The First 20 Hours Summary and Review

by Josh Kaufman
Has The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman been sitting on your reading list? Learn the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. You’ve likely had many interests over the course of your life, and you might regret not pursuing some of them. Maybe you wish that you began studying the violin ten years ago when you had more free time, or you’re frustrated that you didn’t push yourself to master a foreign language at a young age when it would’ve been easier.  What if you simply began working toward your goals instead of regretting choices you made in the past? The author, Josh Kaufman, has a technique that can come into play here.  Over the course of this book summary, you’ll discover how, in a short 20 hours, you can learn the basics of your desired skill. You’ll learn how to lay a solid foundation for success, from scheduling your time to practice, to getting the tools you’ll need to have success.  In this summary of The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman, you’ll learn 
  • How 20 hours can make a difference;
  • Why “just finding time to practice” will never happen; and
  • That quantity is sometimes better than quality.

The First 20 Hours Key Idea #1: Use rapid skill acquisition to learn the basics of anything in 20 hours. 

When you think of things you’ve always wanted to learn, is there a specific skill that comes to mind? For instance, maybe it’s competently playing the piano, doing well on the tennis court, or become conversational in French. Whatever it is, it’s not too late to learn this skill. Many people wish they had pursued skills earlier, and may even begin to learn some of what they desire. But, many of these people quickly give up before even becoming familiar with the basics because they believe it’s too late.  This is where we can use rapid skill acquisition to begin our experience. Through the use of this technique, you can become competent at whatever skill you desire by putting in 20 hours of work.  However, if your goal is to totally master a skill, that will clearly require more than a quick 20 hours. But, if you simply want to become acquainted with the basics, rapid skill acquisition is a great way to do this. Though you won’t become an expert, these first 20 hours of practice will enable you to become competent in the skill of your choice.  Let’s take tennis, for an example. Say you practice for 20 hours, breaking that time up into an hour or an hour and a half of practice a day. You’ll find that you rapidly improve, and it’ll become much easier to continue building your skill set after you’ve completed the first 20 hours.  The first few hours of learning something new are always the hardest, and this is where the majority of people give up. It’s essential, however, to continue to push through the first 20 hours of practice, regardless of the bumps in the road you may run into. Once you get through the first 20 hours, you’ll have a significant amount of practice under your belt, and further practice won’t be as difficult.  So how do we make those 20 hours count? Let’s look at the ten principles that underlie rapid skill acquisition. 

The First 20 Hours Key Idea #2: Learn your chosen skill by focusing all your energy on it. 

There are probably many different skills you’d like to acquire, but an important first step of rapid skill acquisition is choosing to focus on one.  Start by making a list of all the skills you’re interested in, and pick the one that is most exciting to you right now. This excitement will help you stay motivated through your practice.  The author followed this exact prescription when attempting to choose a new skill to pursue. Though windsurfing was on his list, it had been years since he had been in the sea. He had previously been a water-sports instructor at Boy Scout’s camp, and had an innate passion for aquatic activities since he was a child. He quickly got excited about the prospect of being back on the sea to windsurf, bringing him back to something he missed.  Though it’s tempting to try and dive into several skills at once, the second principle of rapid skill acquisition states that you should focus all your energy on a single skill at a time. For instance, the author may have been tempted to combine learning to windsurf with learning Spanish and playing the ukulele.  This is not the best idea, however. You must use your time wisely when trying to learn something new since you may only have about an hour a day to dedicate to it. Don’t try to learn multiple new things at once, because you’ll progress slowly, which is not motivating at all.  Did you know you can achieve a magical “flow” state by spending more time focusing? Discover more about this topic in this article on work ethic. We read dozens of other great books like The First 20 Hours, and summarised their ideas in this article called Work Ethic: Check it out here!

The First 20 Hours Key Idea #3: Begin by deciding what skill level you want to achieve, then break it down into smaller steps. 

Making a decision about how good you want to become at your chosen skill is the third principle in rapid skill acquisition. This is called you target performance level. It’s important because if you can envision the end goal, it’ll be easier to get there.  Decide what level of skill is “good enough” for you. For example, if you’re learning to play an instrument, do you want to be able to play a few songs by heart or do you want to be able to jump into a jam session?  Let’s look at an example. When the author was trying to learn to play the ukulele, his goal was to be able to play at a conference that his friend was organizing. He had been asked to lead a talk about rapid skill acquisition, and thought that this would be a great demonstration of the concept and how much progress he had made through using rapid skill acquisition in a short ten days.  The fourth principle of rapid skill acquisition is to break up your skill into smaller, bite sized pieces that you can tackle one by one. You don’t attempt to down an entire meal in one bite, and you shouldn’t try to learn a skill in one swing. By dividing up the work ahead of you, progress will be easier and the steps you need to take to success will be more clear cut.  For example, when the author started to learn the ukulele, he first learned the anatomy of the instrument itself. He then moved on to learning how to tune it, and then began to learn the chords for the song he intended to play at the conference.  When the conference rolled around, he was able to play the song he had learned flawlessly. 

