Between 10 000 and 20 hours

Want to know how long it takes to learn something? Some say it takes 10 000 hours or 10 years. Some say 20 hours. As the variation is quite enormous between the two, this topic deserves some attention.

In short, both of these answers are a misinterpretation of the original idea. The 10 000 hour rule (and idea about 10 years) was born out of research by K. Anders Ericsson, in which the very top performers in their very competitive and narrow fields, chess grand masters and such, were studied. It was discovered that it took about 10 000 hours of deliberate practice to become a world-class expert. However, this 10 000 hours was then misinterpreted into meaning that it takes 10 000 hours to become an expert. And this was interpreted that it takes 10 000 hours to learn something. This, if one thinks about it, just does not make sense as that would mean a full time job for almost 5 years (calculated with a 5-day work week and 8 hours/workday).

Then came Josh Kaufman who likes to learn and after his daughters birth was busy like as parents of babies tend to be. In his TEDxTalk he explains how to learn anything in 20 hours. However, as with the 10 000 hour rule, this too has been taken out of context and misinterpreted. It just might be that in this case it is the title that is a tad easy to misinterpret. What he, however, actually says in his talks that if you deconstruct a skill, take the most essential features and practice those for 20 hours, you will get past the point  of being abysmally bad and knowing it into being kind of ok. If anyone is interested in downloading his book legally, follow this link.

In reality the actual number of hours is somewhere in between depending on your brains connections, excitability of different brain regions, genetics, motivation and resources. It depends on you, what you have learned and done previously as well as what you are learning. This isn’t nearly as sexy an answer as 20 hours or as depressing a one as 10 000 hours, but it is closer to reality. If you are learning your first foreign language, you are an adult who has never even heard a another language spoken at any length of time, it will take you time to learn to even hear the sounds. If it is your 7th language, it won’t take you nearly as long.

This, however, does not mean that the idea of the 20 hours is futile. There is a lot of sense in it and, personally, I like it a lot. It requires you to

  • research the skill
  • to find the essential components in it
  • to decide what you actually want to learn and be able to do
  • to make a plan on learning those features
  • a commitment of doing 20 hours of deliberate practice
  • actually doing the work
  • overcome the initial “I can’t do this, I hate this, I suck at this!” onto the side where you can actually see your skills developing, which can be a source of intrinsic motivation to study and learn more

Now, after this first 20 hours, the speed of adoption can dwindle, but one has already seen that they can learn, so it easier to accept. Then, also, there is also the option of widening the goals, maybe on top of learning to understand a language, one wants to speak it or write it and giving that another 20 hours. This kind of planned and deliberate learning process containing deliberate practice of the skill one wants to acquire seems like a very good way of getting over the initial feeling that prevents many of us succeeding in our learning goals and actually succeeding in them. However, if your goal is to become an expert, it is best to prepare for the fact that 20 hours will just scratch the surface on the road of becoming an expert. Luckily, for most of us, the 20 hours is closer to what we actually need than the 10 000 hours or the 10 years of the expertise studies.

So, how long does it take to learn anything? Its up to you, what you have done and what you do. If you adopt the idea of deliberate practice from the expertise studies and the process described by Kaufman, it won’t be anywhere near 10 000 hours. The 20 hours can really take you from the place where learning is hard and frustrating into the very motivating place where you can see your skills improve.

And if you are just learning about how to learn effectively, there are plenty of resources on the web for efficient learning techniques and I plan to write about them as well. They can really help.

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