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The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman (a review)

The First 20 Hours is written by Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA, and revolves around rapid skill acquisition. During the book, he learns a selection of different skills, applying his own method and philosophy to speed up the process. He tries his hand at Yoga, web development, learning to touch type, the board game Go, playing the ukulele, and Wind surfing.

I’ve been meaning to review this book for a while. I bought it on Kindle at around the same time as The Four Hour Chef and it makes for an interesting comparison. The Four Hour Chef aims to give you the tools to become ‘world class’ in anything within six months, but The First 20 Hours is aimed more squarely at the beginner. Kaufman’s core message is that the first twenty hours of learning anything are pivotal. It’s an easy amount of time to commit to, and if you can invest it wisely, you can power through the clumsy beginner phase and reach a level of competence that makes learning enjoyable. In his view, we should look at a steep learning curve as a good thing, because it allows us to get good, fast.

The opening chapters of the book lay out his method, which is straightforward and accessible, consisting of ten basic, logical steps. He does an excellent and entertaining job of explaining their importance before focusing on the skills he intends to learn. He suggests that his method might be viewed as common sense, but I think this does a disservice to what is a thoughtful and thorough approach.

The sections on his learning adventures make up most of the book. Each one reads like a mini dummies guide, delving into the minutiae of each activity. The author’s intention is to deliver both clear examples of how his method can be applied in real life and provide enough detail to replicate his endeavours. This works well when he uses it to illustrate points about learning, but sometimes how he’s learning takes a back seat to what he’s learning. I often found myself skimming technical content that would only be of interest to someone practising that specific skill. The problem is that both types of content are so tightly entwined that it’s difficult to skip sections without worrying that you’re missing key insights.

Despite this, I found following his journey worthwhile because it gives a fuller picture of his approach. Not all his key behaviours are spelled out in the ten-step method, but they are worth paying close attention to and emulating. For example, the way he practises touch typing evolves because he regularly reviews his performance and continually adjusts to target his flaws (this kind of awareness is called meta-cognition and there’s good evidence that it has a major impact on success).

Although I struggled to stay with it in places, reading about his trials did convince me that twenty hours of practise is enough to propel someone to a enviable level of competence. I also finished it feeling more enthusiastic about my own learning goals, and I know that I’ll be referring to the opening chapters again in the future.

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