Mirrored from: http://www.norvig.com/21-days.html

Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years

Peter Norvig

Why is everyone in such a rush?

Walk into any bookstore, and you'll see how to Teach Yourself Java in 7 Days alongside endless variations offering to teach Visual Basic, Windows, the Internet, and so on in a few days or hours. I did the following power search at Amazon.com:
     pubdate: after 1992 and title: days and
      (title: learn or title: teach yourself)
and got back 248 hits. The first 78 were computer books (number 79 was Learn Bengali in 30 days). I replaced "days" with "hours" and got remarkably similar results: 253 more books, with 77 computer books followed by Teach Yourself Grammar and Style in 24 Hours at number 78. Out of the top 200 total, 96% were computer books.

The conclusion is that either people are in a big rush to learn about computers, or that computers are somehow fabulously easier to learn than anything else. There are no books on how to learn Beethoven, or Quantum Physics, or even Dog Grooming in a few days.

Let's analyze what a title like Learn Pascal in Three Days could mean:

Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years

Researchers (Hayes, Bloom) have shown it takes about ten years to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas, including chess playing, music composition, painting, piano playing, swimming, tennis, and research in neuropsychology and topology. There appear to be no real shortcuts: even Mozart, who was a musical prodigy at age 4, took 13 more years before he began to produce world-class music. In another genre, the Beatles seemed to burst onto the scene with a string of #1 hits and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. But they had been playing small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg since 1957, and while they had mass appeal early on, their first great critical success, Sgt. Peppers, was released in 1967. Samuel Johnson thought it took longer than ten years: "Excellence in any department can be attained only by the labor of a lifetime; it is not to be purchased at a lesser price." And Chaucer complained "the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne."

Here's my recipe for programming success:

With all that in mind, its questionable how far you can get just by book learning. Before my first child was born, I read all the How To books, and still felt like a clueless novice. 30 Months later, when my second child was due, did I go back to the books for a refresher? No. Instead, I relied on my personal experience, which turned out to be far more useful and reassuring to me than the thousands of pages written by experts.

Fred Brooks, in his essay No Silver Bullets identified a three-part plan for finding great software designers:

  1. Systematically identify top designers as early as possible.

  2. Assign a career mentor to be responsible for the development of the prospect and carefully keep a career file.

  3. Provide opportunities for growing designers to interact and stimulate each other.

This assumes that some people already have the qualities necessary for being a great designer; the job is to properly coax them along. Alan Perlis put it more succinctly: "Everyone can be taught to sculpt: Michelangelo would have had to be taught how not to. So it is with the great programmers".

So go ahead and buy that Java book; you'll probably get some use out of it. But you won't change your life, or your real overall expertise as a programmer in 24 hours, days, or even months.


Bloom, Benjamin (ed.) Developing Talent in Young People, Ballantine, 1985.

Brooks, Fred, No Silver Bullets, IEEE Computer, vol. 20, no. 4, 1987, p. 10-19.

Hayes, John R., Complete Problem Solver Lawrence Erlbaum, 1989.

Lave, Jean, Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics, and Culture in Everyday Life, Cambridge University Press, 1988.


Timing for various operations on a typical 1GHz PC in summer 2001:

execute single instruction 1 nsec = (1/1,000,000,000) sec
fetch word from L1 cache memory 2 nsec
fetch word from main memory 10 nsec
fetch word from consecutive disk location 200 nsec
fetch word from new disk location (seek) 8,000,000nsec = 8msec


Thanks to the following authors, translations of this page are available in:
(Yasushi Murakawa)
(Xiaogang Guo)
(Carlos Rueda)
(Stefan Ram)
(P. E. Allary)


T. Capey points out that the Complete Problem Solver page on Amazon now has the "Teach Yourself Bengali in 21 days" and "Teach Yourself Grammar and Style" books under the "Customers who shopped for this item also shopped for these items" section. I guess that a large portion of the people who look at that book are coming from this page.
Peter Norvig (Copyright 2001)