The Art Of Acquiring New Skills

“Even the biggest mountain will collapse if digged under it every day.” 

― French proverb

You have always wanted to learn how to _____________.

Cook? Play Guitar? Dance?

When there are a million ways to skin a cat, most are interested in the best way. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers identified the 10,000 hour rule and stirred much debate about how long it actually takes to master a new skill. From studying classical composers, chess grandmaster, to musicians, and athletes, Gladwell boiled down the superhuman complex to an average of 10,000 hours of practice. That works out to about three hours per day, or twenty hours per week. For many, an impossibly large elephant to try to start eating.

A strong response came from the likes of Tim Ferriss and Josh Kaufman, preaching the ability to learn anything in a very short time.

The great news is they all agree innate talent has much less to do with success than we think. We’ve too often made talent the elusive elixir reserved for a few divinely selected souls.

Indeed, Gladwell notes, “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” 

Gladwell later clarified that his research points to an average amount of time for a level of elite grand-mastery. But for whatever reason, 10,000 hours became a standard rule for picking up any new skill.

Many of the rapid learning strategies include adaptions of the Pareto Principle—the 80/20 rule originally by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who identified 80% of Italy’s land was owned by 20% of the population.

Ferriss’s application builds around the 20% effort generating the 80% result. His methodology is broken down to the acronym DiSSS: Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing, and Stakes.


Take the project or skill that you are striving to learn and break it down into smaller components.

For example, learning the guitar: learn how to form your fingers to hit a chord, work on one single strum, interchange between two chords etc. It’s very much similar to the concept of “reverse engineering” where you start with the end goal in mind and work yourself backward from there.


Identifying the crucial 20% difference-makers. In the learning of languages it’s fascinating the small percentage of words that make up the majority of conversations. In cooking it would be basic knife skills, sautéing, and pan frying. Skills that inherently bring about overall competency.


Break down a viable path and set a schedule—a plan and steps for learning. Also experiment with alternative sequences. Ferriss shares about how he learned the female roles in tango to speed up the learning process for him.


Give consequences for not meeting your goals. Ferriss recommends, the site allows you to choose an “anti-chariity,” an organization that you dislike, and commit to making a donation to them if you don’t reach your goal.


Josh Kaufman, the author of The First 20 Hours, is another proponent of accelerated learning and skill acquisition, and has a very similar 4 step approach to Ferriss:

Deconstruct the Skill:

All skills can be broken down into smaller parts or chunks. Isolate and work on the smaller concepts and string them together.

Learn Enough to Self Correct:

Researching and gathering too many tools can actually cause you to procrastinate rather than move ahead with learning. Rather, take in enough information to take steps forward and correct yourself when you make an error.

Remove Practice Barriers:

Simply removing any potential distractions such as your phone, television, internet. Anything that will draw your attention away from spending time practicing.

Practice 20 Hours:

This involves the psychological element of pre-committing to put in at least 20 hours. There’s a frustration barrier that’s encountered in learning new skills, a pre-commitment carries an acknowledgement that helps overcome this barrier. According to his studies, 20 hours is enough to produce significant results.

The psychological aspect in the process of learning is crucial. Kaufman explains there’s always an initial spark in the learning process followed by a long plateau. This is the point most people give up—when progress slows down. Again, awareness, helps to overcome.


Sharing your new venture with others or going public not only builds encouragement, but is another psychological tactic in creating a pre-commitment and expectation to reach the goal.

Check out Give It 100. It’s an online community developed by  Karen X Cheng who wanted to learn to dance in one year. In order to reach her goal she daily recorded and publicly documented her progress. It allowed her to track her progress, seeing tangible results, and created motivation through accountability. Her Youtube video went viral with almost 4 million views.

Further Resources:

Josh Kaufman’s Ted Talk


4 Replies to “The Art Of Acquiring New Skills”

  1. Thank you Ludvig- I enjoy reading your work. You have definitely been successful in your work and it is great to see these principles validated by successful people like yourself!

Comments are closed.