Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

I originally heard about Kaufman as many likely did through his TedX talk.

Unfortunately, the book itself doesn’t offer much more information than the Ted talk, and instead just gives numerous anecdotes about skills Kaufman learned. Yes, these anecdotes help reinforce his ideas of rapid skill acquisition, but they are not very compelling or entertaining. I found that I mostly skimmed through these anecdotes.

“Embracing the idea of sufficiency is the key to rapid skill acquisition. In this book, we’re going to discuss developing capacity, not world-class mastery.”

The book’s key idea is this; expert-level performance takes the Gladwellian 10,000 hours. But most of us are not looking to acquire expert-level performance in everything that we do. For instance, in the book, Kaufman was seeking to feel confident enough in his Yoga practice to do a flow at home. This certainly doesn’t require 10,000 hours invested, but instead, as he states, as little as 20 hours to get ‘good enough’.

Skill Curve

With the idea of becoming good enough or past the novice stage as quickly as possible; the rest of the book just details fairly common sense strategies to maximise your output for the time invested in a new skill.

Principles for Rapid Skill Acquisition

Choose the Right Project

If you don’t want to make progress on a skill or project, then there is no point in attempting it in the first place. Now, you may think; well why would you do a project that you don’t want to do? Yet people do this all the time. They start doing Yoga, meditating or learning a second language because it’s a ‘productive’ thing to do. But if you don’t have a real reason to be learning these skills you will not see any success, and you will certainly drop off before you finish the first 20 hours.

Focus on One Skill at a Time

I am guilty of breaking this rule often. When I find myself getting into a productive routine, I will start to pick up more and more habits and hobbies because, as I mentioned above, they feel like ‘productive’ things to do. There is a big distinction between knowing that maybe at some point in the future you will want to learn Spanish, versus deciding right now that Spanish is the skill that you want to solely focus the next 20 hours of your time on.

Do not let yourself get into a state where you have 3, 4, or 5+ daily habits and hobbies you are pursuing such that you clock in 10-20 minutes of each per day, but gain no real depth on any given one. This is counterproductive. Learn these skills sequentially, and focus all your effort on a single skill at a time. Context switching is expensive.

Define Your Goal

It’s important to have a clear idea of the level of performance that you want to achieve when you set out to learn a new skill. Take learning to play the piano for instance: that is a very open-ended goal. Are you wanting to play a particular song? Maybe you want to pass your grade 1 exam. Maybe you want to be able to listen to pop music and play songs by ear… Without a clear goal in mind, you do not have a target to aim at; thus you do not have a clear stopping point nor do you have a north star to define your path.

Don’t fall into the fallacy of thinking that you will just show up and start learning the thing. I made this mistake years ago when trying to learn Japanese. I immediately got lost in learning the Japanese alphabets, which then lead to me spending hours memorising Kanji. But never actually learned how to speak any Japanese at all. I justified this in my head by saying; “Well I am going to need to learn Kanji at some point, so why not do it now?”… Sequencing matters, and had I defined a clear goal of what I wanted to achieve with my 20 hours, Kanji would have certainly not been it.

Goal Kanji

Deconstruct the Skills into Subskills

An analogy that I like to draw in my head is that acquiring a new skill is like adding points to a skill-tree in a video game. Just like in a video game, you don’t need to max out any one particular skills, nor do you need to learn all of them. Perhaps your goal is to learn how to play a few pop songs on the piano so your friends can sing along — therefore there would be no point in you spending hours learning to read classical sheet music or practice scales.

Skill Tree
Wow Classic Warrior Talent Tree

Use your goal to define the skillset that you need. This has the added benefit of reducing overwhelm. Any high-level skill is composed of 10s, if not 100s, of subskills. Pick the ones you need and make a start.

Obtain the Tools

An obvious step, yet it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you need far more than you do to get started. Say you wanted to dedicate 20 hours to learning about machine learning, which can require high-end computer hardware to train your machine learning models. You could spend thousands of dollars building a high-end deep learning machine, all to find out that the subject isn’t for you. Or, you could do a small amount of research and discover that you can run most models on remote hardware for a few dollars an hour if not completely free.

Do not fall for the fallacy that you need the best possible tools to get started. It’s far more efficient to start with what you already have, or the cheapest tools that you can find quickly. Once you have the experience you will have a much better idea of what you need, and can then invest in better tools.

It is also far too easy to mistake sitting on the couch watching review videos for the tools, and shopping on Amazon, for actually making progress by practicing your skill. You don’t learn to play the piano by watching review videos on “The Best Digital Piano for Beginners 2023”, you learn by actually playing the piano. Don’t get trapped.


