Practical Theory: What’s Needed To Learn New Skills (Part 1 of 4)

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

We are expected to learn new skills but are never taught how. Why? We never learned how to find practical theory — the first step in learning new skills.

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

Sound theory is the foundation of achieving mastery

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

Do you want to master a new skill? If so, you need to understand the theory of learning underlying skill building. 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.

“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

Jump Right In: Learn How to Learn From Experience

Do you want to learn from experience? And learn better from practice when skill building?

If so, you need to learn how to reflect. Reflection is the process of thinking about your experiences and learning from them. It is the key to personal growth and development.

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

“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

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.

Executive Summary

Step First: We Need to Find Sound Theory 

You would think that skill-based theory would be abundant — like weeds found in a growing field. But actually, it is rare. More like a precious flower that you only see if you look for it.

Step Second: We Must Assess if it Can be Practiced

You would think we would know how to practice, but most don’t. Neither do many understand the elements of personal motivation and feedback necessary to get to mastery.

Step Third: Focus on Mastery

Unlike universities and schools everywhere, it’s not about grades, it’s about mastery.

Why Learning Sound Theory Is Critical

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

You might say, “I have been learning all my life.” True. But most of us aren’t that good at it. This was a hard lesson found out early in life. 

When I was in high school, it seemed as though I never needed to study. Or at least, I did not have to study much to get grades good enough to get into college. But, once in college, it was like experiencing a slow-motion train wreck.

I found out during my first semester in college that I didn’t know how to learn. My problem? A huge number of hours spent in the library resulting in lousy grades.

Spending endless hours in the library wasn’t paying off. Despite having the motivation, I was lacking the skills needed. 

Part of the problem was underestimating the competition. For my university lumped all the health sciences majors together for premed core classes. 

That Christmas break was miserable. Lots of soul search, bouts of anxiety, continuous self-doubt, and thoughts about, “I’m a failure at 18.” Finally, after giving up the role of victim and deciding that I didn’t want to be the wimp in the family, and the process began in figuring out how to get better grades. 

So I spent time learning how to learn, tweaking:

  • Test taking, 
  • Reading comprehension, 
  • Memorization and recall, 
  • Studying habits, and 
  • Time management.  

I got through it — my GPA went up. But it taught me a valuable lesson, I didn’t know how to learn nor build skills.

It was from applying these fundamental insights that led to completing two different graduate degrees and to teaching in some of the best universities in America and Asia. But it all started with a fundamental understanding that I didn’t have the skill of skill development. And neither do you. 

But you can learn it if you keep the following in mind.

Background: The Basis For the Theory

A theory of learning new skills
Legacee’s Skill Learning Model. The theory shows the major elements necessary for faster learning of new skills.

According to Anderson (1985), skill-building goes through the cognitive, associative, and autonomous stages.

Staying in the cognitive stage requires too much thinking continuing in the associative stage is inefficient, and getting to the autonomous stage requires lots of practice. Since these three stages apply to all skill learning including playing chess, typing, memorizing, or problem-solving, exceptional people strive to discover how to learn a skill quicker than their peers. Shortening the practice cycle occurs when using smart practice techniques.

Smart practice refers to how one goes about shorting the skill development process. All methods of practice are not equally effective in boosting efficiency. Since a skill must be practiced, a great amount of time, effort, and sweat can be saved by following a few general principles.

Understand That Good Theory is Often Scare

Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad theory out there. There is an enormous number of opinions masquerading as science, false facts, and truths that aren’t. But skill checking a theory is not as easy as it sounds.

I remember one popular book suggesting we should all develop a small number of habits. But the author never provided the details on how to get these useful principles to habituate. It didn’t pass the skill checker test. Nice to know if you are a theory wonk — worthless if you want to install new behaviors.

How To Vet The Theory: Run The New Skills Checklist

Wisdom, mural by Robert Lewis Reid. Second Floor, North Corridor. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Caption underneath reads "KNOWLEDGE COMES BVT WISDOM LINGERS
Wisdom, mural by Robert Lewis Reid. Second Floor, North Corridor. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Caption underneath reads “KNOWLEDGE COMES BVT WISDOM LINGERS

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

How To Learn New Skills: Do Your Do Diligence

Due diligence is a business term referring to the homework a new owner does before putting money into a business. Smart investors, whether they are angels or venture capitalists, have elaborate checklists, use outside experts and construct different types of benchmarks useful in separating the worthy from those less so. And so must you do your own up-front due diligence to determine if the theory works. 

To skill check a theory, run it by the following criteria:


Clearly, this is the most important one. The theory is valid if does what it’s supposed to. For example, does that diet really cause you to lose weight? If the theory gives you five steps to become a better listener, do you really listen better? Sometimes you can’t be sure until after you tried it.


Theory wonks love complex models containing lots of rectangles with lines going in and out. And maybe that’s needed for an accurate view of reality. Unfortunately, few box models can be practiced.


Most skills run like a computer program. Things occur in a defined order. Think about the sequential motions you make to hit the ball in the game of golf. There are also decision points and subroutines kicking in at certain points.

Focused on Behavior and/or Mental Process

Behavior. This is the classic view of what skill-building is all about. These are the sports you learn, the car you drive, typing a message, etc.

