How To Build Skills

I remember the words my mother ground deeply into my mind when I was a little boy. Perhaps your mother had similar words. She told me on many occasions, “Work hard and you’ll succeed.” The assumption is that endless hours of 24/7 days working automatically correlated to vast wealth.

After putting these words into practice for many years, it occurred to me that Mom was only half right. My new mantra is, “Work hard; but work smart (so you don’t have to work so hard.)” And to work smart, we must continually learn new skills.

By Murray Johannsen. Feel free to connect with the author by email or on Linkedin

When it comes to growing skills, it is just expected that we know how to do so. But the reality is, few individuals know how. 

Few have learned a sound, robust process of skill development — one that takes knowledge, to behavior, and to skill mastery. 

This page presents an easy to understand model of how to more quickly develop skills.

Sometimes It Takes a Traumatic Event to Wake You Up

Here is a story of what happens when you think you know; but don’t know what you didn’t know.

Moral of the Story: It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you don’t have the skill.

Take First Step to Skill MasteryUnderstand the Theory of How to Build Skills

Sound theory is the foundation of achieving mastery

Do You Want to Learn How To Master a New Skill?

At Legacee, we offer two online classes that will teach you what you need to know.

  • In our first class, we will teach you how to find good theory and how to evaluate its quality.
  • In our second class, we will teach you the theory of effective practice.

Finally, we’ll show you how to apply theory to your own learning and how to use it to improve your skills.

You don’t know what you don’t now.” — Socrates

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” — Mark Twain

Do you Want to Really Learn From Experience?

Reflection is the process of thinking about your experiences — all types of experience — and learning from them. It is the key to personal growth and development.

Here’s what I learned about reflection. Honestly, I was really unhappy that I learned about this so late in life.

Act Now so you can Minimize Mistakes

Act Now so You Can Learn Skills Quicker

This video by Murray Johannsen contains foundation principles one must understand to put theory into practice and turn leadership knowledge into leadership skills.

The Three Major Phases of Skill Development

Phase 1: Find The Right Theory

“Our greatest adversary is our own ignorance. Our second greatest adversary is delusion — acting on false beliefs that we accept as true. The beginning of wisdom is to know what is true and what is false.” — Murray Johannsen

Sheet Music — the essential theory underlying the ability to play the music the way its composer desired. Picture by neurovelho

Careful study is an important element of skill mastery. Your skill development program is only as good as the theory behind it. In other words, before you practice, you must know and understand intellectually what has to be done.

Good theory is relevant, practical, detailed and convertible into a behavior. It’s important to understand that many commonly accepted leadership principles are very difficult to turn into actionable behavior. Take for example, “Treat people with respect.” Nothing wrong with the principle, but respect is an abstract concept not easily turned into actions.

Even today, opinion masquerades as science, and truths are really delusions. It’s important to conduct due diligence to make sure the theory you think works — works.

For example, have you heard of locus of control? From a psychological standpoint, for it’s important to assume we have control, not that we are being controlled. It’s a sound theory backed up by hundreds of studies. It works in the real world.

A good theory is relevant, practical, detailed and convertible into a behavior. For example, it’s important to understand that many commonly accepted leadership principles are very difficult to turn into actionable behavior.

Before you practice, you must know, understand and find a theory that works. Such a simple truth, forgotten by many. Many theories are about what but never about how.

Discover key tips on how to evaluate theory to discover the sound model needed for building skills.

Online Course 1: Skill-Based Expertise: What You Must Know to Build Skills Faster. This course presents many insights useful in defining skill-based theory. Not all theory is can be turned into a skill. Discover how to tell what works and what does not.

Phase 2: Optimize Your Practice

“You can’t learn to swim by reading about it.” — Henry Mintzberg

The first rule of skill development is practice, practice, practice. After all, you will never get good if you just practice once.

You must practice correctly or you see few gains for the effort. One must not only practice physically but also mentally to get the most from your effort. But unless you happen to be an athlete, you never learn the secrets associated with mastery practice. 

Asking college students to practice something outside of class is really interesting. Some take to it like fish in the water. But others only do what’s needed for the grade. The grade is more important in their eyes than getting something they can use. Some will always try to fake it — just too lazy to practice it seems.

Beware of the Dunning-Kroger Effect. Incompetence is alive and well in the world, we see it all all levels of the organization, from CEOs to janitors. Inherent in this research is a disturbing fact — the incompetents fail to recognize that they are incompetent. Not much a problem at the working level. But a huge problem if the person happens to be a head of state.

Some skills development efforts require a few minutes; others take hundreds of hours. In the hundreds of hours category, we have becoming a persuasive speaker. Even those with great aptitude blessed with a large dose of talent, must practice endlessly to get really good. On the other hand, skill development on how to make a positive first impression takes less than 30 minutes. However, one must still practice many times to get good at it.

Skills vary tremendously in terms of the amount of time and effort you must dedicate to practice. Learning a new language as an adult is difficult but for a three-year old, it’s effortless. Mastering complex skills require a great deal of practice, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of hours. But even those with great aptitude, blessed with a large dose of talent, need to practice many, many times to get really good.

Skilled Practice: The Second Phase of Skill Development. Practicing many hours a day does not guarantee you will get better. It depends on other factors the role of which you must understand if you are to get traction in the slippery slope of building skills.

Online Course 2: Skilled Practice: How To Boost Performance. This program presents a step-by-step format to enhance the learning of complex skills. It includes practice assignments designed to try out new skill development techniques.

Phase 3: Mastery Achieved

Mastery is a special state of mind in which the skill largely runs in the unconscious. This frees up the conscious mind and the Ego to focus on other things. Sometimes called over learning, one experiences tremendous accuracy, precision and speed. In fact, if is the very speed of the action that prevents conscious thought. This can be seen in a number of sports such as basketball and soccer.

What’s true for sports professionals is also true for more common skills such as typing or driving. It’s rather disturbing to imagine that the next time you are on the eight-lane freeway, that the person on the right and the left, the one in the front and the one in the back, are all devoting very little thought or attention to driving. Yet, we almost always manage to get to our destination safely.

Once you have practiced enough times, you meet the characteristics of mastery. At that point learning stops.

Beware of Illusory Superiority

Essentially this is the assume that we have some ability or skill is better that is better than it really is. One aspect of this is known as Downing effect which describes the tendency of people to overestimate their IQ.

Strive To Practice Self-Efficacy

This relates to the belief one has about an ability to learn something new. Bandura proposed that a key element of the theory is the importance of observational learning; and of course, the belief that one will ultimately be successful in learning.


Goldsmith, Marshall & Lyons, Laurence (2005). Coaching for Leadership: The Practice of Leadership Coaching from the World’s Greatest Coaches, 2nd Edition, Pfeiffer.

Peak, Martha (1992). Group Editor, AMA Magazines, Management Review, October.

Prochnow, Herbert (1986) The Public Speaker’s Treasure Chest, HarperCollins.

Robbins, S. & Hunsaker, Phillip L. (2008). Training In Interpersonal Skills (5th Edition), Prentice-Hall.

Tosi, Henry and Carroll, Stephen (1976). Management, John Wiley & Sons.

Whetten, David & Cameron, Kim (2010). Developing Management Skills, 8th Edition. Prentice-Hall.

Site Resources

This was done when I was a bit younger. I have included stories here.

Work Skills For the 21st Century