There often comes a time when you can ask the question- ‘why am I learning this? It has no use for me.’ Even though learning something new has no direct use in your life, it has invaluable benefits! I’ve also added a small section at the end describing my reasons for when you shouldn’t learn a new skill.
- 1. Develop brain resources for long-lasting brain health and unexpected uses
- 2. Self-discovery, happiness, and boredom are taken care of
- 3. Skills transfer to other areas with unexpected benefits
- 4. You’ll have social and emotional advantages
- 5. You’ll develop a richer identity and reduce the chances of an identity crisis
- 6. Others will find more use for your offerings
- 7. Your professional fallback options and job security will increase
- 8. You’ll get a sense of achievement and reward when other areas don’t give it
- 9. You’ll get a way to make procrastination itself productive
- Reasons why you shouldn’t work on a new skill
1. Develop brain resources for long-lasting brain health and unexpected uses
Learning any skill stimulates the brain and adds to what psychologists call a ‘cognitive reserve.’ Cognitive Reserve is the residual effect of learning that keeps your neural connections strong and re-inforced, which then becomes a global capacity to compensate for damage and biological deterioration. You will literally be making new neural connections to acquire that skill, thereby strengthening some areas of your brain. It also helps you counteract the cognitive decline due to old age. People with a low cognitive reserve are at risk of early dementia and age-related memory loss. Those with high cognitive reserve have extra mental processing capacity and a strong defense against memory loss.
The core idea about cognitive reserve is that diverse skills and hobbies can equip you with many ways to approach all sorts of tasks. That diversity compensates for cognitive decline. All that extra learning can solidify memory systems and improve your ability to acquire new learning. Some of these newly developed neural structures will be reused for other tasks in the future. That makes learning new things easier because some neural structure is now prepared to activate to perform a new task or “hold” new knowledge. Not surprisingly, staying intellectually and cognitively engaged boosts overall memory and other cognitive processes.
A fascinating property of our brain is that it can use a neural circuit for more than 1 job – a phenomenon called “neural reuse.” In fact, the brain regularly recruits old circuits for new tasks. Practicing an activity can improve skills in other activities that use the same neurons. The same circuit can still keep its original function and then govern another function. Rotating objects, like in TETRIS, is the foundational mechanism for empathy. Empathy is built into our brains on top of spatial reasoning – imagining something from different angles. (Check point 3 for more)
Increase Cognitive Reserve and Neural Reuse with professional skills, engaging in hobbies, strong relationships, good diet, music, mental activities, fun and games, and being active in life.Increase Cognitive Reserve and Neural Reuse with professional skills, hobbies, strong relationships, good diet, music, mental activities, fun and games, and being active in life. The reward is cognitive health. Click To Tweet
2. Self-discovery, happiness, and boredom are taken care of
Engaging yourself in any new skill is a period of self-discovery. You may experience various mood states ranging from feelings of accomplishment to frustration. All in all, the experiences count. Isn’t that what humans crave? Learning something new can help you make more sense of your current world and counteract boredom. One of the theories of boredom state that people get bored when their current state doesn’t make as much sense as a previously experienced state. The theory also says that the need to make sense of the world in a better way than you currently can fosters curiosity, which counters boredom and creates positive emotions that affect overall happiness.
A key component of happiness is “psychological richness” along with hedonic pleasure (instant gratification, quick rewards, etc.) and eudaimonia (having a meaningful life). Learning something new develops psychological richness, which means developing a multi-faceted life through exploration and unique experiences.
3. Skills transfer to other areas with unexpected benefits
The transfer effect is when practicing one skill improves performance on another skill. Learning something new may hone certain minor skills useful in other domains. Skills can be micro or macro. Micro skills are like fast typing, macro skills are like hosting parties. The brain operates on the principle that skills learned at one level or in one domain transfer to skills at another level or domain. So practicing a micro skill like cutting veggies can transfer to acrylic painting because of proper knife management. A larger skill like chemical engineering can transfer to a skill in cooking. The amount of skill transfer is proportional to how similar the 2 domains/contexts are. That is, there is more transfer when there are common or related elements in both skills and less transfer when there is nothing common. For example, a meta-analysis shows learning computer programming can transfer to many areas and improve a general problem-solving capacity through meta-cognition (thinking about thinking), reasoning, creative insights, and mathematical thinking. However, just training your core cognitive skills without a context might not improve your general cognitive ability – so there are limits. For transfer, context and actual application of the specific skill in a new domain is important.
