What if the Path to Mastery Didnt Have to Be 10,000 Hours?


I used to think that the easiest path to success would be becoming a bodybuilder. There wouldn’t be anything to ‘figure out’. No tough problems to solve, no product market fit or customer complaints. You spend more hours in the gym then everyone else = you win.

Then I witnessed a guy in there consistently over 6+ months with almost no results. It took me a while but I finally realized that if you don’t do everything with purpose you’re not going to get anywhere.

I mean everything. How many things have you jumped into without deciding why or how you are going to accomplish them? I know I’ve done it more than a few times. You dive in wanting to learn something new by watching video’s or doing online exercises  thinking that one day you will instantly be able to program or design or speak that new language.

Most people have heard of the 10,000 hour rule, as defined in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, so maybe that’s their excuse. “I might not have a plan as to how I’m going to learn this new skill but I just need my 10,000 then I’ll be pro.”

It seems simple enough but what if instead of trudging towards this huge time investment you could follow some steps prior to getting started and drastically reduce how long it will take you to get to mastery?

This post combines techniques used by Tim Ferriss in the Four Hour Chef, Bill Tracy in his book Advanced Learning Techniques, Robert Greene in Mastery and many other accelerated learning experts to come up with the simplest way to speed up the time it takes to learn a new skill.

Exercise pt 1/2

To prove to you that this type of accelerated learning is possible I’ll use a simple example of memorizing the order of 12 face cards from a deck

If you have a deck handy pull out the face cards, mix them up and go through them pausing between each one. Write down the order that you remember the cards. Simple enough. (I got 3 the first time I did this :S)

If you went through the exercise it will be obvious that naturally we aren’t great at memorizing a random list, whether it be cards or numbers or words. What we are good at however, is remembering things that are contextually or emotionally impactful. For example you probably remember what you were doing on September 11th when the World Trade Center towers were hit or depending how old you are when JFK was shot,

Mnemonic strategies, contextual learning, repetitive rehearsal, and emotional arousal are all good ways to ensure that we remember the things that are important to us. By focusing our learning strategies on the strengths of the brain’s memory systems, we may be able to learn more information in a shorter amount of time in a way that is useful to our lives.

Ashish Ranpura, Neuroscience expert

In one of his many articles Mr. Ranpura points out there is one major difference between the brain activity of a memory champion and your average citizen; they are constantly activating the areas that control spacial recognition and context.

In layman’s terms, those guys are better at relating new topics or things they are trying to memorize to things they already know. It’s the same logic behind why we “unlock” our brain as you learn more. It’s simply because you have more to relate to.

All the ability is there we just have to find purpose in the skill we are looking to acquire. I think most people know they are capable of learning new things they are just paralyzed by the fear of wasting time studying something that won’t be useful. That’s why if you’re able to define why you want to learn this new skill and stay curious about that subject you won’t consider it being a waste of time or quit before you reach your goal.

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small-
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes-
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

– Rudyard Kipling

Exercise Pt 2/2

To just drill home the idea that contextual and emotional learning is extremely important let’s revisit those 12 cards for a minute. Rather than just take them at face value and try to remember them one after the other let’s try using a technique called memory palace or Method of Loci. It’s a mnemonic, by using visual representations to remember data sets. You might have saw a similar memory test elsewhere, promising you’ll remember the whole deck. I didn’t try those at the time because I was intimidated by the claim so rest assured you can do this one if you take 10 minutes to try.

All you have to do is associate each of the cards to a person, then in your “Memory Palace” (a familiar place) put those people in a room interacting with each other. It’s typically called a palace because people are trying to remember large data sets and need lots of rooms but in this case it’s only 12 cards so I just used the house I grew up in.

