On the Acquisition of Skills

Coding Screenshot

(Quick announcement: I’m adjusting my posting schedule slightly. New posts will be up on this site every Monday, and new creative writing will be up every Wednesday. Thank you for reading.)

I, Mitchell Gunn, am learning to code.

Specifically, I’ve been learning the basics of HTML and CSS from the interactive lessons available for free via Codecademy, a website that provides lessons on these and several other programming languages for anyone who wants to learn.

I’ve actually wanted to try coding for a while now; it’s already an incredibly useful skill, and it’s only going to become more crucial as time goes on. With the increasing role that computers and the internet play in all facets of day-to-day life, fluency in programming languages might actually be more valuable than fluency in, y’know, regular languages.

I’m particularly interested in learning HTML and CSS since those are the two main languages that comprise the content and appearance, respectively, of many websites, including this one. I’m decently happy with how the site looks so far, but there are still a few things I might want to tweak, and goodness knows what I’ll want to do with the site in the future (or if I’ll want to make other sites!). It only makes sense to learn about the nuts and bolts of how a website is made.

But this post is not just about coding. This post is about the acquisition and development of skills in general.

love learning how to do new stuff. Acquiring new skills is, in my opinion, the most rewarding form of self-improvement, because it lets you develop a repertoire of abilities that could come in handy in both predictable and unpredictable ways.

Case in point: in January of 2015, I learned how to knit — or, more accurately, my sister taught me how to knit. Since then, I’ve been able to knit scarves, hats, and small stuffed animals as gifts for my friends and family.

I’ve also been able to use my knitting at work. I’ve spent the past three summers working for the Tantramar Heritage Trust, a non-profit that operates two local history museums in Sackville, New Brunswick. Each of the museums houses a modest gift shop, where the THT sells a number of history publications, t-shirts, and hand-knitted mice.

The mice (jokingly named “Christofur Boultenmouse” after Christopher Boultenhouse, a prolific shipbuilder in 19th century Sackville) are all made by staff members when we aren’t busy with other tasks. In addition to knitting quite a few of these mice myself, I’ve also been able to teach several of my coworkers how to knit them.

Several of the mice that I’ve knitted this summer.

But learning how to do something new is the fun part — maybe even the easy part. It’s the practice that’s difficult. In order to actually develop a skill to a useful level, you have to practice it over, and over, and over.

Knitting is actually a really good example of this, because any project is composed of hundreds or thousands of individual stitches. You can cement the fundamentals of knitting — how to hold the needles, the motions that comprise knit and purl stitches, etc. — over the course of a single project. Other aspects definitely take more practice, particularly if you want to knit fancier things, but the basics are there.

Other skills don’t seem to come as readily, perhaps because they aren’t intrinsically based on repeating the same steps over and over. With knitting, the practice is inextricable from the end result: you cannot knit a scarf without spending hours doing the same stitch movements until they’re almost reflexive. However, with something like playing piano — another skill I’ve always wanted to pick up — the practice is only indirectly connected to the goal. You want to be able to play a particular song, but you have to spend hours practicing scales, hand exercises, technical skills, and so on before you can achieve that objective.

This is the case with a lot skills, and it’s something that I’m grappling with. There are a lot skills that I want to acquire or develop further, and I’m torn between the drive to learn new things and the need to practice the foundations.

Which brings me back to coding. I finished the aforementioned online lessons a couple of weeks ago and felt a little lost as to what to do next. Codecademy happily recommended that I move on to the next course, but I wasn’t sure if that was the right call. See, I had understood all of the lessons from the Intro to HTML & CSS course. I completed all of the exercises. I want to move on to bigger things so I can improve this site. But I think I need more practice with the basics first.

I’m trying to be diligent in my practice on a lot of fronts. I want to practice writing, playing guitar, cooking/baking, knitting, coding…and those are just the skills I have right now. All of that practice takes time and effort. It doesn’t always feel like it’s paying off, particularly if the nature of the practice is oblique to my goals with the skill in question. But I’m going to keep at it.

Along the way, I’ll be looking for ways to make practice more engaging and rewarding — ways to realign practice with one’s end goals while also potentially making it easier to keep up the habit. I’ve used Yousician before for practicing guitar and I actually found it quite effective, so maybe I’ll pick that back up. I’m going to try to do some writing every day — I’ve got a book of prompts to draw from that could be helpful. And yes, I think I’m going to keep going with Codecademy. Maybe I’ll look for some other ways to practice HTML/CSS online too.

Practice isn’t always the most glamorous or exciting part of picking up a new skill, but it’s incredibly important. I’m trying to remind myself of that.

Further Reading:
If you’re interested, there’s a really great episode of the Freakonomics podcast exploring the value and nature of practice. The podcast centres around the research of psychologist Anders Ericsson, which you can read about in his book: Peak: How to Master Almost Anything.

Author: Mitchell

I'm 24 and currently pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Toronto.

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