The First 20 Hours Key Idea #4: Limit distractions and acquire the tools you need. 

So now you’ve chosen a skill you want to pursue – but what tools do you need? The fifth principle of rapid skill acquisition is to make sure you have the tools you need to learn and succeed at your desired skill. This step is pretty simple – if you’re trying to learn how to play tennis, you first need a racket, and if you want to learn how to fly a helicopter, you need access to one.  Though this is a simple step, it is essential to find out what types of materials and environments you’ll need to have success in learning a new skill. When the author was learning to windsurf, he knew he needed a board, a helmet, and a wetsuit. Once he started to work on learning, he discovered that he needed to feel more comfortable simply standing on the board before starting to use the sail, which means he needed to acquire a paddleboard and a paddle.  Begin to identify barriers that may interfere with your learning process to get into principle number six. Think through any emotional roadblocks that may stand in your path, like fear or self-doubt, as well as distractions like a ringing phone.  Try to eliminate any hindrances that you come up with. For instance, you can create a distraction-less environment while you work to identify your fears.  When the author began learning to windsurf, he was fearful about the potential danger that comes with the skill. Risk of drowning and hypothermia caused him fear, which created a mental barrier. In order to surpass this hurdle, he familiarized himself with those dangers so he would know what to do in case of an emergency. He decided to never windsurf alone, and bought a wetsuit suitable for low water temperatures. That way, he could overcome his fears while learning a new skill.  The First 20 Hours Key Idea #5: Give yourself feedback and be sure to make time to practice. In today’s world, people are busier than ever. So, if you want to learn a new skill, you need to make time to practice, which is the seventh principle of rapid skill acquisition.  Identify other activities in your life that you aren’t fond of, and work to cut those out so you can fill that time with practicing your new skill. Your goal is to free up 60-90 minutes a day to dedicate to practicing.  The eighth principle of rapid skill acquisition states that you must get feedback on your progress.  For instance, maybe you’re trying to learn Chinese. You should find a way to get fast feedback on your progress so you’ll know if you’ve gone wrong anywhere or if you should be approaching it a different way.  If you can, you should hire a coach to help guide you and give you feedback through the process. If you’re learning a new language, you can use a voice recorder to listen to yourself speaking. This will make it easier to hear mistakes in your own pronunciation or grammar.  The author received feedback when he was learning how to play the game Go. To do this, he downloaded a software called SmartGo, which gives the played feedback after every move. This software helped him identify his weak spots and made it easy to progress. 

The First 20 Hours Key Idea #6: Prioritize quantity and speed by practicing in short bursts. 

Monday seem never-ending, and that’s why we all dread them. After the fun and relaxation of the weekend, enduring a full day of work is torturous. Working on difficult or tedious activities for long periods of time is draining and often inefficient. To combat this, you should practice your new skill in short intervals.  Practicing in short spurts is the ninth principle when it comes to making progress with rapid skil acquisition. When you first start to learn something new, the hours or practice seem to drag on longer and longer. People tend to think they’ve actually spent more time working at the beginning of learning something new simply by how arduous learning the task itself is.  Avoid this by using a 20-minute timer for yourself. The timer will let you know how long you’ve actually been practicing, and since you’ll know how long you’ve been working, you’ll be more motivated during that period of time. Your goal should be to do three to five of these 20-minute blocks of practice per day. If you do this, you’ll be shocked at how quickly you progress. The final principle of rapid skill acquisition is to focus on practicing quickly and often, and not focus on achieving perfection.  It’s better to recognize that you’re likely a beginner, and you shouldn’t expect yourself to be an expert from the start. So focus on practicing quickly and often. By prioritizing quantity and speed, you’re less likely to get frustrated and subsequently demotivated during the initial stages of practice.  When the author was learning to windsurf, he was sure to follow this principle. He was far from perfect when he would first get up on his board. He fell into the water many times in the early stages of practice. He encountered setbacks like losing his glasses, swallowing water, and nearly sustaining a concussion from how many times he fell. If he had expected himself to be perfect from the start, the author may have quit when these setbacks got in his way. Rather, he focused on putting in as much practice as quickly as possible before windsurfing season ended. As a result, the author rapidly picked up a new skill that had seemed so daunting before starting.  You can successfully learn a new skill quickly and efficiently when you keep the ten principles of rapid skill acquisition in mind. Find your new hobby, and get started on your journey today! 

In Review: The First 20 Hours Book Summary

The key message in this book: It’s never too late to pick up a new skill. To do this, keep the ten principles of rapid skill acquisition in mind while you learn. From learning French to playing the ukulele, all you need to do is put in 20 initial hours of practice to start on your path to proficiency. Actionable advice: Utilize a logbook to find time to practice. Try and use a log to track what you spend your days doing when you’re trying to schedule your practice sessions. From your logbook, you’ll be able to see patterns in how you spend your time, and will hopefully be able to identify where you can fit practice time in.  Suggested further reading: It takes discipline and consistency to truly master a skill. Find out what to do following the first 20 hours in this article we wrote on work ethic. Suggested further reading: Find further ideas like these in this summary in this article we wrote on Work Ethic