“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” – Groucho Marx

I asked a few of my British clients how many hours of television they think Americans watch.

“A good many more than we do,” one of them said. “Maybe two or three hours a day.”

“We spend more time than you drinking ale,” another one explained, “so we can’t possibly equal you in the ‘telly’ department.” His guess? Three hours a day.

The truth is that Americans watch, on the average, more than four hours of television every day. The total on a yearly basis is more than 1,600 hours — the equivalent of 200 eight-hour workdays.

Think about what you could accomplish if you were to devote 200 eight-hour days to, say, learning a foreign language. You’d be at a level where you could speak and understand it very comfortably. You could travel abroad and get around very easily, asking and answering questions, dealing with travel and hotel accommodations, ordering food, and having conversations with the local people. You’d be able to say with confidence, “I speak French/Italian/German/etc.”

Apply the same amount of time to learning about art, and you’d be in the top 10% of the country in terms of your knowledge of the subject. Apply 1,600 hours to winetasting, and you’d probably be the best-informed wine enthusiast at any table.

I’ve been watching a video series on modern physics. The entire program runs about 200 hours — the length of a typical college course. It’s a great program, and I’m learning a lot — but I find that I miss a good deal of the content. If I watch it eight times, however, I’ll have it

memorized. So, in theory at least, I could thoroughly understand relativity and quantum physics merely by applying to this subject the same amount of time that the typical American applies to watching television.

You may remember what I’ve observed about the length of time it takes to learn a complex subject. In a nutshell, it goes like this:

  • It takes 1,000 hours of study to become competent.
  • It takes 5,000 hours to achieve mastery.

And that’s assuming you educate yourself. If you are taught by an experienced pro — someone who not only understands the subject matter but also knows how to teach it — you can reduce that time by about 25%. What that means is this: By applying two-thirds of his TV time to learning, the typical American can achieve competence in some new, complicated, and important skill or area of expertise every single year.

Imagine what you could accomplish in a 10-year period:

Year 1: You become a competent copywriter and begin earning an extra $50,000 a year, working in the evening and on weekends.

Year 2: You become a competent direct marketer and double your copywriting income, because now you know how to “sell yourself.”

Year 3: You learn everything you need to know about running a small business and, combining that with your growing knowledge of direct marketing and copywriting, you launch a small business of your own.

Year 4: You quit your day job, because your side business is bringing in twice the income you’ll ever make working for someone else. You decide you’ll devote your “TV time” this year to learning about geography.

Year 5: With your extraordinary knowledge of geography serving as inspiration, you take your first round-the-world trip. It is immensely satisfying, because you know so much about the countries you’re visiting.

Years 6 and 7: With your income increasing and your business growing, you devote your extra time to getting an M.B.A. from a good correspondence school.

Year 8: Having applied the techniques you learned during the past two years to your own business, you find that it takes less and less of your time to manage it — and so, you are able to take more time to pursue your love of travel. You are now able to take four two-week vacations a year, one every three months. You devote your self-improvement time this year to learning about food and wine, which makes your travel even richer and more enjoyable.

Year 9: Life is really getting good. Not only do you have a high income and a lifestyle that only the wealthiest people enjoy, but you are also reaping the less obvious but enormously rewarding benefits of being a more educated person. This year, you devote your extra time to becoming a competent practitioner of yoga.

Year 10: What new skill or subject will you conquer this year? Business is going great. Your retirement account is bulging. Your life is overflowing with interesting friends and amazing adventures. You realize that there is nothing more you need. You’ve achieved everything you’ve ever hoped to accomplish and more.