Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Musings on The First 20 Hours

A watchface

I read Josh Kaufman’s The First 20 Hours a few years ago, and since then my mind has drifted back to it on a number of occasions. And, as you might expect, each time my mind drifted back the ideas in the book crystallized a bit more in my brain.

While The First 20 Hours does get a bit repetitive, it’s an interesting book that contains a number of useful concepts. At the same time, though, some folks misunderstand and misinterpret the book and its aims. I’ve heard people (who probably haven’t cracked the book’s spine) pooh-poohing The First 20 Hours, complaining that 20 hours isn’t enough time to, for example, become an expert at a task or fluent in a foreign language.

They’re missing the point. There’s definitely no way 20 hours is enough to do any of that. What’s interesting is that Josh Kaufman never says it is. It should be blindingly obvious that mastery isn’t the goal of those first 20 hours.

What those first 20 hours offer, if you use them properly, is the opportunity for you to form a foundation. For you to get a grasp of the basics. Then, if you need to, you can build on that foundation. You can learn more. You can add to your knowledge and skills. Or, you can use those 20 hours to reactivate dormant skills.

But you just can’t jump in. You need to break down what you need or want to do. You need to create goals and mark out milestones that you can achieve. You need a plan. Then, you get to work.

Here’s what I did in late 2016 when I wanted to brush up on the basics of the Perl programming language:

  1. Set aside 30 minutes each day, five days a week, for 8 weeks.
  2. Made a list of the functions I needed to know in Perl — like capturing input and reading from and writing to text files.
  3. Gathered together the three books I planned to use and marked out the relevant chapters.
  4. Slotted going through a section of those chapters into my schedule.
  5. Scheduled regular revision.

Even though I was only devoting a half hour a day to learning and revising what I’d learned, I managed not only to reactivate what I knew but to also learn a few new things about using Perl. Sure, those 20 hours didnt make me a professional Perl programmer but I learned what I needed and wanted to know. More importantly, I’ve written a bunch of scripts to automate a bunch of tasks.

You don’t need to use the full 20 hours to achieve your goal. A friend of mine, for example, recently went on a three-week vacation to Korea. While he might have been able to get by speaking English, he didn’t want to. Instead, he learned the essential spoken and written Korean he needed in about 15 hours. He knew he wouldn’t be having an in-depth conversation about politics or regional economics with what he learned, but he was able to get around and not order the wrong item at a restaurant.

View the first 20 hours of doing anything as the first part of a journey, a journey that takes you from point A to point B. If you want to go beyond point B, you’ll have the foundation and the tools to do just that.’’

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