The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast
Published May 27, 2014
By Josh Kaufman
Breaking through the first 20 hours to learn a skill is the key to rapid skill acquisition

Pros:

  • Makes the case you don’t need to become world expert in a skill but be simply good enough
  • Introduces a 4 step approach to rapid skill acquisition along with checklist of 10 principles
  • Discusses also 10 key principles for effective learning

Cons:

  • Needs more clarity on how to integrate all the info provided
  • Better mapping between his process and his use cases needed
  • Would have liked more specifics on some of the key steps

10K hours to be world-class in a skill or 20 hours to be good enough

 

You often hear that it takes 10,000 hours to be world-class in a skill. But through rapid skill acquisition, Josh Kaufman claims that learning a skill to the point of being good enough can be done in about 20 hours. Just imagine what you could do with the extra time.

Sure, being in the top 5% in the world would be awesome. And there is a claim that you could do this in 6 months or less. But even with this shorter time, it’s going to take dedicated, intense practice with painful feedback (aka deliberate practice) to be the best.

Kaufman’s point is not every skill is worth that kind of dedication. Commit to acquiring a skill for 20 hours and then decide if this is truly what you want to do. After all, there’s nothing to stop you from investing another 9,980 hours.

Kaufman hypothesizes the main obstacle to skill acquisition is in the beginning. Called the frustration barrier, this is when you know you suck at the skill and you’re aware of it. You’re at the base of the mountain and now realizing how difficult that journey to the top is.

He argues that this barrier is transient and the key is getting through. Once you get passed that initial hump of ignorance, your skill levels accelerate from not knowing anything to performing reasonably well. It just takes about 20 hours of concentrated, intelligent, focused practice not 10,000 hours.

As to the book, Chapter 1 provides an overview of what rapid skill acquisition (RSA)  is and is not.  While useful, I won’t be touching that in this review since the focus is on applying the “new” approach. Chapter 2 describes the 10 principles of rapid skill acquisition while Chapter 3 covers effective learning principles. As chapters 2 and 3 represent the core of his framework, I focus on them as they provide the most value. The rest of the book are use cases showing how he learned 6 skills (yoga, programming, touch typing, go, ukulele, and windsurfing) in under 30 days averaging 60-90 min a day.

4 steps to rapid skill acquisition (RSA)

To learn any new skill as quickly as possible, rapid skill acquisition has 4 major steps:

1) Deconstruct a skill into the smallest possible subskills.

Most skills consist of smaller subskills.  By breaking them down into smaller components, you gain two benefits. First, acquiring the skill is easier since you tackle one subskill at a time. Second, not all subskills are equally important. So focus on the ones that provide the greatest benefit. This is equivalent to the Pareto 80/20 principle which states that 80% of the results comes from 20% of the inputs.  The actual numbers vary but the point is some subskills impact a skill greater than others so focus on those first.

2) Learn enough about each subskill to practice intelligently and self-correct during feedback.

There is always more to learn about a skill than the time you have available. So, don’t spend your time going through entire books or courses. Prioritize by studying the relevant learning material to start practicing your skill. Then address the gaps found through feedback.

3) Remove all barriers that can interfere with your ability to practice.

This is simple – no practice no progress.

4) Practice the most important subskills for at least 20 hours.

This uses what you found in the deconstruction step.  The 20 hours is simply based on Kaufman’s personal experience so it can be shorter or longer for some.  The point is to invest enough time to get past the initial frustration barrier.

Approach your skill with the above 4 in mind and Kaufman states you should go from zero to competent fast. For the most part, I agree with the above but was hoping for more detail and some of this is covered in the next section.

10 principles of rapid skill acquisition: use these to guide your efforts

Along with the 4 steps, Kaufman provides a list of 10 principles when acquiring any new skill:

1) Choose a lovable project.

You learn things faster when you are excited about it.

  • Makes sense but irritating and not essential. This implies that his process may not work if you don’t love it. I’m sure that’s not what he meant. And if he’s saying you should first try his system on a skill you’re interested in to work out the kinks in the process, then that’s fine. But every skill will have its own challenges whether you love it or not.

