Josh Kaufman on How to Learn Anything Fast (Full Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of author and business adviser Josh Kaufman’s presentation on: How to Learn Anything… Fast at RSA conference. Josh Kaufman is the author of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business and The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast! To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.


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Josh Kaufman – Author and business adviser

Two years ago, I became very curious about the process of learning something new deciding finally to sit down and learn that thing or in my case several things that have been in the back of my mind for a long time now.

And so I decided to really take a step back and do some research to figure out how do we learn — how do we learn things quickly? How would we learn things in a way that allows us to go from knowing absolutely nothing about a skill to being really good in a very short period of time and hopefully to have that process be as fun and exciting and not frustrating and not stressful.

And so I decided to go to the library and look up what cognitive psychology says about how we learn. And there’s one idea that keeps coming up over and over and over again: the 10000-hour rule. It takes 10,000 hours to learn something. The 10,000 hour rule was popularized in a book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell; fantastic book. The research is really fascinating.

So the original idea of the 10,000 hour rule came from studies, it was a gentleman by the name of K. Anders Ericsson at the University of Florida, who studied people like chess grandmasters and people who win the PGA Tour at golf — people who are the very best in the world at whatever it is that they do.

And what Dr. Ericsson found was very simple: the more you practice, the more time you spend in what he called deliberate practice — focusing and systematically working the elements of the skill — the more time you spend better you get. And in every discipline what you usually find is the people at the pinnacle of their careers, the people that are the best in the world have spent around 10,000 hours over a period of at least 10 years, systematically practicing that element of skill.

So that set of research is valid as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. And here’s why. Most of us when we decide to learn something new for ourselves, we do not have the goal of setting out to be the very best in the world at some very narrow competitive field, right? But since this idea came to the popular consciousness five or six years ago, we’ve played a society-wide game of telephone about this particular idea.

So Dr. Ericsson was saying something very specific. It takes 10,000 hours to reach the top of ultra-competitive easily ranked performance fields, right? Very specific. But as that message passed from one person to the to another, it became: it takes 10,000 hours to master something. It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. It takes 10,000 hours to become good at something and it takes 10,000 hours to learn something.

But that last statement: it takes 10,000 hours to learn something is demonstrably not true. It’s not true and thank goodness it’s not true, because we can decide to sit down for ourselves and spend a little bit of time going from knowing absolutely nothing about any subject that you could think of, putting a little bit of practice and becoming very very good in a very short period of time.

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And what my research over the past two years has indicated is the order of magnitude of going from knowing absolutely nothing to being really good and knowing that you’re good is about 20 hours, not 10,000. 20 hours is about 40 minutes a day, every day for about a month. Even in the busiest schedules if you can clear a half an hour to 45 minutes a day to sit down and finally learn that thing you’ve always wanted to learn, you will be astounded, absolutely astounded at how good you become in a very short period of time.

And so what I discuss in the first 20 hours is a method of sitting down deciding to learn something you’ve never done before and then learning that in as effective and efficient a way as you possibly can. And the method very broadly has five steps and they’re very simple.

The first is decide exactly what you want. What do you want to be able to do? What is it going to look like when you’re done? What are you going to be able to look at yourself and say I did this thing that I’ve always wanted to do? What does it look like? The more clearly and completely you’re able to define exactly what you want to be able to do, the easier it will be for you to find ways to accomplish that desire to end result as quickly and efficiently as possible. I call this defining a target performance level. How well do you want to be able to perform and what does that performance actually look like in the moment?

The second thing that you do is what I call deconstructing the skill. So most of the things that we think of as skills aren’t really just one skill; they’re bundles of smaller sub skills that we all — that we use in combination with each other, right? So imagine a skill like golf. Golf is not just one thing; it’s a bundle of all sorts of things. And for example, driving off the tee and chipping on the green have very little to do in common with each other, very few skills overlap there but they’re both important if you want to be able to play golf well.

So instead of trying to learn golf as a global skill you break it apart into these smaller parts and you practice the most important sub skills, the thing that you’re going to — things that you’re going to use most first, that allows you to focus on the elements of practice that actually give you the performance that you’re looking for. So you’re breaking the skill down into the smallest parts you possibly can and practicing the jewelle sub-skills, OK.

Now the third part is researching. Researching just enough that you’re able to identify the most important sub skills involved in whatever it is that you want to learn how to do, but also understanding and being able to self-correct as you’re practicing. So go out and find three to five books courses, DVDs, trainers, people, or resources that can help you do that initial deconstruction and understand which are the sub skills that are going to help you get as good as you possibly can as quickly as possible.

Now the trick is don’t allow that research to become a form of procrastination in itself. The best approach is to pick three four or five resources. You don’t go through them completely. You skim them. And what you’re looking for in that initial research process go through lots of different resources and see — identify the ideas that come up over and over and over again. That’s a very clear indication that those concepts and those techniques are particularly important. So those are the things that you should know, so you can self correct as you practice and those are the sub skills that you should probably practice first.

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The fourth part is removing barriers to practice, making it easy to sit down and actually do the thing you want to get better at. So in our lives we have thousands of distractions. We have the television and the internet and social media and family members and friends and all of the things in our lives that make us so busy.

During the practice process it’s extremely important to make sure that you are not distracted by outside forces. Turn off the TV, block the internet, close the door. Turn off your cell phone. Remove the distractions that can take your focus away from whatever this thing that you’re trying to practice is and make sure that that time the you have set aside to practice in a way that was going to make you better is as undivided and focused as possible.

Likewise anything you can do to make it easy for yourself to practice; do that. So instead of relying on your willpower to force yourself to sit down every single time, use a little bit of willpower once and make it easy for yourself to do the things you want to do. So for example, one classic skill that people usually want to learn: playing the guitar.

Which is easier. Picking up a guitar that is right next to you sitting on a stand by the chair that you usually sit on, or getting a guitar out of the case that’s in the back of a closet on the other side of your house every time you want to practice, right? By making it easy, having the guitar next to you, you make it easier to remind yourself that practice is a priority and you make it easier to actually pick up that guitar and start practicing in the moment. Anything you can do to remove friction or remove effort from desiring to practice to getting started is a benefit; it helps you do what you’ve already decided to do.

And fifth and very importantly, pre-commit to at least 20 hours of focused deliberate practice before you begin and that pre-commitment is very important because it serves a couple of different purposes.

The first is the pre-commitment itself deciding I’m going to invest at least 20 hours in this skill or I’m not going to do it at all is a check upon yourself how important is this really. If it is important to you and you’re willing to make that pre-commitment of at least 20 hours of practice, it does a number of important things.

The first is the early hours of practice are frustrating for everyone. Everybody at the beginning of everything is absolutely horrible and they know it. And so understanding that that is a fundamental feature of how skill acquisition works by pre committing to at least 20 hours of practice you are guaranteeing to yourself that you are going to make it through those early frustrating hours where nothing is working, or you come up against an unexpected obstacle or you’re really horrible and you’re not very comfortable with that. By pre-committing a certain amount of time you are guaranteeing to yourself that you are able to push past the early frustration and actually see results from your practice.