The transfer effect occurs in 2 forms:
- Near transfer effect: It occurs when practicing one skill improves performance on a closely related skill. For example, solving pure algebra might help solve economic problems.
- Far transfer effect: It occurs when practicing one skill improves performance on a remotely related skill. Research doesn’t have much evidence for this. But when it does happen, it allows creative ideas and innovative insights. For example, experience with computer engineering helps with writing a good story by focusing on internally consistent logic.
These skills can also become a reason for creative problem-solving because the brain has more resources and actionable skills to improvise, plan, and execute successfully. Creativity largely depends on what you know in one field and how you can apply it to another field. Just by learning something new, you are potentially making yourself more creative in every other domain you possess skills in. For example, knowing how to do origami through instructions create a set of mental heuristics and representations of shapes & structures that may have high value in thinking about architectural projects.
To make the most use of the transfer effect, learn skills in a context. For example, hone your cognitive skills via games, not just brain training exercises. Practise vocabulary through writing and conversation, not just rote learning a dictionary. Context provides the groundwork for learning transfer to occur.Hone your cognitive skills via games, not just brain training exercises. Practise vocabulary through writing and conversation, not just rote learning a dictionary. Context provides the groundwork for learning transfer to occur. Click To Tweet
Anecdote: I am a lazy psychologist, and I learned computer programming mainly for fun (I also tend to acquire some skills in as many domains as possible). I learned that naming the variables in a very disciplined way made me organize my work better. I kept my computer clean, renamed files in comprehensive ways, made my computer work very systematic, etc. I came to understand a programmer’s point of view, and as a matter of fact, I can think in flow charts. That saves me a lot of mental energy and even helps with clarity. It gave me a bird’s eye view I haven’t used python programming professionally even though I spent 6 months learning it. Totally worth it.
You never know how you may use your skill in the future. Perhaps, it adds more credibility to your profile. Having various skills, knowledge, and interests have social and professional benefits. It may give you a competitive advantage over someone else who is equal in every other way. From a social point of view, other people may find it easier to connect if they have more opportunities to connect. You may connect with some people over travel, which could end up being your thing. But simultaneously, you could also be a musician, which gives you another group of people to connect with. Your new skill is a place to meet new people, have new conversations, and perhaps make you stand out from your peers. You never know when you might just be the most valuable player/person in your group due to that one skill you acquired. Diversity in learning and experiences opens you up to stronger social capital and higher psychological richness. All of this eventually helps you counter loneliness and low self-worth, and in some cases, helps you move on from a difficult past.Your new skill is a place to meet new people, have new conversations, and perhaps make you stand out from your peers. This can counter loneliness and low self-worth, and in some cases, help you move on from a difficult past. Click To Tweet
5. You’ll develop a richer identity and reduce the chances of an identity crisis
New learnings and discoveries will directly develop your personality and identity. For starters, a lot of our personality is shaped by our experiences and new learnings, which create stable behavioral tendencies and memories. These memories become the reference point for future actions. Similarly, these experiences feed into self-concept at 3 levels by creating a “construal” of yourself. This construal is how you construe or “conceptualize” yourself. Effectively, they are the 3 dimensions of your identity.
- The relational independent self-construal: Your primary personality, demographic characteristics, and occupational status. Any kind of new learning directly gives you options to add to your personality. Skills you acquire define your occupational status, and your choices to explore the world change your demographic characteristics.
- The relational interdependent self-construal: Your role as a member of relationships like partners, friends, family, or work team. These develop when you interact with others over shared activities, so taking your time to have a shared activity with people – aka new learnings in a social context – can directly help you build identity.
- The meta-personal self-construal: Ideas about your goals, vision, connection with the universe, etc. These develop through exposure to unexpected events in life… if you are open to them.
When all 3 levels of your identity are defined, and you are satisfied with their definition, it’ll defend you from an identity crisis. If one of them is weak, you might overdo it on another level. For example, if the relational interdependent self-construal is weak, that is, you don’t have quality relationships, you might end up burning out with your professional (independent) identity or get into political discussions (meta-personal) in a toxic way. But essentially, these behaviors are attempts to fill the deficits in the interdependent self-construal.
6. Others will find more use for your offerings
Skills are usually acquired because there is a demand for them. But the underrated flipside is that a lot of skills are used because someone has them. These are seriously valued. For example, suppose, in your professional group of lawyers, you have someone who can edit videos properly. Your team is likely to adopt your video skills in presentations and events. If you acquire forest survival skills even though you are an administrator, that one time you go on a trek, you will have the most rewarding experience!
