How to Learn a New Skill in 20 Hours (vs. 10,000)
What would it feel like to pursue your intellectual and creative curiosity to learn everything you can? What if you could swoosh past the excuses of “I don’t have time?” What if you could prove others wrong when they say “It takes a lot of time to learn XYZ!”
How much more interesting, fulfilling and fun would life be? A lot, in my experience. In fact, the ability to learn things quickly is the ultimate meta-skill that separates you from others. No, this is not merely a quote I read on the Internet.
I’m telling you this from experience because I’ve been a lifelong learner.
- I used to suck at Math, but challenged myself to good at it, and I did, within a span of months — to a point where it became fun. (For math haters out there, you don’t know how it feels to conquer the subject!)
- I play almost 10 different instruments including the tabla, drums, keyboard, harmonium, dholak, mridang, congo, bongo, clap box, and now a little flute as well (which I’ll come back to in a moment).
- I learned to code only through online courses and built products in a matter of weeks that were used by retail companies in their stores across the country.
- Here I am, trying my hand at writing for almost a year now. I’ve been a top writer on many different occasions and earned more than I ever imagined through writing.
And I have no plans to stop. In hindsight, all of this was possible only through the technique that I’m going to share with you right here. To be honest, I was not conscious of the fact that I was using this technique. But when I came across this, it made perfect sense.
You know how we tend to think it takes a lot of effort to get good at something new? Yeah, the feeling that causes you to give up before you even start.
But it’s worth questioning where this idea came from? Who said that it takes so long to get good at something?
A little research around the web reveals the answer.
Dr. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, along with other researchers, found that it takes around 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to reach the top of ultracompetitive, easily ranked performance fields, like professional golf, music performance, or chess. In those fields, the more time you’ve spent in deliberate practice, the better you perform compared to people who have practiced fewer hours.
The rule itself, as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, is valid. But it suffers from a marketing problem.
For brevity’s sake, the rule says “It takes 10,000 hours to become a world-class expert at something.” But Gladwell’s Outliers started, what Josh Kaufman calls in his TED talk a “society-wide game of telephone.”
Note: For those who don’t understand, the game of telephone is also called “Chinese whispers” (for reasons I’ll never know).
So the 10,000 rule went into one ear, and when it came out from the last person’s mouth it became — “It takes 10,000 hours to learn something.”
But we know from experience that it’s not true, right? It doesn’t take 10,000 hours to learn an instrument good enough to impress our friends or play a few songs on a trip.
And the fact of the matter is “good enough” is enough for most of us. We don’t want to become world-class performers at everything we do!
This false belief that it takes 10,000 hours to learn something causes us to hit the brakes on every curiosity we have. “Why bother when it takes 10,000 hours?”
The truth is that you learn the most during the initial stages of picking up a skill, after which gains in performance are only incremental. Going from nothing to beating your friends at chess is easier and quicker than going from beating your friends to beating Magnus Carlsen.
So the real question is how long does it take to be “reasonably good” when you start from nothing. Kaufman’s research says it takes 20 hours.
20 hours is a month of practicing 45 minutes every day. Or, 40–50 days of practicing half-hour every day. But, and here’s the kicker, you can’t just fiddle around like a headless chicken for 20 hours and expect to be good at something. There’s a system to it. And its power lies in its simplicity.
Step 1: Deconstruct the Skill
First, decide what exactly do you want to achieve at the end of 20 hours. To play a song on the guitar? To build a simple web app for taking orders at a coffee shop? To make dinner for Thanksgiving?
Be as specific as you can. As I’ve started learning the flute in the past week or so, my goal is to play a song and share a recording with my friends and family.
Then, deconstruct the skill into smaller pieces — because most skills are bundles of smaller skills. Your goal is to practice the most important ones first to get where you want to go.
For instance, coding required setting up your system, learning the basics of one language, build something on your machine, deploy it, optimize it for performance, and so on.
At the start, you don’t care about deployment and performance. You’ve to focus on getting set up as fast as possible and choosing a language that is simple yet useful.
In the case of the flute, I needed to learn how to hold it, the blowing techniques, finger movements, playing the notes, and finally playing the song. It took me 30 minutes of watching tutorials to break the skill into sub-skills.
Deconstructing the skill helps you improve your performance in the least amount of time by focusing only on what you need to.
Step 2: Learn Enough to Self-Correct
This step changed the way I see skill acquisition forever. The standard way to approach learning a skill is often like this: “I’ll buy all the best book/courses available, study all of them, and then apply.”
Uh-uh. This is not learning, it’s procrastination. The ideal way to approach it is to learn enough to start experimenting and go from there.
When I learned how to code I spent months watching tutorials, never building anything. One day suddenly, we closed a deal with a client. They wanted to try the software that we hadn’t even built!
I had no choice but to launch and iterate; to solve problems by searching for them. I didn’t have the time to go through courses or books. I did it myself.
Hands down, it was the fastest way to learn how to program. People are astonished when they find out I built those apps in a matter of days or weeks. It’s not that I’m intelligent, I know the right way to learn.
While learning the flute, I've been conscious of this fact. I chose to buy a course which helped me play a song by the 4th or 5th lesson. I wasted no time watching videos. Instead, I watched a little and started playing with it to see what sounds I can produce.
Step 3: Remove Distractions
TV, music, messages, emails, procrastination masked in the form of “learning”, etc are all distractions.
The only way to learn a skill in the shortest amount of time is to increase your intensity. To continue the story, when I was tasked with building an app for the client, I couldn’t afford to watch a movie while I did it. I had to be laser-focused.
Similarly, with the flute, I ensure that even if I practice for 10 minutes, I put all my energy into it. Quality of practice beats quantity any day.
Step 4: Practice for 20 Hours
Commit to practicing for at least 20 hours before you give up your new dream. By pre-committing to putting in 20 hours, you’ll overcome the initial frustration of sucking at the skill which makes us feel stupid and unwilling to practice.
That’s it. Stick with the practice long enough to reap rewards.
Think about what learning a new skill can do for your personal and professional life. Learning to code changed the entire course of my life. Without it, I was a helpless kid with dreams of getting into entrepreneurship. On the other hand, learning the flute is just for fun, I admit!
Whatever the case, learning new things makes us happier and feel alive. It keeps us young and hungry with a zeal for life.
Kaufman has tested this strategy on a wide variety of skills in several contexts: fine and gross motor movements, cognitive processing, personal hobbies, and professional skills. In each instance, he noticed the most dramatic improvements during the first 20 hours of practice.
It works for others. And it will work for you.
Now then, it’s time you pick up something you’ve been putting off fearing it’ll take a long time. It won’t, now that you know what you’re doing.