Principles for Rapid Skill Acquisition and Learning

I want to share more takeaways from The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!. The major premise of the book, which I posted about yesterday, is that learning and skill acquisition are different. By combining the two, you accelerate your acquisition of a new skill. I found author Josh Kauffman’s thinking around the specifics of each area and how they work together interesting.

Skill acquisition

Kauffman defines rapid skill acquisition as the process of breaking down a skill into its smallest parts, pinpointing the important ones, and practicing those key subskills first. He believes “temporary obsession” aids skill acquisition and that “rapid skill acquisition principles” are a way to cultivate temporary obsession. Here’s a checklist of his acquisition principles:

  • Choose a lovable project – Pick a skill you’re excited about. Your excitement will fuel you when you’re frustrated.
  • Focus your energy on one skill at a time – Acquiring new skills requires concentrated time and focused attention. If you spread yourself too thin, your skill acquisition will likely be extremely slow.
  • Determine your performance level – Rapid skill acquisition is about sufficiency, not perfection. Define what sufficiency means to you.
  • Deconstruct skills into subskills – Identify what subskills make up this skill.
  • Obtain critical tools – Get the tools necessary for you to practice the skill.
  • Eliminate barriers to practice – Remove the soft barriers that will make it more difficult to practice the skill.
  • Make dedicated time for practice – Schedule time to practice consistently. Commit to practicing regularly until you’ve completed at least twenty hours of practice.
  • Create fast feedback loops – Figure out ways to learn how you’re performing when you’re practicing. The faster the feedback, the faster you can make the right adjustments. The faster you adjust, the faster you acquire the skill.
  • Practice by the clock in short bursts – Set a timer for twenty or thirty minutes for your practice session.
  • Emphasize quantity over speed – Do as many reps as you can without worrying about perfection. The more reps, the better your rep quality will become.


Learning about a skill is the acquisition of knowledge related to that skill. Kauffman doesn’t believe jumping straight into practicing a new skill is the most efficient approach. Doing some advance research and planning can reduce the amount of time and energy you’ll have to expend and the frustration you feel. He believes “learning principles” help you get the most out of your practice sessions. Here’s a checklist of his learning principles:

  • Research the skill and related topics – Look for patterns—the same ideas and tools being mentioned repeatedly as you research. These will likely reduce your trial and error.
  • Jump in over your head – You want to learn at an uncomfortable pace. Confusion is part of being uncomfortable and can pinpoint areas you should focus on more.
  • Identify mental models and mental hooks – Look for ways to help you make sense of what you’re seeing. These mental models will help you understand the present and what the future could hold if you take specific actions. These will come in handy during practice.
  • Imagine the opposite of what you want – Determining your goal’s natural opposite can highlight what to avoid. This is called inversion and is a technique Charlie Munger embraced heavily.
  • Talk to practitioners to set expectations – Unrealistic expectations can be discouraging. Talking to others with more experience can illuminate blind spots so you’ll know what to expect.
  • Eliminate distractions – Distractions can ruin focused practice, slowing or stopping skill acquisition. Figure out what could distract you during practice and eliminate it beforehand.
  • Use spaced repetition and reinforcement for memorization – Review important information regularly. New or difficult information should be reviewed more often; familiar or simple information less.
  • Create scaffolds and checklists – Create checklists to systematize your practice process and make it more consistent. Create a pre-practice sequence (i.e., a scaffold) to ensure that you approach the skill the same way each time you start practicing. A basketball player’s pre–free throw routine is a good example of a scaffold.
  • Make and test predictions – Come up with your predictions based on your research and test them as you practice. Adjust accordingly.
  • Honor your biology – If your mind and body aren’t good, your practice won’t be good. Put yourself in the best physical and mental state to get the most out of your practice.

Every principle won’t apply to every situation, but going through each checklist can prevent omissions that could hamper you from achieving your goal.

Acquiring a skill is the result of practicing it. How you practice impacts how fast you acquire the skill. Learning makes your practice more efficient and accelerates acquisition, but it doesn’t replace it. There is no replacement for practice. You must do the work. But how you go about it matters.

The insight and principles in Kauffman’s book aren’t earth-shattering, but his combination and articulation of them could provide clarity and an action plan to people who struggle to acquire new skills.