Interview with author of "The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast" (plus excerpt)

Josh Kaufman is the author of the new book, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast. I interviewed him about the art of rapid skill acquisition.

Do you find yourself staying interested in most of the things you start? If not, what has held your interest for many years?

I'm curious about many – often wildly different – things, so I like to explore new projects and skills as often as I can. I usually find something valuable enough in my early exploration to keep at it: I've been doing research on general business principles for over eight years now. My early interest in the web lead to my first career out of school, as well as my current work as an author / researcher / entrepreneur, which requires me to be a jack-of-all-trades. I just learned how to program in Ruby, so I'm coding quite a bit. I love the process of making something from nothing, and learning as I build.

In terms of hobbies, music is a long-standing interest. At one point, I was in every music group my small high school offered. When I went to college, I put music aside, and I'm just getting back to it. I recently learned how to play the ukulele, and I'm enjoying doing things like using a piezo pickup and amp modeling software to make it sound like an electric guitar. Fun times.

My primary challenges are available time and energy. Now that I'm running a business in addition to taking care of my family (my wife and I have a two year old daughter, plus a new baby on the way), I don't have a ton of leisure time, so I try to focus my business on making new things that are helpful to other people, and my personal projects on things that I can work on in small chunks of spare time.

Can you give some general tips or rules for learning a new skill quickly?
Rapid skill acquisition, as a process, is quite simple: Decide what you want, then break complex skills down into smaller sub-skills. Do a bit of research to identify the sub-skills you’ll use most often, then practice those first. Remove unnecessary barriers to practice by changing your environment to make it easy to avoid distractions. Pre-commit to completing at least 20 hours of practice to push through early frustrations and avoid giving up before you see results.

Then, sit down and practice. No practice, no skill acquisition.

I've used this method to learn everything from motor skills (yoga, touch typing, windsurfing, ukulele) to cognitive skills (playing Go, programming). The practice techniques are often different, but the core method is the same.

The 20-hour precommitment, in my experience, is key. The first few hours of practice are always frustrating. Deciding to invest a certain amount of time before you begin makes it much easier to persist long enough to see improvement.

What do you plan to learn next, and why?

I just wrapped up learning cinematography to shoot a trailer for the book, which was fun, and saved me at least $(removed),000 vs. hiring professionals. Now that I have my own gear and know how to use it, I'm planning a new business project that involves video.

I've always wanted to learn shorthand, so I'm exploring a system called Yublin. The process will look a lot like learning a new language: memorizing the most common words first, and focusing on translating common ideas from English to Yublin, and vice versa.

The nice thing about the method I teach in The First 20 Hours is that you can layer it. If you want to improve beyond the level of skill you acquire in your first 20 hours of practice, you can use the same method to put in another 20, and improve even more.

I'm still playing the ukulele in the evenings, and I recently picked up a Boomerang III phase looper so I can play complex songs by myself. I have a few new programming projects in the works to simplify my business operations. Now that it's windsurfing season again, I'm working on hydroplaning and rigging a larger sail.

There's never a lack of new things to learn. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Excerpt from The First 20 Hours, by Josh Kaufman

Do you feel like you’d need 36 or 48 hours in a day to finally sit down and learn a useful or interesting new skill?

There’s an old cliché: “work smarter, not harder.” As it turns out, the process of skill acquisition is not really about raw the raw hours you put in… it’s what you put *into* those hours.

Damn You, Malcolm Gladwell

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book titled Outliers: The Story of Success. In it, he set about trying to explain what makes certain people more successful than others.

One of the ideas Gladwell mentions over and over again is what he calls the “10,000 hour rule.” Based on research conducted by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, expert-level performance takes, on average, 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve.

10,000 hours equals eight hours of deliberate practice every day for approximately three and a half years, with no breaks, no weekends, and no vacations. Assuming a standard 260 working days a year with no distractions, that’s a full-time job for almost five years, assuming you spend 100% of that time exerting 100% of your energy and effort.

In practice, this level of focused attention is extremely taxing: even world-class performers in an ultra-competitive field (like violin performance) can only muster the energy for approximately three and a half hours of deliberate practice every day. That means it can take a decade or more to develop a skill to mastery.

In essence, if you want to master a new skill, Dr. Ericsson’s research indicates you’re in for a very long haul. Being the best in the world at anything, even for a little while, requires years of relentless practice. If you’re not willing to put in the time and effort, you’ll be overshadowed by those who do.

As if learning a new skill wasn’t hard enough. Not only do you have to make time for practice… now you have to put in 10,000 hours? Most of us count ourselves lucky if we can set aside a few hours a week.

Why bother at all if it takes so long to be good?

Look Upon My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!

Before you give up all hope, consider this.

There’s an element of Dr. Ericsson’s research that’s very easy to overlook: it’s a study of expert-level performance. If you’re looking to become the next Tiger Woods, you’ll probably need to spend at least 10,000 hours deliberately and systematically practicing every aspect of golf. Almost every single professional golfer began playing at a very young age, and has been practicing non-stop for at least seven years. Developing world-class mastery takes time.

On the other hand, what if winning the US Open isn’t your goal? What if you just want to be good enough at golf that you’re able to play decently, not embarrass yourself, have a good time, and maybe have a fighting chance to win your local country club tournament?

That’s another matter entirely.

World-class mastery may take 10,000 hours of focused effort, but developing the capacity to perform well enough for your own purposes usually requires far less of an investment.

That’s not to discount the value of what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice”: intentionally and systematically practicing in order to improve a skill.

Deliberate practice is the heart of skill acquisition. The question is *how much* deliberate practice is required to reach your goal.

Usually, it’s much less than you think.

Quality, Not Quantity

Embracing the idea of sufficiency is the key to rapid skill acquisition. In this book, we’re going to discuss developing capacity, not world-class mastery. We’re going to tackle the steep part of the learning curve and ascend it as quickly as possible.

Leave the 10,000 hours to the pros. We’re going to start with 20 hours of concentrated, intelligent, focused effort.

We’re shooting for the results we value with 0.2% of the effort. You may never win a gold medal, but you’ll reap the rewards you care about in far less time.

What is Rapid Skill Acquisition?

Rapid skill acquisition is a process: a way of breaking down the skill you’re trying to acquire into the smallest possible parts, identifying which of those parts are most important, then deliberately practicing those elements first. It’s as simple as that.

Rapid skill acquisition has four major steps:

  1. Deconstructing the skill into the smallest possible sub-skills;
  2. Learning enough about each sub-skill to be able to practice intelligently and self-correct during practice;
  3. Removing physical, mental, and emotional barriers that get in the way of practice;
  4. Practicing the most important sub-skills for at least 20 hours.

That’s it. Rapid skill acquisition is not rocket science. You simply decide what to practice, figure out the best way to practice, make time to practice, then practice until you reach your target level of performance.

There’s no magic to it: just smart, strategic effort invested in something you care about. With a little preparation, you’ll acquire new skills rapidly, with less effort.

The goal of this book is to help you acquire new skills in hours, days, or weeks instead of years. In my experience, it takes around 20 hours of deliberate practice to achieve substantial results.

The amount of time it’ll take you to acquire a new skill is largely a matter of (1) how much concentrated time you’re willing to invest in deliberate practice and smart experimentation and (2) how good you need to become to perform at the level you desire.

The only time you can choose to practice is today.

Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month or next year. Today.

When you wake up in the morning, you have a choice. You can choose to invest your time acquiring skills that will make your life more successful, enjoyable, and rewarding… or you can squander your time doing something else.

What will you do today?

The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast