Dear People of the Black Hills,

I’m no expert, and smarter people than I have written on the subject. But I have some small understanding of skill building that I want to share with you.

Building skills is something we do from our first intentional movement tied to a cognitive process. Probably. Maybe there’s some skill involved in staying in the proper birthing position in the womb, and some kids get it wrong. But for our purposes, let’s say it starts after birth.

Whether it’s a toddler learning to walk, a child in school, or an adult at work, there are plenty of skills to master in life. As it applies to self defense, building skill intentionally is important.

Deep Practice

We should develop a new skill with intention, rather than the compulsion of a habit. Instead of reacting to an impulse with no critical control, and slopping through it, we should be responding to specific stimuli in a specific way, and governing each repetition with a critical eye.

“Deep practice feels a bit like exploring a dark and unfamiliar room. You start slowly, you bump into furniture, stop, think, and start again. Slowly, and a little painfully, you explore the space over and over, attending to errors, extending your reach into the room a bit farther each time, building a mental map until you can move through it quickly and intuitively.”
– Daniel Coyle,┬áThe Talent Code

The goal is to reach a level of competence that allows you to stop thinking about executing the skill – letting it be automatic – and focusing your mind on other things that are more important at the moment.

For example, let’s say a car in front of you suddenly slows, or there’s a surprise obstacle in the road. You may not be consciously aware of moving your foot from the gas pedal to the brake, but you do it. At the same time your consciousness might be focused on deciding whether you need to swerve the vehicle to the side or take some other action. Meanwhile you quickly checked your rearview mirror without thinking about it to see what’s coming up behind you that might require action.

Unconscious Competence

We daily experience a blend of actions (skills execution) and decision making. What allows us to focus on the decisions rather than the skills is unconscious competence.

Unconscious competence is when you’re able to execute a skill without consciously focusing on it. This is the culmination of a skill-building progression sometimes called the “four stages of learning,” where the first three levels are “unconscious incompetence,” “conscious incompetence,” and “conscious competence.”

It’s mostly academic at this point. The important part for you to recognize is what it really takes to climb that ladder. And that is this: more commitment than most people are willing to invest. Most of us practice skills in our vocation that easily reach this level after a time. That’s easy to understand because in that context we have a lot of incentive to get good at things that get us other things we want.

For skills in personal defense, though, commitment isn’t quite as easy. Many settle for “good enough.” But that’s not really good enough if we’re trying to reach the that goal of unconscious competence.

And why would I do that? Why would I strive to reach a level of unconscious competence in skills that could save my life or that of another person? I mean, other than maximizing my chances or surviving a deadly-force encounter?

Because the skills aren’t as important as the decisions you make during the event. And if you want to be able to focus on the decision-making, then you can’t be consciously focused on executing the skills. Not only that, but if you just want to be able to practice making good self-defense decisions, you can’t be consciously practicing the fundamentals at the same time.

If I can’t quickly recognize a threat, what good are my self-defense skills? If I can’t quickly assess the nature of the threat (deadly or not?), what good are my firearms skills? If I’m trying to make such decision in the moment, am I going to be able to consciously focus on being quick, effective, and safe with my movement and weapons-handling?

So what are you practicing?

What It Takes

You may be aware of the idea of “10,000 hours to mastery,” or similar concepts. I suppose it’s ok for general understanding of the magnitude of skill building, but that’s a little overwhelming and unhelpfully vague.

How about 20 minutes per day? That sounds a little more reasonable. For at least 12 weeks? Manageable. Anyone can find 20 minutes a day if they actually try. TV and FB aren’t making you any better.

So you can only find 10 minutes a day? Fine, it’ll just take you longer to “get there.” The real hard part is staying there, because the kind of skills we’re talking about are perishable.

Get started. Keep going.