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Ever felt like picking up a new skill or hobby, but got discouraged by the thought of spending endless hours just to get decent at it? In The First 20 Hours, Josh Kaufman challenges our assumptions about learning. He presents the “rapid skill acquisition” method that will allow you to develop any skill in just 20 hours. In this free summary of The First 20 Hours, you’ll learn how to significantly shorten your learning curve using 4 steps and key learning principles.

What’s The First 20 Hours About?

Before we can get good enough at anything, we must spend time to acquire a minimal level of skills to be effective.

Unfortunately, most of us are time-strapped. And, it can be especially frustrating when we first attempt to learn something new—because we’re just so bad at it.

What is Rapid Skill Acquisition?

As a learning fanatic, Josh Kaufman struggled to find the time for everything he wanted to learn and apply. He eventually developed the process of rapid skill acquisition, which has enabled him to get reasonably good at any skill with just 20 hours of focused, deliberate practice.

There are 4 main steps, supported by 2 sets of 10 principles (for learning and rapid skill acquisition respectively).  Here’s a visual overview:

The First 20 Hours summary - 4 steps and 10 principlesIn this free summary of The First 20 Hours, we’ll explain the ideas, steps, and principles behind the method, follow by a brief outline of how Kaufman applied the method in real life: to learn a yoga practice, write a web-based computer program, relearn touch-typing, learn GO (a strategy board game), play a musical instrument, and windsurf.

Concepts and Principles for Rapid  Skill Acquisition

Skills Acquisition vs Learning, Education, and Training

Skills acquisition is different from learning, training, or formal education. It is about gaining the ability to do something you couldn’t do before, such as riding a bicycle. It involves testing things out, practicing, and getting your hands dirty until you get it right.

This is slightly different from learning, formal education, or training.

Learning is about acquiring knowledge or understanding something conceptually, such as reading about how a bicycle works.

Education is about structured learning, and typically involves grades/credentials to prove you’ve learned something. For example, you might attend course about cycling, or get a certification to show you’re a qualified biking instructor.

Training is the next step after you’ve acquired a skill—to hone and improve your skill in order to become more efficient/effective. For example, you might train for a bike race.

Learn Just Enough

Your goal is to learn just enough to use a skill or ability, not to become an expert.

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that you need 10,000 hours to master a skill. This statistic is based on research conducted by Dr. Anders Ericsson, who was investigating what it took to master a skill or achieve world-class standards.

However, you don’t need to be the best-in-class to use or benefit from a skill. For example, you might want to know enough Spanish to visit Spain without a language barrier (not to speak/write like a native). You might want to learn to play your favorite songs on the piano (not to become a professional pianist).

To achieve these, you just need 20 hours of smart, focused practice to get to a good-enough level.

The 4 Steps for Rapid Skill Acquisition

The crux of this method is to break down a skill into its smallest-possible components, identify the most critical parts, then deliberately practice them.

This involves 4 main steps:
Deconstruct: Break down a skill into its tiniest-possible subskills;
Learn just enough about each subskill to start doing targeted practice and self-correction;
Remove barriers to practice, including distractions, fears, or discomfort; and
Commit ≥20 hours for deliberate practice, focusing on the most important or impactful subskills.

Do check out our full 12-page version of The First 20 Hours summary, for a breakdown of all 4 steps, along with:
• 10 Principles for Rapid Skill Acquisition; and
• 10 Principles for Effective Learning.

To learn any skill at a fraction of the time/effort, use the  10 rapid skill acquisition principles as your primary checklist, and the 10 learning principles as a secondary checklist.

Part 2: How to Apply the Method in Real Life

Kaufman shared how he applied the steps and principles above to learn 6 different skills, ranging from cognitive to physical activities.  In each case, he chose a specific goal, broke down the skill into manageable components, learned just enough to start practicing, and then dedicated focused time to practice and improve.

Example: Yoga

Kaufman wanted to learn Yoga to develop his physical strength and flexibility.

After some initial research, he set a simple goal: to learn a series of postures (asanas) that he could practice safely and effectively at home every day.

He got the required equipment: a yoga mat, a strap and a block.

Then, he spent a few hours with an experienced teacher to get the basics right. He learned that at the core, the asana practice is about moving through various positions with a focus on breathing and staying mentally present. It was not necessary to learn thousands of complex poses, adopt specific religions or diets.

He zoomed in on the Sun Salutation, 10 common poses, key breathing methods, and learned how to listen to his body to avoid injuries. This was enough for him to get started.

Thereafter, he scheduled 25 minutes each morning to practice, until he could complete the sequence by heart.

Time breakdown: Kaufman spent a total of 3 hours for initial research and learning the basics, and use the remaining hours for practice.

Other Examples

Feel free to check out our complete version of The First 20 Hours summary bundle, where we outline how  Kaufman applied the rapid skill acquisition method to learn:

• Programming: to develop a simple web application;

• Touch-typing using a different keyboard layout (Colemak instead of QWERTY);

• To play GO (the world’s oldest and most complex strategy board game);

• To playing the ukelele; and

• Windsurfing (but he ended up doing more paddle-boarding due to a lack of wind for practice).

Getting the Most from The First 20 Hours

By using the rapid skill acquisition method, and devoting around 1 hour daily to practice, Josh Kaufman managed to learn 6 new, complex skills within a year. More importantly, he cultivated a habit of continuous learning, and the courage to confront new challenges.

By applying the ideas in this book, you can do the same. All you need is to choose a skill you truly want to learn and are willing to commit to.
• Set aside around 1 hour daily for the next month.
• Before you start practicing, do some prior research to break down the skill and identify the key components to focus on.
• If you get stuck while practicing, try a new approach. Keep going until you reach your target performance level or the 20 hour mark, whichever is sooner.

Ready to start applying these ideas to learn any skill faster? Zoom in on the 4 steps, 10 principles, and application examples with our full book summary bundle. This includes an infographic, 12-page text summary, and a 26-minute audio summary.
The First 20 Hours Summary - Book Summary Bundle

In the book, Kaufman takes us through the 6 application examples in great detail, including his research findings, how he undertook each step, and applied the various principles above. If you’re interested in picking up any of these 6 skills specifically, do purchase the book here or visit Kaufman’s website ( for additional images, video, and notes to guide you through the process.

Looking for even more tips to learn faster and better? Do also check out our summaries for Ultralearning and Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

About the Author of The First 20 Hours

The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast was written by Josh Kaufman—an author, speaker and business coach. He specializes in topics such as business, entrepreneurship, productivity, behavioral psychology, and systems design, focusing on helping people learn how to make more money, get more done, and have more fun in daily life.  For more details, please visit

The First 20 Hours Quotes

“This book is a systematic approach to acquiring new skills as quickly as possible.”

“The true test of useful learning is prediction. Based on what you know, can you guess how a change or experiment will turn out before you do it?”

“When it comes to learning something new, there’s no sense in making it more difficult than it really needs to be.”

“If you want to acquire a new skill, you have to practice. There is no other way.”

“Complex things are simple when you break them down.”

“Remember, time is never found: it’s made.”

“If you don’t want to do something you’re currently doing, make it impossible to do. If you can’t make the behavior impossible, make it as difficult, expensive, or prohibitive as you possibly can.”

Click here to download The First 20 Hours infographic & summary


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