Fluency

They say the best way to learn a foreign language is immersion. Don’t download an app or sit in a class – move to the country. Spend three months in France and you’ll speak French better than you ever would from another method.

Most people have heard this advice; it’s both relatively common and mostly intuitive so we understand it fairly easily.

And yet, many people think this applies only to language.

“Language” can have a pretty broad meaning here – it doesn’t just have to mean Italian or Farsi. Go hang out with a bunch of skaters and tell me they aren’t speaking their own language. How about any random computer lab at MIT?

That “language barrier” can feel daunting. But the way to overcome it is to embrace it.

When I first developed an interest in economics, I picked up a few books and cracked them open based on a few casual recommendations I’d heard. The first few pages seemed like they were in ancient Greek. Not only did I not know what half the words meant, I didn’t even know which half, since a lot of economics terms are actually just regular words used in totally different ways. (For example, normal people think the word “real” means “actually existing,” but economists use that word to mean “adjusted for inflation!” Quite the trip for the self-taught economist hitting that for the first time.)

So I didn’t even know which words I needed to look up, and I was confused as heck. But I was still interested, so I kept on. Soon my ignorance didn’t decrease, but it at least started to take shape. That meant it had solid edges I could chip away at; words I could now define, concepts I could understand, contexts I could apply to what I read. Before I knew it I could blast through one of those textbooks in a few days and grasp everything I read.

The trick to learning something quickly is to be very, very comfortable with being extremely uncomfortable. You have to just dive in and be confused. You have to have some confidence that the confusion will fade quickly.

Go find people talking about the thing you want to learn and just read or listen to all of it. Don’t worry if you don’t understand most of it; in fact, don’t try at first. It’s more important to observe. To gather familiarity around you.

Fluency will come.

Our Relationship

For more than a year, this blog has been written pretty exclusively for an audience of one – me. It’s been my place of self-improvement, and benefits gained by others have been purely coincidental.

However, whether you realize it or not, you – my audience of anyone who reads this besides me – have been essential to my process. You see, this could just as easily have been a journal, rather than a blog. I could have written this on my own computer, never posted it publicly. But if I had, it wouldn’t have been nearly as good. If I’m being honest, it probably wouldn’t have lasted.

I’ve relied on knowing that someone might read this, even though I wrote it only for myself. I rely on that to keep me honest, keep me positive, and keep me consistent. Knowing a hypothetical audience exists meant that I couldn’t go to dark places that my mind might tend to wander if it knows its alone. It meant I had to find progress every day. And sharing it with people who know me (family, friends, and co-workers all read this blog) meant I couldn’t bullshit. It would be easy to write something positive about my ascent up Mount Everest, except I haven’t done that.

So you’ve provided tremendous value to me, just by existing. Hopefully I’ve provided value in return, but I think the scales are severely tilted to my advantage.

What I hope to give back is a certain clarity of thought. I am stumbling around in the dark, often questioning my place in the world and how I can best navigate these strange waters. This blog is a way to leave trail markers behind me for those who follow, and to shine a signal light for those who have already gone before.

If you have questions that are like mine, even adjacent to being like mine, then you may find something to work with here. I won’t say “answers” because I’m not sure I’ve ever provided any. But maybe I’ve given what I’ve tried to give – which is a new angle from which to look at the question in the first place.

Conrad

When I was a little kid, apparently one night we had stuffing with our dinner. For totally unexplained reasons, I referred to this as “conrad.” My family cracked up and it became canon; stuffing in our house just always got referred to as conrad from then on.

A few months ago, my oldest daughter (for equally unexplained reasons) referred to mashed potatoes as “matesh.” Similar laughter, similar adoption of the term.

Now her younger siblings call it that, too. Why not correct them?

Because inventing words is awesome. Life continues to change and evolve, and we often don’t have words for new concepts or experiences. Sure, we have a good word for blended up potatoes with butter on them, but it’s good practice to be able to impose your own terms on a wild and chaotic universe.

Someday everyone will encounter something that they have a hard time defining. Being able to put your own definition on it can be a fantastic way to add clarity to your communications. Thus evolves our shared language, and we get better at sharing ideas with one another.

That makes the world go ’round.

Genuine

Don’t try to say something profound. Try to have something profound to say.

You can be a thousand monkeys, banging on a thousand typewriters and hoping to produce brilliance. Practicing your writing, honing your craft – these are vital elements. But you can’t just write forever.

