I went to see Josh Kaufman at the RSA last week talk about his new book, The First 20 Hours. In it he debunks the thesis made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers that you need 10,000 hours to master a skill and suggests that you actually only need 20. He claimed to have learnt the ukulele and programming in just 20 hours. Kaufman states;

I think the idea of “mastering” a skill when you’re just getting started is counterproductive: it can be a significant barrier to exploring a new skill in the first place.

The original research that resulted in the “10,000 hour rule” is valid, as far as it goes. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, as well as other researchers, have found that it takes around 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to reach the top of ultra competitive, 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.

Most of the time, however, performance in ranked competition against world-class rivals isn’t the goal: it’s far more likely that you want to pick up a new skill to get a particular outcome. For career skills, the focus is on performing well enough to produce a result that’s meaningful to you. For personal skills and hobbies, the focus is on enjoying the process and having fun.

In these instances, the “10,000 hour rule” and the idea of “mastery” can actually serve as barriers to sitting down to practice – if you believe it takes that long to see results, you’re less likely to start in the first place. The real priority is to practice enough to get the results you’re looking for, not to attain a certain level of status or competitive performance.

Here are key five steps to learning anything fast.

  1. Decide what you want to learn!
  2. Research what is important to learning your chosen skill and practice on the most important sub skills first. This process is called deconstruction. Most skills are just bundles of smaller sub skills you use at the same time. By breaking down the skill into manageable parts, you  make it easier to get started. If you were learning to play a musical instrument, for example, knowing just a few chords gives you access to tons of songs.
  3. Commit to at least 20 hour of practice which is 40 minutes a day for a month.
  4. Remove barriers to practice (Kaufman leaves his ukulele, uncased, by his favourite chair in the sitting room).
  5. Use reference materials to learn enough that you know when you make a mistake so you can correct yourself. Of course, a coach or teacher, will help even more.