The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman – Review & Summary

June 2013

in Bookshelf, Notes, Self-mastery

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The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman is a book about rapid skill acquisition: the art and practice of obtaining new skills as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The core idea is that, with a bit of strategy, you can learn just about any skills to a sufficient level with around 20 hours (and often less) of concentrated, focused effort.

Who cares about becoming a world-class expert in one thing? Learning a dozen different skills to a satisfying level is where it’s at!

The first three chapters lay out the key ideas in the book, such as the difference between learning and practicing. The two key “lists” are The Ten Principles of Rapid Skill Acquisition and The Ten Principles of Effective Learning.

These chapters are motivating. Josh gets you pumped up about learning new skills and really sells how easy it can be if you’re just a little bit strategic about it.

He also lays out an extremely simple and easy-to-use method of ensuring your skill acquisition endeavors are as effective as possible.

The next six chapters are “example” chapters where Josh runs through six different skills he taught himself in under 20 hours—yoga, programming, touch typing, Go, ukelele, and windsurfing—using the principles and ideas outlined at the beginning of the book.

These chapters are useful for illustrating exactly what using his framework can look like. I ended up skimming through most of them—and Josh encourages readers to do so—since I either didn’t find the skill particularly interesting or because I didn’t feel I was getting much from the explanations and anecdotes.

The key ideas of the book are extremely easy to get your head around, and hardly need a slew of examples to illustrate. The example chapters, I think, are mainly useful as motivation to go out and learn the skills you want to learn. You would find them very useful if you prefer having concrete examples of using his framework and checklists.

Overall, I’m completely on-board with Josh’s sell of efficient and effective rapid skill acquisition. I think the book could have been a third the length and I’d still have got most of what I need out of it, but that’s partly because I don’t get as much value out of long detailed examples as some other people seem to. If nothing else, the book succeeds in further motivating me to be strategic about my life and learn lots of cool skills. 

Key Ideas

  • Skill acquisition, as with many things, can be done poorly or well.
  • Many skills can be learned to a sufficient level with 20 hours of focused, strategic effort.
  • If you’re unwilling to invest at least 20 hours into a skill, choose a different one!
  • Quality of skill practice is much more important than quantity.
  • The most essentials thing for learning any skill is to become deeply curious about it.
  • This entire book will be completely useless if you don’t actually go out there and use the ideas.
  • Do not depend on willpower to get yourself to practice; be strategic about it, e.g., by eliminating distractions.
  • To learn a skill:
    1. Deconstruct it into the smallest possible subskills.
    2. Learn enough about each subskill to be able to practice effectively and self-correct.
    3. Remove any physical, mental, or emotional barriers that get in the way of practice.
    4. Practice the most important subskills for at least 20 hours.
  • Skill acquisition happens in three stages:
    1. Cognitive (early) stage—researching, understanding, and thinking about the skill; breaking it into manageable parts.
    2. Associative (intermediate) stage—practicing, noticing feedback, and adjusting practice based on feedback.
    3. Autonomous (late) stage—effectively and efficiently performing the skill with little thinking or attention required.

Choice Quotes

If you want to get good at anything where real-life performance matters, you have to actually practice that skill in context. Study, by itself, is never enough.

[Rapid skill acquisition is] a way of breaking down the skill you’re trying to acquire into the smallest possible parts, identifying which of those parts are most important, then deliberately practicing those elements first.

The amount of time it will take you to acquire a new skill is largely a matter of how much concentrated time you’re willing to invest in deliberate practice and smart experimentation and how good you need to become to perform at the level you desire.

Skill acquisition requires practicing the skill in question. It requires significant periods of sustained, focused concentration. It requires creativity, flexibility, and the freedom to set your own standard of success.

“Your mind is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more it grows.” –Carol Dweck, Mindset

“The best thing that can happen to a human being is to find a problem, to fall in love with that problem, and to live trying to solve that problem, unless another problem even more lovable appears.” – Karl Popper

Pick one, and only one, new skill you wish to acquire. Put all your spare focus and energy into acquiring that skill, and place the other skills on temporary hold.

“A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” –Charles Kettering

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.

If you don’t know where you’re trying to go or don’t have a solid strategy to get there, you can waste equal amounts of energy in unproductive wandering.

“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.” –Voltaire

“The recognition of confusion is itself a form of clarity.” –T.K.V. Desikachar

By knowing what you can expect to see as you progress, you’ll find it much easier to sustain your interest in practice, and avoid becoming discouraged in the process.