2) Focus your energy on one skill at a time.

Every skill requires a certain amount of time and focused attention. Do too many and you dilute your effort. You waste time switching between skills, making slower progress, and then getting more frustrated.

  • Sounds reasonable at first, but what happens if your skill depends on others that you don’t have? Kaufman really doesn’t address that. He sounds like you should just stop and learn the prerequisites before you start your skill but this is not clear.
  • Also, research offers a different view stating interleaving skills is better for learning.  Rather than just focus on one subject, interleaving involves switching among different subskills within a skill or mixing different skills during practice.  The challenge is interleaving doesn’t feel as effective as focusing on one skill at a time but the research shows strong evidence it leads to not only improved recognition of the differences among the skills but a clearer grasp of each individually.
  • If you’re going to interleave, don’t mix skills that don’t complement each other otherwise it will take longer than 20 hours to become competent.

3) Define your target performance level.

Understanding what is “good enough” for your needs. Setting a more relaxed target allows you to acquire the skill more rapidly.

  • This was insightful. You don’t need to be the best but simply be better than the “competition” to get ahead. Sure being in the top 5% is great, but is that the minimum to get what you want to accomplish? For most the answer is no.

4) Deconstruct the skill into subskills.

Most skills consist of subskills. By breaking it down, you identify which ones are the most important and focus on those first, making more progress with less effort.

  • This is an excellent point. Not all subskills are equally important. You can maximize your effectiveness by focusing on the critical few. Unfortunately, Kaufman doesn’t really go into the step by step of how to do that. That’s a challenge since for most newbies they don’t know where to begin or what’s involved in a skill. So deconstruction isn’t easy.

5) Obtain critical tools.

Make sure you obtain all the tools, resources, and environment that you need to practice

  • Since you only have 20 hours don’t waste time looking for things.

6) Eliminate barriers to practice.

Related to above, make sure that all the resources that you need to practice are available and remove any emotional blocks or environmental distractions

  • I would combine 5 and 6. Not having the tools is a barrier to practice. Also, recommend having what you need readily accessible. If your stuff is more than 20 seconds away from where you practice, that’s all that it takes for you to get distracted and not start.

7) Make dedicated time for practice.

Kaufman recommends precommitting to at least 20 hours of practice. His rationale is the early parts of skill acquisition feel harder than they really are. By precommitting, you increase your odds of getting through this frustration barrier.

  • I agree with this and actually wrote an article on the importance of scheduling. If you don’t commit to a time, you don’t get things done.

8) Create fast feedback loops.

This is getting accurate information about how well you’re doing as quickly as possible. The longer it takes for you to course-correct the longer it will take to improve your skill.

  • This is the key difference between rapid skill acquisition and drills. Drills focus on repetition to the point the skill becomes autonomous. The problem is your skill level is fixed. Rapid skill acquisition is about advancing your skill level. You can only do that by pushing the boundaries and self-correcting with feedback.

9) Practice by the clock in short bursts.

Kaufman recommends using a timer and insists on practicing until it goes off. Also, recommends 3-5 practice sessions a day.

  • Related to principle 7, you need to spend time to practice. Based on research by Ericsson, this means don’t do marathon practice sessions. Experts often spend at most 4 hours of intense practice before calling it a day.

10) Emphasize quantity and speed.

Kaufman suggests in the beginning focus on practicing as much as you can and not worry about quality.

  • This advice was a bit confusing in view of principle 8 on feedback. His point was in the beginning quantity and speed trump absolute quality. So my guess is don’t be a perfectionist early on but accept that you’re a work in progress. Note what you’re doing wrong but don’t dwell on it excessively until you have the basics down.

10 principles to effective learning to enhance your rapid skill acquisition

Effective learning makes your practice more efficient by allowing you to spend more time on the important subskills. Kaufman cites 10 guiding principles to do this:

 

1) Research the skill and related topics.

