Why you should take the time to master a single skill

By going deep into one subject, we learn how to learn – a priceless ability.

For most of us who never became concert pianists or even made it to mediocre, what was the point of learning to play the piano as a child? The boring scales, the silly little tunes, the hours of practice until we finally learned a song anyone recognized?

The simple answer is "not much." But the more profound truth is that we were learning a metaskill.

Metaskills are skills needed to learn how to learn. They are higher-order skills – like critical thinking, the ability to organize information, the strategy of building on what was previously learned, and the belief that repeated practice can make perfect, or at least result in some improvement.

The principle is that in the process of learning how to do one thing really well, we learn how to learn.

So through Yo-Yo Ma's mastery of the cello, Picasso's immersion in art, and Einstein's deep study of physics, they each learned how to learn. And while the subject can become an all-consuming passion, it can also form a smaller part of our lives.

The subject or topic is almost unimportant – only it's easier and more enjoyable if we choose something we are interested in: basketball, Jane Austen's novels, the gastrointestinal tract – the list is endless. Going very deep into one subject, learning and understanding it over a course of several years, acts as a point of reference that is useful when we learn other subjects.

The Eastern cultures have realized the value of this idea for a long time.

The daily meditation and the repetition of a mantra are all ways to train the mind, to calm it into a state of long-term focus and readiness. The old Hindu "guru-shishya" (teacher-student) relationship stretched over many years and meant the student literally lived with the teacher in order to learn, or rather absorb, his particular expertise.

German philosopher Eugen Herrigel saw the learning of any technical skill as a way to train the mind. In his classic book "Zen in the Art of Archery," he says, "Childlikeness has to be restored with long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness" such that the archer and the target became one.

In his book, "Awaken the Giant Within," motivational guru Anthony Robbins writes, "Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives."

Even Howard Gardner, renowned author of the theory of multiple intelligences, values the attainment of a single expertise. He calls it a "disciplined mind" and explains four steps to achieve one: 1) identify an important topic or concept; 2) study it deeply over a significant period of time, using various examples and modes of analysis; 3) approach the subject in a variety of ways and from various perspectives; 4) and give performances and presentations to show true and deep understanding.

What is the value of this metaskill today?

In our present world of high speed, instant response, and multimedia, words like discipline are little used, and spending 10 years to master one skill sounds quaint. And besides, it takes time away from myriad other options we now have at our fingertips. Does learning how to do one thing really well have any economic or personal significance anymore?

David Perkins, Harvard educationalist and author of the popular article "Educating for the Unknown," stresses that, since we don't know what skills tomorrow will require from our children, our schools must strive to impart real understanding and the ability to apply knowledge to new situations.

Perhaps the deep learning of a single subject can provide that required general reference point to handle different and new situations, not to mention the patience and fortitude to try, try again.

In the business world, the analogous idea may be the vertical business model, which goes deep into one industry and follows the product from beginning to end.

The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. encourages its consultants to build a "spike," or perhaps it should be called a trough: a deep knowledge of a specific industry or practice.

In our personal world, it may imply the steady and consistent cultivation of long-term relationships. And in our spiritual world, that single deep trough may be one we return to drink from time and time again over the years for enjoyment, solace, or simply to center ourselves within our otherwise changing lives.

As my hands descend onto the piano keyboard and I begin the first line of Beethoven's "Für Elise," I become one with the music. There's no boundary between player and song. I play it again and again, carried away by the visceral understanding, integral bond, and perfect sound.

As the music finally ends and silence falls, a feeling of satisfaction sweeps over me, satisfaction that after dogged persistence and long practice I have finally accomplished it. And now, to work on the second line.

• Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer, academic, and business editor, currently based in New Delhi.

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