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20 Hours to Learn Anything

Most of us remember the blessed event when we had our first child. Every one of us remembers the aftermath of sleep deprivation and the feeling that “I’m never going to have any free time again.” If you are like me and really, really, enjoy learning new stuff, you figured out that through trial and error, you can learn just about anything. I am the perpetual learning junkie. So, when it came to the sleep deprivation, and the realization that I’m never going to have any free time for the rest of my life, I really freaked. Then after the kids are grown I read this book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers in which the central premise is that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything. Paradigm shift again. I don’t have 10,000 hours so I guess I will never learn anything new again. This can’t be: 10,000 hours is a full time job of 8 hours a day, five days a week for five years.

K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, did the original research called: The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. In this research he studied professional athletes, musicians, chess masters, and computer experts. His conclusion was that it would take at least 10 years or 10,000 hours to “master” anything. Then in 2007 we see Malcolm Gladwell come into the picture with his book Outliers: The Story of Success, and this is where the 10,000-hour rule emerged and later morphed. The message of the book was that 10,000 hours produced the top, ultra-competitive person in that field. Truly, the 10,000-hour rule was everywhere. Society accepted this but changed it to 10,000 hours to become an expert (wrong). This morphed into 10,000 hours to become good at something, then jumped to it takes 10,000 hours to learn something. It took the path of that party trick where you sit in a huge circle, whisper something to the person next to you, and slowly they whisper that original statement to the person next to them until it moves through the whole circle. The problem is that when the last person in the circle repeats what he heard out loud, it doesn’t even resemble the original message.

Research actually shows us something entirely different. If learning is depicted on a graph it looks like a curve where most of the learning occurs in the first 20 hours. It is amazing what you can learn in those first 20 hours. You can literally go from grossly incompetent to pretty good. The time after the first 20 hours shows a much slower learning curve and a much greater time investment to get only incrementally better. About now I’m thinking this may work. Remember, I’m the learning junkie and want to get good at a lot of things. This might just work and the science is behind me. My personal research has allowed me to take these 20 hours and do 45 minutes a day for a month and come out on the other side with a new skill.

So how do we practice effectively? How do we learn new skills? I want to show you a way to do this, a way that is applicable to anything.
Deconstruct the skill: Decide exactly what you want to be able to do when you are finished. Next, break down the task into smaller and smaller pieces. In a way, you are actually going to deconstruct it so that you can learn smaller skills. The more you break apart the skill, the more you will understand what it takes to accomplish it. Practice these most important parts first to improve your performance in the least amount of time possible.
Learn enough to self-correct: Get three or four sources of information (DVDs, CDs, a coach, books, seminars, Webinars, etc.). Too few ever get to this point. In fact, this may be the most important level to get to. It multiplies the learning speed and application. There is no learning without application. When you can “self-edit” as you practice, your skill really improves quickly. Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
Remove any barriers to practice: Find a spot that is yours alone so that you have the ideal place and setting in which to practice. No interruptions, distractions, or excuses.
Practice at least 20 hours: I found that there is a “frustration barrier” that each and every one of us needs to break through to learn a new skill. It is different for each of us, but you can’t let this get in the way of finishing the 20 hours. I define this frustration barrier as getting past the “grossly incompetent and knowing it” part of the journey. No one likes to feel stupid, so this is the key barrier to sitting down and doing the work it takes to own the skill. You need to pre-commit to the 20 hours so that you overcome that frustration barrier and reap the rewards.

The take away here is that there is a very small group of things you have to know to learn to do anything. The major barrier to learning something is not intellectual. It is most likely just being scared. We don’t like feeling stupid so the major barrier is emotional.

What do you want to know? What do you want to have? Keep on learning. You will find that you also get better at acquiring skills (the multiplier for success).

This is how you Summit.

Michael Abernathy, DDS
[email protected]
972-523-4660 cell