Review: The First 20 Hours

A few years ago, Josh Kaufman wrote The Personal MBA… I loved it.  It’s like having a stack of business books condensed and covering most of the things you’d want to know if you happened to be searching the ‘self-help’ or ‘start a business’ books section.  It is by no means the only book you need, in fact, here’s a link to Josh’s list of the 99 (and growing) best business books to read .

His new book, The First 20 Hours, is a very different project, it has more of Josh’s personal touch to it and is more about having fun (at least, in our eyes) than it is about business.  Why? It’s about learning.

Josh’s book is written as a polite and easily digestible treatise on why you should learn something new.  It’s also a slight rebuttal to the interpretations of 10,000 hour rule popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  The idea being that maybe you do have to put an average of 10,000 hours in to your craft to be a world champion or a master craftsman, but you don’t have to be a world champion to play tennis effectively, or a master craftsman to make your own pottery.  A close listen to his talk or a read through of the first chapters (the most important are the first 3, arguably) should lead readers to understand that it’s not a definitive ‘do this for 20 hours and you’ve ‘learned’ that skill’ but a ‘do this for 20 hours and try to be smart and organized about it and you’ll almost always be surprised at how much you can learn in that time.’

The first three chapters detail everything you need to know about the way Josh recommends you start thinking about learning new things, the following chapters are personal stories about him learning new skills.  Truthfully, I read the first three chapters and couldn’t stop myself rushing off to brush up on my piano skills. The remaining chapters I read for fun on a sunbed and then bought the audiobook because I enjoyed reading it enough that I wanted to listen back for inspiration as I was beginning a new skill.

There is no hard theory here, the book is Josh’s observations of learning and experience culled to make a great set of guidelines, rules, tips and encouragement.  Just as there is no book that will provide you with a chart of how to practice for 10,000 hours, all that can be offered is the encouragement to begin.  The chapters about him learning are enjoyable and surprisingly full of information on skills like Yoga, Ukulele playing, Programming and Touch Typing and you may even prefer those, but I’d rip through the first chapters and know that you have 5 or so great stories of learning to keep you motivated when you need it.

One of the most important things to remember with the book is that his stories are anecdotes and some don’t necessarily show him setting out to learn in the method he outlines, and are more reflections on how he learned something in the past few years.  He learned those skills effectively (by all appearances) anyway, and so I took that as a lesson to have the first three chapters at the back of my mind, but to remember that they are only guidelines, not rules.  You might take a few of them and learn a skill very effectively, but use a few others the next time around.  I found it really helpful though and a great summation of things I’ve seen or heard in the past brought together and explained simply.

Most of us can’t (or won’t) fit in 10,000 hours of practice,  but I don’t believe that’s something to beat myself up about.  In the cases of famous greats like Mozart and Bill Gates, very specific sets of circumstances existed that made them able to spend their youths writing music and programming respectively.  Personally, I’m interested in the feeling that I, and I’m sure many other people have or will someday have, that after the window of opportunity has begun to close, they’d like to take up a skill they dreamed of in their youth.

I read a boy’s question to know from yahoo posters if he could start practicing tennis in his at 18 and still become a world champion.  Now I don’t know if he might bust the biological trend or find some way to make that a reality, but the truth is it’s more likely that he won’t. However, if Josh Kaufman gets his way that same boy will spend 20 hours getting to grips with the game and might continue from there to a happy hobby that he wouldn’t have taken up if the image of his lofty (I see the Wimbledon trophy) goals and their likely huge shadow might cast over him.  I know so many people that spend so long building themselves up and talking themselves up (and social media has exacerbated the issue immensely in my opinion) that they’re terrified to actually follow through, lest they discover they are infact just as human as the kids outside playing the game or speaking the language or starting the business that they are only talking about.  Wouldn’t it be better to put down the image-creation-machine and actually live the life, as someone who flirted with those same tendencies for years (between 2010 and 2012) whilst putting his creative career on hold only to spend time talking on facebook about wanting to do my creative work instead, I think it is.

The book might be seen a little unscientific – again there’s no hard theory here or any kind of metric except your own inner panel of judges, but I didn’t see it in that light from day one.  I think it’s one of the best self-help books I’ve ever come across for good reason… most self-help books I read whilst noting down exercises and page numbers, knowing that I will almost certainly do none of those exercises, but that I might refer back to them as reminders in the future.  Josh’s book took an (albeit already present) spark to learn something new and became both a short and effective motivator (again, the first 3 chapters are readable in no time at all) and later a creed for me to push myself to learn even more.  It’s great fun to take away those psychological barriers and say, ‘I can easily fit 20 hours into my schedule over the next few weeks, that’s nothing’ and then realize it isn’t.  Josh learned a lot of skills in 20 hour blocks, I will be doing the same.

I completely recommend this book, and following it through whilst learning new things.  I have met so many people who seem so averse to learning new skills because they think they’re going to be bad at them (look who’s talking, for the first 3 sessions with my personal trainer, I apologised profusely every time I couldn’t finish a set of squats, much to his amusement.)

We’re inundated by images of masters and stories of prodigies, so much so that there’s a few we are only going to be mediocre.  There’s a story I heard in Music School about Benny Goodman replying to his neighbour’s compliment on his talent ‘talent? go practice everyday for ten years and then talk to me about talent’

But I’m not Benny Goodman, and you know what, in 20 hours, I bet someone could go from having absolutely no clue about how to make even one note from a clarinet to having a solid foundation, and maybe have caught the buzz for continuing to practice and improve, or to pick up another skill they’ve always wanted to try.

It’s a great, fun and entertaining book.  We here at Stickman all have giant lists of skills we’d like to learn, and the good thing is, we’re actually learning them.  There really is nothing like looking back at something you’ve achieved, especially when it’s something you’ve made an active decision in doing or learning, and saying ‘That’s me, that’s mine, I did that.’  And Josh’s book is the first one I’ve come across that makes taking that leap from ‘want’ to ‘do’ so effectively.

Excited about the book? Get it now at!

What skills have you always wanted to learn?  Are there any that you’ll throw down and announce you’re going to spend 20 hours trying out? We’d love to hear your story!

Author: Note

Joshua Note is the host of The Note Show ( He's a children's author and his debut book is due for release in 2014. A talk radio maven, he also enjoys jazz and gadgets.

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