How To Be Good Enough At Anything In 20 Hours

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When was the last time you got reasonably good at something new for the first time?

I am no MasterChef, but in the past few months, I’ve been learning how to cook the perfect medium-rare ribeye steak. Unlike Gordon Ramsay, I didn’t spend 10,000 hours in the fiery kitchens of London and France, but I managed to get a respectable crust on a succulent, juicy slab of beef.

In this article, I’m going to share my perspective on the concept of the 10,000-hour rule to mastering any skill, and why we probably don’t need that long to get reasonably well at anything new in reality.

Photo credits: Clark Young

The 10,000-hour rule

Go out to the streets and ask anyone about the 10,000-hour rule. Many of them would probably have heard about it. But are you aware that it is a misinterpretation of research?

The research in question was first published in 1993 by K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist from Florida State University. It was then later popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 bestselling book, “Outliers”. Essentially, it is the notion that we need at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert or master performer in any given field.

Since then, it has become sort of a global phenomenon. According to Google Trends, people didn’t know about this concept until Gladwell brought it to light.

Source: Google Trends (01 Jan 2005 to 21 Sep 2021)

However, what people don’t realize is that there are two small caveats to this concept.

Firstly, the number 10,000 is arbitrary. This just happens to be the number of hours that promising violinists had put in by the time they were 20 years old. The point here is that to become an expert, one would need to invest in many hours of deliberate practice, and this need not necessarily be 10,000.

Imagine how much good beef I would have to waste just to hit that 10,000-hour mark. Oh, the blasphemy!

Secondly (and also the main point of this article), you only need that much time and effort if you want to become an expert or a leader in a very niche subject. In other words, if all you want is to be “good enough” so you can get on with life, you only need as little as 20 hours.

Photo credits: Waldemar Brandt

We only need 20 hours to be good enough at something new

In his 2013 presentation at TedxCSU, Josh Kaufman introduces “4 simple steps to rapid skill acquisition” which will help us become “reasonably good” at something. The steps are described as follows:

  1. Deconstruct the skill
  2. Learn enough to self-correct
  3. Remove practice barriers
  4. Commit to at least 20 hours of practice

To help you appreciate this concept better, let’s revisit my time in the kitchen with my beautiful steaks.

Step 1: Deconstruct the skill

"Most of the things that we think of as “skills” are actually big bundles of skills…"

This is probably one of the most overused clichés – to overcome huge challenges, first break it down into smaller pieces. This helps us identify and focus on the parts that will make the most impact on our learning first.

Back in the kitchen, this is where I take a step back and break down the process of cooking the perfect steak: (i) preparing the beef, (ii) seasoning the beef, (iii) searing the beef, and (iv) resting the beef.

Step 2: Learn enough to self-correct

"Learning becomes a way of getting better at noticing when you’re making a mistake, and then doing something a little different."

The next step requires us to exercise self-awareness. “What you want to do,” explained Kaufman, “is learn just enough that you can actually practice and self-correct”.

Here, I’m busy noticing and taking notes about how I’m executing the steps, and adjusting them according to the outcome. Did I dry brine the beef for at least eight hours? Did I add enough seasoning? Am I using the right oil and pan? How long do I sear the beef for? Did I rest the beef long enough before serving it?

With enough practice, we should become more aware of the “right” conditions that will produce the intended outcome. If not, keep trying. You’ll get it eventually, I know you can.

Photo credits: Dillon Winspear

Step 3: Remove practice barriers

The third step of this process is all about making it easy for us to practice. Like how a messy and dirty kitchen can discourage me from practising my steak-craft, distractions in our immediate environment can derail us from performing the actual practices altogether.

To ensure that I am consciously putting in the work to practice, I make it a point to ensure that I will always have a healthy supply of beef for me to cook every week. I also make sure that I have all the other ingredients I need so I wouldn’t have to make any last-minute grocery runs.

Step 4: Commit to at least 20 hours of practice

The last part of Kaufman’s method is where everything comes together. This is where Kaufman suggests that we “pre-commit” 20 hours ahead of schedule to our cause. This will compel us to “stick with the practice long enough to actually reap the rewards”.

In my case, I committed myself to Wednesdays being “steak day” for the next six months. I would have made every other day “steak day” if not for the fact that good steak is expensive in my country, so I’ll just have to make do.

Photo credits: Hello I'm Nik

Good enough, is good enough

Learning a new skill can be a daunting process, and it’s no easy feat. However, it’s important to realize that we often don’t need to be “top of the field” to do a piece of work well.

With just 4 simple steps, we reduced the amount of time needed to learn something new down to 20 hours. All that matters now is to decide what do we want to learn next, and how well do we want to get at it.

In my culinary journey, I’m excited to share that while I’m not putting out fine dining-worthy steaks, but it’s good enough for me and my partner to enjoy date night with a fine bottle of wine.

Are you inspired to make some steaks for yourself? I would love to know how this works out for you, so please let me know how it goes in the comments below, or reach out to me on LinkedIn or Instagram. I look forward to seeing your amazing results!

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About the author
Terry Toh

Terry Toh

Terry is an aspiring life coach working towards his accreditation by the International Coaching Federation. He loves to read about personal development and entrepreneurship, often with a nice cup of coffee or G&T in hand.
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