He recommends spending 20 minutes on the web, bookstore, etc., to find at least 3 good learning materials for your skill. The goal is to learn what are the most important subskills, critical components, and required tools for practice. Do not do deep reading but focus on skimming. Find what are the recurring ideas and tools that come up. This will guide you to what’s important.

  • I agree with the above but also recommend spending time looking at neutral to negative book reviews of popular sources. The reviewers often cite deficiencies in the material and often make suggestions on what else to read.
  • I also recommend looking at Youtube videos as for some skills they are simply too hard to follow from just reading text.  You can learn a lot just by watching someone implement the skill.

2) Jump in over your head.

Kaufman acknowledges that early research can be confusing but this is good. Since what you don’t understand is what you should focus on. He states if you’re not confused by at least half your early research, then you’re not learning as quickly.

  • I don’t fully agree with this view. You should be challenged but not overwhelmed. Psychologists state the most effective learning occurs in the Goldilocks zone- not too hard but not too easy. (After some time, if you are still feeling overwhelmed by the research material, then maybe this isn’t the skill for you or you need to beef up your background knowledge).

3) Identify mental models and mental hooks.

While researching, look for patterns and recurring techniques. These form the basis for creating mental models of how things work. Mental hooks in the form of analogies and metaphors are also useful in remembering new concepts or understanding how they operate.

  • A key difference between experts and newbies is their mental model. Experts don’t always remember all the facts but group them into meaningful relationships that allows them to know where and when to use the knowledge. Newbies tend to use brute force memorization of facts without understanding the connections.

4) Imagine the opposite of what you want.

Called inversion, this approach is a counterintuitive way to gain insight into a new skill by studying the opposite of what you want. This helps identify critical points by highlighting what steps if they go wrong have the greatest impact. If you can recover, then it’s not that important. If you can’t, then it’s a must have.

  • Inversion is useful but can be tricky for newbies since it isn’t always clear what the dependencies are. Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile exercise. You may not find all the important steps but this should point you in the right direction of identifying some.

5) Talk to practitioners to set expectations.

The focus here is to help dispel any myths or misconceptions before you invest more time and energy. Also, this can provide you with base information on the rate of progress you can expect.

  • A nice to have but this can also be tricky since everyone’s prior knowledge can bias their advice. I would use this information to get a rough estimate of what the investment cost looks like and then see if that is inline with what you’re willing to spend.

 

6) Eliminate distractions in your environment.

Kaufman states distractions are the number one enemy of rapid skill acquisition and they come in two forms: electronic and biological. The former include TV, phones, and the Internet. Unless they are necessary for practice, he bans them. The biological distractions include family, friends, and pets. While you can’t turn them off, he recommends letting them know in advance that you don’t want to be disturbed.

  • I agree especially with the biological disruptions. I’ve had to put up signs and schedules letting folks that short of an emergency, please don’t interrupt me. While I disliked doing that, I hated getting interrupted even more.

7) Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization.

Your memory isn’t perfect and decays as soon as you learn material. Spaced repetition and reinforcement is a learning technique that allows you to systematically review important concepts and facts on a regular basis. He recommends flash card systems like Anki, SuperMemo, and Smartr where you write down what you want to recall and periodically test yourself on them. Kaufman also mentions that if fast recall isn’t important for the skill then spend the time maximizing practice and experimentation.

  • Psychologists state that spaced repetition is important for learning. But I agree with Kaufman that unless your skill requires fast recall, I find that with enough practice you will start to remember things naturally.

8) Create scaffolds and checklists.

Many skills require some routine such as setting up, preparing, doing things in a particular order, etc. Checklists make sure you don’t forget anything. Scaffolds are routines to ensure that you practice your skill the same way. Both of these are to make your practice sessions efficient by making sure you don’t miss anything and perform consistently.

  • I’m a big fan of checklists and scaffolds. When you’re pressed for time, they help you to focus on what needs to get done and makes sure that you didn’t miss the essentials.

9) Make and test predictions.

Part of practicing a skill is to experiment with what works and doesn’t.

  • While I agree in part, unless you’re struggling with the recommended approaches, in the early stages of learning a skill, just focus on getting the basics solid. Experimentation works when you want to improve your skill to the next level.

