The Path to Learning Anything – 7 Phases to the Threshold

Once I discovered this framework, everything changed.

Since then, I never approach a new skill without making absolutely sure that I’ve identified what the Threshold looks like and where I am relative to it. My one goal from then on is to make it to the Threshold. Only then can I rest.

If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else. ~Lawrence J. Peter

Two weeks ago we introduced the concept of the Threshold in the learning curve which, when crossed, yields disproportionate results (There were some great comments in response to that post).

Last week, we talked about the Web of Connected Skills which turns out to be the one and only way for you not to start in phase 1 and shorten your time to the Threshold.

Today, we unveil the 7 phases to the Threshold.

The Path to Learning Anything – 7 Phases

7-Phases-to-TDR-700

Phase 1: Everything is new and foreign.

phase-1

This would be your first introduction to the activity.

What this would feel like for guitar: You don’t know how to hold the guitar, how to make a single note. You have no idea why a guitar makes sounds. You don’t know what a fret is, let alone a chord. If someone were to hand you a guitar, you would feel awkward.

Phase 2: The basics start to make sense.

phase-2

In this phase, you’ve answered most of your questions from phase 1, but the vast majority of what you know is theory. The little you do know how to do is exciting, but still feels unnatural and taxing.

For guitar: Now you know a guitar has to be in tune or it won’t sound nice, you get that you need to use multiple fingers to make a chord. You know how to pinch a string and play a note. You know how you are supposed to position your hands, you’ve even been introduced to your first chords. Everything you are doing still feels very unnatural to you

Phase 3: You’re starting to get an intuitive, physical feel for the activity.

phase-3-b

Certain techniques are starting to work without you having to think about them. Your body surprises you by doing things without having to tell it to. You’re having fun and you’re getting excited. I want more!

For guitar: What seemed impossible is starting to feel more natural. Your hands magically remember what position they should be in to play a specific chord. In fact, you can play more than one chord now. You’re learning your first song. On good days, when you play a couple of chords, it sounds good. It’s super exciting. Everything is so new to you.

Phase 4: Everything is hard, you have trouble seeing beyond your current level.

phase-4

This one is tough. This is where the weaker batch start to quit (“I didn’t sign up for this…”). The learning process isn’t linear, remember? This is the first real plateau. If there is pain associated with your skill, it can be acute in this phase. You’ve been pushing your mind and body through the first 3 phases, and now it’s asking you to slow down. You made it past the basics, so you moved on to tougher concepts and you can feel it. It’s not that bad – if you were expecting it.

Keep pushing, the rewards are closer than ever before.

If I quit now, I will soon be back to where I started. And when I started I was desperately wishing to be where I am now.” unattributed

For guitar: This is a painful phase. You know the theory and you’re starting to get a feel for the basics, but playing a whole song in tempo is beyond your reach. You feel like things should work, but they don’t. Your hands get tired, your mind overloads, and you keep stumbling. You have blisters on your fingers from the strings, and you feel like nothing sounds any good. It almost feels like you’ve gone back a step.

Phase 5: You get short bursts of bliss.

phase-5

Oh my, I did it! You’re finally making it out of the tunnel that is phase 4. You felt “flow” for the first time. The surfer rode an entire wave down the line. The singer had an out of body experience listening to himself sing a song that actually sounded like one. The juggler watched the balls keep going when they should’ve been on the ground by now.

This is the glimmer of hope you were waiting for. The reward you get for pushing forward when times were tough. You’re back in the game!

For guitar: You are poking your head through an imaginary line where playing the guitar is much more fun than you could have imagined. During the previous phases, the slow progression, the frustration, and the pain, made you forget the reason you started in the first place. Now you are feeling excited again. You see the potential. You are close. You are still making mistakes, but you can play a song from beginning to end. If you think about it, you don’t even remember what phase 1 and 2 felt like. You are running after these bursts of bliss. You want more.

Phase 6: You have now crossed that imaginary line, but lack consistency. 

phase-6

You’re now moving past the Threshold very regularly and it feels amazing. You’re not quite there yet. You still experience many ”bad” days, but you can tell you are incredibly close. You’re proud of how far you’ve made it and your friends are impressed already. You could easily think that you’ve made it.

This is a huge danger zone. Too many amateur learners slow down here and rest on their laurels instead of doubling down to Cross the Threshold once and for all. Pushing through phase 6 is what gives you the skill for life. Consistency is key for longevity.

For guitar: More often than not, you can play a whole song and it’ll sound great. You’ve been learning new chords and trying out new songs. It’s so much easier to learn a new song than it was to learn that first one.

You are still stumbling on some of the more difficult elements of a song, but you feel as though it’s only a matter of time and practice now. You are almost there.

Phase 7: You have Crossed the Threshold. Oh WOW.

phase-7-b

This is it. There is an ease that wasn’t before. You can jump in and out of your activity and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. Things just work. You can experience without having to overthink. You see ways in which you can continue to grow that you weren’t aware of beforehand. Crossing the Threshold doesn’t mean that you aren’t challenged, far from it. The difference is that you can choose whether you’d like to challenge yourself or play around in a state of flow.

You’ve now earned this skill for life. It would take a few week at most to get back to your current level even if you stopped for years. Congratulations.

For guitar: You couldn’t have imagined you would feel this way. What you couldn’t even see a couple of phases back, or thought you would never achieve is not only easy now, but you barely need to think about it at all. It comes naturally. Since you are more relaxed and don’t have to obsess about technique, you can concentrate on the flow, and the emotions you are channeling through your music. You have entered a new world. You keep thinking: “So this is how it feels to play the guitar”.  A mountain of possibilities has just opened up to you. The world is yours to conquer.  You are experiencing disproportionate results. Oh wow.


Next week, I’ll address one of the following:

  • What happens in Phase 8 and above?
  • Why talent doesn’t come into play until after the Threshold.
  • Where everyone gets stuck, and why.

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