Build Small Skills in the Right Order

I took some Scientology classes in Hollywood so I could get into their Toastmasters club, which is the best Toastmasters club in L.A. county.1 My first Scientology class, ‘Success Through Communication’, taught skills that were mostly non-specific to Scientology. At first, the class exercises seemed to teach skills too basic to be worth practicing. Later, I came to respect the class as surprisingly useful. (But please, don’t take Scientology classes. They are highly Dark Arts, and extremely manipulative.)

For the first exercise, I had to sit upright, still, and silent with my eyes closed for about an hour. I was to remain alert and aware but utterly calm. When my head drooped or my hand twitched, I was forced to start over. It took me five hours of silent sitting to complete the exercise successfully. At first I thought the exercise was stupid, but later I found I was now more in control of my awareness and attention, and less disturbed by things in the environment.

For the second exercise, I had to stare directly into someone’s eyes without looking away—even for a split second—for 20 minutes in a row. If you’ve never tried this, you should. It’s very difficult. Unfortunately, they first paired me with a 12-year-old girl. I was sure I would freak her out if I stared into her eyes for 20 minutes (it’s an intense experience), so I made faces when the instructors weren’t looking and waited for them to pair me with an adult. After half a dozen failures, I finally managed to maintain eye contact for 20 minutes in a row, without a single glance away or a long blink.

Again, this seemed absurd at the time, but later I discovered that I no longer had any trouble maintaining eye contact with people. This skill is a small one, but it is highly valuable in almost every social endeavor.

Later exercises seemed childish. An instructor would ask me simple questions from a book like, “What’s that over there?” and I would have to answer correctly: “That’s a table.” I had to do this for hundreds of questions. But I couldn’t just say “That’s a table” any old way. I had to say it without a stutter, I had to enunciate, and I had to speak loudly. Answering questions like this 100 times in a row will reveal how often most of us speak softly, fail to enunciate, and use filler words like “um.” Every time I did one of those things, I had to start over.

In another exercise, the instructor would do everything she could to make me laugh, and I had to sit still and not crack a hint of a smile for 10 minutes in a row. This simple skill took many rounds to master. It is a small skill, but repeating a simple exercise like this will eventually bring almost anyone to mastery of this small skill. At the end of the exercise I had noticeably improved a small part of my self-control mechanism.

This class—a religious class I took as an atheist in order to achieve an unrelated goal—turned out to be one of the most important classes I have ever taken in my life. It taught me an important meta-skill I have used to great effect ever since.

This is the meta-skill of building small skills in the right order. It is now one of the key tools in my toolkit for instrumental rationality.

Why it works

Previously, I explained the utility of success spirals2:

When you achieve one challenging goal after another, your obviously gain confidence in your ability to succeed. So: give yourself a series of meaningful, challenging but achievable goals, and then achieve them! Set yourself up for success by doing things you know you can succeed at, again and again, to keep your confidence high.

Building small skills in the right order is an excellent way to create and maintain success spirals.

Trying to master a large skill set like salesmanship is a daunting task that will likely involve many demotivating failures before you ever taste success. The same goes for public speaking, writing research papers, and lots of other large skill sets involving a complex interaction of many small skills.

Anna Salamon uses math to explain this concept. You could tackle calculus immediately after Algebra I, and you might eventually pick it up after many frustrating failures if you read the calculus textbook enough times, but why would you do this? It’s much easier and more satisfying to learn more algebra piece by piece until the jump to calculus is not so great. That way, you can experience the pleasure and confidence-boost of mastering new concepts all along the way to calculus.

A key component of motivation is time delay. The greater the distance between you and the reward, the less motivated you are to work toward the reward. If you don’t experience much reward until you’ve mastered the entire skill set of salesmanship or public speaking, maintaining motivation will be quite a challenge. But if you experience the reward of mastering small skills all along the way to becoming an effective salesman or public speaker, you have some hope of maintaining motivation throughout the journey.

Practical examples

How might one practice this meta-skill of building small skills in the right order?

Many skill sets, of course, are taught this way by default. Nobody teaches people to play piano by starting with Rachmaninov. Nobody teaches math by starting with calculus. Nobody teaches rock climbing by first free-climbing a YDS Class 5.10 route. But in other areas, this rather obvious lesson is not always applied.

For example, let’s say you want to improve your social skills. Don’t start by approaching an intimidating businessman and giving him your elevator pitch. You will probably fail, and be demotivated. Instead, start by asking a friend if you can practice staring into his or her eyes for 20 minutes in a row. Offer to buy them lunch, or something. After you’ve mastered that, ask them to do whatever they can to make you laugh while you try to suppress the urge to smile for 10 minutes in a row. (They will probably do this one without a bribe.) Once you’ve mastered that, ask them to pretend like they are a stranger so you can approach them and open a conversation 20 times in a row. Have them correct you every time you stutter or speak too softly or without a smile, and start over. Next, do the same exercise with your friend in public. Next, walk up to 10 actual strangers and ask for the time of day, then say “Thanks” and walk away. And so on. Build one skill at a time, and pay attention to the satisfaction of mastery each time you master a new small skill. After mastering many such exercises, you will find that you have mastered an entire new skill set that you previously lacked. And you did it with one small, mostly non-scary step at a time.3

Or suppose you want to learn how to write research papers. Don’t start by setting a goal of having a well-written research paper one month from today. Instead, start by learning how to use Google effectively. Talk to a local librarian about how to use your library’s resources effectively. Learn how to quickly understand the key terms and concepts in a given field (hint: read textbooks), so you know what to look for in Google Scholar. Learn how to bring yourself up to speed very quickly in a given field (hint: find a recent scholarly anthology of review articles from a major academic press, like this or this or this). Learn how to skim paper titles and abstracts. Learn how to get academic papers for free. Learn how to skim full papers for explanations and references relevant to the particular questions you are looking to answer. Learn how to find the home pages for leading academics in the field to see which papers they’ve written most recently. Learn the same kinds of small skills—one at a time—relevant to turning all that work into a great research paper. After learning, practicing, and mastering each of these small skills, you will after some time find yourself with some mastery in the entire skill set relevant to writing great research papers.

If you read a self-help book and its recommendations appear well-vetted but you don’t experience much improvement, ask yourself: Which smaller, intermediate skills might I need to master before I can succeed in doing what the self-help book recommends? Practice and master those smaller skills first, then go back to the self-help book and try again. You may discover there are small skills that remain to be mastered before you’re ready to tackle what the self-help book recommends, in which case you should do another round of granular self-improvement by mastering small skills that are prerequisites for the skills needed to achieve your larger goals. Fill your procedural knowledge gaps.

Much failure and frustration and demotivation results from not building small skills in the right order. This is unnecessary. Master small skills, one at a time, and don’t be embarrassed about it. Just try it.

And if you need a partner for eye contact training, just ask. I’ll be glad to help kick off your success spiral.


1 It was a wise choice, by the way. I learned to do public speaking very quickly.

2 In business academia, success spirals are known as “efficacy-performance spirals” or “efficacy-performance deviation amplifying loops.” See: Lindsley, Brass, & Thomas (1995). Efficacy-performance spirals: A multilevel perspective. Academy of Management Review, 20(3): 645-678.

3 This book may also help. It’s intended for children and those with various degrees of autism, but if you need to develop your social skills one small skill at a time and you can get over your own ego, it might be useful.