The 10,000 Seconds Challenge: Can I Learn A New Skill In Under 3 Hours?

The 10,000 Seconds Challenge: Can I Learn A New Skill In Under 3 Hours?
Image: iStock

Pop psychologist Malcolm Gladwell is best known for the principle that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to master a skill.

But 10,000 hours is kind of a long time, and I’m not really great with committing to things.

Instead, over the next year, I want to see what happens if I try and level up some new skills in in 1/3600th of that time: 10,000 seconds. About 2 hours and 47 minutes.

And to start off, I need your suggestions!

What Am I Actually On About?

It’s no real secret that Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is more of a soft guideline than any kind of hard science. And “deliberate practice”, for what it’s worth, is about learning in a way that pushes your existing skills as far as possible every time you exercise them.

Here’s the thing.

I have a theory, based on precisely zero academic understanding of psychology, that I want to put to the test. I feel like most of those 10,000 hours are spent on the final finesse of a skill, in honing the small things to a point that any improvement becomes so small and insignificant as to be immeasurable.

I feel like that if you’re a quick study — if you’re open to learning new things, if you apply yourself consistently and try to understand them — you can get OK at a lot of things with only a little bit of practice. You pick up the basics quickly and the rest is cream on top.

Could I be utterly and completely wrong? Maybe. But let’s find out.

In the next 12 months, I want to learn 10 skills. One a month, from February to November. I want to sit down with an expert — a proper expert in their chosen field, someone who knows exactly what they’re doing — and learn as much as I can from them in 10,000 seconds. Then I want to apply it, and see what I’ve learned.

I’ll even film it all from start to finish, and provide you with video evidence of my success… or failure.

Michelangelo was obviously not bad when he sculpted the Pieta and his David before he was 30, in the comparative youth of his 70-plus years as the world’s greatest sculptor and artist. Jiro Ono was probably pretty good at crafting sushi after a relatively short part of his 84 years of working in a restaurant. Yo-Yo Ma probably picked up the basics of the cello pretty quickly.

Ignoring the fact that all of these examples are of amazing, dedicated, incredibly talented geniuses with decades of experience and I’m just some guy, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good chance of picking up at least something in a couple of hours. Hopefully to the point that I can apply these skills without embarrassing myself completely.

I’m not looking to become an expert straight away, obviously. I’m genuinely just interested to see how quickly I can advance some skills from zero knowledge and understanding to reasonable competency — or not, as it might turn out.

I think it’ll be a fun challenge.

What Skills Should I Learn?

Image: iStock

To start off, here’s a baseline of what I can do — what I’m good at, what I’m OK at, what I’m not good at. In terms of my actual skills, I’d say that I’m a bit of a jack of all trades but a master of none. Someone said to me that I have a Trivial Pursuit level of knowledge in life. I’m great at the theory, but middling at the practice.

This snippet of dialogue from The West Wing is me in a nutshell.

CJ: You know anything about theoretical physics?
Sam: Ah, the Grand Unified Theory.
CJ: You know anything about it?
Sam: No.
CJ: Okay.

I’m not bad at lots of things. But I have a surface level understanding and experience of them. Beyond a few specific things, I wouldn’t call myself an expert at much of anything.

I can build things. I’m pretty handy with my hands when it comes to anything mechanical. I can service an engine and change a clutch and fix any minor to moderate problems with a car or boat. I can weld and work a lathe and a mill and craft things out of metal and wood.

I’m a reasonably competent driver — I’m a little bit out of practice, but I used to race a couple of different cars (and my motorbike, even longer ago) down at Wakefield Park and Eastern Creek. I enjoy driving, and I’m lucky enough to have a job where I can drive a bunch of different cars and do some cool stuff with them.

I’m not a bad cook. I have a huge sweet tooth; I can bake one hell of a pavlova and stack up a tiramisu like nobody’s business, and I’ve made cheesecakes that’ll clog your arteries in a heartbeat. I can cook a steak without ruining it. I used to have a decent catalogue of cocktails locked away in my brain.

I’m reasonably fit, but nothing spectacular. I can run 6km in 30 minutes. I can lift heavy things. I used to do a bit of parkour in high school. Having a desk job isn’t really conducive to fitness — I eat too much and don’t move as much as I should, so my flexibility is shocking — but I’m not unfit. I’d be open to learning a new physical skill — some kind of self-defense?

I’m a halfdecent photographer. I used to do it semi-professionally, enough product and event and car photography to make beer money and rent through university. I can pick a lock, but I don’t think I could break into the Louvre. Taking computers apart and putting them back together correctly is kinda my day job, and I can solder and read a circuit diagram.

I can’t play any kind of musical instrument. I can’t sing — this one scares the shit out of me, to be honest, so it’s probably an easy inclusion in my list of 10. I can’t speak any language other than English (and sometimes even that one ain’t easy). I’m not a great public speaker. I have precisely no skills in graphic design or any coding that isn’t HTML or QuickBASIC. I’m terrible at ironing.

