Book review: “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast”

In the ever-changing work environment, Information Developers must constantly acquire new skills to stay professionally relevant. I assume that we all have our learning strategies and strive for perfection. As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect”. But how often do we give up the mere idea of learning just because we remember the popular theory of 10.000 hours of practice that inevitably separates us form perfection?

Today I would like to share my impression of the book “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast” by Josh Kaufman, one of the world’s top 100 business authors. In his book, Kaufman explains that quick acquisition of any practical skill is possible within just 20 hours – or even less. The book, first published in 2013, became a bestseller right away. Since then, the idea that quick learning is possible keeps making a significant shift in the minds of aspiring learners.

Our problem with learning

The book can be divided into two parts – theoretical and practical. The “theory” part starts with a description of the usual scenario that I can totally apply to myself. We dream of learning so many things in our life – from programming to playing the guitar or speaking another language. However, one of the things that usually stops us from making the first step is the frustration at the very beginning, when we are at the lowest point of a learning curve. We are afraid of failure, of being lost, ignorant, and ridiculous, and so we never start. Besides, we are convinced that learning would require significant investment of time, and so we end up saying: “I’ll do that when (if) I find time for that.” The time is never “now”- it is always “someday”. My verdict: so true.

“Rapid skill acquisition” is the new black

After shedding light on learners’ misconceptions, the book offers a universal approach to quick learning. The suggested technique of rapid skill acquisition (or a 20-hour method) should help us go through the least pleasant period of learning as quickly as possible. How? By dedicating 100% of our attention and motivation to practicing a skill for only 20 hours in total. That sounded like a miracle to me.

Work smarter, not harder

As the author suggests, before following the 20-hour method, we have to understand our learning needs correctly. Consider this:

  • Firstly, skill acquisition is not academic learning. There is a difference between memorizing the rules of grammar and practicing speaking a foreign language. By following the 20-hour method, we focus specifically on acquiring practical skills, so that we are able to “operate on a decent level”.
  • Secondly, when we just start practicing, we should not aim at the highest level of mastery. We just need to “perform well enough for our own purposes”, so we must define these purposes. For example, if you start practicing playing the guitar, you probably will not become the next Jimi Hendrix, but you will be able to play decently enough for entertaining your friends at a party.

With that in mind, let us proceed to the key ingredients of the 20-hour method:

  • Select a skill you are motivated to acquire. Choose something you really need or like.
  • Get prepared. Build your roadmap by finding out what exactly you must know to master the fundamentals of the skill.
  • Split the skill into smaller subskills. You will deal with each of them step by step, one at a time.
  • Eliminate obstacles. Get rid of any distractions during the practice sessions.
  • Practice for at least 20 hours in total. Do it consistently and systematically, with full concentration and dedication. A learning session should not last longer than 90 minutes.
    In the previous post, my colleague Yaryna Ivashkiv mentioned the Pomodorro technique as one of the ways to manage time and get things done efficiently. Well, the 20-hour method suggests a similar approach: practicing with full concentration for several 20-minute intervals.
  • Correct yourself as quickly as possible. Use all the means you have – be it videos or expert advice – to check that you are doing it right.

Without any more spoilers, the theory is as simple as that. When I was reading this, it seemed like common sense to me, but still I was not sure how I could apply this method to a skill of my choice.

For those in doubt, the second, “practical” part of the book comes to the rescue. In this part, the author tells (or rather demonstrates) us how the 20-hour method helped him master six various skills: yoga, programming, touch typing, Chinese game of Go, playing the ukulele, and windsurfing. This interesting and inspiring text perfectly illustrates how the method can be used in specific real-life situations. Moreover, as you read, you can reproduce the steps described: they are well explained by the author.


The rapid skill acquisition method, illustrated with the real-life examples, has truly impressed me. Some facts related to the learning theory were a true revelation to me.  Would I try this method, or should you? You know, for a person whose “things-to-learn” list keeps growing in size and getting more and more unrealistic, Josh Kaufman’s quick skill acquisition method gives a new hope and strong motivation.

So, would you try this method to make your learning dreams come true? Come on, I dare you!

P.S. As a bonus, here is the link to the 20-minute TEDx Talk in which Josh Kaufman speaks about his method.

For more book reviews, see:

Book review: Be a better writer. Tips to improve your writing – no matter what you write!

4 Reasons to Move with the Cheese

Made to Stick: SUCCES against the Curse of Knowledge

Made to Stick: Additional resources to arm yourself

Put Your Finger on Design



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