben Franklin

  • The Feudal Samurai actually despised scholars and would describe them as “stinking of books.” They believed that knowledge was ONLY valuable if it were put into action.

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