The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast

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In the latest episode of WTF, Marc Maron talks to one of my very, very favourite standup comics, John Mulaney. Mulaney, who spent years as a staff writer on shows like Important Things with Demetri Martin and, most famously, SNL (he was one of the guys who created Stefon), talks about his early standup career, particularly touring as an emcee for acclaimed comic and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia.

“I went on the road with him for 30 days straight. and that was like a huge turning point. The lesson for me was that before that tour with Mike, I always wanted the show to be cancelled. I always wanted to have done a show. I wanted it behind me. And after doing 30 days straight where I had to emcee every night, I started to want to do the show itself.”

This is a powerful idea. It evokes the 10,000 hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers (which is now, admittedly, largely debunked): at a certain threshold, you develop your skills enough to become an expert. The Beatles are the most often cited case of the 10,000 hour rule in effect. John Lennon describes a period in their early years where they honed their craft playing German clubs.

“We had to play for hours and hours on end. Every song lasted twenty minutes and had twenty solos in it. That’s what improved the playing.”

Somewhere between 10,000 hours in a German club and 30 days on the road with Mike Birbiglia, though, lies Josh Kaufman’s book, The First 20 Hours. 

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The First 20 Hours is a “systematic approach to rapid skill acquisition” – in other words, it shows you (if you don’t happen to possess the skill innately) how to pick things up quickly. A central part of this hypothesis is that the first 20 hours of anything new are painful. Horrible. Riddled with doubt and internal conflict. It’s when you’re most likely to quit.

But if you can get past that first 20 hours? You develop enough proficiency to see what you don’t know – in other words, you go from groping around in the dark to having enough expertise to figure out where to go next. You reach the turning point John Mulaney describes. Sure, you might not be the Beatles, but you’ll be good enough to start to enjoy the process and get even better.

This is excellent news for anyone interest in indie filmmaking. Jeff and I have been lucky enough to have worked in jobs that let us accrue our first 20 hours in all sorts of skillsets: writing, editing, producing. But there’s much more to learn. We don’t know anything about cinematography, for example, or lighting – but we’re only 20 hours away from developing enough proficiency to improve our work. And the same goes for you: no matter what you want to know how to do, you’re not nearly as far away from learning it as you think.

This is going to sound like a paid ad, but it’s not: one of our very favourite places to pick up new skills at lynda.com. It has taught us everything from editing, to coding, to producing, to doing audio.