Monday Mornings with Madison

Abbreviated Skill Mastery and the 20-Hour Rule

Word Count: 1,565 
Estimated Read Time: 6 min.

Today’s pace of change is relentless.  Processes, procedures and technologies are evolving daily.  The need to stay ‘in-the-know’ and update skills is an absolute necessity, not a nicety or option.  Yet, most professionals have trouble just keeping up with the daily demands of work much less carving out time to learn something new.  The average business exec struggles to find the time to learn new skills.

Indeed, acquiring new skills can be a daunting proposition because learning takes time.   After all, it is widely touted that it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient in any skill.  That is the number that author Malcolm Gladwell cited in his NY Times best-selling book, Outliers:  The Story of Success.[1] The problem is that 10,000 hours is equal to a full-time job for five years.   Few people who already hold down a full-time job can take on the equivalent of ‘another job’ to master a new skill.  That is the problem.  There is a deep need to learn but learning takes more time than the average working professional can devote to the task.  Does that mean everyone is doomed to obsolescence a few years after college?  Thankfully, the answer is no.  The solution is abbreviated mastery.

How Long Does it Take to Learn a New Skill?

No one is good the first time he/she tries a new skill.  Consider what it takes to learn to play the piano.  The first time someone tries to play the piano, he/she is likely to play it very poorly.  There is no muscle memory.  There is likely no ability to read music.  There is no eye-hand coordination.  It is all new and it normally sounds bad.  No one enjoys doing something badly.  So, after a few tries, most people quit out of frustration and irritation. That is true of coding, learning a new language, playing tennis or just about any skill.  However, it has been shown that, with just a little more effort and persistence, there can be dramatic improvement.  According to Josh Kaufman in his book, The First 20 Hours:  How to Learn Anything Fast“, “the human brain is optimized to pick up new skills extremely quickly. If you persist and practice in an intelligent way, you’ll always experience dramatic improvements in a very short period of time.”[2] So how does Kaufman’s research square up with the so-called “10,000 Hour Rule”?

A Better Understanding of the Learning Curve

First, there is a need to clarify the whole “10,000 Hour Rule” misrepresentation.  It was K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, who was the first to study just how much time it takes to ‘ace a skill’.  Ericsson studied people in the areas of music, chess, medicine, and sports.  He wanted to find out what it takes to become the best in the world in highly competitive fields.  He was not just looking at how long it takes to learn a skill, become good at it, or even master it.  He was looking at what it takes to become preeminent – the best of the best — at a particular skill.  And, he wasn’t just looking at just any skill.  He was looking at skills that were highly competitive and difficult to master.   It was Ericsson’s research that served the basis for the now widely-quoted “10,000-hour Rule” that was cited by Gladwell and others.  Ericsson found that the people who are at the tippy-top of their career spent about 10,000 hours of learning / practice to achieve a level of mastery that enabled them to perform at the ‘top of their game’ in a highly competitive field such as playing the violin, being a chess grand master, or being a soccer superstar.

The problem is that Ericsson’s findings were diluted over time.   People began to say that it took 10,000 hours to become an expert at any skill.  Then people said it took 10,000 hours to become good at any skill.  And, finally, people said it took 10,000 hours to learn a skill.  Clearly, there is a huge difference between learning any skill at moderate proficiency versus mastering a highly-competitive skill on par with the best performers of that skill worldwide.

Daunted by the “10,000 Hour Rule”, Josh Kaufman researched the topic.  Kaufman found that while it might take 10,000 hours to become the David Beckham of professional soccer, it does not take 10,000 hours to be able to learn to play soccer reasonably well.  In fact, he argues that most anyone “can go from knowing absolutely nothing about a particular skill to performing it noticeably well in a very short period of time:   approximately 20 hours; often less.”[3] He calls this “rapid skill acquisition”.  It is the difference between a person who wants to learn how to do basic computer coding versus a person who wants to be a Software Engineering Director at Apple.  Most people do not need to achieve a level of mastery in any skill that would allow them to compete with the best of the best in the world.  They need just enough proficiency to be useful at work.  According to Kaufman, “For career skills, the focus is on performing well enough to produce a result that’s meaningful.”[4]

Kaufman offers a systematic approach for learning new skills as fast as humanly possible.

Step 1 – Identify a specific skill or knowledge to acquire.

Step 2 – On a blank sheet of paper, do a “brain dump” for 15 minutes in which you write everything known about that topic.

Step 3 – List the pioneers and subject matter experts in that field.

Step 4 – If subject matter experts have they written any books on the subject, compile a bibliography of those books that could potentially help master the subject.

Step 5 – Check the bibliography of each book written by the pioneers and subject matter experts to identify additional sources of expertise.

Step 6 – Ask colleagues or people with expertise in the topic for additional books or journal recommendations.

Step 7 – Visit a good reference library.  Order the books on the list if the library doesn’t have them.

Step 8 – When all the books are available, spend half a day inspecting the books and journals listed in the compiled bibliography.  Identify all the books that are ‘relevant’ versus ‘marginal’ to learning about the topic.  Reduce the number of relevant books on the list to the top 10 that provide important information about the topic.  Review those to get a cursory understanding of the topic.

Step 9 – Clarify the information sought. Distinguish between ‘must know’ and ‘nice to know’.  In the books identified as relevant, find the most relevant passages and record page numbers.  Create a chart.  With a cursory understanding of the topic, identify the 10 core concepts/ideas that form the basis of the subject.  Write them on the chart.  Then, by author / book, write down the information that covers each of the 10 core concepts/ideas.

Step 10 – Read and analyze all the information gathered and distill the information germane to the subject.  Compare / contrast and interpret the information on each of the 10 core concepts/ideas.  Concentrate on understanding the core concepts/ideas.

Step 11 – Begin implementing the skill.  It helps to pre-commit to practicing the skill for 20 hours, which helps to get through the early hours of frustration.  It takes 20 hours of deliberate practice to gain basic competence.

Step 12 – Upon learning just enough of the concepts, start implementing them in real ways, not just in canned tutorials.  Work on small tasks that show real results.  Small successes are encouraging to keep going.

One might say that perseverance – as evidenced by practice in the face of frustration — is actually the skill applied most.  According to Kaufman, “The real priority is to practice enough to get the results you’re looking for, not to attain a certain level of status or competitive performance.   In the research literature, this phenomena is called the ‘power law of practice.’  It is one of the most consistent findings in skill acquisition research.  This effect has been documented in studies dating back to 1926.  It has also been replicated in numerous studies of physical and mental skill acquisition since then.[5] In sum, 20 hours of dedicated practice on a researched, well-understood skill can accelerate the learning process to achieve abbreviated mastery or, at least, a decent level of proficiency.

With the pressing need to remain current and relevant, professionals must constantly be learning something new.  The belief that acquiring a new skill requires a huge investment of time, however, has been largely debunked.  Instead, the threshold for learning enough about a skill to be functional is set at 20 dedicated hours of practice.  This investment of time is manageable by even the busiest of execs.  Of course, that level of skill is not enough to warrant a high-level, complex position in a major organization or the title of expert or guru.  But often a degree of proficiency – an abbreviated mastery – is all that is needed to function.

Quote of the Week

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
Alvin Toffler

[1] By:  Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers:  The Story of Success, Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY, 2008.

[2] By:  Josh Kaufman, The First 20 Hours:  How to Learn Anything Fast”, The Penguin Group USA, New York, NY, 2013.

[3] By:  Josh Kaufman, The First 20 Hours:  How to Learn Anything Fast”, The Penguin Group USA, New York, NY, 2013.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid.


© 2018, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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