A Book Review: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!

A Book Review: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!

Josh Kaufman, author and a learning junkie, teaches how to learn a new skill fast in his book, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!  He introduced himself as someone who has an overwhelming, long list of projects and experiments he'd rather do by himself for the sake of learning. He is the author of the bestselling book the Personal MBA. 

He went on talking about the differences between skill acquisition and learning; skill acquisition and training; and, skill acquisition and education and credentialing. 

Skill acquisition is performing the skill in an environment that supports its development. Learning is understanding the parts of the skill. For example, learning to bake is knowing the history of baking, the tools and different techniques used, and others. On the other hand, skill acquisition is doing the action of baking, getting a recipe, measuring ingredients, mixing the ingredients, baking the bread or the cake in the oven, and whatnot. 

Training is improving the skill more and more after acquiring it. 

Education and credentialing don’t foster skill acquisition because of the time frame set in learning the competencies. This rings true to me as I observed students just submitting their outputs after practicing the skills required in producing those outputs in a short period of time. For example,  in English,  it takes hours and hours to write a good playwright but the students need to produce one in a week after learning what playwright is all about. I can only hope that students would go the extra mile by putting extra hours in learning a certain skill after completing what was required of them. But then, it depends on their interests. 

Kaufman continues by introducing the 5 major steps in rapid skill acquisition: choosing a skill you want to do, separating the skill into the smallest possible parts, identifying the most important parts, removing distractions, and practicing the most important parts for the first 20 hours. 

To create a “temporary obsession” that sustains skill learning,  he enumerated ten principles of rapid skill acquisition. Some of them are choosing a project that you love, obtaining critical tools, and practicing by the clock in short bursts. 

Additionally, to make practice more productive, it’s beneficial to understand the ten principles of effective learning such as identifying mental models and mental hooks, talking to practitioners, and respecting your body needs such as food and rest.

Other Takeaways

  • It takes 10, 000 hours to master a skill but it only takes 20 hours to reach the minimum level of that skill. 

  • The number of times you practice the skill is better than the quality of your performance in doing the skill once or a few times. 

  • Having a growth mindset brings positive results. A growth mindset means believing that with practice and persistence, your skills and abilities will grow. Whereas, a fixed mindset supposes that skills and abilities are inherent, cannot be learned. 

Plus and Minuses

+ The steps of rapid skill acquisition are easy to understand. He demonstrated the application of these steps by acquiring skills in yoga, programming, touch typing, playing Go, playing the ukulele, and windsurfing. At the end of every chapter, he provided the blueprint of the method he used which is really helpful and you can go back to it every time you plan to learn a new skill. Aside from the 5 major steps, he added other important ideas in his method such as setting the target performance level that one wanted to achieve, doing research to understand the other aspects of the skill, gathering critical tools,  talking to practitioners, and considering inversions which actually thinking the worst that could happen if you don’t do the subskills correctly.

- Three chapters out of nine contain the essential concepts of rapid skill acquisition; the rest, the author’s personal experience in acquiring six skills mentioned above-- the skills which I am not really interested in doing. I understood the part where he discussed what yoga is, its history, how it evolves into modern yoga, so on and so forth. When I reached the programming part, I was reading Greek. All the more when I read about the Japanese board game, Go. However, for me, the saving grace is the summary of the method he employed which I could use when I try a new skill. 

- Kaufman tends to be repetitive on some pages. He mentioned his book would help readers learn a new skill fast four times in the introduction. 

- There was a slight typographical error. I got confused when he said that there are four major steps but when I took a closer look, it was actually five. 

All in all, I still learned something from this book but it was not a good read for me. The author could’ve provided a space where I could apply the steps he taught to make the learning experience more meaningful. A free worksheet would have been great. If you want to know the basics in rapid skill acquisition, you can watch the author’s TedTalk on Youtube

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the skills you wanted to learn? Why?

  2. What discourages you to start learning those skills?

  3. What made you read this book?

  4. Was the author able to convince you to learn a new skill?

  5. What are the strengths of this book?

  6. What are its weaknesses?

  7. What do you think about the skills the author chose in showing how to apply the method in acquiring skills rapidly?

  8. Would you try any of these skills? Why or why not?

  9. What questions would you ask the author?

  10. Would you recommend this book? Why or why not?

Further Information

Title: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!

Author: Josh Kaufman

Genre: Self-Help 

Publisher: Portfolio (June 13, 2013)

Publication Date: June 13, 2013

Print length: 289 pages



First Line:

Hi.My name is Josh Kaufman, and I’m a learning addict.