How Much Skill Can I Gain in 20 Hours?

tl;dr: Try doing something you’ve always wanted to do for a month. If you like it, you’ll keep doing it, if not, you don’t have to do it for very long.

Play a song, Tailor a pair or shorts

Starting Monday, January 23rd, and until February 24th, I will spend one hour each day either learning to play a piano piece or working on constructing a pair of shorts. I’m thinking three nights on Piano, two on Tailoring.

Here’s the song I will try to learn to play:

Note: The song was “Children Arrive” from the Finding Neverland Soundtrack. It’s been removed from YouTube

I took some piano lessons when I was 10, but I forgot most of what I learned. I still know the very basics of reading music, but I don’t know how to apply them. I know the basics of garment construction, but I still can’t put them together all the way to a final piece. I don’t know if I’ll be able to hit my goal, but it doesn’t matter quite as much as the act of practicing something outside my core competency. If I find that I’m improving, I don’t have to stop in a month. A month is the minimum, not the maximum.


I’ve worked in tech in Silicon Valley for one-and-a-half years. The work is hard, the deadlines are aggressive, and the days are long. I love the challenge, I love the work, and I love the culture, but after a while, I started feeling like parts of my brain were going dormant.

I’m surrounded by people who excel at everything in life from unicycling to writing novels. I draw inspiration from these individuals, and I have a laundry list of activities and hobbies that I would like to be good at, but never found the time or motivation to actually follow through.

The Book

I’m reading The Talent Code Where the author describes the conditions and type of intentional, “deep practice” that breeds greatness. Here are a couple of quotes from the book:

“The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities; to target the struggle. Thrashing blindly doesn’t help. Reaching does.”

“People at most of the hotbeds [of talent] I visited practiced less than three hours a day. The younger Spartak kids (ages six to eight) practiced a mere three to five hours each week.”

5 hours a week, one hour each weekday, for a month. The experiment is to find out whether one hour a day is enough to meaningfully gain knowledge and skill in an area of interest.

The book has jolted me into a state of restlessness and I want to capitalize on it. I’ll try to describe this “Do something for 30 days” idea, how it has worked for me, and why you should do it as well.

The Epiphany

When I came out to San Francisco in June of 2010, I weighed 240 pounds, and lived a sedentary lifestyle. One of my coworkers convinced me to go running with him one morning. Then he got my ass out of bed early to go for another run later that week, and a couple of weeks later, I found myself looking forward for that morning run. A short conversation and a $50 wager later, I decided to commit to running 2 miles in the morning before work every day for a month.

Here’s the Nike+ graph of that month:

I skipped a few days to rest, and I missed a 5 day stretch because of a trip to NYC.

The epiphany came after the month was done: I kept on running, increased my mileage and eventually participated in a 10 mile run during which I weighed 185 pounds.

I did a similar thing a few months later: I really wanted to read. I felt like there was a lot of knowledge buried in books that I was not exposed to because of my aversion to reading. By the time 2011 was done, I had read 11 books. As I continued reading, my speed got faster, and my vocabulary grew (and I learned a lot!).

The reason I’m recounting this isn’t to pat myself on the back, it’s to highlight the fact that people are in control of their lifestyle and it’s in their power and capability to completely change it. The key is to truly want to do it for yourself. If you decide to do it out of peer pressure, you’re almost certain to fail. I was haggled to lose weight by my family for years, and it wasn’t until I personally wanted to do it, that it happened.

Why a Month is the Perfect Amount of Time

This idea isn’t unique, I can’t remember hearing about it before I did it, but since then, I’ve come across a bunch of people advocating the same thing. Here’s Matt Cutts talking about the exact same idea:

He approached it from a therapeutic perspective. In hindsight, when I started my month challenges, I had just moved to a new city, was still trying to build a social circle, and was feeling a little detached. These challenges fill up your free time, give you a purpose and a goal.

A month is the perfect amount of time for a couple of reasons: First, it’s short enough that if you decide the challenge you embarked on is not fun, you don’t have to do it for long. Secondly, it’s long enough, that if you stick to it, it would form a habit.

If you’re thinking about doing this, the rules are: It has to be something you genuinely want for yourself, and it has to be something sustainable

What do you think? Has there been something you’ve always wanted to do and be good at? What is it? What are you waiting for? Why aren’t you doing it today?