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How to learn any skill in 20 hours

A few weeks ago, our Developer book club was discussing a chapter from 12 Essential Skills for Software Architects, and during our discussion one of my colleagues mentioned a rather well known statistic called the ‘10,000 hour rule’, hereafter the 10KHR, which basically stipulates that to become an expert in any given field it takes about 10,000 hours of practice. Now I’ve heard this quoted several time, and always found it very discouraging. Many simply don’t have the time to do this with anything but out jobs! After all , if you assume one works 50 weeks a year at 40 hours a week, that 10,000 hours would mean something like 5 years at your job! And for a hobby you might pursue in your free time, 15 years might just barely cut it…

However, I recalled a Ted Talk which I found to be very encouraging in this regard, and shared it with the group. The speaker explains his research into the subject of the 10KHR, and his finding on how to learn a skill as fast as possible! My explanation of this man’s talk would fail in comparison so I have embedded the video here for your enlightenment. Please watch it and then I can continue my discussion.

To re-iterate some of his most important points, The 10KHR generally applies to experts in a very competitive and high-intensity field. In my estimation, most fields are not this, but moreover, he mentions that the 10KHR has suffered the telephone game effect, in that many consider that to be the goal for any level of skill. According to the speakers research the reality is that with just 20 hours of intelligent dedicated practice you can build up sufficient skill to be good enough to accomplish your goals.

To accomplish this intelligent and dedicated practice, the speaker sets out 4 steps, listed here. The Steps are:

  • Deconstruct the Skill – Decide what you want to be able to do when you are done, and break it down based on this
  • Learn enough to self-correct – Learn what it looks like when its right and when it is wrong. But not so much that never get to practicing.
  • Remove barriers to practice – Distractions  like TV and internet etc. Or missing materials, like paint or getting a Drum kit.
  • Practice for at least 20 hours – Beware the frustration barrier! Push through it and succeed! (see item 3)

Now personally, I have only been working on this for a limited time, so my example of this may be somewhat limited. I have decided that I want to be able to pick up painting. But not just any painting, I want to be able to paint like this:

It is a Japanese style of landscape painting called Shan Shui, which is mono-chromatic. For those who know better, please feel to correct any of my unintentional errors! However I have always admired these works and longed to be able to paint one myself. So following the speaks advise, here is what I have seen for each of the steps.

  1. Deconstruct the skill

Since the paintings are mono-chromatic, I will need to learn how to achieve the grays seen here. Since the style is water color, I will need to learn to mix enough pigment to get the darker colors, and whether I need to concern myself with the drying time. I will also need to learn how to handle the brush appropriately to create the rigid structures seen in the example, as well as some of the more free-flowing designs seen in other samples. Finally, since the picture would not be complete with out the Kanji letter, I will probably need to spend some time learning to write the Kanji, though this may not be necessary, and I will treat as optional for the time.

  1. Learn enough to self-correct

This is the research stage, and obviously Youtube would be an ideal candidate for some hand-off learning. However to get the most out of watching painters in the style, or perhaps even Bob Ross for some transferable skill; the best way to use this instruction is to try to follow along, and to repeat the strokes seen by the demonstrator until the correct application of strength is found.

It might also be worth while to look into painting classes from the local Community college, or community center. Additionally, it could be useful to look for exhibitions in the local Museums as well.

  1. Remove Barriers to Practice

Naturally the biggest barriers at the beginning are material. I will need paint, and brushes and canvases to practice on. The next biggest would be my personal mental barrier to wasted materials. This arises from my personal dislike of waste, which at present I realize I have the potential to consider the practice materials. I will have to work on this incrementally, and perhaps set aside some funds specifically to be spend on materials which will not end up being a successful painting.

Perhaps lastly, are the barriers to getting up and actually practicing. Since these are mental mostly, they can be mitigated by having my wife help me remember that I wanted to learn this skill. Perhaps by hanging one of the inspiring painting where I can see it frequently to help me remember what I am hoping to achieve, and perhaps lastly, by placing a small enjoyable reward that I could receive after completing some portion or all of the skills practice.

  1. Practice at least 20 hours

With the knowledge I would get in step 2, and the materials from step 3, the only this needed is to spend the time to actually do it, with intent. You cannot simply walk to the batting cage and idly put in 100 swings and call it a day. I would need to set out during each practice session to practice a particular part of the skill, whether it be on my flowing lines or on blending my grays into blacks. Each session be it 1 hour or 3, would need a defined purpose ahead of time, and hopefully some measurable increment of success as well.

Overall, I am hopeful that perhaps someday I might learn the Shan Shui style. But I hope you have found some hope in the speakers message, and perhaps some tangible help in the form of my example. If you find yourself interested, please post your plan for practicing your new skill in the comments!

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