As for the cards you can make these associations however you want but the more ridiculous the better. (my examples are in brackets)

Hearts – People you love  (K – Dad, Q – Mom, J – Brother)

Diamonds – Rich People (K – Richard Branson, Q – Oprah, J – Jack Dorsey)

Spades – Athletes (K – Wayne Gretzky, Q – Caroline Wozniaki, J – Jim Furyk)

Clubs – Fiction characters (K – Prince Ali,  Q – Jasmine,  J – Jack Sparrow)

Now first think about how you would go through your house into four different rooms. As the cards come out group them in three’s into a scene then move on to the next room.

and … (It took me a few minutes but I was able to get all 12 the first try. Must have been the luck of the draw that Jack Dorsey was in a room with Woz and princess jasmine while my Dad was having dinner with Richard Branson and Wayne Gretzky.) The only thing I didn’t really consider here was the order. As you can probably now tell if you can come up with a visualization trick that would be your best bet.

Now that you hopefully see the benefits of contextual learning there’s only 3 simple steps to speeding up your learning process. Hint: It’s not to read books of related topics for 10,000 hours.

Step 1. Planning & Goal Setting Stage (45%)

Would you go to the grocery store without a list? Then why do you plan to learn a new skill that could potentially have a huge influence on your career or your life without a plan?

  • First and foremost what is your purpose? Why do you want to learn this new skill?Write it down. If you’re not able to clarify your purpose maybe you don’t want it badly enough.

My example: I’m learning the art of selling because I know the “soft skills” that come with it are used everywhere in life and social interactions in general are interesting to me.

  • What is going to stop you from being a master at this new skill?  – You’ve tried to learn things before and failed or given up, what’s going to stop that from happening this time?

My Example: I’m going to set short term goals with the priority being progress rather than perfection.

  • What are the most important competencies or sub-skills that will get you to your goal?Mind map this out.

My Example: It’s kind of hilarious that these sub-skills, or things you need to learn to reach your ultimate goal,  are almost always obvious. I guess we just naturally don’t take the time to deliberately act upon them independently.

  • Of the sub skills or competencies listed what 20% will get you 80% of the results?

My Example: In the above image I grouped the “sub-skills” into separate categories. I would say that anything circled is more of a character trait. (Time management, goal settings, listening, communication, persistence & commitment, problem solving, organization and discipline) All important things but getting better at managing my time, for example, isn’t going to help close the next deal. Alternatively anything in a box is a legitimate skill necessary to succeeding in sales. The boxes connected with dotted lines are those that I feel have significance. Finally the items in clouds are where I think the most benefit can be gained, especially pitching and closing.

  • Sequence the sub skills. – It’s common to suggest learning these in the opposite order that would seem natural. The reason being, it will give you some immediate satisfaction and you are therefore less likely to give up on a huge daunting task.

My Example: I’m going to start with the things that will have the most immediate impact. Closing & Pitching. From there I will look at handling objections, prospecting, building rapport then qualifying. That’s slightly above the literal 20% so I will focus all of my immediate attention on the first two.

  • Make a time commitment.Remember progress is more important that perfection. Aim to build a habit of short study sessions.

My Example: I’m going to commit an hour a day to studying this new skill during the week.

Step 2. Following the Plan Stage (25%)

  • Study with a purpose.  – Commit to actionable results on a weekly basis.

My Example: I’m going to write about something specific to each sub skill on a weekly basis.

  • Get our of your comfort zone.  – If you typically just absorb things by reading, watch a documentary, go to a lecture or listen to an audiobook.

My Example: I’m going to commit to reaching out to at least one new person per week for advice/ suggestions.

Step 3. Review/ Practice/ Show What you Know (30%)

This step shouldn’t happen once #2 is “finished” it should happen along the way, constantly.

  • Summarize – Force yourself to always take notes in your own words and to find relevant context.

My Example: I’m taking notes from all the different types of content I consume in one spot, summarizing and making questions to spark my memory.

  • Teach Someone – It might help to consider how you are going to approach teaching the subject prior to selecting which skills are most important.

My Example: We have regular presentation sessions at work where I can practice. Will also be writing about the specific skills and offering help to anyone I might be able to benefit.

That’s it. Take action with purpose and you’ll get there a lot faster than ever expected.

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning. – Benjamin Franklin