You can become pretty good at a new skill in just 20 hours by following Josh Kaufman’s advice.
Josh Kaufman is a busy man. He has three children, runs a business and is a writer on the side. Yet he wants to do more. He wants to acquire new skills and to learn them as quickly as possible.
There’s an enormous body of research on learning. There are millions of teachers in schools and universities, not to mention private teachers and coaches on every topic from driving to playing the violin. Despite this wealth of knowledge and experience, Kaufman was looking for something different: how to tackle a completely new skill and become competent as rapidly as possible, fitting it all into his busy life.
So Kaufman developed his own system, based on 10 principles of effective learning. Being a practical person, he drew on his experiences in developing the principles, and then tried out his approach. And he’s written a book about it: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast (Penguin, 2013).
Expert performance and rapid learning
There’s a growing body of research on expert performance, the sort of high-level competence that would make you a chess grandmaster, a piano virtuoso, or a famous scientist. The research suggests that achieving this level of performance usually requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. Furthermore, not just any sort of practice will do: it has to be what is called “deliberate practice,” during which you concentrate intensely on improving, typically by working on the most challenging tasks for your level of performance. A swimmer, for example, needs to be pushing most the time during training.
Kaufman respects those who seek this level of performance. His goal is something different: to become as good as possible in a short time. It is quite compatible with deliberate practice. Indeed, it could be seen as the beginning of a journey towards high-level performance.
Anders Ericsson, the most prominent researcher on expert performance, notes that in learning a new skill most people improve rapidly to start with, but then their performance level plateaus. For example, most people learning to drive improve steadily because they are putting themselves in ever more challenging situations. But as soon as they are reasonably competent, they stop pushing themselves: they are driving but not improving much. Race car drivers, on the other hand, need to keep challenging themselves to achieve much higher level skills.
Kaufman is interested in this early skill acquisition stage and how to make it really efficient. No messing about attending classes for him.
So how good can he get in just 20 hours? Kaufman’s 10 principles for rapidly acquiring skills seem plausible, but how to apply them is what counts. To illustrate this, he offers six case studies in which he personally set out to learn a new skill in just 20 hours. These case studies take up most of the book. They are fascinating and are powerful recommendations for Kaufman’s approach.
Typing: learning it fast
Kaufman was already a good typist. Using a standard online test, he could type 60 words per minute. But he felt he was moving his fingers too much and so wanted to learn to type using a different, more efficient keyboard.
The standard keyboard is called QWERTY, after the first six letters in the top row of keys. Nearly all keyboards are laid out this way, and nearly everyone who learns to type learns this system. So why would anyone want to change?
QWERTY was set up in the days of manual typewriters and designed so the moving keys wouldn’t get stuck. But in terms of finger movement it is not ideal. For example, a highly efficient key arrangement would have the most common letters, E and T, on the middle line of keys, so less finger motion is required.
Kaufman set himself a goal: in 20 hours, he would seek to learn to type using a different keyboard, up to the same speed as before, 60 words per minute. So how did he proceed?
If deliberate practice is the key to skill acquisition, then you might guess that Kaufman spent 20 hours practising using the new keyboard. This is only partly right. One of the key insights Kaufman provides is that it is vital to figure out the best way forward. Time spent doing this is at least as important as deliberate practice.
First he had to choose the alternative keyboard he wanted to learn. He investigated several options and chose Colemak, one that suited his circumstances. He figured out how to change his computer so that when he pressed keys, they gave Colemak rather than QWERTY outputs. He then purchased some key covers and set up his keyboard in the new configuration. Now he was ready to practise typing using Colemak.
Deliberate practice is the key
How to practise? Kaufman searched the web to find training programs, and compared the ones he found, choosing one that suited his purposes. Then it was time to begin. He used the program for an hour every day, practising in the evening to that his new skills would be better cemented into his mind through sleep.
After just 20 hours total — comprising choosing the keyboard, setting it up and practising using it — he achieved his goal of typing at 60 words per minute in Colemak. Along the way, though, he did a little experiment that is one of the best advertisements for deliberate practice I’ve seen.
While learning the new typing system, Kaufman couldn’t just drop all his regular correspondence. He still needed to type. So as soon as he was competent, even at a slow typing speed, he used Colemak. But doing his correspondence wasn’t deliberate practice, because he was concentrating on what he was writing, not on improving his typing speed.
I wonder: What if I drop the deliberate practice for a while and just continue typing e-mails and surfing the web? I’m two-thirds of the way to my target performance level of sixty WPM [words per minute] after only fourteen hours of deliberate practice. Can ambient practice carry me the rest of the way, without additional focused effort?
I decided to do an experiment: I’m going to suspend my deliberate practice for thirty days and set what happens. I’ll continue typing normally in Colemak, without switching back to QWERTY. With as much time as I spend on the computer, I should be able to get enough ambient practice to hit sixty WPM, right?
After thirty days, I retook the typing test. Want to guess my typing speed?
Forty WPM. Zero improvement.
