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Why Skills beat Mindset every day and how to make learning skills easier

There’s a lot of people talking about mindset and motivation. While they are not wrong, you have to complement your mindset with the specific skills you need to be effective and productive.

I’ve been reading self-help books, and therapy books, for decades, and one thing I’ve taken away is that it’s much easier to write about motivation than it is to sufficiently detail exactly how to perform specific skills.

Why is that? Because skills are relative. You can talk all you want about having a ‘math mindset’ if you want to encourage someone to do science. It’s a different thing to be the teacher giving out math homework and figuring out whether a student is good at trigonometry. You can spit wisdom about ‘fitness mindset’ if you’re trying to get someone to get off of the couch. The grind of being a trainer motivating each client or group is much different than convincing someone that they can. 

Motivation and mindset, that’s the EASY stuff. 

The hard stuff is detailing the specific skills you need. Would you rather know how and not be motivated, or not know how or be motivated? I’ll bet that you, and most other people, will choose skill and know-how every time, because skill is harder to acquire than motivation. So, let’s discuss how you can accelerate how you can acquire skills, and leave the motivation to those other guys.

One of my favorite self-help gurus are the Vital Smarts team and they came up with two books that use the framework pictured below. The books are Change Anything, where they talk about how to make your life better. And the other book is Influence, where they talk about how to have an impact on other peoples’ behavior.

Vital Smarts six sources of linfluence matrix - personal, social, structural, motivation, ability
Vital Smarts


What you see pictured above is a comprehensive outline of the different ‘sources of influence’ that people have in their lives. The Vital Smarts team lets us know that if you want to make a change that sticks, you’ll need to make sure you line up your motivation and your ability on the personal, social, and structural levels.

Clearly, it looks like motivation and ability have about the same number of recommendations. However, if you’ve ever learned how to play an instrument or sport you’ll remember spending a LOT more time actually practicing than you do thinking about practicing. And if you spend more time thinking about your approach to practicing, getting your mind right, and other phrases like that, you’re not going to get much better.

If you want to get better at anything you have to do two things:

  1. Put the rubber on the road.
  2. Put the pedal to the metal.

But, how can you figure out what things are important, and what things to do? It costs a lot of money to purchase courses and systems that tell you how to do this and that. And going on youtube and trying to cobble together the right 15 different videos from different podcasters, teachers and vloggers is also time consuming. 

So, what can you do to help you figure out what to do first, faster? Glad you asked! You can figure out how to understand the main skill that drive performance based on the main sensory systems you need for it. Then, you can break those skills down into three different buckets so you can work on a piece at a time. Then of course, you practice.

Sensory Systems

Okay, I’m going to say there are eight sensory systems, not just six. Let’s not fight about it, just keep reading. The important thing to note here is that any skill requires the use of multiple sensory systems, but some skills require you develop your ability in specific sensory systems.


  1. Sight - You need to be able to look at, identify, and work with things. Tennis players and film critics will have an ‘eye’ for different things.
  2. Sound - Sound engineers that make beats and master music tracks will have a different ‘ear’ than a teacher listening for the quiet student telling an answer or the orchestra conductor picking new music to showcase their star instrument player..
  3. Smell - There are swarms of people that create perfumes and gardens, or bake cookies, to evoke specific moods in themselves and others.
  4. Taste - Chefs, what can I say, not only can they go to restaurants and figure out not just what spices were used, they can also taste how much heat was used to cook something based on the texture of the dish.
  5. Touch - Surgeons and massage therapists can feel their way through to unclog blockages and apply pressure when needed.
  6. Vestibular - A ballerina or an Ice skater practices their balance more than a long distance runner who tends to run in a straight line or long curve.
  7. Proprioception - An MMA grappler has a much better awareness of where their limbs are than a piano player, who only needs their fingers and foot.
  8. Emotions - Writers that want to create a certain type of effect through their novels or comic scripts have a feel for how situations, actions, and lighting affect people more acutely than politicians and salesmen.

And if you’re into abstract things like chemistry and politics, just know that those are imaginative proprioceptive skills that figure out the spatial and physical characteristics and shapes of elements and groups. Thanks for letting me nerd out for a sec. Anyhow...

You can improve your life in general by figuring out what things you’re good at and what sensory systems they use. Improving your life comes from either broadening the range of skills you use that rely on different sensory systems, or you can choose the next thing you learn according to what sensory system you already have developed.

Input - Process - Output

Figuring out what sensory systems you need to use for your skills you need can help you speed up the process of learning something because you can focus. One of the easiest ways to ‘break something down’ is to simply list ten smaller skills that compose it. You can also use the input-process-output rubric to break skills into phases and practice those smaller skills separately and together.  While I’m not going to list all skills, let’s look at two skills and break down that list of things. 

A useful way to think about any system is break it down into inputs, process, and outputs. The inputs are the things it needs to go, the process is what it does, and the output, well, those are the things that happen or we intend to happen. I’ve added a column for your learning based on what we do in those phases:


General For Learning
Input Perception
Process Movement
Output Results


That’s nice, but let’s break that down some more. Because after you read this, just thinking about perception, movement, and results won’t get your blood boiling. Remember, I’m trying to equip you not with a mindset, but with a way to break down the skills you need to achieve your goals. So we need to apply the input-process-output grouping to a few skills to serve as a decent example.


General Tennis Cooking
  Finding the ingredients in the kitchen Seeing where the ball is coming from

Input - 


Figure out where the ball is going Noticing if the ingredients went bad
  Notice how tired my opponent is Noticing if the food is ready
  Be fit so I don’t get winded Turning on the heat
Process - Movement Move side-to-side quickly Prep the food
  Hit the ball in their court Putting the spices back
  Aim for their backhand Food that is the right texture
Output - Results Lob the ball high enough they can’t hit it Food that has enough seasoning
  Reliable first serve Have plates for serving


I won’t profess that all of this is perfectly categorized, but you get the picture. When you break a skill down into the things you have to perceive, do, and aim for helps you get a better sense not only of what you are trying to achieve, but also specific tests that you can use to keep your attention focused on your practice.

Practice, Practice, Practice

There are three roads to success. Practice, Practice, and luck. Okay, that last one I spelled practice wrong. A few years ago someone wrote an over-hyped book that said you needed 10,000 hours of practice and play to be great. I read that book, and a few articles about it. 

What they meant was that if you wanted to be in the NBA or the smartest Astrophysicist, you have to put in literally years of work studying and working on the fundamentals of your discipline. And if you do that, and you are practicing with intention, then maybe you’ll be good enough to be considered one of the best that ever did it, or in the league of those that are that good.

But, for everyday folk like you and me, we don’t need 10,000 hours. Let’s use a much more realistic goal. Let’s say at 100 hours, you’ll be passably competent. So, if it takes you an hour to make a meal, and you make one meal, or a similar meal, every day for 100 days, you’ll be significantly better at cooking than when you started. If you are learning to code or run a business, if you focus on what you have to do each and every day for that 100 hours, you will learn and know so much more than if you just watched crunchyroll. 


Okay, there’s not much more to say. I told you that skills beat mindset. I told you that you can analyze skills based on sensory systems. We talked about breaking down skills into what you can perceive, do, and aim for to help you focus your attention. By the way, breaking things down this way can dramatically help with planning what to work on during each practice. And we talked about considering how much effort you put into learning and practice. The byproduct of considering how much time you’ve put into something is that you have a better sense of your progress than only looking at your daily or weekly effort.

Now go learn something. 

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