How to learn anything fast

In the book Outliers: The story of success – Malcom Gladwell tells that for attaining world class mastery in a particular skill you need to have 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. If you put in 3 hours of deliberate practice every day, then it will take around a decade to attain mastery. Most of us will not have that much time to invest. Also the skill you want to attain might not be a part of your daily job. Is there a solution?

In the book The first 20 hours – How to learn anything fast – Josh Kaufman tells that it is possible to attain a decent skill in anything within 20 hours. A decent skill will not make you a world champion. But instead you can develop the capacity to perform well enough for your own purposes. Excerpt from the book

Leave the ten thousand hours to the pros. We’re going to start with twenty hours of concentrated, intelligent, focused effort. We’re shooting for the results we value with a fraction of the effort. You may never win a gold medal, but you’ll reap the rewards you care about in far less time.

Watch the TED Talk given by the author- Josh Kaufman

I read the book and I really liked it. In this post I have captured the key points from the book to deepen my understanding.

Rapid skill acquisition in less time is the way to go. In the book the author defines rapid skill acquisition as

A way of breaking down the skill you’re trying to acquire into the smallest possible parts, identifying which of those parts are most important, then deliberately practicing those elements first.

Skill Acquisition vs Learning

Imagine you want to learn Ruby programming language. You buy the book Programming Ruby and read it completely. But you have not spent anytime writing code. This is learning. For acquiring the skill you need to practice it by writing code in Ruby.

Learning helps you plan, edit, and correct yourself as you practice. That’s why learning is valuable. The trouble comes when we confuse learning with skill acquisition. If you want to acquire a new skill, you must practice it in context. Learning enhances practice, but it doesn’t replace it. If performance matters, learning alone is never enough.

Ten principles of rapid skill acquisition

Here are the ten principles for rapid skill acquisition.

1. Choose a lovable project

If you are excited about a skill then you will acquire it quickly.

The best thing that can happen to a human being is to find a problem, to fall in love with that problem, and to live trying to solve that problem, unless another problem even more lovable appears – Karl Popper.

That reminds me of Warren Buffett quote

There comes a time when you ought to start doing what you want. Take a job that you love. You will jump out of bed in the morning. I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don’t like because you think it will look good on your resume.

2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time

For acquiring a skill you need to focus on one prime skill at a time. If you try to learn multiple things at the same time you will not learn anything well enough. Watch the video to see what happens to our brains when we do multiple things.

3. Define your target performance level

What you want to do with the skill once you acquire it? The answer to this question defines the target performance level you want to achieve.

Defining your target performance level helps you imagine what it looks like to perform in a certain way. Once you determine exactly how good you want or need to be, it’s easier to figure out how to get there.

4. Deconstruct the skill into sub skills

Remember the famous quote “When eating an elephant take one bite at a time“. Break the skills into multiple sub skills. Identify the critical sub skills and focus on that. This way you can make a lot of progress with less effort.

For example, playing a golf is a skill that has many subcomponents: choosing the correct club, driving off the tee, hitting out of a bunker, putting, et cetera.

5. Obtain critical tools

For acquiring the skill on Ruby programming you at least need to have a computer,ruby and a decent text editor installed. Similarly for learning any new skill you need to have the tools in place.

Taking a moment to identify critical tools before you start practicing saves precious time. By ensuring you have the resources you need before you begin, you maximize your practice time.

6. Eliminate barriers to practice

If you get distracted during practice then it will take longer to acquire the skill. You need to ensure that the following barriers are eliminated during practice.

  • Significant pre practice effort – Such as misplacing your tools, not acquiring the correct tools before practicing, or skipping setup requirements.
  • Intermittent resource availability – Such as using borrowed equipment or relying on a resource that has limited operating hours.
  • Environmental distractions – Such as television, ringing phones, and incoming e-mails.
  • Emotional blocks – Such as fear, doubt, and embarrassment.

7. Make dedicated time for practice

You need time to acquire a new skill. This time must come from somewhere. I used to watch 2 hours of television every day. In order to read more, I stopped watching television completely. I gained 14 hours every week and I use this time for reading. This post is a result of that!. Find out where the time is going to come from.

If you make a few tough choices to cut low-value uses of time, you’ll have much more time for skill acquisition. The more time you have to devote each day, the less total time it will take to acquire new skills. I recommend making time for at least ninety minutes of practice each day by cutting low-value activities as much as possible.

8. Create fast feedback loops

Fast feedback gives information about how well you are performing as quickly as possible.

The best forms of feedback are near instantaneous. That’s why skills like programming can become mildly addictive: you make a change, and a few milliseconds later the computer tells you whether or not it worked. If you don’t like the feedback, make another change and try again.

9. Practice by the clock in short bursts

Practice in short bursts.

The solution for this is to practice by the clock. Buy a decent countdown timer and set for twenty minutes. There’s only one rule: once you start the timer, you must practice until it goes off. No exceptions. This simple technique will make it easier to complete longer periods of sustained practice, even when you get tired or frustrated.

10. Emphasize quantity and speed

When you are starting to acquire a new skill, do not worry about perfection.

