Book Review: The First 20 Hours, How to Learn Anything Fast by Josh Kaufman

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.
– Henry Ford


I consider myself a learning junkie. I have a wide variety of interests such as chess, model railways, reading, DIY, programming, photography, travel, writing etc. Even the title logo of this blog is a collection of things that I am passionate about.  With a family of 2 children and a full time job, I find it is extremely difficult to spend time on my current hobbies let alone pick up new skills.

When I picked up the book, “The First 20 Hours, How to Learn Anything” by Josh Kaufman, I realized I am in the same boat as the author. Kaufman has a wide range of interests and claims that he spends a focused amount of time in learning something new and can become good at it in 20 hours. He calls this technique – “Rapid Skill Acquisition”. In this book, Kaufman covers the basics of this technique and explains how he applied it in learning a number of diverse skills. I was hooked!

How to learn anything fast!

Book Review: The First 20 Hours, How to Learn Anything Fast by Josh Kaufman

The First 20 hours, How to Learn Anything Fast is a book on “Rapid Skill Acquisition”. Kaufman claims that by following a disciplined process, it is possible to become fairly good in any skill in 20 hours of deliberate practice. The book starts off with a look at the 10,000 hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers: The Story of Success. Kaufman explains that 10,000 hour practice is needed for world class mastery, but not for becoming good at something. Most of the time we are not trying to become world champions or world class performers. We just want to be good at certain skills especially when we are pursuing hobbies such as chess or fishing.

Kaufman claims that it takes only 20 hours of disciplined and focused approach to learn any new skill from scratch (I am not sure from where he got this magical number!). He calls this approach “Rapid Skill Acquisition”. According to him there are four key elements of rapid skill acquisition,

  • Deconstructing a skill into the smallest possible sub skills
  • Learning enough about each sub skill to be able to practice intelligently and self-correct during practice
  • Removing physical, mental, and emotional barriers that get in the way of practice
  • Practicing the most important sub skills for at least twenty hours

Kaufman then explains the differences between skill acquisition, learning, training and education. This is followed by a detailed explanation of ten principles of rapid skill acquisition and ten principles of effective learning. I found these sections the most valuable part of the book. These principles also provide a good summary of the book,

Ten Principles of Rapid Skill Acquisition

  1. Choose a lovable project
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time
  3. Define your target performance level
  4. Deconstruct the skill into sub skills
  5. Obtain critical tools
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice
  7. Make dedicated time for practice
  8. Create fast feedback loops
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed

Ten Principles of Effective Learning

  1. Research the skill and related topics
  2. Jump in over your head
  3. Identify mental models and mental hooks
  4. Imagine the opposite of what you want
  5. Talk to practitioners to set expectations
  6. Eliminate distractions in your environment
  7. Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization
  8. Create scaffolds and checklists
  9. Make and test predictions
  10. Honor your biology

I loved the following extract quoted by Kaufman from another book, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by  David Bayles. This is a brilliant illustration of the power of practice (quality comes from quantity),

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an "A".

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

I found the first 40 pages of book informative and full of value. I have now adopted his methodology as a checklist whenever I try to learn something new. This book also got me interested in game of Go and Ukulele. 

However some may find that beyond first 40 pages of book, there is little to learn. In the remaining pages, Kaufman explains how he applied the rapid skill acquisition in his areas of interest. I liked these sections, but some readers may find it somewhat boring. I have also felt that in some chapters the learning process is presented as too easy and simple. For example, his learning process on programming seems so simple, yet in practice it is nothing but simple (except perhaps for geniuses). I think the author hides the fact that usually there is considerable time required for research activities. Hence you will end up spending much more than 20 hours to learn something.

I also ended up picking up a number of good books such as The Personal MBA and Art & Fear. Please see further reading section below for the full reading list.


The First 20 hours, How to Learn Anything Fast by Josh Kaufman is a mini manual for rapidly acquiring new skills. If you are passionate about learning new skills like me, you will find this book informative and engaging. The bulk of the book consists of how Kaufman applies the rapid skill acquisition techniques in acquiring skill in his areas. If that is not something you are interested in, I suggest you watch Kaufman’s TEDX presentation instead of buying the book.

Finally there is a larger question to answer before you pursue “rapid skill acquisition” to acquire a diverse set of skills. Do you want to be a jack of all trades and master of none?

For 37 years I’ve practiced fourteen hours a day, and now they call me a genius!
  – Pablo de Sarasate, Famous Spanish Violinist and Composer

My Rating: 7/10

Further Reading/Additional Resources

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October 22, 2015 | Posted in Opinion No Comments » | By Jayson Joseph

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