Reactivate those dormant skills

Recently, my wife decided to brush up on the Mandarin that she’d learned in university and during a three-month stay in Beijing a few years ago. But she wasn’t quite sure where to start.

I remembered seeing a post by Tim Ferriss on this very subject. In that post, Ferriss explains how to reactivate a language that you haven’t used for a while. It’s a very intensive, but manageable, process.

Then, I got thinking. Could what Ferriss described be applied to other areas? My conclusion is yes.

Both freelance and full-time technical communicators acquire a number of skills over the courses of their careers. Some of those skills get rusty or seemingly forgotten. With a bit of work, you can bring those skills back to life. Or, at the very least, to the front of your brain.

The skills connection

Take a quick read of the quote below from this post on Ferriss’ blog:

Somewhat like riding a bike, though unfortunately not as permanent, language fluency is more dependent on practicing the right things than learning the right things. The rules (grammar) can be learned through materials and classes, but the necessary tools (vocabulary and idiomatic usage) will come from independent study and practice in a native environment.

The same goes for reactivating your skills. You might, for example, be moving from a job that uses Microsoft Word exclusively (ugh!) to one that requires you to use FrameMaker. Your HTML and CSS chops may not be what they once were. You might have let your UNIX kung fu atrophy.

Skills are like muscles

It’s become cliche to say that memory is a muscle that needs to be exercised. There’s some truth to that, though. It’s not just memory itself, but what you’ve memorized and learned. That includes your skills.

Obviously, you’re not going to be able to recall everything you’ve learned over the years. That said, the information is still inside your brain. It’s sort of like that file sitting in a dark corner of your computer’s hard drive. You know it’s there; you just have to access it somehow.

Reactivating those skills

Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Make a list of simple goals that you want to achieve during the reactivation process. Don’t set your sights too high — for example, building a database-backed e-commerce site with PHP — but go beyond the simple (say, creating a nested bullet list in HTML).
  2. Get a good book or online reference. Skim that book to reacquiant yourself with the terminology and concepts of the skill you’re reactivating.
  3. If the book or online reference includes tutorials, work through those tutorials. Also, think about coming up with some variations of the tutorial material.
  4. Work through each of your goals.
  5. If possible, have a colleague or a friend critique your work and give you some advice or pointers.

That’s what works for me. Those steps might not work for you, or you might not use all of them. Be creative and don’t be afraid to try something different.

Some caveats

Don’t try to try to reactivate too many skills at once. Chances are that you’ll only partially reactive all (or more likely some), and not the level that you want or need.

Give yourself a reasonable amount of time. You won’t be able to reactivate a skill in a day or two. You’ll need a few weeks — especially if you can only devote an hour or so to reactivation each day.

Expect some frustration. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking I used to be able to do this so easily. Just remember that you’ll be able to again. Exercise the virtue (and necessity) of patience.

Don’t expect perfection. Or even getting back to your former level of proficiency. You might be able to, but you’ll probably need a little more live practice.

Thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment.

Photo credit: Pix by Marti from Photoxpress

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