Seven Serious Problems With Learning Skills

We are expected to know but were never taught. We need to grow skills, but don’t have the know-how. Indeed, our schooling, our skill learning, should never stop, but for many, it has. We haven’t learned what Mark Twain  was fond of saying which goes, “I never let education get in the way of my schooling.”

But it’s not entirely our fault. There are problems learning skills because the educational system doesn’t help us much.

By Murray Johannsen, Comments? Feel free to connect with the author via this website, Linkedin,   or by email.

“Economics is the only field in which two people can get a Nobel Prize for saying the opposite thing.”  — Dennis Alexis Valin Dittrich, Jokes About Economics and Economists

How To Develop 21st Century Skills

“If we don’t have a vision of the future, we are lost in the present.” — Murray Johannsen

Skill Mapping. The Future of Career Development.  Decide what skills you need to prosper in the 21st Century

Skill-Based Learning. What You Need, When You Need It. The theory you need to know but were never taught.

The Mastery Practices. The Secrets to Lifelong Learning. The five mental skills that shorten the time from novice to mastery.

Seven Obstacles To Building Skills

Obstacle 1: We Never Learned a Skill Building Model

Die Schulklasse. Signiert. Datiert 1861. Öl auf Leinwand
Die Schulklasse. Signiert. Datiert 1861. Öl auf Leinwand

Despite the lip service about life-long learning, schools and universities don’t bother to teach skill learning models and the mastery practices accelerating the development of key skill-sets. It seems we expect students to learn by osmosis.

Ask yourself, “Have you ever been taught how to turn theory into a skill?” If you can say yes, consider yourself lucky. Here’s my story.

This was a hard lesson for yours truly to learn. For I found out during my first semester in college that I didn’t know how to learn. I was putting in the time since my home away from home was the library. 

After getting good grades in high school, getting really low grades served as a wake-up call that something was seriously wrong. Doing nothing meant graduating with the lowest possible GPA in the history of the university or not graduating at all. The learning mechanisms that got me through high school weren’t good enough to do the same for college. 

So after spending most of Christmas break in the library, it became clear that I was never taught how to learn. Seriously, have you ever had a class called, “How to Improve Your Reading Comprehension,” and “How to Quickly Memorize and Recall?”, or “Fifteen Ways to Waste Less Time Studying,”

But finding sound skill-based theory was not enough—one still had to discover how to develop skills. Even though you have the code, you still have to write the program.

It was from these fundamental insights that I was able to get two different graduate degrees and being lucky enough to teach in some very good universities both in America and Asia. But it all started with a fundamental understanding that I didn’t have the skill to learn skills — a problem for sure.

Problem 2: Textbook Theories Typically Cannot be Practiced

Skill-Based theory needs to have a practical application, one the is relevant to the real world

I believe in sound theory—if you can find it. Some theory is sometimes just good to know. Quantum physics and astronomy come to mind. But when it comes to playing the role of manager and leader, sound theory must be practical and capable of being practiced. This means that almost all theory in a typical textbook is not helpful when it comes to developing skills.

Remember, a textbook is essential to a set of research findings. It tells you what, but rarely how. My favorite example comes from psychology. In all basic textbooks on psychology, there will be a chapter on memory (Franzoi, 2009). In a typical chapter you will find concept after concept, backed up by study after study listing different theories on: sensory, short-term, long-term, procedural, episodic, and semantic memory; and you might even read about repressed memory and “forgetting.”

What’s missing? Real-world techniques that improve memory such as exercises and application assignments. Consequently, psychology students understand what memory is, but not how to improve it.

To give you one quick example, most of us have trouble recalling people’s names. But there is an easy-to-learn technique known as the image-name technique that will allow you to do so.

Jonathan Swift in his book Gulliver’s Travels saw this as one problem with academic theory. In his satire, there is an allegory about The Flying Island of Laputa where great resources were spent educating people in areas such as mathematics, music, and technology. But then, they failed to make practical use of this knowledge. I like to call this “blue sky theory” since it’s not ground to the real world.

I remember sitting in a discussion held in the hallowed halls of academia about how the business school could increase student enrollments. This individual opined that, “We should focus on the knowledge and skills students need to get a job.” Immediately two full-time faculty professors speaking in perfect unison shot down that idea with, “We are not a trade school.” This bias against the practical helped me to understand why b-school faculty don’t teach courses designed to fulfill industry needs.

In fact, really smart companies are running their own learning operations. Experts believe there are over 2,000 corporate universities and academies such as the Legacee Academy located in the United States (SHRM, 2007)

MIT Professor Donald Sadoway a lecture on 12/9/2009. Image by ThePlaz.
MIT Professor Donald Sadoway a lecture on 12/9/2009. Image by ThePlaz.”

“There is no theory to absurd, too patently ridiculous, or too impractical that a Republican somewhere will not propose it.” — Anonymous

A problem with the learning theory published in peer-reviewed journals or even textbooks is that theory is typically horribly abstract. This makes it difficult to understand, let alone turn into something practical. 