You have to go find the novel arrangements of words. They’re not in your fingertips. They’re in the world.

The Least I Could Do

I’ve noticed that the people with the least to give are often the ones most guarded about giving it away. People sitting on a lot of value have no problem sharing it.

There are plenty of reasons for this. First, it’s impossible to give away a lot of value and not get something in return. There are better and worse trades, but it’s not possible to make the “value flow” 100% in one direction. If you took every possession you owned, liquidated it all, and started handing out money in the street until you were broke, someone would notice and something good would happen. You would learn something. You would make friends. Now, you might not think those things were worth your entire worldly net worth, but the point is you’d still have gotten something.

So people with a lot of value recognize that you can give a lot of value and create feedback loops. People with (even in their own perception) very little are much more guarded about it.

I have a friend who’s a personal trainer and who was also in charge of hiring personal trainers and fitness consultants at his gym. He told me a wild story about an applicant once – as part of the application process, he would have candidates create a sample fitness plan for a client.

This particular candidate, he says, turned in a “plan” that basically amounted to “tell the client to eat less and do cardio.” Perfectly fine advice as far as it goes, but certainly nothing revolutionary or that they weren’t doing already, and in more complex ways. But here’s the kicker – when the candidate was turned down for the job, he came back to the gym and wanted payment for his ‘consulting,’ since he said the gym had stolen his ideas!

“Look, you’re telling your clients that want to lose weight that they should eat less and exercise more! That’s awfully coincidental, hmmmmm?”

On top of being patently absurd, this also misses a huge opportunity. Reciprocity is real. If you share a fitness plan as part of an application, and you don’t get the job, asking for some advice on your approach is very likely to be well-received. My friend is a great guy, and he’d be happy to help an aspiring trainer improve his craft, even if he didn’t hire him. That could be a great contact for many years – and instead, you learned nothing, burned a bridge, and made yourself look silly.

The least you could do is learn. Don’t discard that value.

Offer and You Shall Receive

The traditional advice is “ask and you shall receive.” That’s not terrible advice, as far as it goes – people don’t magically know what you need or want, so step 1 in getting anything is being able to communicate.

There are ways to ask more effectively, though!

When I was just a kid, I picked up on a marvelous pattern with my parents. If I said, “Dad, can I have twenty dollars to buy something,” I’d either get a flat “no” or I’d get a long list of arduous chores to do in exchange for the funds. Not only was this usually a low valuation of my time comparatively, but I was never able to refuse – for one, saying “Nah, not worth it” would make me look lazy in my father’s eyes (an absolutely cardinal sin), but for two, even if I wanted to refuse it was too late – now that my father had itemized the list of chores, he’d make me do them whether I wanted the money or not.

However, if I instead came to him and said “Hey Dad, if I do all the dishes and pots before I go out, can I have twenty dollars,” I’d get it 99% of the time. Washing a day’s worth of dishes and pots wasn’t worth anywhere near twenty bucks, as it would take me about 15 minutes and was low-effort, but coming to the table with an offer first would both show the right attitude (always a winner) and create a tangible value trade, albeit a skewed one. Occasionally he’d throw in something extra like “take out the trash too and it’s a deal,” but the strategy was definitely a great one.

This is true in everything you do. Don’t say, “Hey, can you give me a ride to the airport on Thursday?” Try: “Hey, if I buy you breakfast, can you give me a ride to the airport?” A good friend might not even cash in the breakfast, but showing that you value their time is a great way to endear someone to you.

Don’t just ask for a raise. Say what new task you’d like to take on in exchange. Don’t just ask for an interview. Say you’d like to create a project for someone and then ask for time to review it together.

Not only does this strategy work from a psychology perspective, it’s also fantastic because it lets you set the starting terms of the negotiation.

If you just ask, you might get a yes. But you are also likely to get a no, or a conditional yes with the conditions set by the other person. And you’re in a bad spot to negotiate, because you’re the one who was asking for the favor in the first place.

Get help by giving it, and your world will drastically improve.

Buying Money

Tonight was the first chance my daughter and I have had since my New Month’s Resolution this month to go out and put it into practice. And she had an absolute blast!

This was easily one of my favorite days as a parent. I explained to her the differences between capital expenditures, inventory, and operating expenses (she even correctly guessed what “operating expenses” meant after I explained the other two!), we got to sell side-by-side, and we celebrated with pizza.

I’m on cloud nine, I really am.

We started with her idea – after telling her of the man I met who made a very brisk trade reselling water, that’s what she wanted to try first. So we bought a case of 40 bottles of water for 4 dollars, and in an hour of selling at a local park she’d made $16 back, selling bottles for a dollar a pop. That even more than covered the ice (the aforementioned “operating expenses”) we used to keep the bottles fresh and cold.

She danced while she hustled. She sang while she sold.

When it was time to go, she actually said to me “Wait, let me just do three more pitches…”

My daughter can break wooden boards with a punch, tells strangers that they’re beautiful, confronts bullies twice her size, sings children to sleep, performs in musicals, designs video game levels, and can sell like a champion.

I am so proud my heart might burst.

Vanity

There are lots of numbers in a game. But only one is the score.

The pursuit of better data is good. Lots of things can be clues towards where you want to go. But there’s a certain corruption that can happen, and we call it “vanity.”

Imagine a basketball game. Some scientist is in the crowd, and he notices that the cheers seem louder when the home team is scoring more points. So he goes home and pulls up archived footage of hundreds of games and lo and behold, the data fit. It turns out that loud cheers correlate to home team wins strongly enough that you can predict who will be the eventual winner of the game even if all you have is the volume measurement of the crowd’s noise.

This scientist publishes this in an interesting if (it seems to him) inconsequential paper. But then major NBA franchises pick it up and start doing something that seems to make perfect sense to them, but is actually absurd: they start trying to get their crowd to be louder as if it mattered – maybe using extra mascots, t-shirt giveaways, slogans on billboards, etc.

They see the clear science that says “louder cheers = more wins,” but the reality is the reverse – and only the reverse. “Decibels of Cheering” is just a vanity metric. It doesn’t actually affect the outcome, even if it’s measurable and people care about that measure.

It’s easy to get distracted by things you can measure and improve because you can measure and improve them. But “measurable and improvable” doesn’t mean “relevant.” Just because some piece of information is a clue to the real outcome doesn’t mean that changing it artificially can change the outcome itself.

Listen to the cheers all you want, but keep your eye on the scoreboard.

Cheating Yourself

I am a very strong proponent of cheating yourself.

Inside of you there is an enemy. Call it whatever you want – Mr. Hyde, the “bad wolf,” use whatever analogy you desire. The point is that there is very much an entity inside you that wants things that are bad for you.

In most cases, this entity doesn’t think of itself as your enemy. In fact, it’s usually fantastic at justifying its actions as being in your own self-interest. It doesn’t tell you to lay in bed all day eating cookies because it wants you to be fat, lazy and unemployed – it tells you that because it wants you to be happy. It just has no concept of happiness beyond the immediate.

It’s not a good long-term thinker or strategist. But in the immediate term, it’s very, very strong. You can rarely beat it at its own game, but it can rarely beat you at yours. That’s how you win – you cheat.

What do I mean? Well, a short-term battle, one that’s on the bad wolf’s home turf, looks like this: you’re sitting at your computer working, but you have an XBox sitting right next to you. It’s plugged in. It’s on. The TV is on. The game controller is sitting within your reach. Your favorite game is in there, and its already on the home screen, all fired up. In that situation, it’s really, REALLY easy for Mr. Hyde to get the better of you, to convince you that you can play for just five minutes and then get back to work, and don’t you deserve a break anyway?

In that situation, you’re trying to fight the devil with will alone. Some people can win that; most can’t. I rarely can.

But you know what your bad wolf will rarely (if ever) do? Decide to drive to the store, buy an XBox, buy a game, come home, plug it in, install everything, get it set up, and then decide to play games, all while you were trying to work. The bad wolf is bad at long-term planning. It can win battles, but only the battles you let it fight.

So cheat. Get rid of the XBox.

You don’t necessarily have to throw it away. But pack it up and put it in a high closet. When you want to play, climb up there, get it down, install it, and play – and then pack it back up when you’re done. You can have your cake and eat it too, then. Just don’t let the bad wolf tell you, “it’s okay, you can leave it out this one time.”

Pick your battles. Relax when you’re tired, work when you’re not. Don’t give Mr. Hyde the space to get a grip on you. Cheat him if you have to.

Extraneous

What do you have too much of?

I like having the one right tool for the job. But I won’t do every job in my life, so my life doesn’t need every aspect available.

Neither does yours. Discard the things (and “things” doesn’t just mean objects) holding you down. A belief can be a chain, a person can be a prison, a motivator can be an anchor.

We often keep totems of our worst traits. Which ones can you discard?