The First 20 Hours

Joshua Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA and The First 20 Hours, is an author and entrepreneur who focuses on business, skill acquisition, and practical wisdom. He is a multi-bestselling author and his shared knowledge has helped millions.

How can we learn things in a way that allows us to go from knowing absolutely nothing to becoming very good at something in a short period of time?

The often quoted time period for becoming an expert is 10,000. This may be true for what most people consider an expert, but to become very good at something only needs around 20 hours. The method for learning something very quickly includes five steps.

Step 1: Establish the goal

Decide exactly what you want. This has to be specific, and the more specific the better. What exactly do you want to do? What will it look like when finished?

The more clear the goal is the easier it will be to find a way to accomplish the desired end result. Instead of “get fit” – is it possible to be more specific? Do you want to improve your cardiovascular endurance or do you want to build up your muscle mass by using resistance training? Do you want to lose weight – if so, how much? How much do you want to bench?

When it comes to the stock market, instead of having the goal “I want to make money in the stock market”, choose “I want to be a successful trader” or “I want to be a successful investor”. You may not have that much knowledge of the stock market, but do you want to trade breakouts, or bottom pick? Do you want to invest for capital growth, or for dividends?

Step 2: Deconstruct the skill

Most things we think of as skills aren’t just one skill. They are often bundles of smaller sub-skills. For example, taking a penalty requires very different skills to beating your man on the pitch. An expert penalty taker may not be the best dribbler. Likewise, a successful breakout trader may not be the best short trader.

By deconstructing the skill into several parts we can see exactly what needs to be done.

Step 3: Research the most important sub-skills

Once we have broken down the skill into a range of sub-skills we need to be sure we learn the right ones. It’s no good learning plenty of sub-skills only to find out they are not very relevant to our overall skill. Imagine learning how to take penalties, free-kicks, and corners, and then finding out that you will spend 95% of the game passing, moving, and dribbling. This seems obvious to us, because we understand the rules of football, but in a completely new field very often the most important skills are not obvious.

Pick a selection of materials to research from, for example books, internet videos, articles, in order to find between three to five of the most important sub-skills. In trading, it’s no good having the highest probability entry if you don’t have any risk management. It’s no good investing a large amount of your portfolio into a stock that is making lots of revenue and profit if they aren’t converting that profit to cash. Revenue is vanity, profit is sanity, cash is reality.

Don’t let this research become a form of proscrastination; skim them, find the recurring themes. Those are what you want to note down and learn.

Once you have picked the most important sub-skills, it’s time to move onto the next step.

Step 4: Remove obstacles to practice

There are many distractions in life, and very often difficult to say no to. The key is to pre-empt these distractions and head them off with proper planning. Imagine you are on a strict bodybuilding regime and your friends want to go to a burger joint. You have two choices:

  1. Go, or
  2. Not go

Not going and staying in would be rather boring, but you also don’t want to go and eat a burger as you have to be strict with yourself. What if you ate a smaller meal than usual before you left, enough to remove the hunger pangs but enough to leave you some spare calories in your daily allowance, and then ordered a salad when you are at the restaurant?

This option requires more effort of course, but it does make option 1 of going now possible.

Social media is designed to steal our time and encourage us to interact, so they can sell sponsored adverts to companies that direct their message towards us. If you want to learn something, restrict social media time. Everyone is busy, but we can remove obstacles by being selective with our time and turning off the TV.

Step 5: Commit to 20 hours of practice

Finally, the last step is to practice what you have learned. Set aside the hours, and take the time to understand and improve your skills. 20 hours of quality time without distractions, focusing on the relevant material, will allow you to go from conscious incompetence to conscious competence.

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