We academics (I also teach as a university professor) love scholar English—an intellectual form of the language only understood by Ph.Ds. Here is one of my favorite examples, an extremely obtuse paper titled “Contingent Relativism and Libertarian and Collectivist Meta-Narratives.”

Often, abstract language has to be converted to a more concrete form. Here are some more examples (Source: Dr. Marlene Caroselli):

A plethora of individuals with expertise in culinary techniques vitiates the potable concoction produced by steeping comestibles. (Too many cooks spoil the broth)

It is fruitless to engage in lacrimation over precipitately departed lacteal fluid. (Don’t cry over spilled milk.)

It is futile to attempt to indoctrinate a superannuated canine with innovations. (Can’t teach an old dog new tricks) 

The more abstract the theory, the less likely it has some practical applications. This is not always the case since professional jargon has practical uses.


If you are an aerospace engineer, correcting for the distortion and diffraction of light experienced when it encounters dust and smoke makes for better telescopes and smart bombs. Unfortunately, skill development is more difficult when theory is abstract.

Difficulty 3. Not Enough Practice Is Not Included in Manager or Leadership Development

“All skills are built on a foundation of sound theory.” — M. Johannsen

One cannot learn an application skill like ballet by reading books about it. Yet, that is who we teach leadership and management—by the book.

Skills vary tremendously in terms of the amount of time and effort one must dedicate to practice. Some skill learning efforts require a few minutes; others take hundreds or thousands of hours. Practicing to make a positive first impression typically takes less than 30 minutes. Learning a new language as an adult takes hundreds or thousands of hours.

It takes thousands of hours to become a charismatic speaker, get a 7th-degree black belt, move into the ranks of a chess master, or perform a flawless tea ceremony. Even those with great aptitude blessed with a large dose of talent must practice endlessly to get really good.

Sports psychologists have long understood that mental practice is just as important as physical practice. And in some cases, it is more important than physical practice. One can practice a speech, but it was less easy to be able to physically practice an interview.

One can shorten the amount of practice needed to learn a skill if depends on your skill at practice. Skilled practice means one must first understand and use a sound skill-building model. This serves as the map guiding your steps forward. Otherwise, you are lost.

Discover What is Meant on the Theory of Skill Learning

See What Can Be Done to Improve Practice

Obstacle 4. We Haven’t Learned How To Practice Mentally

It has long been known that using mental and physical practice together will accelerate the learning of most skills (Driskall, 1994). And it has been demonstrated even when learning surgical skills (Arora, et. al., 2011).

But to use mental practice skillfully, you need to also master a set of four mastery practices

They are:

  • Meditation
  • Reflection
  • Self-Talk, and
  • Visualization.

Problem 5: Many Degrees Only Build Expertise

“If you read about swimming, you drown.” — Henry Mintzberg.

Image by: Antoine Taveneaux Galton Box to demonstrate the normal distribution.
Image by: Antoine Taveneaux Galton Box to demonstrate the normal distribution.

In many academic programs, students get diverted into the pursuit of getting good grades as their most important takeawayCome to think of it, there were many wonky classes where a decent grade was the only possible payback for the cost of tuition.

And yet, the GPA is a very poor predictor of performance in the real world of business. Extensive research done by Google, confirms that there isn’t a correlation between GPA and success in business.

Image by: Xristina la. Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain - Revised
Image by: Xristina la. Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain – Revised

Why you might ask? One explanation has to do with the fact that higher-level thinking skills require at least the ability to apply the theory in the real world. And while tests are good for understanding and remember, the application requires some type of feedback, ideally from the real world.

I remember an MBA advertising class where I was supposed to create an ad. “Cool,” I thought, “Something practical.” And threw me into it with wild abandon. Of course, the professor didn’t like the fruits of this creative endeavor. This irritated me to no end. There was an advertising professor who never had run a real-world ad campaign telling me that my ad sucked?

Some argue that writing a twenty-page research paper is applying theory, but I beg to differ. I remember my very first employer had a scholar English deprogramming course.  It was here that I learned that the masterpiece is NOT written in 15 pages, double spaced,  in Times 12 point with one-inch margins using APA style sheets. A masterpiece is being able to condense fifteen pages down to two pages that hold the reader’s interest from beginning to end.

Still, some say the university model has legs to it if it can be mutated slightly. And it helps to read articles such as, “The 3 Secrets Of Highly Successful Graduates.” 

Problem 6: Employers Offer Training Without Development

Image by: Formula Student Germany, Reichmann.
Image by: Formula Student Germany, Reichmann.

“55% of newly acquired knowledge is forgotten after one hour. After 6 days, 77% of newly acquired knowledge is forgotten.” – Hermann Ebbinghaus Research

Most of what people hear in classrooms and conference rooms is forgotten before it gets applied. Think about the last training program you went to. How much do you still remember?

