• Robb G. Best

Cheating the Ten Thousand Hour Rule

The 10,000 hour rule helped to make Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers a smashing success. Gladwell got the idea from the work done by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson at Florida State University. Ericsson’s research showed it takes roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to be considered a master of any given subject. From Bill Gates to violinist Itzak Perlman to Michael Jordon, 10,000 hours of focused practice is necessary to reach expert status.

But what if you don’t want to be an expert? What if you have no aspirations to play the violin or the Knicks at Madison Square Garden? What if you just want to bang away at an instrument or play a couple of pick-up games without embarrassing yourself with your jumpshot? Josh Kaufman’s The first 20 hours: how to learn anything fast might be the book for you.

Kaufman’s idea is that if you follow the right principles, 20 hours of dedicated practice will get you one step closer to fulfilling your bucket list of things you’ve always wanted to learn.

Kaufman says the first step is to determine is your framing mindset. According to Carol Dweck, psychologist and author of Mindset, people tend to fall into two frames of mind.

"Fixed mindset" means viewing skills and talents as innate.These people see their genetic predisposition as a huge detriment to new skill mastery. ("Nobody in my family can dance, so I doubt I’ll ever be able to learn to polka.")

The second perspective is the “growth mindset.” Here, skill acquisition is seen as the practical implementation of regular practice. ("All I’ve got to do is watch the YouTube video Yes Wilbur, you can learn to Polka, and after I follow along with the instructor’s footwork a couple of hundred times, I’ll eventually get it.")

Scientific studies are beginning to lean towards option two. learning new skills is more about good practice than good genetics. So we might think that with some exceptions, like basketball player height, the biggest determining factor for success is that age-old adage ‘practice makes perfect.’

Except Kaufman’s whole point is that you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be good enough to enjoy yourself. It’s that puritan drive for perfection in many of us that robs of us of even attempting to learn a new skill. Kaufman suggests that if your outlook tends to be fixed mindset, you might consider reframing.

The growth mindset says, "I don’t have to win the Wisconsin Polka Invitational; I just need to be able to crank out a mildly recognizable rendition of Beer Barrel Polka as I sashay around the dance floor."

To that end, Kaufman gives us his 10 principles of rapid skill acquisition. He says if you follow these principles, you can pursue any number of your dreams with a reasonable measure of success.

  1. Choose a project that you are excited about. (If you don’t absolutely love the taste of beer and cheese against the backdrop of a wild night of accordion music, polka might not be for you.)

  2. Focus your energy on only one skill at a time. (So don’t try to learn to fly a plane and Polka at the same time. This one seems fairly obvious.)

  3. Define your target performance level. (You’ve got to decide ahead of time how many Polka moves will make you happy.)

  4. Deconstruct the skills into sub-skills. (Breaking your polka steps down one step at a time makes it easier to understand the dance.)

  5. Obtain critical tools (You might need to borrow your friend with the accordion for some extra polka practice time, and don’t forget those new polka shoes.)

  6. Eliminate barriers to practice (Make your polka practice time on a different day than your bird watching day.)

  7. Make a dedicated time for practice (Establishing a routine is one of the keys to creating good habits, or polka mastery.)

  8. Create fast feedback loops (Have a trusted friend who is up to date on the latest Polka moves evaluate your fancy footwork to make sure you aren’t developing any bad habits)

  9. Emphasize quantity and speed (Kaufman suggests that repetition along with striving to go faster is the key to skill acquisition. This contradicts The Talent Code, which posits that mastery should be achieved prior to speed to facilitate the best new neural circuitry.

  10. Practice by the clock in short bursts (Studies show 20 minutes of intense practice is about all the brain can process in one sitting, or in this case one dancing.)

If you follow these ten steps, after about 20 hours of intense practice, I should see you out on the ol’ dance floor.

I suspect Myron Floren and the great Maestro, Laurence Welk, are smiling somewhere down from above.

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