Josh Kaufman: How To Learn Anything From Scratch

The 10,000 hour rule is the most spoken of rule in the field of learning.

It’s the idea that you must spend at least 10,000 hours on deliberate practice to become world class at your field. First developed by Anders Ericsson, this idea was later popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.

But what if you didn’t want to be an expert or world class?

There are a couple of reasons for that:

It’s a large time sink and huge commitment to be world class. Fortunately, there’s other research that suggests it takes much less than that to be just reasonably good — in fact as little as 20 hours.

In his TED talk, Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA, shares how he learns anything from scratch. In his opinion, there are only four elements for rapid skill acquisition.

Let’s see how he does it.

1. Deconstruct The Skill

The first order of business in learning is to establish your goals.

For the beginner, the impetus to learn a new skill is often to achieve a specific task: it could be to play a specific song or to learn enough calculus to finish the assigned math homework.

Deconstructing a skill into smaller bundles allows you to focus on what helps you arrive at your desired outcome. Take what you need, and leave the others for another day.

The learning curve is set up in such a way that beginners can derive gains quickly at the start. To take advantage of this, study and understand the core principles behind that specific skill. Know the 80/20 and exploit it.

One of Josh Kaufman’s discoveries when he was learning the ukulele was that most of the pop songs involved just four chords: G, D, E-minor and C. By mastering these four chords, he was able to play most of the pop songs in the past five decades.

Not too shabby for a few hours of work.

2. Learn Enough To Self-Correct

It’s crazy to know that learning has become a new form of procrastination. The act of acquiring information becomes more important than the actual act of mastery. We believe that we must know all there is before we begin, lest we make mistakes or be inefficient in our learning.

Just how much information do we really need to rapidly acquire a skill?

Kaufman explains that all we really need is enough information to self-correct. That means we need the ability to recognise our own mistakes, and then make adjustments when this inevitably occurs. Over time, we become mistake free.

Rinse and repeat, and we eventually get to our desired level of proficiency.

3. Remove Practice Barriers

This is the primary reason why people aren’t able to learn a skill. Forget 10,000 hours, optimising for 20 is hard enough.

Willpower isn’t to be trusted. It ebbs and flows, giving us inspiration at one moment and leaving us at the next. When it comes to getting work done, we give ourselves plenty of excuses.

Focusing on mastering our behaviour is a bad idea. Better instead, to focus on improving our environment and make it conducive for practice. Remove the distractions that prevent us from sitting down and practice.

It’s a simple idea but difficult to put into practice. For example, you first need to have a ukulele to practice on before you learn how to play it. There are tools that you must first have before beginning.

Josh Kaufman’s ukulele didn’t come with strings attached. He also had to tune it, and get the scores for the songs he wanted to learn. These are all relatively small obstacles, but add up psychologically when it comes to actual practice.

Your mind will come up with all sorts of excuses to remain comfortable. Don’t give it that opportunity.

4. Spend The Actual 20 Hours

20 hours is very doable.

It’s 45 minutes of practice everyday, for less than a month. It’s far more doable than 10,000 hours anyway, which is about the equivalent of holding a full-time job for 5 years.

The problem? Starting is often the hardest part. That’s why no matter how simple something can be, there will be resistance. There are all sorts of excuses you can give yourself when you begin learning any skill. Most will quit before they even really begin.

The most important takeaway from Josh Kaufman is this — the major barrier to skill acquisition isn’t intellectual; it’s emotional.

There is a frustration period when we first start out because we are grossly incompetent. We feel stupid.

Nobody wants to feel stupid. Nobody wants to feel scared. It doesn’t feel good. But that’s what happens when we begin learning any skill. That’s what happens when we actually do something new.

The key is to recognise and own that feeling.

Then do it anyway.



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Louis Chew

I explore underappreciated ideas. Be the first to know about what I’m currently up to: