Icon | Light Bulb | Ideas 2To succeed in any long-term endeavor, may it be learning a language or transforming your body, you need to have a strong enough “why”. “I kinda want to learn Japanese” or “It would be nice to lose 20 pounds of body fat” won’t cut it. Your objective must be a “need”, not a “want”.

This concept is illusrated beautifully in a section of The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss titled “The Harajuku Moment”. Tim shares the inspring story of Chad Fowler―a CTO, programmer, author, and co-organizer of the RubyConf and RailsConf conferences―who lost over 70 pounds in less than a year! While his specific story is health related, you can apply the exact same wisdom to language learning.

Here’s how Chad recounts the psychological shift that empowered his impressive physical transformation (bolding mine):

“I was in Tokyo with a group of friends. We all went down to Harajuku to see if we could see some artistically dressed youngsters and also to shop for fabulous clothing, which the area is famous for. A couple of the people with us were pretty fashionable dressers and had some specific things in mind they wanted to buy. After walking into shops several times and leaving without seriously considering buying anything, one of my friends and I gave up and just waited outside while the others continued shopping. We both lamented how unfashionable we were. I then found myself saying the following to him: ‘For me, it doesn’t even matter what I wear; I’m not going to look good anyway.’ I think he agreed with me. I can’t remember, but that’s not the point. The point was that, as I said those words, they hung in the air like when you say something super-embarrassing in a loud room but happen to catch the one randomly occurring slice of silence that happens all night long. Everyone looks at you like you’re an idiot. But this time, it was me looking at myself critically. I heard myself say those words and I recognized them not for their content, but for their tone of helplessness. I am, in most of my endeavors, a solidly successful person. I decide I want things to be a certain way, and I make it happen. I’ve done it with my career, my learning of music, understanding of foreign languages, and basically everything I’ve tried to do. For a long time, I’ve known that the key to getting started down the path of being remarkable in anything is to simply act with the intention of being remarkable. If I want a better-than-average career, I can’t simply ‘go with the flow’ and get it. Most people do just that: they wish for an outcome but make no intention-driven actions toward that outcome. If they would just do something most people would find that they get some version of the outcome they’re looking for. That’s been my secret. Stop wishing and start doing. Yet here I was, talking about arguably the most important part of my life— my health— as if it was something I had no control over. I had been going with the flow for years. Wishing for an outcome and waiting to see if it would come. I was the limp, powerless ego I detest in other people. But somehow, as the school nerd who always got picked last for everything, I had allowed ‘not being good at sports’ or ‘not being fit’ to enter what I considered to be inherent attributes of myself. The net result is that I was left with an understanding of myself as an incomplete person. And though I had (perhaps) overcompensated for that incompleteness by kicking ass in every other way I could, I was still carrying this powerlessness around with me and it was very slowly and subtly gnawing away at me from the inside.

Like Chad’s previous attitude toward his health, many would-be language learners carry around self-defeating beliefs that lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. They believe that they simply “aren’t good at languages” or “don’t have the language gene”, thanks to failed efforts to learn languages in school. They believe that certain languages (especially East Asian languages like Japanese) are “really difficult”, and sure enough, they become so for them. The reality is that:

  • Everyone can acquire a language given the right attitude, environment, methods and resources. And for most people, learning languages in a formal classroom environment provides exactly the wrong recipe for success: bad attitudes from learning to pass tests rather than communicate, artificial environments, ineffective methods, and boring resources.
  • Japanese is just another language. Yes, many aspects are quite different from English, but “different” doesn’t mean “difficult”. Yes, there are some aspects of the language that will prove challenging for native speakers of English, but that is true of all languages. And just like all languages, there happen to be quite a few aspects of the language that make it rather easy (See my guest post on Fluent in 3 Months: Is Japanese hard? Why Japanese is easier than you think).

“So, while it’s true that I wouldn’t have looked great in the fancy clothes, the seemingly superficial catalyst that drove me to finally do something wasn’t at all superficial. It actually pulled out a deep root that had been, I think, driving an important part of me for basically my entire life. And now I recognize that this is a pattern. In the culture I run in (computer programmers and tech people), this partial-completeness is not just common but maybe even the norm. My life lately has taken on a new focus: digging up those bad roots; the holes I don’t notice in myself. And now I’m filling them one at a time.”

What are your limiting beliefs about your ability to learn Japanese? If you are honest with yourself, how do you see yourself as “partially complete”?