Instead of trying to be perfect, focus on practicing as much as you can as quickly as you can, while maintaing “good enough” form.

Ten principles of rapid effective learning

Here are the ten principles for rapid effective learning.

1. Research the skill and related topics

Spend some time searching the web, browsing a bookstore related to the skill.

The goal is to identify at least three books, instructional DVDs, courses, or other resources that appear to be connected to the skill you’re trying to acquire. The intent of this early research is to identify the most important subskills, critical components, and required tools for practice as quickly as possible.

Would it not take more than 20 hours to read three books? The idea is to skim the book and identify ideas that come up over and over again in different texts. For rapid skill acquisition skimming is better than deep reading. In the book How to read a book – Mortimer J. Adler calls this as inspectional reading. You can read more about inspectional reading here.

2. Jump in over your head

When you are start learning a new skill most of the concepts will be confusing. Do not panic. This is normal.

By default, the new information you’re consuming isn’t very comprehensible, since it’s not connected to anything you know or have experienced. Over time, the same information will become comprehensible once you have some experience under your belt. In the words of renowned yoga teacher T.K.V. Desikachar: “The recognition of confusion is itself a form of clarity“.

3. Identify mental models and mental hooks

Mental models are the most basic unit of learning. It is a representation inside our head of an external reality. In the field of software engineering this is called as design patterns. A design pattern is a general repeatable solution to a commonly occurring problem in software design. It is the vocabulary using which the developers communicate with each other.

I was recently helping my father set up a website. As I went along, I tried to explain what I was doing. At first, it was frustrating for both of us: I kept using words like “server,” and he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. Once Dad learned that a server is a special computer that delivers a web page to people who request it, and that the server was a different computer than the machine we were using, he found it much easier to understand what we were doing. In this case, server is a mental model – once you’re familiar with the term, it’s easier to understand the process of publishing a website.

The key is to identify the bigger ideas. In the book Succeeding – John T. Reed writes

When you first start to study a field, it seems like you have to memorize a zillion things. You don’t. What you need is to identify the core principles – generally three to twelve of them – that govern the field. The million things you thought you had to memorize are simply various combinations of the core principles.

Your learning gets deeper if you relate the new concept with something you already you know. These are mental hooks. Analogies and Metaphors are very useful for this.

4. Imagine the opposite of what you want

You want to learn the skill of investing in stocks. Your goal is to generate 15% return every year. Instead of focusing on 15% if you focus on not losing money in the first place then you are thinking about the opposite. This technique is called as inversion. Charlie Munger uses this a lot.

All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.

Excerpt from the book

This is a problem-solving technique called inversion, and it’s helpful in learning the essentials of almost anything. By studying the opposite of what you want, you can identify important elements that aren’t immediately obvious.

5. Talk to practitioners to set expectations

Talk to people who have acquired this skill already. This will set you in the right path for skill acquisition.

6. Eliminate distractions in your environment

This is very important for focused learning.

Well-meaning family members, colleagues, and pets are biological distractions. You can’t turn people off, but you can let them know in advance that you’ll be unavailable while you’re practicing, which makes it more likely they’ll respect your practice time without interrupting.

7. Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization

Charlie Munger tells that ‘Use it or Lose it tendency’. From the Psychology of Human Misjudgment

All skills attenuate with disuse. I was a whiz at calculus until age twenty, after which the skill was soon obliterated by total nonuse. The right antidote to such a loss is to make use of the functional equivalent of the aircraft simulator employed in pilot training. This allows a pilot to continuously practice all of the rarely used skills that he can’t afford to lose.

Excerpt from the book

Spaced repetition and reinforcement is a memorization technique that helps you systematically review important concepts and information on a regular basis. Ideas that are difficult to remember are reviewed often, while easier and older concepts are reviewed less often.

8. Create scaffolds and checklists

Human brain takes shortcuts and jumps to conclusions very easily. Checklists helps us to avoid this. They are handy in remembering things that must be done very time you practice. The Checklist Manifesto is an excellent book for this. Scaffolds are structures that ensures you approach the skill the same way every time.

Think of a basketball player who establishes a pre-free throw routine. Wipe hands on pants, loosen the shoulders, catch the ball from the ref, bounce three times, pause for three seconds, and shoot. That’s a scaffold.

9. Make and test predictions

Get into the habit of making and testing predictions.

The true test of useful learning is prediction. Based on what you know, can you guess how a change or experiment will turn out before you do it? Getting into the habit of making and testing predictions will help you acquire skills more rapidly.

10. Honor your biology

Humans are not machines. We perform at our best if we eat healthy, sleep and exercise regularly.

The optimal learning cycle appears to be approximately ninety minutes of focused concentration. Any more, and your mind and body will naturally need a break. Use that opportunity to exercise, rest, have a meal or snack, take a nap, or do something else.

In the reminder of the book the author shows how he learned the following skills using the rapid skill acquisition and effective learning.

  1. Yoga
  2. Programming in Ruby
  3. Touch Typing
  4. Board game Go
  5. Playing the Ukulele
  6. Windsurfing

If you want to buy the book – The first 20 hours – How to learn anything fast. Here is the trailer for this book.

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