Eating Elephants in 20 Hours

P1000583Some years ago, I learned how to accomplish any task.  While hiking in northern England, I stayed at a youth hostel that required guests to do one job before departure.  Each job took ten minutes, and the sprawling hostel was remarkably neat and clean by checkout.  I can’t spend hours cleaning my house, but I always have 10 minutes.  Same premise for how to eat an elephant–one bite at a time.

A friend from New Mexico sent an email today: “Gladwell just posted an update after seeing some misinterpretations about what he wrote. In summary, this article says that the rule applies to “cognitively demanding fields.” The article also says those who achieve the highest levels of expertise in such fields must have some “natural aptitude” in the first place, but talent alone doesn’t get you there. If it’s a complex field, you also have to put in your 10,000 hours. This should help motivate some naturally talented people who might feel a little discouraged after only putting in 5,000 hours.  COMPLEXITY AND THE TEN-THOUSAND-HOUR RULE  

I know about Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) and the 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert.  I agree with what he said, and experienced it myself by putting in the time and becoming that expert.  I was surrounded by people who also put in the time for their own areas of expertise.  Nothing that will ever hit the evening news as anyone who has the education, works daily in a demanding job, acquires the knowledge and skills to do their job, and still holds that job after five years will be an expert and as others fall away, the top of their field.  I’m less eager to become an expert now when no one pays me for the time.

But wait. What if I only wanted to do something I enjoy reasonably well? How long would that take?

My brother introduced me to Josh Kaufman’s TED talk on how to become reasonably skillful in 20 hours:  The First 20 Hours – How to Learn Anything .  I heartily recommend it.  It opened my eyes to possibilities.

In the talk Kaufman presents the steps he uses in the First 20 Hours:

  1. Deconstruct the skill
  2. Learn enough to self-correct
  3. Remove barriers to practice
  4. Practice for at least 20 hours

A friend in Cambodia recommended an app for doing pushups.  I love it.  I watched the video showing the proper form.  Found a good spot in the living room to do it.  I repeat a  mantra to ensure I’m maintaining good form: Straight line.  Chin down.  Right pace.  I follow the app for the number of reps for each set.  I use the rest intervals to empty the dishwasher, sweep a floor, do my bills, de-clutter.

I’m currently in Week Five and at 140 pushups.  I look forward to every session.  My goal is to reach 250 pushups and do these three times per week as part of strength training.

Other possibilities, other goals?  Hold a conversation in Spanish.  Meditate for 15 minutes without distraction.  Play the Bodhran.

If it takes only 20 hours, I can eat an elephant a bite at a time.

About mlknowlden

In 2011, I left engineering to write full-time. Between the years 1992 and 2011, I’ve published 14 stories with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that have featured the hypochondriac detective Micky Cardex and two stories that did not. The 1998 story “No, Thank You, John” was nominated for a Shamus award. Many of these stories have been included in anthologies and translated in multiple languages. With Neal Shusterman, I’ve also published a science fiction story for the More Amazing Stories anthology (Tor) published in 1998 and co-authored with Neal Shusterman an X-Files Young Adult novel (DARK MATTER) for HarperCollins in 1999 under the name Easton Royce. For Simon & Schuster in July 2012, we published an e-novella UNSTRUNG in Neal's UNWIND world. I have graduate degrees in English and Electrical Engineering.
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6 Responses to Eating Elephants in 20 Hours

  1. Rebecca Lang says:

    I remember you talking about this 20-hour method at It’s a Grind. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  2. Kaye Klem says:

    So why do those elephants keep getting bigger ? I just keep nibbling away…

  3. mlknowlden says:

    Made me laugh, Kaye.

  4. dayya says:

    Love this post, and I must be at 5000 hours–problem is my elephants keep changing! d:)

  5. mlknowlden says:

    The trick is to keep the elephant in your sights and adapt to change. In engineering, we called it a modular design if the product could be updated easily as technology advanced. Either hardware or software could be modified quickly with patches or plug ‘n’ play changes while ensuring the design includes room to grow. In writing, outlines or storyboards or beat sheets or a simple map of plot points and character profiles will carry you to the end of the elephant. My two cents.

  6. Pingback: A Little Deutsch Will Do You Besser | Michelle Knowlden writes…

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