Thursday, 19 September 2013

The first 100 hours

So, I recently read The First 20 Hours, by Josh Kaufman. This books is very weird, in that it basically seems to consist of Josh Kaufman coming up with one pretty interesting idea, which can be written in about two sentences, or at most two paragraphs, and then trying to figure out a way to spin it out into an entire book.

The idea, basically, is that you will get surprisingly good at things surprisingly quickly if you just commit to practising them on a regular basis for a reasonable amount of time, and if this practice is sensibly directed. These ideas are amply summarised, along with several anecdotes, in the first 39 pages of the book, (which, incidentally, is in large type). In fact, the enormous majority of it is summarised in these 10 tips: 
  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 subskills.
  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
And yes, I agree, most of these are pretty obvious: I mean "obtain critical tools"? Here's me thinking I could learn to play the guitar with just a piece of string and some chewing gum...

The rest of the book is 5 examples of Kaufman applying his methods - he learns to play Go to a not-totally-terrible standard, buys a yoga mat (this is almost literally accurate - he "learns" yoga in a total of 3 hours practice, incidentally, his wife is a yoga instructor...). builds a simple website, learns to play the ukulele from scratch, and learns to windsurf.

Of these, the only one that is actually impressive is the ukulele - he goes form nothing to playing in front of a fairly large audience in literally a week which, while it is obviously possible when you stop to think about it, sounds exceedingly daunting the first time you hear it.

Anyway, pretty much the most important sentence in the book is one which I don't think is even in the book (I mostly skimmed it), but is certainly in his TEDx talk.
The major barrier to learning something new is not intellectual... it's emotional... feeling stupid doesn't feel good.
I'm not even entirely convinced that it's fear of feeling stupid. It's just easier to sit and watch TV than it is to pick up the guitar and play some terrible approximation of Au Clair de la Lune (because you haven't even started to learn tunes that you actually want to be able to know how to play), or try to figure out how to install an API so you can write your first Android app, or drop juggling balls all over the floor. I think the key idea in the book is that you should commit to spending 20 hours learning something (and admit that it's ok to be terrible at it for a good portion of those 20 hours), and just see how far that takes you.

So, anyway, I've decided to learn some new things. 20 hours a month is 40 minutes a day (which is conveniently just about the time I have left for myself if I come home in my lunch hour). I have decided to spend 100 hours over the next 6 months (allowing for the days when I don't get round to practising, etc) learning 5 new skills. I'll be keeping track of the time carefully (principles 7 and 9, I think).

I haven't yet decided what the 5 new skills are, but I think the first one will be playing the guitar. I bought a toy guitar from John Lewis a few months ago, and haven't played it at all because I can't tune it. When I recently got a new phone, on which the tuning apps actually work, it became much more appealing (obtain critical tools; remove barriers to practice). On the principle that generalists ship, and even though I'm very clearly in the dabbler phase right now. I'll try to record a video, or at least an audio recording of me playing something when I get to my 20 hours, and I'll post that, along with an update on what the next skill is going to be.

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