The secret to learning all skills and habits

It often comes surprising to me how many people find the way I cook astounding.

The other day, when I was in the midst of cooking dinner in the community kitchen of my apartment, a young mom came up to me and just started observing. She told me how she’d been cooking for years, but it was always under the guidance of a recipe found online or in a cookbook, unlike the spontaneous, seemingly reckless way of cooking I did.

She asked:

“How is it that you can cook like that without recipes? How do you figure out what to put in? What if things go wrong and it tastes terrible?”

My answer was simple.

“You just try it. If it tastes terrible, you’ll know not to make the same mistake again and eventually, you’ll learn to cook without a recipe.”

Unlike most people, I didn’t pick up cooking because it was fun or because it was something I was interested in learning. I picked it up because my parents would work late nights, and knowing that they were busy, I learned to cook on my own. It was first out of necessity that I learned, and then afterwards improved because it was useful in impressing girls.

I never had recipes to follow from — not like it mattered because I wouldn’t have had the money to buy ingredients anyways. I didn’t have any books, or a teacher to coach me, to guide me. Instead, I learned by experimenting. I would mix the oddest ingredients in the most senseless way possible and see if it was edible. Spoonfuls of garlic and chocolate, salt and grapefruit, vinegar and milk, whatever was available in the kitchen, I used to try and make something out of it.

From when I first started learning how to cook to where I am now, it’s taken an awfully long time, over a decade. It hasn’t always been easy. Most of my early cooking was horrendous, and cringeworthy just to think about. A dash of this and a pinch of that, most of my experiments resulted in smoking failure. It wasn’t until years later that I was finally able to miraculously start creating dishes that would actually be edible. It still looked like slop from a prison cell, but at the very least tasted decent and a lot better than expected.

I’ve spent a part of my life coaching people, giving consultation and advice and one of the most common questions I’ve gotten over the years has always been: How do I become X? or How do I do Y? Often times, it’s entrepreneurship related, sometimes it’s about wanting to pursue a career as a designer and once in a while has to do with cooking or traveling. The answer I give to all of those topics is more or less always the same: stop asking advice, stop reading about it in theory and just start doing it.

Many of us, when trying to pursue a new skill or building upon an existing one, rely too heavily on advice, books or just theoretical knowledge in general. We do it because we don’t like the uncertainty of not knowing what to do next, to learn next. We don’t like the feeling of being lost, of not having a guideline to follow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to read other people’s past experiences and mistakes and learn from them in the form of advice or books — it’s just that beyond the basics, we won’t truly improve unless we rely on ourselves to do so.

If all we do is ask for advice and read, we’ll never succeed on our own because we’ll only have gotten as far as what we’ve read. We’ll never grow on our own and will be only limited to perhaps only knowledge that has already been outdated at the time of reading. If all we do is follow in the footsteps of the authors before us, we’ll have metaphorically chained ourselves up to the tree of wisdom. We’re safe because we’ll be chained to the tree, but forever limited in our freedom to explore the world and see things with a different perspective.

To truly learn, to truly be confident in your skills, it’s important to see beyond just what you’ve learned in theory but apply what you’ve learned through practical means and push the very limits of your understanding. Knowledge is easy to gain, but harder to apply and the hardest is gaining knowledge yourself through the very application of the knowledge you’ve obtained before.

“My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and he let me watch him do it.” — Clarence B. Kelland

About the author

Jon Lee

I travel the world in search of lessons worth sharing. Addicted to culture shock and transparency. Currently working on heeyy and duuck.

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