Break Past The Frustration Barrier: Tips For Learning A New Creative Skill

A year and a half ago I decided to change careers and become a graphic designer. I was dissatisfied with my first “real” job after college and knew I would find more satisfaction through design. Instead of enrolling in a degree-seeking program, I taught myself the basics through online courses, personal projects, and trial-and-error.

The “self-taught designer” route has been incredibly rewarding, but it has not come without its frustrations and challenges. Especially when it comes to learning complex programs like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. These three programs are industry-standard and a designers bread and butter. They are also intricate and take many hours of practice to master.

One and a half years of practice has made me an Adobe Illustrator and Indesign master. But Photoshop remained my great white whale. It lurked in the distance and terrified me with its immense power and multiple layer capabilities. In the back of my mind, I knew that mastering Photoshop was necessary to make me a better designer.

I pulled up my big-girl panties and challenged myself to play around with Photoshop during the month of November. It’s November 9 and I have spent about 20+ hours within the program. I’m not yet a Photoshop wizard, but I do feel much more comfortable playing around with some of the more complex features. Through this experiment, I’ve realized that the first 20 hours of learning something new are often the most frustrating. You don’t get any of the fuzzy feelings or sense of fulfillment that come from other activities. You feel defeated. You wonder if it is possible to break the “undo” ctrl+z button.

So how do you get through the first 20 hours of frustration and despair that come with learning a new skill? Here are my tips:

Choose to work on a project you love. You’re probably not going to commit to learning a new skill if you don’t feel a gravitational pull toward the project, problem, or subject. My desire to learn Photoshop came from an intrinsic motivation to be the best designer I can be. Figure out your “why" and let it drive you.

"The best thing that can happen to a human being is to find a problem, to fall in love with that problem, and to live trying to solve that problem, unless another problem even more lovable appears.” —Karl Popper

Define your goals. I knew I wanted to use Photoshop for graphic design, which means I’m less interested in using it to edit family photos. This means I don’t have to waste my energy learning intricate photo editing skills, so I focused on the skills I needed to master to use Photoshop as a designer.

Break the skill into smaller sub-skills. With Photoshop, I broke it down into (1) Selection tool, (2) Vector masks, (3) Pattern stamp and patch tools, (4) Experimenting with text, (6) What the hell is going on with layers?, and (5) Combining skills to make a digital collage.

Use online tutorials to guide you through the process the first several times. I would still be pretty lost in Photoshop if it weren’t for the free YouTube tutorials that walked me through basic commands. After about 10 hours using tutorials, I moved on to experiment on my own.

Practice consistently. Try to practice several days in a row so that your brain gets used to learning the new skill. Concepts will connect quicker if you’re not trying to refresh after a month break.

That being said, don’t overdo it. Commit to practicing for at least an hour several days a week, but don’t try to practice for 5+ hours in one day. I often find that 90-minute practice sessions are perfect.

Push through the most frustrating moments. This one is hard. The trick is to keep moving. When you feel stuck and nothing you try seems to be working, start trying to learn a different sub-skill. Return to the problem area the next day.

"Achievement seems to be connected with action. Succesful men and women keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don't quit.” —Conrad Hilton

Recognize your strength as a beginner. Beginners have a knack for doing things unconventionally since they don’t know all the “rules” yet. This sounds obtuse until you actually start doing it. But I can say I’m definitely doing some unconventional things in Photoshop because I don’t know how else to get the effect I want!

Don’t expect overnight results. Do expect substantial progress at 20+ hours.

“Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something.” —Jake the Dog, Adventure Time

Break Past The Frustration Barrier: Tips For Learning A New Creative Skill

Challenge yourself to do it for 100 Days. Let quantity over quality be your mantra as you learn a new skill. Once you’ve mastered the skill, you can put your focus more on quality.

All of this advice is coming from a millennial. We have a reputation for being a generation plagued by the need for instant gratification.

If I can do it, so can you.

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Break Past The Frustration Barrier: Tips For Learning a New Creative Skill