On building skills for free

There are plenty of resources and opportunities to help you gain new skills at little or no cost. Here are some places to start looking.

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    In this July 24 picture, master gardener Larry Jackel, left, explains how to trim a Bonsai tree to Jody Horvath at a workshop at the Park County Library in Cody, Wyo. Using free services, like the library, is an excellent way to gain new skills without spending.
    Kara Bacon/The Powell Tribune/AP/File
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As I’ve mentioned a few times on here, I’ve been taking piano lessons since early February. When I come home, though, my materials are mostly books I’ve been gifted or printed out from various places and I practice on an old electronic keyboard or by walking to a local church and practicing on the older piano in their basement.

While I’m not at all what I would consider good at this point, I can see that I’ve started to build some skill at piano playing over the past several months. I can read simple sheet music and play it. I can play a handful of simple songs from memory. By simple, of course, I’m referring to songs people know – like “Where the Saints Go Marching In” or “Fur Elise” in fairly simple arrangements without a lot of flourishes or anything.

It feels very good, and it’s particularly fun to set goals for myself, like “I want to play Song X from memory without errors” or “I want to be able to open this music book to a random page and be able to play what’s in there.” I’m looking forward to being good enough and confident enough to play in social situations – I’m not there yet, but I can see it down the road.

What I’ve really learned from this is that it’s really empowering to learn a new skill – and it doesn’t have to be all that expensive, either. There are so many new skills anyone can learn out there that the only thing missing is your motivation. You don’t need money – for many skills, you just need time and a little bit of motivation.

Skills pay off in a lot of ways, too. Yes, sometimes they’ll turn into a career, but sometimes they’ll just help you to assist a friend or work through social awkwardness or help add some spice to a social situation (like piano playing, for example). Those things have great value as well – there are few things more valuable than a strong social network.

Most people, when they think about skill-building, envision a classroom, a teacher, a bunch of expensive supplies, and tuition bills. That’s only true if you’re looking to earn some sort of certificate to write about on your resume, but it’s certainly not needed to build many skills you might wish to have. Instead, here are five free resources anyone can use to start building up many of the skills they might want to learn.

Hit the library. There’s a “how-to” book on virtually anything you would like to learn about at your local library – and if it’s not there, they can probably get that book via interlibrary loan. I glanced at the self-teaching piano books at the library recently and there were dozens of them – in fact, I checked out two of them myself, just to read different angles on the ideas.

Hit Freecycle. If you need equipment, one great place to start looking for it is Freecycle. Basically, Freecycle is a resource for people looking to give away unwanted things – and many of those things are quite nice and useful. Subscribe, pay attention, and you’ve got a good chance at finding the things that you need. I’ve walked away from it with multiple items over the past few years.

Request use of public facilities. Many communities have facilities available for many, many different activities, from basketball and tennis courts to churches with pianos sitting in their basements. If you need equipment to do what you want to do, spend some time studying what’s available to you already.

Participate. If there are groups in your community focused on whatever skill you’re trying to build, whether it’s public speaking or woodworking, make an effort to join that group. Don’t be ashamed of your “new” status or your lack of equipment. Quite often, if a new member joins a group like that and shows some passion and initiative, the other group members are often really happy to help the new person get rolling.

Trade. If someone else has access to the training or equipment that you need to use, work out a trade with that person. Could you swap some of your already-existing skills for access to that training or equipment? A good old-fashioned barter usually leaves both participants in a much better place.

Most of all, just do it. If you’re sitting there dreaming about some skill you want to build, I can only guarantee one thing: continuing to sit there and dream about it won’t build the skill. Get up and start doing it. I can’t tell you how long I dreamed about starting to play the piano, but it wasn’t until I started actually doing it that anything happened.

You’ve got to do it to be able to do it.

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