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Summary of The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman

Synopsis

The First 20 Hours is a book about rapid skill acquisition: how to pick up new skills as quickly as humanly possible. You can go from knowing nothing to performing noticeably well in a very short period: approximately 20 hours, often less.

About Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is an independent business teacher, education activist, and author. Josh’s TEDx talk on The First 20 Hours is one of the top 25 most-viewed TED talks published to date, with over 22 million views on YouTube. Josh’s website, joshkaufman.net, was named one of the “Top 100 Websites for Entrepreneurs” by Forbes in 2013.

Use Rapid Skill Acquisition to Learn Within 20 Hours

“Skill is the result of deliberate, consistent practice, and in early-stage practice, quantity and speed trump absolute quality. The faster and more often you practice, the more rapidly you’ll acquire the skill.”

– Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman starts by highlighting it is likely you have a skill you have always wanted to learn. For instance, maybe it’s competently playing the piano, doing well on the tennis court, or becoming conversational in French. Crucially, it is never too late to learn your chosen skill. One of the most common regrets is wishing one had pursued a skill earlier. Subsequently, humans will often quickly give up before even becoming familiar with the basics because they believe it’s too late. This is where we can use rapid skill acquisition to kickstart our experience. Through using this technique, you can become competent in various desirable skills by putting in 20 hours of work. These 20 hours will allow you to become acquainted with the basics, but skill mastery will require more than these initial 20 hours of investment.

The first few hours of learning something new are always the hardest, and this is where most people give up. However, if you break your initial 20 hours down into an hour of practice per day, you will rapidly improve. You will then find it considerably easier to continue building your skillset after you’ve completed the first 20 hours. Once you get through the first 20 hours, you’ll have a significant amount of practice under your belt, and further practice won’t be as difficult. Making the most of these initial 20 hours relies on adopting the ten principles of rapid skill acquisition.

Ten Principles of Rapid Skill Acquisition

  1. Choose a lovable project.
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time.
  3. Define your target performance level.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into subskills.
  5. Obtain critical tools.
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice.
  7. Make dedicated time for practice.
  8. Create fast feedback loops.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts.
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed.

Learn Your Chosen Skill By Focusing Your Energy

“The trouble comes when we confuse learning with skill acquisition. If you want to acquire a new skill, you must practice it in context. Learning enhances practice, but it doesn’t replace it. If performance matters, learning alone is never enough.”

– Josh Kaufman

 

There are probably many skills you’d like to acquire. Still, an essential first step of rapid skill acquisition is choosing to focus on one. Start by making a list of all the skills you’re interested in, and pick the one most exciting to you right now. This excitement will help you stay motivated through your practice. The author followed this exact prescription when attempting to choose a new skill to pursue. Though windsurfing was on his list, it had been years since he had been in the sea. He had previously been a water-sports instructor at Boy Scout’s camp. He had an innate passion for aquatic activities since he was a child. He quickly got excited about the prospect of being back on the sea to windsurf, bringing him back to something he missed. Though it’s tempting to try and dive into several skills at once, the second principle of rapid skill acquisition states you should focus all your energy on a single skill at a time. For instance, the author may have been tempted to combine learning to windsurf with learning Spanish and playing the ukulele. This is not the best idea, however. You must use your time wisely when trying to learn something new since you may only have about an hour a day to dedicate to it. Don’t try to learn multiple new concepts at once because you’ll progress slowly, which is not motivating at all. Did you know you can achieve a magical “flow” state by spending more time focusing?

Josh Kaufman explains that you should practice in 20-minute bursts so that you can focus all your energy on your chosen learning task. On top of this, these bursts should be characterized by deliberate and consistent practices. Hence, quantity and speed are more important than the quality of your learning. The faster and more often you practice, the more rapidly you’ll acquire the skill. To elaborate on these points, Josh Kaufman offers ten major principles to adopt for effective learning.

Ten Major Principles of Effective Learning

  1. Research the skill and related topics.
  2. Jump in over your head.
  3. Identify mental models and mental hooks.
  4. Imagine the opposite of what you want.
  5. Talk to practitioners to set expectations.
  6. Eliminate distractions in your environment.
  7. Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization.
  8. Create scaffolds and checklists.
  9. Make and test predictions.
  10. Honor your biology.

Choose Your Skill Level 

Deciding how talented you want to become at your chosen skill is the third principle in rapid skill acquisition. This is called your target performance level. It’s important because if you can envision the end goal, it’ll be easier to get there. Decide what level of skill is “good enough” for you. For example, if you’re learning to play an instrument, consider whether you want to play a few songs by heart or you want to jump into a jam session. 

Kaufman offers an example from his own life to explain the importance of choosing your skill level within a specific skill domain. He was attempting to learn to play the ukulele and identified a specific goal of playing at a conference that his friend was organizing. He had been asked to lead a talk about rapid skill acquisition. Kaufman thought this would be an impressive demonstration of the concept and how much progress he had made through using rapid skill acquisition in a brief ten days. As Kaufman had identified his specific skill level and a clear goal, he effectively focused his energy and advanced his ukulele skills. 