Even though I was typing quite a bit, I wasn’t actively focused on improving my skills. Ambient practice wasn’t enough to improve.
If you want to improve a skill, you need deliberate practice, at least in the early stages of skill acquisition. Lesson learned. (pp. 151-152)
Kaufman describes his efforts at learning a variety of skills using his approach: yoga, computer programming, the game of go, and windsurfing. In some cases, it’s an advantage to be able to pay for good equipment, as in the case of windsurfing. Kaufman tells how he searches for information about the most suitable equipment for his purposes, yet at a moderate price. And he does this all within the 20 hours.
To my mind, his most impressive achievement was learning the ukulele. Musicians will tell you that the ukulele is one of the easier instruments to learn. In 20 hours you can only make a start on the violin or oboe. Although the ukulele is relatively easy, Kaufman set himself a performance target that most people would find impossibly daunting.
He was invited to give a talk at a conference to tell about his approach to rapid learning. It was just 10 days until the conference and he thought, “Why don’t I demonstrate my approach by learning the ukulele in 10 days and performing on it as part of my talk?” And so he did. He practised hard during those 10 days, but also, as usual, spent a good portion of the time ensuring that he adopted the most efficient approach to practice. The response to his talk, and the accompanying ukulele performance, exceeded his expectations.
What happens after 20 hours and a reasonable level of competency? Kaufman makes it clear that this depends. In some cases he wants to keep going: he continues to use Colemak for touch typing. In other cases he decides not to do any more. He became a decent beginner at the game of go, but decided not to continue playing the game. After all, if he learns too many skills, he’ll run out of time to deploy them, much less to continue to improve at them.
If you have a desire to learn any of the skills Kaufman took up, for example computer programming, the details he provides about how he learned will prove helpful. Even if you want to learn something quite different, the case studies are inspiring. They show how to approach a completely new area and make the task manageable. In the age of the Internet, this has become far easier than it would have been a few decades ago.
Implications for learning
Kaufman is a learning addict: he loves learning for learning’s sake, as well as for the satisfaction of using skills. Could his approach be applied to schools and universities? In many courses, students in a semester spend more than 20 hours attending classes — at least if they attend as they are expected to — and are supposed to devote many additional hours in study. Yet, based on Kaufman’s account, my impression is that few students learn as much in 100 hours as he does in 20.
There are several reasons for this. Kaufman’s first principle of rapid skill acquisition is “Choose a lovable project.” Many if not most students take courses primarily because they want a diploma or degree. They might enjoy some of the topics, but study is commonly seen as onerous, whereas Kaufman sees it as part of an intensely absorbing challenge.
Another factor is that Kaufman is in charge of his learning process. He chooses what to learn and how to learn it. Students seldom have this autonomy.
Kaufman pushes himself really hard. He designs his deliberate practice so it is maximally effective in achieving goals he has set himself. Most students are driven to study not by their own desires but by targets imposed externally, by their teachers. Kaufman set himself a goal of performing the ukulele before an audience. Students have a goal of passing an exam set by their teacher.
20 hours, but not so rapid
Kaufman wants to acquire skills rapidly. Is it possible to learn efficiently but not so rapidly? I decided to apply a variant of Kaufman’s approach. I acquired some juggling balls and the book Juggling for the Complete Klutz, and started to practise. But rather than doing it intensely, I decided to practise only five minutes per day. After a few months, I could juggle three balls with two hands or two balls with one hand without too much difficulty — in less than 20 hours of practice. I discovered that the key is practising every day, even for just a couple of minutes.
While learning, I demonstrated to myself the importance of concentration. If my thoughts wandered for even a second or two, I would inevitably drop the balls.
I’m not as brave as Kaufman: I’m not going to juggle in front of an audience, at least not yet!
Kaufman versus textbooks
A typical textbook tells about subject matter, whether philosophy or physics. What it doesn’t tell is how to go about learning in a really efficient fashion. Educational researchers know a lot about learning, but this is seldom translated into practical guides for high-speed learning. So it takes someone like Kaufman, not a professional educator, to provide an original, inspirational guide. If you really want to learn, enjoy it and get better quickly, then spend a few hours learning from Kaufman’s example.
But there is no substitute for practice, a point that Kaufman reiterates.
If you want to acquire a new skill, you have to practice. There is no other way.
You can prepare. You can research. You can eliminate distractions and alter your environment to make it easier to practice. You can find intelligent ways to make your practice more effective or efficient. But, in the end, you must practice.
What feels like the long way is the shortest way. Zero-practice shortcuts don’t exist. No practice, no skill acquisition. It’s as simple as that.
Why don’t we practice? Simple: we’re busy and we’re scared. …
The major barrier to rapid skill acquisition is not physical or intellectual: it’s emotional. Doing something new is always uncomfortable at first, and it’s easy to waste a ton of time and energy thinking about practicing instead of practicing. …
One final thought: the only time you can choose to practice is today.
Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month or next year. Today. (pp. 257-258)