The “20 Hours” Learning Challenge


“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi

I have tried but I can’t find a better quote than the above when it comes to learning. For me, the pursuit of knowledge is the essence of experiencing life. Otherwise, life is just boring.

Of course, it is not always easy in the world we live, and making time for learning can be more difficult for some people. Still, too often the excuse of “I have no time” is just a cop out. The fact that there is a much watched reality TV industry tells me that plenty of people are happy to waste time. Don’t get me started on the social media junkies.

Now, for those who are open to learning but are just put off by the amount of time needed to actually learn something new, I recommend you watch the TedxTalk from Josh Kaufman, entitled “The first 20 hours – how to learn anything”.  (YouTube link) With over 6 million views I am not the only one who has found it interesting.

Kaufman delivers an entertaining presentation, in which he shares how the experience of becoming a parent, and the time it required, inspired him to approach learning in a new way. Researching the question “How long does it take to inspire a new skill?” he found the common thread to be 10,000 hours, something which arose from studies on expert level performance.

Malcolm Gladwell popularised the 10,000 hour rule in his book “The Outliers”, published in 2007, and from there Kaufman reckons “a society wide game of telephone started to be played. This message that it takes 10,000 hours to reach the top of an ultra-competitive field became it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, which became it takes 10,000 hours to be good at something, which became it takes 10,000 hours to learn something”.

In the context of the learning curve, Kaufman is more concerned about “How long does it take from starting something, and being grossly incompetent at knowing it, to being reasonably good?” The conclusion of his research you will be glad to hear is a much more manageable 20 hours. Of course, that is “20 hours of focused deliberate practice” he is talking about.

As well, he describes the importance of the method of learning, outlining his process of learning. “There is a way to practice intelligently, there is a way to practice efficiently, to make sure you invest those 20 hours in the most effective way you possibly can”. The four steps which he briefly covers are:

  1. Deconstruct the skill
  2. Learn enough to self-correct
  3. Remove practice barriers
  4. Practice for at least 20 hours

By precommitting to the 20 hours Kaufman argues that we can overcome what he calls the “initial frustration barrier”, that feeling of being stupid that causes us to quit too early before we reap the rewards. To prove his theory, Kaufman wows the audience with his ukulele playing skills, the final completion of his 20 hours learning the ukulele.

Impressed by his presentation and his ukulele skills, I want to put this 20 hour rule to the test. I don’t have a ukulele but I do have a guitar, which has been goading me from the corner of my bedroom for the last 3 ½ years or so. It might as well have “Play me” written in the dust it has been accumulating.

I have tried, I’ve tuned it at least four or five times! There is a built in tuner, which helps. The YouTube videos learning key notes have failed to keep my interest and the guitar has ultimately resumed its position of safety in the corner of my bedroom. I guess I just don’t like looking stupid.

‘I can’t do it, I am not musically talented’. Learning a musical instrument just seems so foreign to me. However, the reality is that when it comes to learning something new we are all faced with this mental barrier. The subject is just different. I see people convince themselves they are ‘not good with numbers’, causing them to shut down when anything financial comes up.

So, I accept the challenge laid down by Josh Kaufman in his TedxTalk on what can be achieved within 20 hours. Yes I am keen to learn the guitar but I am thinking of it as my own personal social experiment.

If I can learn to play the guitar within 20 hours, even a few songs, then anything is possible for anyone. I have absolute no musical experience. I lie, I was in a tin whistle class in primary school but I got kicked out within half an hour for messing. What might have been! But seriously, I don’t know what a note is.

Following Josh’s advice I will invest my 20 hours as efficiently as possible. I have signed up to private lessons, starting this week, with someone who has impressed me with their enthusiasm for what they think is possible within a short period of time. For my part, I’ll be embracing the learning process with an open mind, as much as is possible.

“The major barrier to skill acquisition isn’t intellectual, it’s emotional”, concludes Kaufman in his presentation. We’ll see. I’ll report back after I’ve completed my 20 hours of focused and deliberate practice.

If I can play a few Pearl Jam songs I’ll be claiming success!

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