Utilize Smaller Steps 

As well as choosing your skill level, you also have to utilize smaller steps. Break your chosen skills down into bite-sized pieces you can tackle one by one. You don’t attempt to down an entire meal in one bite, and you shouldn’t try to learn a skill in one swing. By dividing up the work ahead of you, progress will be easier, and the steps you need to take to succeed will be more clear cut. For example, when the author started to learn the ukulele, he first learned the instrument’s anatomy. He then moved on to learning how to tune it. Finally, he began to learn the chords for the song he intended to play at the conference. When the conference rolled around, he could flawlessly play the songs he had learned. 

Acquire the Tools You Need

As well as defining the specific skill level you want to pursue, Kaufman also suggests you need to identify the tools you need to succeed at your skill level. These tools are the fundamental building blocks of your skill. For example, for Kaufman’s ukulele pursuit, the first tool he required was a working ukulele. Though this is a simple step, it is essential to find what materials and environments you’ll need to succeed in learning a new skill. 

Again, Kaufman offers examples to readers to highlight the importance of his advice. When he was learning to windsurf, he knew he needed a board, a helmet, and a wetsuit. Once he instigated his windsurfing learning process, he discovered he needed to feel more comfortable standing on the board before using the sail. Hence, this meant he had to acquire a paddleboard and a paddle. In addition to identifying the required tools before starting your learning process, you must also stay focused throughout the learning process to ensure you acquire any newly relevant tools for your learning advancement. 

Limit Distractions

When learning a skill, there will always be barriers that interfere with your learning process. Therefore, consider any emotional roadblocks that may stand in your path, like fear or self-doubt, as well as distractions (like a ringing phone). After completing this process, try to eliminate any hindrances. For instance, Kaufman suggests creating a distraction-less learning environment. When the author began learning to windsurf, he was fearful about the potential danger associated with this skill. The risk of drowning and hypothermia were extreme fears for Kaufman, which created a mental barrier in his learning process. To surpass this hurdle, he familiarized himself with those dangers. Familiarizing himself with the potential dangers allowed him to obtain the knowledge required to respond appropriately in case of an emergency. He decided to never windsurf alone and bought a wetsuit suitable for low water temperatures. That way, he could overcome his fears while learning a new skill. He removed the roadblocks in his way, so he could rapidly learn this skill.

Give Yourself Time to Practice

“If you rely on finding time to do something, it will never be done. If you want to find time, you must make time.”

– Josh Kaufman

In today’s world, people are busier than ever. So, if you want to learn a new skill, you need to make time to practice. This is Kaufman’s seventh principle of rapid skill acquisition. Identify other activities in your life that you aren’t fond of, and work to cut those out to fill that time with practicing your new skill. Your goal is to free up 60-90 minutes a day to dedicate to practicing.  

Give Yourself Feedback

The eighth principle of rapid skill acquisition states that you must get feedback on your progress. For instance, perhaps you are trying to learn Chinese. You should find a way to get fast feedback on your progress, so you’ll know if you’ve put a step wrong. After receiving this feedback, you can choose to approach your skill acquisition differently. 

If you can, you should hire a coach to help guide you and give you feedback through the process. If you’re learning a new language, you can use a voice recorder to listen to yourself speaking. This will make it easier to hear mistakes in your own pronunciation or grammar. The author offers another example from his own life to highlight how he has used feedback. Kaufman received feedback when he was learning how to play the game Go. To do this, he downloaded a software called SmartGo, which gives the player feedback after every move. This software helped him identify his weak spots and made it simpler to progress. 

Prioritize Quantity and Speed By Practicing in Short Bursts

As previously mentioned, Kaufman recommends practicing in brief bursts. Shortening your working periods helps mitigate the risk of working on difficult or tedious activities for extended periods. This is crucial as prolonged challenging work can be draining and often leads to inefficiency. When you first start learning, the hours of practice seem to drag on longer and longer. People tend to think they’ve actually spent more time working at the beginning of learning something new simply by how arduous learning the task is at the beginning. Avoid this feeling from taking over by using a 20-minute time. The timer will let you know how long you’ve actually been practicing and, since you’ll know how long you’ve been working, you’ll be more motivated during that period. Your goal should be to do three to five of these 20-minute blocks of practice per day. If you do this, you’ll be shocked at how quickly you progress. 

As well as adopting short bursts, Kaufman also suggests you practice quickly and often and not focus on achieving perfection. It’s better to recognize that you’re likely a beginner, and you shouldn’t expect yourself to be an expert from the start. So, focus on practicing quickly and often. By prioritizing quantity and speed, you’re less likely to get frustrated and subsequently demotivated during the initial stages of practice. When the author was learning to windsurf, he was sure to follow this principle. He was far from perfect at the start. He fell into the water many times in the early stages of practice. He encountered setbacks like losing his glasses, swallowing water, and nearly sustaining a concussion from how many times he fell. If he had expected himself to be perfect from the start, the author might have quit when these setbacks got in his way. Instead, he focused on putting in as much practice as quickly as possible before the windsurfing season ended. Consequently, the author rapidly picked up a new skill that had seemed so daunting before starting. You can successfully learn a new skill quickly and efficiently when you keep the ten principles of rapid skill acquisition in mind. 


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