Two Approaches to Learning

Josh Kaufman argues you can learn anything in less than 20 Hours. This seems to contradict research that says it takes (on average) 10,000 hours to master a skill. Josh Kaufman doesn’t mean it takes you 20 hours to master a skill, it just takes that long to get “good enough”. This article explains two approaches and how to apply them effectively.

Getting “Good Enough”, Fast

Often you can learn very quickly at the start, then you slow down as you go on. One approach to learning is to get to the stage where a skill is enjoyable and useful. Effectively, this means accelerating the initial part of the learning process as much as possible. This approach is usually characterised by breaking down the skill into components, ruthlessly prioritising those components, and hard work on the most important aspects. This approach is all about getting good enough, fast.

“Many things aren’t fun until you’re good at them . Every skill has what I call a frustration barrier, a period of time in which you’re horribly unskilled and you’re painfully aware of that fact.”

Josh Kaufman, The First 20 Hours

Mastering a Skill

Another approach starts out slower but then accelerates. This is the best approach when you need to obtain a higher level of competence in. You generally learn the basics very deeply and well, and then slowly build up from a solid foundation.

“It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.”

– Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

Example: Language Learning

A prime example is language learning. The first approach could be used to order food, or introduce yourself, or do some other useful thing while in a foreign country. Often competence is all you need. Sure, if all you can do is order food some people might say you don’t speak that language. So what? If this is your goal then the first approach can get you there in the shortest amount of time, perhaps a few weeks.

In contrast, you may want to become fluent in a language. You may want to read books in that language, or just chat about anything with your new friends into the wee hours of the morning. If this is your goal, then getting a good grip on the basics will be important, and the “slow” approach will get you there much quicker than the “fast” approach.

The Right Approach Depends on your Goals

Think about a skill you want to learn. Then try to picture as concretely as possible what it would look like when you have learned it.

Many times, you will be happy just being good enough: you want to play a few of your favourite songs on guitar rather than jam out to any track by ear. You want to paint a cool picture rather than become king of the art world. If those are your goals, then try to find a quick way of getting there.

If your goals are more serious, and you really want to master something more deeply, then slow down and learn the basics well.

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