Time is Relative to Learning

"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." - Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein had a breakthrough when he discovered that time is relative in his theory of general relativity.  With his theory in mind, coupled with my experience and research in education, I am proposing that time is relative to learning.  

As an educator, I am passionate about helping students become independent, lifelong learners. One of my goals is to help students become more knowledge-able by encouraging them to invest in the learning process in order to acquire new information and skills.  Throughout my research and experience in education, I have found that there are two important factors when it comes to learning—time and practice.

Have you ever wanted to learn a new skill, but felt like you didn't have enough time?  Maybe you have been wanting to learn how to play the guitar, knit a blanket, or even build a computer. According to Josh Kaufman, anyone can learn anything in just 20 hours.  In his TEDx Talk, Kaufman demonstrates how he learned how to play the ukulele by following his own learning process. 

It Takes 20 Hours to Reach Proficiency

In order to learn any skill in 20 hours, Kaufman offers a four-step process with advice from his own experience. 

1.  Deconstruct the skill

The first thing that Kaufman recommends is to deconstruct the skill. By analyzing the skill and breaking it down into smaller parts, it is easier to identify and learn the building blocks of the desired skill. For example, if I wanted to learn how to program a robot, I might want to learn about electricity, a specific computer programming language, and the basics of physics. By learning these smaller sets of skills, I would be more prepared to achieve my desired complex skill of programming a robot.

2.  Learn enough to self-correct

In the event of learning any new skill, it is important to learn just enough to be able to self-correct. Being able to identify errors and fix mistakes is a critical assessment tool when trying to learn something new. Therefore, Kaufman recommends using about 3-5 resources to use as a reference for whatever it is that you're trying to learn. These resources could be books, websites, YouTube videos, and other people.

During this process, students will also need to use the skill of information literacy to consider where they will find the credible information that is needed and how they will learn it. This could be a powerful learning opportunity for students by having them connect with others in order to share ideas and resources about how to learn their desired skill. Students could use communication technology such as social media, video conferencing applications, or even simply meeting in person.

3.  Remove practice barriers

Another key part of this process is to remove practice barriers that might interfere with the learning. In this case, a barrier could be considered anything that would be a distraction to practicing the skill. Some barriers could include watching television, using cell phones, listening to music, or just hanging out with friends. Therefore, it is important to set aside undivided time that is dedicated to practicing the skill. Kaufman states that the biggest practice barrier to skill acquisition isn't physical, or intellectual, it's emotional. More specifically, lacking confidence or willpower can be a huge obstacle when trying to learn something new. Therefore, approaching your learning goal with a growth mindset is essential for success.

4.  Practice at least 20 hours

The last piece of advice that Kaufman offers is to simply practice at least 20 hours. Based on his research, he has found that 20 hours is the magic number to become proficient in a skill.  An effective plan of action could be dedicating an hour a day, or a few hours a week in order to reach the 20 hours of practice minimum.  If one were to practice an hour a day, that would take exactly 20 days, or approximately three weeks to become relatively competent.  If one were to practice, let's say, four hours a week, it would take roughly five weeks to become proficient in the skill. 

It Takes 10,000 Hours to Achieve Expertise

But what if you wanted to become an expert in a particular field?  In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tells us that "... researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten-thousand hours." Gladwell also shares other insightful information regarding the amount of practice it would take in order to achieve mastery. 

If you look at Figure 1, you can clearly see that there is an enormous gap between the level of proficiency and the level of expertise.  In fact, the difference is exactly 9,980 hours.  It would take the average person 9,980 more hours of practice to "... achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert
—in anything ..." (Gladwell, 2008).  And with regard to the intensity of practice, it takes an enormous amount of concentration and effort with each practice.  

One of my favorite sports quotes with regard to practice comes from Vince Lombardi.  Lombardi once said, "Practice doesn't make perfect.  Only perfect practice makes perfect."  While perfection is impossible to attain, it does create the mindset that one needs to practice diligently in order to achieve greatness.  What's more, in the music industry, the quantity and quality of practice is what separates the great from the good.  To emphasize this point, Gladwell writes, "... research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.  That's it.  And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder" (Gladwell, 2008).  What this tells us is that even if you were to put in the required 10,000 hours of practice, you still might not achieve an elite status if you don't practice hard enough.

It's Time to Reflect

As I reflect on the amount of time that is required to learn a new skill, it appears that we have two options. 
We can choose to become a Jack of all trades by learning a limitless set of new skills in at least 20 hours, or we can become a master of one by practicing a specific skill for at least 10,000 hours.  Although, I do believe that it is possible to achieve both over a lifetime with the right mindset and dedication. 

In my own research and experience, I have come to learn that when time is a constant, learning is the dependent variable, with practice being the independent variable.  Meaning, that the amount of knowledge and skills that can be acquired in one's life, is highly dependent on the quantity and quality of practice. 

Surprisingly, intelligence does not play as much of a role as we might think.  Gladwell points out that the relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point.  Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn't seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage" (Gladwell, 2008).  In other words, one's intellectual ability doesn't matter as much when it comes to success. What does matter, however, is the amount of time and effort that is put into any given task. 

I'd like to end with one other quote from Albert Einstein:

"I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious."

If Einstein, whose last name is commonly synonymous with the word genius, didn't believe that he was that intelligent, and was still able to make ground-breaking discoveries in the field of physics, then theoretically, anyone should be able to achieve the same level of success if they work hard enough and long enough.  Therefore, when it comes to learning, time really is relative.  

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  1. Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: the story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Co..
  2. Kaufman, Josh. “The First 20 Hours — How to Learn Anything - Youtube.” The First 20 Hours How to Learn Anything, TEDxCSU, 14 Mar. 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MgBikgcWnY. 


  1. I particularly appreciated your analogy of learning as a journey rather than a destination, and your suggestion that we should embrace the process of learning rather than solely focusing on the end result. This is an important reminder that true learning is a lifelong pursuit that requires dedication, patience, and a willingness to engage with the material on a deep level.

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