How to Learn Anything Fast: Book Summary of Josh Kaufman’s ‘The First 20 Hours’

Every Discipline, Hobby, or Sport Has Its Learning Curve

'The First 20 Hours' by Josh Kaufman (ISBN 1591846943) One of your core productivity principles should be to learn to do things to a good-enough level—but not to perfection.

In the pursuit of self-improvement, when you start to study a field, it seems like you have to learn hundreds of principles and skills. If you’re interested in no more than gaining an adequate amount of fluency in any skill, you have only to identify the crucial few core principles, learn them, and diligently practice them “in the trenches.”

According to self-described “learning addict” Josh Kaufman‘s The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast, with a bit of strategy, you can learn just about any skill to a sufficient level with twenty hours of focused effort:

In my experience, it takes around twenty hours of practice … to go from knowing absolutely nothing about what you’re trying to do to performing noticeably well. … It doesn’t matter whether you want to learn a language write a novel, paint a portrait, start a business, or fly an airplane. If you invest as little as twenty hours in learning the basics of the skill, you’ll be surprised at how good you can become.

Learning is Fun but it is also Dedicated Work

One of the real challenges for rapid skill acquisition, according to The First 20 Hours, is to get past the beginner’s blockade, which is the frustration that occurs when learning something new doesn’t come as naturally as you’d hoped for. The solution is to build in focused learning time into your daily routine.

Make dedicated time for practice. The time you spend acquiring a new skill must come from somewhere. Unfortunately, we tend to want to acquire new skills and keep doing many of the other activities we enjoy, like watching TV, playing video games, et cetera. “I’ll get around to it, when I find the time,” we say to ourselves. Here’s the truth: “finding” time is a myth. No one ever “finds” time for anything, in the sense of miraculously discovering some bank of extra time, like finding a twenty-dollar bill you accidentally left in your coat pocket. If you rely on finding time to do something, it will never be done. If you want to find time, you must make time.

The First 20 Hours tells you how to use the initial learning time to maximum effect and have as steep a learning curve as possible. To learn a skill, you must deconstruct the skill into its constituent subskills and learn enough about each subskill to be able to practice effectively and self-correct. For instance, Kaufman finds a shortcut to learning how to play the ukulele by memorizing the three chords needed for the majority of songs, which happen to be C, F, and G.

How to Learn Anything Faster

Learning is Fun but it is also Dedicated Work The first three rambling chapters of The First 20 Hours introduce many general principles of rapid skill acquisition and effective learning. The six succeeding chapters give Kaufman’s firsthand accounts of how he applied these principles to learn yoga, programming, touch-typing, a Chinese board game called Go, ukulele, and windsurfing. The chief takeaways from these chapters are,

  • Study, by itself, is never enough. If you want to get good at anything where real-life performance matters, you have to practice that skill in context.
  • Invest your limited time on the sub-skills with most payback and avoid those elements of the skill that are non-essential.
  • Create mental models and checklists for remembering the things you need to do each time you practice. It helps make the learning process more efficient.

Recommendation: Skim Josh Kaufman’s The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast. Start with the author’s TED video and then speed-read the first three chapters (39 pages) and the prologues. Read the subsequent six chapters only if the subject matter particular skills fascinate you—these monotonous chapters expose the many nuances of the trial and error in the course of learning.

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