A week ago, a friend of mine took me skateboarding for the first time. I was convinced (as was he) that I would hate it, but it turned out to be a really fun time! During the hour and a half I spent learning the basics of how to balance and push on the board, I realized that what I was really enjoying was the feeling of learning, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with. This realization was accompanied by the thought that there is a division of hobbies in my mind: those with discrete progressions, and those with continuous progression. Recently, I’ve been primarily engaged in the latter, but this skating excursion made me realize that I would do well to practice balance between the two.

Discrete vs Continuous Progressions

In my mind, the difference between these two categories is in where the effort of progression lies. For continuous progression skills, it’s very easy to get started, but harder to get good. For discrete progressions, it’s harder to start, but mastery comes easily after.

As an example, I’ll compare two of my hobbies as of late: weightlifting and juggling. To progress in weightlifting, there are two main steps: learn how to execute the lift properly, then progressively add weight to the lift. I would argue that by far, the harder part of this progression is adding more weight over time. Saying you’ve “mastered” a lift can take years, depending on what your benchmark is.

However, with juggling, the opposite is true. It’s significantly harder to learn how to do the skill, but once you have it, it becomes easier and easier to execute it more fluidly. For example, with a five-ball cascade, it took me months to get to the point where I could “juggle” the pattern–meaning 10 catches–but after that point, it was relatively easy to continue on to 100 catches. The hardest step was learning to execute the skill properly, whereas mastery can come shortly afterwards.

The other element of discrete skills is a fundamental difference in steps of progression. In executing a squat with good form, there should be no real difference in lifting the bar or 315 pounds. However, there is a clear dividing line between being able to juggle a five ball cascade and not. A counter example I considered was bouldering, where the grades are definitely discretized, and climbing a V5 feels like a clear advancement over climbing a V4. But I would still call this a continuous skill, because there is not a fundamental difference between the skills or strength needed to execute these climbs.

While my definition of the line between these two types of skills is definitely shakey, there are lots of skills I can think of that fall into one of these two buckets. I’ve tried to categorize some of the ones I dabble in below:

Skills with discrete progression:

  • Juggling
  • Skateboarding
  • Calisthenics
  • Bike maintainance
  • Coding

Skills with continuous progression:

  • Weightlifting
  • Running
  • Bouldering/Climbing
  • Writing
  • Language Learning

Why does this matter?

It doesn’t, really. I just think it’s an interesting way to think about skills and mastery. I do think it would be good to make sure you’re involved with both–learning can be complicated, and having outlets in your life that give you both a sense of continuous improvement and the feeling of learning new skills is probably a good way to maintain balance.