learn to do anything in 20 hours
10,000 hours has been drilled into our heads as the benchmark for learning. What if we could sacrifice expertise for proficiency while saving...9,980 hours?
Do you remember the Telephone Game from elementary school? One person would whisper something into someone else’s ear, that person would whisper it to the next person, and so forth. By the time it got to the sixth person in the line, “Thundercats is the best show ever!” turned into “How many hats are owned by Heather?” You get the idea.
The same thing happened on a much larger scale back in 2008, after the journalist, Malcolm Gladwell released his bestseller “Outliers.” Even if you’ve never read the book, you’re probably familiar with its core tenet: “It takes 10,000 hours to learn a new skill.”
That’s a long time. Four hours a day, for a decade more or less. If that’s what it takes to learn underwater basket weaving, we’re in trouble. But, that’s not what Gladwell was trying to say. His research corroborated that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. And not just any expert — he was referring to what was necessary to become a top performer in a very narrow, very competitive field, like being a first-chair cellist, or an Olympic sprinter. But by the time most of us became familiar with the concept, the meaning got distorted, because of course, it doesn’t take 10,000 hours to learn something.
It makes sense if you apply a little logic to it. We’ve all learned how to multiply numbers and drive a car, and while the vast majority of us aren’t Stephen Hawking or Michael Schumacher, we’re capable enough to balance a checkbook or get from Point A to Point B.
So, that leaves us with the real question: how long does it take to just… learn a new skill? To become, for all intents and purposes, reasonably good at something?
Turns out, the answer is… a lot less than 10,000.
Author-slash-entrepreneur Josh Kaufman pioneered this idea. He and his wife had just had a daughter, and he was worried that he would no longer have the room in his life for his favorite pastime of Learning New Things. Self-proclaimed nerd that he is however, he researched, and was eventually able to stick some labels onto the (literal) learning curve. His deduction? It actually takes about 20 hours to walk away with a new skill.
And see? That sounds way more manageable. No need to spend a substantial chunk of your life learning how to nail an origami swan. If you really apply yourself, that span turns into about 45 minutes a day, for a month. You won’t become a master by any means, but if you’re just looking to get solidly decent at [insert thing you’ve always wanted to try here], that’s about what it’ll take. And that’s not so bad.
There are some rules to follow, of course. Nothing damning; they’re actually pretty easy.
1. The first thing to do is to deconstruct the skill. Very few disciplines are entirely self-contained; rather, they exist as collections of smaller skills that come together for a unique purpose. For example, drawing a curved line properly is one micro-skill, while getting a knack for the basics of perspective is another, shading is another, etc. Mix them together, along with a half dozen other skills, and sketching a bowl of fruit is easy.
2. Kaufman points out some pretty counter-intuitive behavior: wanting to buy 20 books on a subject, absorbing them, and then, starting to actually practice what you’ve learned. But this is nothing more than a form of procrastination. So, instead, learn just enough to self-correct. If you’re trying to perfect a hollandaise sauce or something, learn just enough about acidity and heat so you actually have the vocabulary to say, “that doesn’t taste right — let me try this instead.” Then, Google it, act accordingly and adjust as you go. Make mistakes, learn from them, and employ the science of trial, error, and repetition.
3. Removing distractions, of course, is a big part of this. In the age of Netflix, it’s just so tempting to combine ‘you-time’ with something in the background. Catching up on an episode of House of Cards seems harmless enough, but resist the urge. Dedicating an hour of a day to learning something entirely new means making every second count, and focusing exclusively on that thing. Turn off the TV; put your phone in another room; hold off on the music (you’re not even experienced enough at this point to know whether some light Bach will aid in your acquisition of... French prepositions).
4. Finally, practice for 20 hours. It sounds redundant, but you’ve got to commit to following through all the way, whether or not you like how it starts off. The reason is that there’s a “frustration barrier” that has to be knocked down — a wall that anyone who’s ever started with a musical instrument will know all about. If you’re trying to pick up the guitar, your fingertips will start to feel sore on day one, and your inexperienced joints will have to strain to make a B sharp. You’ll sound horrible for a while, but one day, the aggregate of your efforts will start to make sense, to congeal, and who knows? “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain” will be your new campfire serenade.
If there’s an overarching theme to this whole idea, it’s one that’s worth tackling, even if you’re not picking up German, or drawing faces, or photography, or needlepoint, or crochet, or the oboe, or whatever: ditching the ego.
We’re afraid of failing, or more concisely, looking stupid while doing something. The modern age has compounded this propensity somewhat — there’s nothing that’s more spiritually crushing than spending a few quality hours in front of the piano, and getting your Chopsticks on point, only to stroke your own ego by watching someone else do the same thing on YouTube, only much, much better. It’s a reminder that you suck at this, and that this mountain is a lot taller than you thought it was going to be.
It’s a barrier to advancement in pretty much anything, but it’s an emotional barrier; one established by and for the individual, knowingly or not. Seldom is this wall a matter of intellect, or even talent — the first is already there, and the second just needs to be honed.
Since he came up with this cool idea, we thought it would be appropriate to give Josh Kaufman some props. His No. 1-selling book, The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business, is available on Amazon, and is a great starting point for those who are business-minded, but who know zilch about how business actually works. Or, follow him on Twitter.
Austin Holt is a writer, editor, and photographer based out of Atlanta, Georgia. He digs traveling and tends to be a little too eager to show off the extra pages he's had installed in his passport. He is presently overdue to have his yellow fever vaccination updated.