10,000 Hours? More Like 20

What Josh Kaufman found about this myth.

Well, first of all, let’s get the word “myth” out of the way. Josh Kaufman, the author of The First 20 Hours, doesn’t dispute this modern finding popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. It originated in a study by K. Anders Ericsson who examined chess grandmasters and people who win PGA golf tours — the best in the world in their field. He found that the more time one spends on deliberate practice (breaking down the skills that are required to be expert and continually practicing a skill at more challenging levels with the intention of mastering it), the better one gets. This is also discussed in Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

What Kaufman is pointing out is that the 10,000 “rule” is only valid particularly for individuals at the pinnacle of their careers, and that most of us, when we decide to learn something new for ourselves, do not set the goal of being the very best at some very narrow competitive field. His problem with the 10,000 principle is that it is very specific, and as it spread as a popular concept, it became something that it is not — the only way to master a skill, to become an expert, or even the only way to be good at it… or worse still — to merely learn a skill. To be good, very good, at something — 20 hours is enough. That’s what Kaufman has found, through his research, and he described five steps to accomplish that:

  1. Decide what you want to be able to do (“Target Performance Level”). The more clearly and completely you are able to define it, the easier it’ll be for you to find ways to get to that end result, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
  2. Deconstructing the skill into sub-skills. Practice the most important sub-skills (those 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.
  3. Research. Just enough that you can identify the most important sub-skills involved in what you want to be able to do, and be able to self-correct. Find any resource — books, online courses, YouTube videos, trainers, etc. Warning: Don’t allow the research to become a source of procrastination. Pick only 3–4 resources and don’t go through them completely. Just skim them, and identify the ideas that come up over and over again. That would be a clear indication that those concepts or techniques are particularly important.
  4. Remove barriers to practice. Make it easy to sit down (or stand up) and actually do what is necessary. These days there is no shortage of distractions. Block the distractions that move you away from your focus and make sure that the time you have set aside to practice is as undivided as possible. Likewise, instead of relying on your willpower to force yourself to practice, use a little bit of willpower to make it easy for yourself to do what you must do. Make it easy to remind yourself that practice is a priority and remove effort and friction that might prevent you from actually getting started. Dan Ariely researched and discusses this extensively, emphasizing the need to trick yourself because “We just aren’t the same person all the time.”
  5. Pre-commit to deliberate and focused practice, for at least 20 hours, before you begin. 20 hours is long enough to see dramatic results but not too long that it is a barrier to committing in the first place. Deciding to do this is a check upon yourself of how much you want to do it. That check is vital during the first frustrating and challenging hours, and since this is how skill acquisition works for anyone, you are guaranteeing to yourself that you will push through until you see results. And remember, research show that the rate of progress is the highest during those first hours (the “power law of learning”), so keep at it.

You have a choice, do it the hard and inefficient way to or the easy and strategic way. The latter will save you a lot of time, energy and effort.

Kaufman demonstrating his approach by having experimented on himself to practice playing the ukulele.

Actors and actresses do it all the time. Just recently, Ryan Gosling learned to play Jazz on the piano, and to an impressive degree, as shown in the movie La La Land . He did not become a Jazz virtuoso, but he didn’t have to. All he needed to do it become good enough for what he was aiming for, just like the participants of the BBC reality show Faking It did.

The research literature says very little about the topic of getting good. Most of the literature about skill acquisition tends to focus on the longer term and on mastering. Kaufman, in that sense, is a pioneer and a champion for us all to go and “get good”.

Work by others have poked holes at the very concept of deliberate practice. For example, Frans Johansson in The Click Moment, argues that deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures (tennis, chess, classical music, etc.) whereas that doesn’t necessarily applies to less stable fields, like entrepreneurship and rock and roll. For another examples, a 2014 Princeton meta-analysis found that practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance in various domains (and that the difference is actually heavily dependent on the specific domain). “There is no doubt that deliberate practice is important, from both a statistical and a theoretical perspective. It is just less important than has been argued,” the study’s lead author, Brooke Macnamara.

Regardless of these findings and arguments, no one can dispute the fact that practice takes time. There’s a funny scene from the British sitcom Catastrophe in which Rob, having decided to lose weight and get fit, is at the gym and stops his workout. When asked why, he replies that he doesn’t want to get too fit on day one. It’s funny because it isn’t true, but we all wish it was so.

Bruce Lee once said: “I don’t fear the man who practices 1000 kicks in a day, I fear the man who practices 1 kick for 1000 days.” The good news is, according to Kaufman — you don’t need 1000 days. Just a month, and 40 minutes each day.

Thank you, Josh.