 

10) Honor your biology.

Based on Schwartz’s book, Kaufman states the optimal learning cycle is roughly 90 minutes of focused concentration before you need a break. But he also says if you can’t last that long, then divide it into smaller sessions of practice (e.g, 20 min) with breaks (10 min) and repeat 3 times.

  • 90 minutes maybe optimal but at the end of the day it’s about finding the time to practice. Ericsson states that 4 hours is the maximum that elite performers can handle deliberate practice. The point is to avoid marathon practice sessions and make sure the workout has breaks.

 

What was informative

Kaufman does a great job of explaining what you can achieve with rapid skill acquisition and introducing the key components for getting started. What I found particularly insightful were the following:

 

Define your target performance level.

Too much has been made about the importance of being world-class in a skill. The fact is most of us will never need or be that. We just have to be good enough or better than the local competition to get what we need done. That can be achieved by rapid skill acquisition in a reasonably short time.

 

Talking to practitioners to learn if you’re ready.

While Kaufman says to talk to experts to set expectations, this is vague. A more effective use is to ask them to do a gap analysis on you. Given what you know now, do you have the necessary prerequisites to get started or do you need to spend time picking up other subskills first?

Research enough to self-correct for practice.

At the end of the day, it’s about becoming proficient in a skill. No one can do that by simply reading or watching. You can fall into the trap of feeling like you need to read everything first. Like Kaufman, I find skimming materials in the beginning is more effective just to figure out patterns and the essentials.

If you “over-research”, you can waste time learning things that aren’t immediately relevant to your skill use. Better to apply what you learned quickly so you figure out if it applies or not.

 

Skill deconstruction helps if you can do it.

In theory, breaking down a skill into subskills sounds great. But there are 2 issues. First, you can’t do that with some skills, especially ones that require several simultaneous steps or steps that depend on interactions. Second, you generally need an expert to do the breakdown for you since you don’t know how things are connected.

 

Create fast feedback loops.

Related to above, the goal isn’t perfection but progress. My advice is more specific than Kaufman’s: when you first start, address big errors first before starting to nitpick about the details as you make more progress.

Have a scheduled and interruption free practice session.

An obvious point but you need to be proactive. You have limited time. You will be distracted and you will be interrupted. After you schedule your practice, know how to deal with disruptions in advance so you can quickly resume where you left off.

Don’t do marathon practice sessions.

The point is not about doing 30 or 90 min sessions but respecting your biology by alternating between practice and rest. Not only does this help you maintain your practice schedule, it’s been found to improve your learning retention.

What was not

The book starts off strong but falters in the execution. The ideas presented are hopeful but start to get confusing as you wonder how they do they all fit. For example, you get the 4 steps of rapid skill acquisition, followed by the 10 principles, and then another 10 principles of effective learning.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t explicitly tie in the 10 rapid skill acquisition principles with the 4 steps. Or how you integrate in the learning principles.

Most critically, the bulk of the book is on his experiences learning 6 new skills. If he showed how he applied his system, then that would have addressed a lot of issues. But his “Reviewing the Method” sections are weak. He simply summarizes the steps that he did but doesn’t always map his specific actions to the steps or principles outlined.

So aside from curiosity about how learned 6 very different skills, you can skip most of those chapters.

Takeaways

Overall, the book still has a solid set of ingredients and a starting outline of how to start your rapid skill acquisition project. It’s not the definitive how-to on skill acquisition but it takes you a considerable way along the journey.

In brief, the major takeaways are:

  • You don’t need to be world-class in a skill to make a difference.
  • Skill improvement is all about practice so don’t over-research.
  • Learn enough to self-correct and then start applying what you learned. (For those who argue on the importance of theory, you don’t need to know how a car works to drive it. Theory becomes more important when you want to become an expert.)
  • Commit to some amount of time whether it’s 20 hours or 60 days and create a spaced schedule of practice. The point is to invest a base amount of time to developing your skill.
  • Improvement only happens by responding to feedback not just repetition.

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