Mental Process. Some really cool mental skills can’t be observed behaviorally, but can be practiced mentally. Examples include: problem-solving, decision making, persuasion, and reflection.


If you can’t see something in the mind’s eye, if it doesn’t run like a movie, then something is surely missing. Behavioral skills run like a movie script, except that you are both director and actor.


You will see sound theory applied to the wrong situation all the time. Trying to apply the MBA theory base to the entrepreneurial start-up is a classic example. If you think about it, an MBA is all about how to manage large, bureaucratic businesses such as multinational corporations. It’s like using the theory of running an ocean liner to a rowboat that’s building its sails while trying to find fish.

Ideally, the theory says where it works and where it doesn’t. We assume leadership traits work in many situations, but you choose a leadership style based on the situation. Bad theory is typically grandiose — its creator assumes it works everywhere.


This is the opposite of abstract. One wants easily understood ideas to minimize multiple meanings and semantic confusion.

How To Learn New Skills: Three Guidelines To Follow 

Avoid Abstract Theory

Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building
Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building

Abstract theory can be relevant. In the example above, if you are an aerospace or electrical engineer, the above announcement is relevant for correcting for the diffraction of light encountered in environments containing dust and smoke. 

Still, the more abstract something is, the more difficult it is to understand and apply. If you have ever listened to an electrical engineer and a computer programmer’s talk shop, you know what I mean. 

Academics love their scholar English—an intellectual form of the abstract language only understood by other Ph.Ds. Here’s an example: Contingent Relativism and Libertarian and Collectivist Meta-Narratives. We see this communication mode, especially in peer-reviewed journals.

Abstract language has to be converted into concrete to make it more understandable (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) 

Principle 2: Test Theory Through Real World Experience

Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building
Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building

Teaching stories provide hints of what you can learn, of what we are all capable of. Plus they generate more motivation than hearing the same information as facts and statistics. A classic one concerns how to improve memory.

At a banquet given by a Nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honor of his host including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux.  Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum agreed upon…A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him.  He rose from the banquet hall and went out but could find no one.  During his absence, the roof of the banquet hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins. The corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them.  But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was, therefore, able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. . . And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor.  Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realized that an orderly arrangement is essential to good memory. Cicero (1976, pp.136-137)

What Simonides so long ago discovered was one of several visualization techniques useful in improving memorization and recall — what become known as mnemonics (Higbee, 2001). Specifically, the one known as the Method of Loci

Still, it’s wise to keep in mind the words of Mark Twain who wrote, “A man with a poor memory should always tell the truth.” 

3. Examine Context: Ask Where Does The Theory Work and Not Work

“The only truth in the newspaper is to be found in the ads.” — Thomas Jefferson 

 Detail from Government. Mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building,
Detail from Government. Mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building,

Fundamentally, skill-building theory must be practiced and applied in a particular context. For example, except for the smile, nonverbal communication patterns vary tremendously depending on the culture (Tubbs, 2012). Even so, smiling frequently has situational exceptions such as sitting in church, listening to a professor’s lecture, or attending a funeral.

We see this lack of context in much of the management theory in the B-schools. It’s assumed that management theory works in all cultures. Of course, this can’t be true.

A few years back, Hofstede (1993) wrote a very interesting article titled Cultural Constraints in Management Theories. In the article, he pointed out that in certain European contexts, American managerial theories didn’t work. 

Of course, the way you run an entrepreneurial company with ten people is a completely different set of heuristics than one with 500 employees. And the first year of the enterprise is a completely different set of challenges than the 10th year. 

While my friends in human resources would no doubt have heart failure for my saying so, most HRM theory doesn’t apply to sole proprietors or too early stage start-ups. Job descriptions, performance appraisals, pay, and benefits are important later but don’t make sense early on.


All of us should spend time checking the theory we are using to make sure the theory works. This is harder than it seems. Using the wrong theory is a major factor in not getting desired results.

Test Your Understanding of Skill-Based Theory

1. Skills can be mastered by attending seminars and reading books.

a. True                    b. False

Answer: False. One can find the theory of skill this way but you are still missing behavioral AND mental practice.

2. The classroom model is an efficient way of learning new skills.

a. True                  b. False

Answer: False. The class model uses grades for measuring knowledge and understanding. Sometimes skills are learned in labs but never by sitting in a lecture.

3. Many students graduate from college lacking tangible job skills.

a. True                b. False

Answer: Mostly true. If you ask academics, they say false but if you ask business people, they say true. It’s somewhat dependent on major, however.

4. People know how to go about building skills.

a. True             b. False

Answer: False. You can run your own experiment, just ask people how they would go about skill-building. Few can give you a good answer.

// Find Out More About the Hot Skills You Need to Prosper This Century


Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building

Anderson, J. R. (1985). Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications. New York: Freeman, page 240-241.

Cicero (1976) De ortore, Translated by MacDonald. Harvard University Press, pp. 136-137

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

Fitts, P. M. and Posner, M. I. (1967) Human performance. Oxford, England: Brooks and Cole

Suny — Big Ideas: Scientifically The Best Way to Prepare For Final Exams   You might say an exam is a good way to learn new expertise. But there are some other skills one needs to do so. 

First Published:  May 8, 2016.  Last update: January 12, 2022

Work Skills For the 21st Century