How to Learn a New Skill Fast
Author Josh Kaufman says you can pick up the basics in under 20 hours by following his principles
Every day, I walk down the stairs into the living room and there it is: The Piano.
This glorious grand Knabe belonged to my mom when she was a child in Newark, N.J. Then, my sister, Robin, tickled the same ivories growing up in our family’s suburban house (I can hear her playing Beethoven’s "Für Elise" now).
But when my parents downsized to an apartment a few decades ago, they had no room for the piano and neither did Robin. So my wife, Liz, and I inherited it. We don't play.
I can bang out a tune by ear with the wrong fingers, but that’s about all. Periodically, I’ve thought about taking lessons and decided against it. I felt that I’d be embarrassed about playing badly, which would lead to aggravation and then anger. What fun is that?
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The Way to Overcome My Fears
He convinced me that I can get past my apprehensions by following his rules. If you’ve
put off learning a skill due to similar concerns,
you should rethink your inertia, too – especially
if you’re in your 50s or 60s.
“The advantage for people who are nearing retirement or retired is that it’s a wonderful time
of life to learn new skills,” Kaufman, 31, told me.
“If you have kids, they’re probably out of the house now, so you have more time and energy to learn
the thing you never could before.”
Learning 6 Skills in a Year
For his new book, Kaufman, a business adviser
in Fort Collins, Colo., decided to teach himself a smorgasbord of skills in the course of one year:
the ukulele, windsurfing, yoga, computer programming, a faster way of touch typing and the ancient Chinese board game, Go.
Not only did he learn all six, Kaufman picked up each skill in fewer than 20 hours.
Yoga took just three.
He isn’t a savant; Kaufman just cleverly figured out the keys to learning something new quickly – what he calls “rapid skill acquisition” – and put them to use.
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Here are highlights of our conversation, where Kaufman talks about those principles:
Next Avenue: Let’s start with the basic premise of the book: Rapid skill acquisition. What is that?
Kaufman: Rapid skill acquisition means being able to perform a skill at a certain threshold to get a certain result. So it’s not academic learning in the sense of just acquiring knowledge and memorizing facts.
But that doesn’t mean being able to master the skill, right?
Right. A huge expectation of mastering a skill is becoming extremely good, which makes it that much harder to get started.
During the first 20 hours of skill acquisition, you’re really in exploration mode. You’re trying to figure out what this thing is, how it works, if you like it and if it’s going to be worthwhile to keep going. So the method of the first 20 hours is going from zero to being reasonably good at something.
Then you have a choice. You may have improved to the point where you’re getting the value that you want and you stay there and reap the value. Or you may decide you really like it and will practice a little more to get even better. Or you may decide that in the grand scheme of your life, there are more important things to pay attention to and you stop using this new skill.
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Some bosses and hiring managers think older people can’t learn new things. But that’s not the case?
Not the case at all. In fact, this stereotype is an opportunity in disguise. After acquiring a new skill, you can walk into your boss’s office and say, "Here’s what I learned how to do on my own." That can be super valuable.
Is it easier for kids to learn new skills than adults?
There’s a huge misconception that we learn more quickly when we’re younger. It’s not necessarily true.
Young children have a couple of advantages over adults. They usually have more unstructured free time and they are way less self-conscious when they try something and it doesn’t work. When a toddler is learning how to talk and falls down, he doesn’t curse himself and say I’m not talented at walking. He just gets up and tries again.
As adults, we have more responsibilities and commitments and tend to be way more self-conscious. So when you dabble at something for the first time and it doesn’t go well, you say, "I’m not good at that; I’ll try something else." Adults don’t like to feel stupid. So that holds us back.
Are there advantages adults have over kids for skill acquisition?
Yes. We have more life experience, so we can attach learning to things we already know and can be much more strategic.
Instead of failing until we get it, we can do research and approach the process in a way to maximize the things that work and minimize the things that don’t. So we can learn just as quickly as kids; we just learn in a different way.