- You can develop contrasting skills – if you are into literature, learn computer science.
- You can develop allied skills – if you are into cooking, you can learn bartending; if you are a musician, learn audio engineering or visual design.
- You can develop unrelated skills – if you are a student, master a specific game; if you are at the top of your career, become a serious chess player.
In all these scenarios, your additional skills can help you improve your professional status as a multi-faceted human. And that usually catches eyeballs. Each of these skills is your entry into another professional domain or social network.
7. Your professional fallback options and job security will increase
Even though you could be happily engaged in a full-time job, a new skill lets you prepare for the worst. Perhaps, your company gets acquired, your position is lost, and way too many people are already fighting to get into other companies. A new skill widens your options. Essentially, you give existing employers more reasons to keep you, and new employers more reasons to consider you.
Anecdote: I know someone who got a degree in the fine arts (exceptionally skilled) but could not make money off it after a while, and a 20-day experience in planning an event got them a high-paying, art-related job with the core skill of planning.
8. You’ll get a sense of achievement and reward when other areas don’t give it
It’s easy to feel like nothing good is happening, and you lose a sense of satisfaction with life. The easiest way to counter a mental slump is to affirm your sense of achievement by doing something where you can feel a sense of reward. These rewards are inherently tied with achievement – a higher level of skill, accomplishing a task, gaining mastery, etc. Learning new things also gives the joy of discovery and novelty – it’s pure fun and you’ll feel good engaging yourself in something new without the pressure of meeting a social or career demand. These are hobbies in the purest sense. When the hobby is just challenging enough and within reach – it can give you the flow state and counteract boredom. Both are psychological rewards. Most people take immense joy in doing their hobbies, and their achievement in that hobby safeguards them from feeling low or worthless. In fact, from a mental health point of view, having hobbies is a direct way to increase life satisfaction and happiness. And it is a direct way to find self-worth.
It’s not just that learning can give joy, a good mood via an engaging and exciting method of learning improves learning itself. This feedback loop optimizes your learning and memory in ways you might quickly become an expert and have the emotional rewards associated with it.Learning new things also gives the joy of discovery and novelty – it's pure fun and you'll feel good engaging yourself in something new without the pressure of meeting a social or career demand. Click To Tweet
9. You’ll get a way to make procrastination itself productive
You may be procrastinating because of fear of failure or fear of not feeling competent. To avoid those negative emotions, you may be doing something else that improves your mood. If you use procrastinated time for unrelated learning, your procrastinated time is not truly wasted. A form of procrastination, which I call “Productive procrastination,” is when instead of seeking instant gratification or relaxation, one uses that procrastinated time to do something unrelated to their studies, domestic duties, career, or relationships but is still productive in some sense. Like learning photoshop, organization, or doing TikTok reels while you procrastinate.
This means your time lost during procrastination is not truly lost and becomes an opportunity to develop skills for 2 rewards – improve your mood from the anxiety of the originally procrastinated task (fear of low competence) and the intrinsic reward of the new activity. The motivation for doing these productive procrastination activities is usually strong and doesn’t quickly drop because you end up doing them for your own sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Once your mood is restored through these other productive activities, you may be in a better position to do the original task you procrastinated.
Reasons why you shouldn’t work on a new skill
You may wonder if you should forcibly disrupt your life to accommodate a new skill because the benefits are high. But in some cases, the cons of learning a new skill outweigh the pros.
- You don’t have the time to commit. Perhaps, you can attempt to make time.
- Other more important domains like your married life suffer.
- You have skills you are working and it’s more important to focus on them than trying something new, particularly when it’s about a job or exam.
- You don’t have the money. Although, A LOT of learning can happen for free: People help in person, there are free online lessons, and portals like Quora, YouTube, Coursera, etc., are rich sources of free information. Currently, I am trying to learn how to juggle 3 balls.
- You have a good life, and you’d rather spend your time doing other things you like. Chances are, you will soon acquire new skills on your own. Skill building is a source of life satisfaction.
- You are tired of the productivity routine and want to sit back and relax for mental health and physical recovery. Downtime from productivity is just as important as productivity. Both must go hand-in-hand.
Imagine a future where someone speaks of you exclaiming, “Remember that person, who knows everything, can connect with anyone, has all? I really want to be like them!”. I’d like to think that anyone can be that person.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced in Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, a few books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m an applied psychologist from Bangalore, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.