May 2013, Business Breakfast with Josh Kaufman.

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Twenty Hours is all it takes to Learn a New Skill.

Josh Kaufman, author of the best-selling The Personal MBA was the guest speaker at this month’s Like Minds breakfast event at London’s ME Hotel Josh has a new book out this week, called The First 20 Hours and he came to Like Minds to tell us about it and sign copies of the books Portfolio/Penguin kindly provided for his audience.

Recalcitrant plumbing meant that the promised great morning views across a beautiful sunny London from the Radio Bar atop the hotel (our usual venue) were not to be, unfortunately. Josh and the audience were directed instead to the hotel’s ground floor STK Restaurant This is styled along nightclub lines and is lit accordingly. But, given the musical finale to Josh’s talk, the venue’s decor became almost appropriate.

Where The Personal MBA was specifically about a business education, the new book looks at ways of learning in general and at skill acquisition in particular. Josh started with a quick examination of some of the things we think about learning. At the back of our minds we all have an inkling to learn a range of different things, whether it’s a practical skill for professional development, a hobby, or a foreign language. Learning is fundamental to human beings, after all.

And where learning tends to work best is when there are strategies or frameworks in place. Josh has just such a strategy to take us from a place of no skill to one of reasonable proficiency. And in a remarkably short space of time. Or, as the sub-title of his new book has it; “How To Learn Anything…Fast”. This obviously conflicts with an idea that has taken root in the last few years: the concept of the “10,000 hours”.

This first became widespread on the back of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. It is now a common belief that it takes us 10,000 hours to become good at something. But the original research around that figure of 10,000 hours was actually about mastery in highly competitive environments like chess and elite sports. There is obviously a huge range of skills where complete mastery is not necessary.

The idea for the new book arose after the birth of Josh’s daughter Lela. Like many new parents, he suddenly found himself with less time on his hands. And the fear that never again would he have any time to himself!

But he remained what he calls a learning junkie. So he developed a process to use less time more effectively to learn new things.

The Key Steps:

  1. Specify what you want to learn and why – give yourself a goal
  2. Deconstruct the skill – break it into component pieces (Josh used the example of golfing, where putting and driving off the tee are different, although related, skills within the overall skill of playing the game)
  3. Do some research and find which of the component pieces are the most important – what do you need to learn first?
  4. Eliminate barriers to practice – (if you want to learn the guitar, for instance, keep it near you and don’t hide it away in its case at the back of a cupboard!)
  5. Commit to 20 hours of practice – or not at all

Let’s face it; if you can’t commit to practice 20 hours (at about 45 minutes a day for a month), the chances are that learning the skill is not that important to you.

For the research step, Josh recommended getting hold of around five books on the subject (beginner’s guides etc) and skimming contents and looking for patterns of subject matter and tips. These tend to be the most important aspects of a skill.

As an aside, Josh proposed that it’s simply a cultural myth that children learn better than adults. The difference is that children learn with less fear and are willing to make mistakes but, as adults, we can choose what to learn.

Josh’s book follows his efforts to learn Yoga, wind surfing, the Japanese board game GO, touch typing with a new non-Qwerty layout (which was really re-learning to touch type), programming in Ruby, and the ukelele.

And as proof of the last of these…. He played us the ukelele. (He actually made his first public performance on the ukelele in Portland at a talk he gave only 10 days after first picking up the instrument.) There was even a burst of song, which was not on the list of skills he claimed to have learned recently!

After the applause, a Q&A session threw up, among others, these topics:

  • The role of teachers: Josh felt they could be great for deconstructing skill components but could also be poor in terms of barriers (learning scales for years before playing a tune, for instance.) However, he added the caveat that a teacher was essential for skills that involve elements of danger, such as landing a plane!
  • Learning intensity: short bursts of focused practice work best, so daily for around 45 mins.
  • Simultaneous learning (how many skills at a time?): Josh recommended that one skill at a time worked best, although if you have the time, one in the morning and one in the afternoon could work. But no more than two at a time.

Following the talk, Josh was kind enough to give me an interview, and play his ukelele, up on the roof terrace beside the Radio Bar. It was a treat to get up and into the sunshine and Josh was able to see what he – and his audience – had been missing in terms of a view. You can view the interview here.

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