What’s really fun is there’s not an age where this process tops out.
A lot of people have interpreted Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers as saying that you have to spend 10,000 hours to be good at something. You don’t?
No. It’s an extremely common misconception. The research Gladwell was reporting was about achieving world-class performance in extremely competitive fields. And that research is very clear: If you want to, for example, step on a golf course and be able to compete with Tiger Woods, 10,000 hours is about what it’s going to take.
What I want to help people understand is that to acquire a skill, the threshold is around the 20-hour mark, not the 10,000-hour mark.
Why 20 hours and not two hours?
In the early hours of learning something new, it’s difficult and frustrating. So you want to make sure you practice long enough to break through that barrier and start seeing results. That usually happens for the more complex skills around the five- to six-hour mark.
The hours before that are terrible, but if you can persist long enough to break through, you’ll be able to do things you couldn’t do before. The trick is you need to keep practicing long enough to achieve results.
But you don’t need to practice for more than 20 hours?
Right. Other research has shown that skill acquisition shouldn’t feel like a huge commitment at the beginning or you’ll never sit down and practice in the first place.
I found that setting a pre-commitment of under 20 hours before starting to learn the skill is a great way to make sure you’ll practice long enough to push through the barrier – 20 hours lets you see dramatic results but doesn’t feel so scary that you could never commit to it.
I can’t tell you how frustrating the first hour of learning to touch type on a different keyboard was. The only thing that kept me going was my pre-commitment.
You’re not against learning a skill through total immersion, but you think that process isn’t realistic for most people. Why not?
To learn a new language, yeah, you could pack your bags and move to France. But very few people can actually do that.
I wanted to acquire skills in a real-world context. So in the process of learning the ones for the book, I was still running my business. I only had a half-hour or 45 minutes a day to devote to a new skill.
You say that one of the key principles of skill acquisition is: define your target performance level. What does that mean and how do you do it?
Your target performance level is deciding what you want to be able to do. The more specific you can be, the better. People often fall down in this process by not being specific enough about what they want to accomplish.
Instead of saying you want to learn Italian, set a performance level like being able to go on a vacation in Italy and converse with waiters and waitresses. Then focus your early hours of practice on being able to get to that point.
You also make the point that it’s important to dedicate time to practice. Why?
Life tends to intervene if you don’t set aside a specific time. If you don’t practice, you won’t get better.
When I was learning how to play the ukulele, I set aside a half-hour before bed every day.
Speaking of going to bed, you note in the book that there’s a connection between sleep and learning a new skill. Tell me about it.
This was one of the most fascinating things I uncovered. For skills that require physical movement, if you can practice within about four hours of going to sleep – and that could be going to sleep for the night or taking a nap – the practice will be more effective.
I found that when I was learning touch-typing. It was kind of freaky. I would practice typing before bed and not be able to do certain things and go to sleep. Then I’d wake up in the morning and try again and I was always better as a result of the combination of the rest and practicing the night before – noticeably so.
You also recommend creating “fast feedback loops.” What are they?
Anything that helps you see how well you’re performing while you’re practicing. When I was learning how to program, the computer tells you right away whether what you’re doing is working. When I was learning how to windsurf, it was falling off the board. Paying attention to what’s not working lets you make changes to get better.
Why should people practice in short bursts of time?
The limiting factors when you’re acquiring a new skill are energy and your level of frustration. When I was beginning to windsurf, I could only be out on a board for about 20 minutes. Beyond that, I was too exhausted and it was entirely nonproductive. Same thing with learning the ukulele; at some point, your fingers hurt.
Have you learned any new skills lately?
One of the things I wanted to learn was how to make videos. So I’ve now gone from not having a video camera to creating a movie, which you can see at First20hours.com. I bought a camera and did the shooting, color correcting and exporting in about 20 hours. That was super fun.
What skill do you want to learn next?
There’s an interesting shorthand system called Yublin that’s on my list. You look at a small set of words that are used most often and it has one- or two- letter combinations for each of them.