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Learn anything in 20 Hours! Book summary

In summary, if you wish to rapidly acquire a new skill, “The First 20 Hours”, by Josh Kaufman may be your first port of call.  Let’s review.


You may have comes across the rule that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at a new skill as determined by Malcolm Gladwell.  This equates to working full time, for five years solely focused on that activity.  That might be OK for hard core competitive but for mere mortals like ourselves we would normally be satisfied with a reasonable degree of competence.  If you find yourself in the latter category, then “The first 20 Hours”, by Josh Kaufman is for you.  The intention of this book is certainly not to master any skill, but simply how to use the initial time you spend on it to maximum effect to have a steep a learning curve as possible.  For people with little time available, this is a tempting proposition and one that follows a simple systematic procedure,

  1. Deconstructing a skill into the smallest possible sub-skills
  2. Learning enough about each su-bskill
  3. Remove physical, mental, and emotional barriers
  4. Practicing the most important sub-skills for at least twenty hours

Broadly speaking the book is divided into three major areas,

  • Ten major principles of rapid skill acquisition
  • Ten major principles of effective learning
  • Does the approach work? Some examples of Josh putting it into practice.

Let’s review each of these topics in turn.

Ten major principles of rapid skill acquisition

  1. Choose a lovable project. The thinking behind this was the more passionate you are about a topic the quicker you will learn it.
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time. This is a prerequisite to ensure the chosen skill gets sufficient time and energy.
  3. Define your target performance level. This will set the bar as far as achievement is concerned.  The lower the desired competence level, the faster it will be to achieve it.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into sub-skills. The trick here is to spend your limited time on the sub-skills with most payback and avoid those elements of the skill deemed non-critical.
  5. Obtain critical tools. What good is a craftsman without his tools!
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice. This sets the tone for your 20 hours.  You need focused time with no distractions.  So, switch off the telly!
  7. Make dedicated time for practice. Josh suggests to determine low value ways you spend your time and replace that time with learning your new skill.  This can be best done by keeping a log of how you spend your time.  An element of devotion is also required so you stick at the skill for the full 20 hours.
  8. Create fast feedback loops. This is an interesting point.  The faster the feedback loop the quicker a skill can be learned.  Two examples are cited.  Computer programming provides almost immediate feedback as to whether the program runs successfully.  If it does not, you can go back, make changes and rerun.  This enables quick progression to be made.  On the other side of the spectrum is cheese making.  This may take months or years to make a batch and only then will one know if the cheese is good.  Such skills consequently take much longer to learn due to the length of the feedback cycles.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts. Be disciplined.
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed. This is an extension of point 8 or to put it another way, ready shoot aim!  The idea is to avoid too much pondering and contemplation and to get stuck in.

Ten major principles of effective learning

In addition to the principles behind skill learning, Josh also outlines some general advice for learning in general.  Elements of this also set the scene for the rapid skill acquisition.  A summary of these points is shown below,

  1. Research the skill and related topics. Here one needs to identify the most important sub-skills.  The more you know about the skill at this stage the more intelligently you can prepare.  At this stage, the goal is to achieve a broader knowledge as opposed to deep knowledge on a small element f the new skill.
  2. Jump in over your head. Some interesting points were made here.  First that confusion about elements of the new skill is a good indicator as to the areas you need further research on.  Second, being confused is a sign of learning.  If there is always a feeling of clarity you are not learning as quickly as you are capable of.
  3. Identify mental models and mental hooks.
  4. Imagine the opposite of what you want. This is essentially preparing for the worst.
  5. Talk to practitioners to set expectations. This helps set the standard that you want to achieve in the short term.
  6. Eliminate distractions in your environment
  7. Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization. This is because one’s grey matter has a decay curve.  If you only look at something one time, the memory of it will fade quickly.  Repetition is needed to lock in the knowledge.
  8. Create scaffolds and checklists. This is for remembering the things you need to do each time you practice.  It helps make the learning process more efficient.
  9. Make and test predictions. This is some experimentation during the learning process to optimise it.  Observe how things are going, predict what could improve it and try it.
  10. Honor your biology. A brief reminder that we are not all robots and there are human limits.

Tony Schwartz, author of The Power of Full Engagement (2004) states that the optimal learning cycle is approximately ninety minutes of focusedconcentration.

Effectiveness of the Approach

Firstly the quasi-science bit.  Does it work?  According to the research cited in the book, yes.  Any new skill acquisition has a rapid improvement in the early stages as dictated by the “power law of practice”.  The principles outlined by Josh aim to utilise that curve to it’s full potential by putting the key elements and sub-skills into that early phase so a level of competence can be reached quickly.

Learning power law

So, how can this really be applied in practice.  Not only does Josh talk the talk, he walks the walk when it comes to these principles.  To put them to the test he chose 6 skills he was interested in learning,

  • Yoga
  • Programming
  • Touch typing with a Colemak keyboard layout
  • Playing Go
  • Windsurfing
  • …the last I forget. Ah yes, learning the ukulele.  George Formby was clearly a childhood inspiration.

He put 20 hours into each skill and reported what he had achieved at the end of it in a fairly measurable way.  A lot of the book is actually devoted to his experiences in these skills so be prepared to learn all the intricate details about those skills.  Did you know that the origins of Yoga go back to 3300BC? Or, that the first 5 moves in the Chinese game, Go, can result in 5.8 trillion possible sequences? So, if you want to pick up such interesting information then it may be worth the read even if you have no intention of learning those skills.

I pick but two of these skills to report what level of competence Josh had achieved, Yoga and Programming.

For Yoga, he learned the breathing techniques and a series of set poses that he can now do by heart.  He achieved his desired level of competence of doing this in only 3 hours, somewhat ahead f schedule.

For programming, he wanted to create a functioning web application.  He did not spend the precious hours stuck in text books but rather focused on basic elements of creating a program and then applied a build – test – fix approach to hone it to a working prototype.  He utilised the full 20 hours, ten of which were spent on research and the remaining 10 on the programming.  At the end, he had a couple of working software solutions.


The ideal scenario for Josh would be a Matrix style skill download.  It took but a couple of seconds of Neo writhing in a chair for him to pick up Kung fu. “The first 20 Hours”, will not get you to that point.  However, I can appreciate the simple systematic approach that the author is advocating.  Perhaps at the beginning of any new learning approach there is scope for a bit of forethought as to what elements are most critical to it and spending the initial time on those elements to get the highest payback in the initial learning phase.

In the end I like the book but the most useful content is probably contained in the first third to half of it.  The remainder focuses a lot on the intricate details of his chosen skills which may not be of interest to all.

Brendan Toner

Let me welcome you to this alcove of the internet. In this little productivity blog, I detail the trials and tribulations of trying to use my time more effectively utilising the latest productivity tools and techniques. I hope you enjoy the articles, cheers! Brendan Toner, author of Done Before Brekky

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2 Responses

  1. August 9, 2016

    […] If you wish to rapidly acquire a new skill, “The First 20 Hours”, by Josh Kaufman may be your first port of call. Let's review.  […]

  2. August 15, 2016

    […] Brendan Toner summarizes the key points of rapidly learning a new skill as described in “The First 20 Hours,” by Josh Kaufman. […]

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