How to Master Skills Like the Huns

The Hun Lifestyle by Dandoo

Pillaging not necessarily required.

Lead by Attila and his descendants the Huns were one of the most successful civilizations of their time militarily, finding victory even over the Roman Empire and building an empire that stretched from southern Russia and Iran all the way to what’s now France. Attila even gets referenced in the Volsunga Saga of Norse mythology.

The success of Attila and the Huns obviously can’t be boiled down to a single factor, but the one that gets referenced the most is definitely the skill of their horsemen.

Like the Mongols centuries later, the popular legend is that the Huns learned to ride horses before they even learned to walk. They were claimed to live almost their whole lives in the saddle, and as a result they became some of the most expert horsemen that the world has ever seen.

While nowadays you probably don’t need to master your horsemanship, we can apply this same principle to get exceedingly good at any other skill you want to master.

Born in the Saddle

A lot of the credit for the impressive horsemanship of the Huns is given to the fact that they were introduced to horseback riding at an extremely young age and then it became a daily thing for essentially the rest of their lives.

Now I know since you’re reading this the ‘from a young age’ ship may have long since sailed. That’s no problem – we can still use the same kind of technique to achieve similar results.

The 10,000 hours theory put out by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers (which I think, by this point, just about everyone has either read or heard of) suggests that someone needs 10,000 hours of focused or directed practice to become world class at a skill. The actual research supporting that theory has been put into question a bit, but as a rough guideline it’s probably a practical estimate.

10,000 hours if you’re practicing something most of the day is going to be about 832 days – about two years and 3 months or so – since even if you’re doing it all day you still have to sleep. In terms of becoming world class at something two years or so is actually pretty quick. There are two catches though.

The first is that we don’t really care about being world class. The difference between being in the top 10% (better than 90% of the population) and in the top 1% (better than 99% of the population) is relatively small in skill, but enormous in the amount of work required to get from one to the other. This disparity is a result of the severely diminishing returns on your efforts once you get beyond average skill levels.

As an example getting good enough at guitar that you’re better than most people, good enough to put out a professional album for example or play small concerts, is going to be much closer in skill level to someone who’s a legend (say Jimi Hendrix for example) than an absolute beginner. Even so, it would require substantially more effort, and possibly a measure of luck, to get from expert to legendary than it took you to get from beginner to expert.

So why bother? I have broad interests and would much rather be better than 90% of people at a wide range of things than better than 99% at a single thing. Each takes roughly the same amount of effort.

The second catch is that Gladwell says we need 10,000 hours of intentional practice. That’s practice with a clear goal, with focus to it. Unless you have resources that rival Bruce Wayne’s you probably can’t devote entire days to intentional practice – you’ll be doing this more like the Huns and going about your daily business, just doing it while on your horse so to speak. If non-intentional practice counted as much as intentional practice everyone who commutes to work everyday would drive as well as professional race drivers.

This isn’t really such a problem though since we’re not really interested in hitting Gladwell’s world class goalpost. Our goal is to just get really good at something and, while intentional practice will play a part, you’re not going to need 10,000 hours of it.

So how do we actually go about doing it?

Putting it Into Practice

Now most things, unlike horseback riding, are not things you could conceivably do as you go about your business all day. (To be fair, you couldn’t ride around and do all your errands on horseback anymore either) So we’re going to use a couple different strategies to try to achieve the same general effect. The first involves making use of your downtime.

Filling the Gaps

I’ve talked about ways to make use of downtime in language learning in the past, and all of those strategies apply here as well.

The first is going to be filling your day with as much passive learning or practice as possible. For things that are more learning focused this means always being surrounded by the information you’re trying to absorb, but in the background. For language learning that would mean leaving the TV on to shows in your target language or listening to music or conversations in your target language while you go about your day.

For skills, which are by nature more active, passive learning is going to involve running through the skill in your head while you do other things. If you’re working on your Wing Chun for example you can run through your forms and techniques in your head while doing the dishes or whatever else needs to be done. You can passively practice in your head what you can’t necessarily actively practice physically at the time.

You also have the hundreds of little downtime periods every day that you can fill with active practice. Think of all the times you have a minute or two to wait, for the elevator, the bus, a file to download, etc.

All these times add up, so why waste them checking Facebook or screwing around on your phone?

Instead use them to get a little bit of practice in. These are the times to get more active practice in if you can – flashcards on Memrise for example, or running through a few martial arts techniques in the air – though if you need to passive practice works too (Busting out your gong fu moves at the bus stop may get more attention than you’re looking for).

The idea is just to squeeze as much practice time as possible out of these countless lost fragments of your day in order to compress them into something useful.

Greasing the Groove

Greasing the groove is a concept borrowed from Pavel Tsatouline’s Naked Warrior. Boiled down to its essentials, Pavel treats strength as a skill and seeks to improve it by small, relatively easy practice sessions spread out over the course of a full day.

For example, if you can only do a single pull up and want to be able to do ten, rather than doing a more standard workout of 5 sets of 1 pull up three times a week, you would set a timer and go do a single pull up every hour all day long.

This creates a simulated version of our ‘practice all day’ Hun method by making you practice all day just dispersed rather than constantly.

There are two sub-divisions of this method – the standard timer method and the cue method.

The timer method works just like what Pavel recommends. You set a timer on your watch, phone or whatever and every time it goes off you stop what you’re doing and do a short session of whatever it is you’re trying to become skilled at. If you’re learning a language that might be 5 to 10 minutes of conversation practice, writing or reading. If you’re learning martial arts that might be 5 minutes of shadow boxing. It really can be whatever, just keep it short and to the point.

The second method, the cue method, uses physical cues to replace the timer. You set up things in your environment that trigger a quick practice session of whatever it is you’re learning. When I was in high school and was first getting involved in parkour I hung a pull up bar in our stairwell and then tacked a piece of string across my door at waist height.

Every time I came up or down the stairs I’d do as many pull ups or chin ups as I could at that moment. Every time I entered my room I rolled under the string and every time I exited it I jumped over it (provided I wasn’t carrying a drink or something).

Since I was going in and out of my room a lot, that added up to lots and lots of pull ups, rolls and jumps everyday. Even more so compounded over weeks and months.

If you’re pursuing something more learning focused you can use notecards or sticky notes to learn things all day long. If you’re learning a language you can plaster everything with vocab and sentences so you’re surrounded by little cues to review those words, sentences or grammar.

These two aren’t equally exclusive either, so feel free to mix them together.

You may not have learned your skill of choice before you could walk like Attila and his horseback riding, but that doesn’t have to stop you from getting just as good at your skill of choice. Just try not to lead an army in conquest of most of the known world, ok?

While you still can’t neglect some intentional practice time, by remembering to practice passively as often as possible, fill in all those downtime gaps and use the grease the groove strategies you can easily become an expert in something in a relatively short time period.

Have you used these strategies in the past? What did you think of them? Is there anything you would add to make them better or more effective? Let us now in the comments!

Photo Credit: Dandoo

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com