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Book Notes – The First 20 Hours


“The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne.”
— Geoffrey Chaucer, Parlement Of Foules, 1374

This quote that opens the book reflects the chaos in my life.
I have too many things to do, a busy life and yet, innately I am an autodidact.
I yearn to learn new things!
And learning new things is also how I’m slowly shifting my career goals.
Needless to repeat, tonnes to do, and grains of time in hand.

My growing frustration with why I cannot learn things as fast as I want to in conjunction, with aforesaid situation, is when I picked up this book by Josh Kaufman, last night. It seemed right for my situation. I’d bought it up along with The Personal MBA, a while ago and they’re in my unread pile.

And I was done in 2 hours. I don’t know why I did not read this earlier and save myself a tonne of grief.
While I’m slogging away at lots of things, I now realise I do not have to slog at all of them equally :)

“Work smarter, not harder.” As it turns out, the process of skill acquisition is not really about the raw hours you put in … it’s what you put into those hours.

Also, I don’t really want to become a world class expert. Just “good enough” will do, with most of the things I want to learn.

Based on research conducted by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson expert-level performance takes, on average, ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to achieve.
Ten thousand hours equals eight hours of deliberate practice every day for approximately three and a half years, with no breaks, no weekends, and no vacations. Assuming a standard 260 working days a year with no distractions, that’s a full-time job for almost five years, assuming you spend 100 percent of that time exerting 100 percent of your energy and effort.

As if learning a new skill wasn’t hard enough. Not only do you have to make time for practice … but you now also have to put in ten thousand hours? Most of us count ourselves lucky if we can set aside a few hours a week. Why bother at all if it takes so long to be good at something?

But … and this is a big but;

There’s an element of Dr. Ericsson’s research that’s very easy to overlook: it’s a study of expert-level performance. If you’re looking to become the next Tiger Woods, you’ll probably need to spend at least ten thousand hours deliberately and systematically practicing every aspect of golf.

On the other hand, what if winning the PGA Tour isn’t your goal?

That’s another matter entirely. World-class mastery may take ten thousand hours of focused effort, but developing the capacity to perform well enough for your own purposes usually requires far less of an investment.

That’s not to discount the value of what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice”: intentionally and systematically practicing in order to improve a skill. Deliberate practice is the core of skill acquisition. The question is how much deliberate practice is required to reach your goal. Usually, it’s much less than you think.

Leave the ten thousand hours to the pros. We’re going to start with twenty hours of concentrated, intelligent, focused effort.

20 hours! 20 hours to pick up and get good enough at a new skill? Now that’s an idea I can get behind.
And just how are we going to spend those 20 hours?
In a process called Rapid Skill Acquisition

You’ll have a better chance of success if you start with twenty hours of rapid skill acquisition.

Rapid skill acquisition has four major steps:

  • Deconstructing a skill into the smallest possible subskills;
  • Learning enough about each subskill to be able to practice intelligently and self-correct during practice;
  • Removing physical, mental, and emotional barriers that get in the way of practice;
  • Practicing the most important subskills for at least twenty hours.

And while that is the big, one–two–three–step, high level, 30,000 foot overview of the process, here’s ten principles to get you to do rapid skill acquisition really, really quickly

  1. Choose a lovable project. (or something you really, really want to solve)
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time. (Guilty! will pare them down to 2)
  3. Define your target performance level. (Define your enough. I want to learn just enough Ansible to setup my server)
  4. Deconstruct the skill into subskills. (This was my biggest aha! Know the map. Know your map. I used to think of Python as this big amorphous thing that’d take me years to learn. Now I’ll just take it one problem to solve at a time. What problems? Well I’ll figure that out for myself.)
  5. Obtain critical tools. (Try and do all your yak shaving beforehand)
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice. (I just roll out of bed and eat my physio frog first. That’s the hardest. Followed by studies now that I know this)
  7. Make dedicated time for practice. (Mornings for 12th studies. evenings for programming)
  8. Create fast feedback loops. (Well Python is brutal at that. You know instantly when you’re wrong. But with studies, I can do this with Anki and tests)
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts. (Pomodoro FTW!)
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed. (Lots of writing to improve writing, lots of studies to do well in 12th, lots of Python to … well you get the idea)

And this is just the first two chapters :)
Josh also has another chapter on effective learning to close out the first half of the book.
The second part is the fun part.
Josh walks the talk and tackles six disciplines that run the gamut from health (Yoga) to a mental discipline (programming) to physical (windsurfing) to prove that rapid skill acquisition works.
And how!
Yoga’s done in three hours, programming in twenty, and he falls short in windurfing, doing nine and learning a tonne, but ending up thwarted by nature.

This is amazing!
Six skills in less than a year!

Is this possible? Really possible? Why, yes of course, Josh promises, with this caveat,

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.

To see how he did what he did, watch Josh’s TedX Talk above.
To learn how to practice deliberately, with intention, read Peak or watch the whimsical summary below.

And like Josh asks as he closes the book,
What will you do today?