I can’t do a lot of things. But I want to learn, which is why we’re here.

So What Skills Should I Learn?

Image: iStock

I’m not looking to improve on the skills I already have — not that I’m a master of anything, really, apart from maybe sitting in front of a monitor and typing. If you have a suggestion that’s a little bit out of left field, I want to hear it.

Do I learn to code? Do I learn to perfectly iron a shirt? Do I learn stunt driving? Do I learn to create electronic music? Do I learn a bunch of circus skills? Do I learn how to solve a Rubik’s Cube? Do I learn to knit? I’m open to anything.

As long as it’s something that me, a normal guy, could go talk to someone in Australia about to understand and put into practice, it’s on the table. This probably precludes some especially arcane skills — no hyperbaric welding, guys. This idea originally came about from me wanting to learn Apple’s programming language Swift, which I’ve heard is reasonably easy to pick up the basics of. That’s the kind of benchmark I’m working off.

No suggestion is out of the question. The weirder the better, especially if it makes for good/comical/potentially embarrassing video for me to share with you all. I want you to tell me what you think you’re good at, too — is there something you’ve probably spent 10,000 hours doing? If you consider yourself an expert, and you want to try and teach me, that’s even better. I promise I’m a quick study.

Leave your suggestions for new skills for me to learn in the comments below!


  • Sleight of hand/basic coin tricks.

    You can learn basic sleights and palms really fast, and work up to a couple basic magic tricks in the time you talk about. Can practice it while doing other things too.

  • I nominate drawing! Can you go from stick figures to a realistically rendered sketch in under three hours? (I’m assuming you’re as rubbish at drawing as most people here.)

  • Make a song, from start to finish, in something like Ableton or Fruity Loops. It doesn’t have to be spectacular, but I would love to see you make a chiptune or some electronic music if you don’t have the knowledge already…then teach me how.

  • And if that doesn’t tickle you, learn some home beauty therapy recipes. Make oatmeal scrubs and masks and what not XD

  • Something that is physical, and something that is mental?

    For physical, learn to ride a unicycle. Learn to do the splits – either front way split or side way split.

    For mental, this is a tough one. Learn to count cards or play chess at a certain level/ranking or Magic the Gathering or trade on the stock (or other financial) market?

    For something totally out there, learn to do make up – nails, face, braid hair.

  • Learn to sign in AUSLAN.

    I really think in three hours at best you might hit conscious incompetence. Otherwise it’s going to be all Dunning Kruger, all the time.

  • Try to figure out masturbating with your non-dominant hand
    Some sort of time organisational matrix so you can organise your work-life balance better
    Learn how to be a good Gizmodo editor like the last guy you had.
    Learn how to make a roast dinner
    Make a “Hello, World” app
    Create the perfect workout schedule for four months (mostly so I can just steal yours)
    Learn how to invest

  • Learn to juggle 4 balls at once and do a few tricks
    Learn to beat a Killer Sudoku in under 10 minutes

  • Conversely, you’ve got me wondering if I know any simple skills well enough that I could teach someone else in three hours.

    And I got nuthin’…

    • I could teach someone the basics of No Limit Texas Holdem poker, and probably a few other things like pool/snooker. But would have to think about other things to teach in three hours.

      Both those stated are things that take years to really master as well, probably good examples of the 10k seconds to learn, 10k hours to master mentality. I wouldnt consider myself a 10k master of either.

  • Rubik’s Cube:

    I learned this late last year. Hadn’t touched one since I was a kid when they first came out and thought “why not give it a go?”

    Its the beginners method, but you feel good once you do it the first time. Should take you about an hour. Then 30 min. Then 15, then 5 then under consistently .
    Easily done in 3 hours imo.

    Fair warning, addictive. I now have a 4x4x4 and 2x2x2 just arrived today.

  • Find a new / different way to tie your shoelaces.
    Then see if you can break years of training, by using ONLY the new method.

    Minimal skill, but ingrained learning can be quite hard to undo.

  • how to: debate
    escape a straightjacket
    bring harmony between apple and android fans
    create change in the government
    play dota2
    make a hovercraft
    do a kickflip
    DM a DnD campaign
    host a party

  • I recently picked up the skill of leathercraft. I’ve made axe sheathes, wallets etc.. It’s a handy “man-craft”.

  • Something totally Aussie, like learn to shear sheep or learn to muster cattle.

    Is Cam afraid of anything? Can he learn to be a snake wrangler or a spider wrangler? Learn to be a guide on Harbour Bridge Climb (if he’s afraid of heights) ?

  • Oh I thought of another one overnight:
    Learn to do the cups song from Pitch Perfect as performed by Anna Kendrick. Bonus points if you can sing and do the action at the same time.

  • How bout learning how to DJ. From the outside it looks like its quicker to pick up than learning how to produce a decent song.

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!