Let’s face it, the training model used by the vast majority of corporations and government agencies doesn’t work as a means for building skills. You might as well take cash and flush it down the toilet for all the good it does. Partly this is due to how one practice.

Practicing once keeps a novice a novice. You might say, “Oh, that principle is really obvious, like saying the sky is blue. Don’t take me for an idiot.” But think for a moment. Single practice is what’s commonly done in training programs everywhere. And in the seminar format, participants don’t even have to practice anything.

I saw this practice affect operating when teaching problem-solving tools to operators in manufacturing companies. The first time they used a tool such as a cause and effect diagram, it was not so good. The second time is better. The third time was pretty good.  

Image by: Urkel-os. A Full Windsor Knot
Image by: Urkel-os. Picture of a full Windsor knot. Even simple behaviors such as tying your shoelaces or doing a Windsor knot cannot be mastered if you just practice once.

If you don’t practice, you can fall, but you can’t ski.” — Murray Johannsen

Obstacle 7: Universities Don’t Teach Many Skills Needed by Employers and Entrepreneurs

“The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” — Herbert Spencer

It’s true — many universities graduate lack tangible job skills.  Besides that, machines keep doing are of the work the humans used to do. What does it mean? It means you better continually invest upgrade your skills if you want to stay employed.

Despite great advances in technology and social research, our learning methods today aren't that much different than what we have in the 19th Century. Painting by: Albert Anker (1831–1910) Die Dorfschule von 1848
Despite great advances in technology and social research, our learning methods today aren’t that much different than what we have in the 19th Century. Painting by: Albert Anker (1831–1910) Die Dorfschule von 1848

From a business perspective, b-schools are failing to provide both the knowledge and the methods of skill development needed to prosper in the 21st Century. Employers have enough “theory wonks,” — employees long on theory and short on action.

Periodically, we see studies asking university presidents if their institutions are preparing their students for the world of work. Typically, about 90% of them say it does. But only 20% of business executives agree when asked the same question

For many years, I have been fortunate to teach as an adjunct professor for different universities in the disciplines of management, leadership, entrepreneurship (both for-profit and social), and psychology. The students I am lucky enough to teach are smart and good at taking tests, writing papers, and getting good grades.

But I also founded and run a training and development company. So I’m always on the lookout for talent. Yet, I can’t find students skilled enough to run a digital marketing campaign. It’s gotten so bad, that we have our own digital marketing training program.

Honestly, most of the employers I talk to DON’T hire critical thinkers — in fact, I have yet to see this on a job description. But they do need application skills such as: executing a marketing campaign, managing projects, running efficient meetings, solving complex operational problems, etc. Mostly good leadership skills with solid management.

It’s long been a source of frustration that the vast majority of newly minted new hires lack key business skills. And they know little about skill development. So employees lack a critical competency that increases their value in the eyes of the executive. And the organization wastes precious time and money in training programs.


You might say that this is very interesting and one shouldn’t be gloomy and doomy. And you are right. Many economists like to use the past as the best predictor of the future. And they say that machine intelligence is simply innovation and innovation destroys some jobs and while creating others.

There is an old saying that applies here. It’s a business statistic if you lose your job. But a depression if I lose mine. If you wait and do nothing until your job goes away, it will likely be too late to engage in the kind of skill development needed to quickly transition into another high-paying jobs mid-century.

The time to best protect your house from a storm is not after it rains, it’s when the sun is out.

Despite all the issues, you can perfect your skill learning process and get an edge. All you need to do is access the Skill Learning Model and develop a set of Mastery Practices.

Want To Learn Skills Faster?

“If you think education is expensive, try costing ignorance.” — Attributed to Robert Orbin

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Cava, Marco, (2015). One Tech Vet’s Education Dream. USA Today. January 22.

Arora, Sonal; Aggarwal, Rajesh; Sirimanna, Pramudith; Moran, Aidan; Grantcharov, Teodor; Kneebone, Roger; Sevdalis, Nick; Darzi, Ara (2011). Mental Practice Enhances Surgical Technical Skills, Annals of Surgery, 253 (2). February.

Carlson, Nicholas (2105). Crucial New Career Advice From LinkedIn’s Billionaire Founder Reid Hoffman, Business Insider, January 24.

Driskell JE, Copper C, Moran A. (1994). Does mental practice enhance performance?, Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(4):481–492

Franzoi (2014). Essentials of Psychology, 5th Edition, CengageBrain. 

Johannsen, M. (ND). Mastery Practices Level II: Skill Building. Thousand Oaks, CA:

Matyszczyk, Chris (2013). Google: GPAs Are Worthless. C/Net. June 20.

O’Shaughnessey, Lynn (2014). Are the Colleges Preparing Students For The Workplace? The College Solution. Based on Gallup Poll Data.

Society of Human Resource Management (2007). Corporate Universities,

First Published: January 27, 2015; Last Update: June 30, 2023

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Work Skills For the 21st Century