For brevity, I will bundle the next few tips into a single category and that is environment. You need to eliminate all barriers to practice. If your skill requires you to use a specific piece of equipment, say a guitar, then put it in the middle of your living room. Make it so obvious that you cannot avoid the habit. If you pack away your guitar into the case and put the case in the closet, you’re never going to bother getting it out each day.

Next, you have to commit to practicing. Open your calendar and put in 30 minutes of practice every day at the same time. I like to use a technique from Atomic Habits called habit stacking: When you do one habit already in your routine, you stack a new habit on top of that. After work every day at 5:30 pm I go to the gym. After my gym session, I take a shower and change. Once I am dressed I then stack my habit of playing the piano on top of those already existing habits. Therefore it requires no willpower for me to sit down and play the piano for 30 minutes. My stack is: Finish work > Exercise > Shower > Dress > Play the Piano

This also has the added benefit of frequency. 30 minutes a day is better than 3.5 hours on a Sunday afternoon. Why? Because when you sleep you solidify your working and muscle memory. This is particularly important if you are trying to learn a skill that requires mental memory (learning a language, practicing a speech) or a skill that requires muscle memory (playing the piano). Also, if you commit to 30 minutes a day and you miss a day because of extraneous circumstances it’s not the end of the world. But if you leave 3.5 hours of practice to be done on Sunday and the afternoon rolls around, yet you can’t bring yourself to study then you are up the creek without a paddle.

Finally, committing to regular timed practice gives you a clear run rate towards your goal. You want to invest 30 minutes a day to reach 20 hours of practice, great that’s 40 days. Given a bit of slippage that’s about 1.5-2 months of practice.

Feedback and Iteration

Last, but certainly not least are feedback and iteration. If you can afford it, get a teacher. Yes, you can learn most skills online these days and often to get the required information about a skill it is more efficient to learn online. However, the key component that is missing when learning online is feedback. Say you’re learning to play the piano, how do you know if your fingers are positioned correctly? How do you know if the song that you are learning is adequately challenging for your level of proficiency? This is the true value of a teacher. Yes, there might be tools out there for your skill that replicate some of the qualities of a teacher but nothing bets expert knowledge.

And for certain skills, you don’t even need to leave the house to receive expert tuition. Take language learning for example; there are plenty of websites online that offer 1:1 language tuition at a few dollars an hour, or even free if you are willing to exchange your time to help another student learn your native language.

A teacher allows you to iterate faster. If I take a piece of piano sheet music and go away for 4 weeks and learn it, I may learn the tempo completely wrong or I may practice a note consistently that I don’t catch. Whereas if I have a lesson with a teacher once or twice a week, these errors are caught and corrected quickly. Allowing you to make consistent progress in the right direction.

Use expert advice to minimise your rate of error.

Principles of Effective Learning

I did not find a lot of value in this section of the book as a lot of this advice was already common knowledge to me. From a very high level there are three key takeaways:

Look, Then Leap

This boils down to doing the minimum amount of research (Remember, don’t mistake research for progress) before beginning your skill. You need a rough idea of the subskills that you need to learn, the basic tools and the mental models that apply. Once you understand the high level, you must leap straight into the subject.

“If you’re not confused by at least half of your early research, you’re not learning as quickly as you’re capable of learning. If you start to feel intimidated or hesitant about the pace you’re attempting, you’re on the right track”

Mental Models

Nearly every new skill that you learn will overlap with another skill you already know. Use this to your advantage. Think of the new skill using mental models that you already understand, and draw analogies to skills you already possess. Once you begin to gain proficiency, then you can expand your view of the skill’s mental models.

Honour Your Biology

Focused practice trumps everything else, therefore set your environment to be distraction-free. Turn your phone off, and set a timer for 30-90 minutes.

If it’s a skill that requires you to make motor or mental connections then doing so closer to the time that you sleep (or taking a nap shortly after) will help you with skill acquisition

“Effective skill acquisition, particularly motor skill acquisition, seems to require sleep, which plays a major part in consolidating the skill into long-term memory. Recent research suggests that, for the greatest, effect, it’s best to sleep within four hours of motor skill practice: even a short nap is better than nothing. Any longer and your brain’s ability to consolidate the information it gathers during practice is impaired.”


All in all, the information shared in this book was nothing new. Kaufman concisely shares some useful refresher tips for skill acquisition in the first two chapters. But the anecdotal chapters that follow offer little value nor reinforcement of these tips. If nothing else, this book serves as some light reading and a good motivation piece to kick-start your own new habit. But, the same outcome could be achieved by watching the TedX talk.