I’ve always been a person who defines myself by what I do. Ever since I was 16, I had held a steady job with only a few small gaps here and there for school. However on April 1st, 2014, I was on a plane headed for Japan, with no job and nothing planned for the entire year. I quickly found out that sitting still and relaxing is just not for me. I have a need to be productive, and I cannot ignore it. Instead of dedicating myself to work, I dedicated myself to learning. As I found out, this required a lot of discipline, organization, and a ton of passion.
I figured this was going to be easy. We naturally learn out of necessity on the job. New roles, new tasks, new challenges, etc. all foster growth within ourselves to accomplish whatever we need to do. Personally I’ve learned to do so much while on the job, and it has always come naturally. However, by leaving it all behind, all of that forced growth stops and only the self-directed growth remains. With no clear goal in mind, learning became the most difficult thing I did. There was always something more interesting, or exciting to do. After all, I had just moved to Japan! There were places to see, there was food to eat, insane (albeit extremely formulaic) TV to watch, etc. However giving in to all of that for me was unacceptable. As the Japanese put it, wasting a full year of my life is もったいない “mottainai”. I needed to continue forging forward and continue growing.
Discipline and Passion
Paul Graham might not have been the first person to coin the idea of a “top of mind problem” however his essay brought it to my attention. It’s the concept that we only have one problem that our thoughts naturally drift towards. This is the problem that we think about in the shower, or when we’re walking down the street. We can still actively think about other problems, but we don’t get much “background processing” time for them. I’d argue you get the same deal when it comes to learning. Learning is a really intensive activity that often has no clear short-term reward.
At first, I threw darts against a wall and picked a bunch of things that interested me: mastering Swift, exploring React Native, learning to read, write and speak Japanese, properly learn about investing, learn about education, and the list goes on. So I decided to start everything. This was in direct violation of the common sense that I thought I had. I had figured that with unlimited time, I could do anything. I had started a project in Swift and another project in React Native. I was spending 2-3 hours a day with a Japanese textbooks and flashcards. I filled my Goodreads queue with books that I wanted to read. This was ridiculous behaviour, especially when I used to encourage people I worked with to stick to a few small things, and do them well.
So I took a step back and realized that my top of mind problem was actually learning Japanese. I was in a foreign country, and couldn’t speak the language. Every instinct in me said that to survive here, I needed to learn. I took this to heart, plowed through a few textbooks and even went to a conversation school in Fukuoka. Now I’m at a level that I would not have attained had I not sat down and focused on the language. The discipline and focus that I forced upon myself yielded great results, but at the cost of exploring everything I possibly could.
We all intuitively know that we have limits. We want to believe that we can work indefinitely but we know that we can’t. With studying, it’s important to know your limits and be organized around that. This is especially true when you’re tackling a difficult, multi-year topic. It’s simple to pick up a new programming language and become proficient at it in a few weeks. You cannot pick up Japanese, as an English or French speaker, in a couple of weeks. Therefore with your limits in mind, building a proper study schedule is key.
Learning Japanese can be broken down into several topics including the basics such as the syllabaries (Hirigana and Katakana), and some grammar. However if you learn to read and write, the bulk of your time will be spent learning Kanji. Kanji (漢字) characters are the “complicated looking characters that you see in both Chinese languages and in Japanese.” In short, there are 2,000-3,000 of them that are actively used in the Japanese language and about 85,000 of them in total. Additionally, each character has multiple ways of reading it, depending on the context. In other words, no one actually knows all of them, nor can native speakers people even write all of them from memory. Additionally, they will also struggle at reading new combinations because the reading is often ambiguous. To me that is way worse than the awkwardness of misreading words like chasm. Yikes.
To estimate how long “becoming proficient” will take, we assume that it takes about an hour (in the worst case) per kanji to memorize how to read it, and how to write it. That’s 3,000 hours for the actively used Kanji. This means that with a 12 hour study day, the actively used Kanji can be mastered in 250 days. Unfortunately, that’s absolutely ridiculous. 250 days of 12 hours of study is not only unrealistic but a perfect recipe to go absolutely insane. Through trial and error, I found that my personal upper bound on study time seems to hover around 6 hours. If I surpassed this, I often found myself too tired to pick up studying the next day. I can’t stress enough how important it is to figure out what these limits are and never to cross them.
However Kanji is just a single piece of the Japanese language and focusing on that one aspect is not sufficient to become proficient. Therefore, you’re faced with an almost insurmountable amount of stuff to learn. You can easily fall into the pit of despair where you give up on absolutely everything, and waste all of your efforts. This is why it’s important to build a proper curriculum and stick to it. To do so, you need to understand your goals. Do you want to be fluent in 2 years? 3 years? Do you want to pass the JLPT N2 (business level) test by December? As long as you’re realistic, your goals will be what will motivate you to continue. Then once you’ve understood your goals, you can work backwards. Divide the problem up into it’s various components, such as grammar, writing, speaking and then figure out what your daily routine will look like. Much like going to the gym, once your routine is in place, it’s just a matter of time before you improve.
The moral of the story is that infinite time is infinitely difficult to manage. I came from a world of completely full calendars to a world where the most important event on my calendar was garbage day. With all of the free time available to me, I floundered and didn’t know what to do. Focusing on a single “top of mind” problem, and working towards mastering it, allowed me to experience personal growth in a way that I had not experienced since my university days. It’s been extremely rewarding, if not extremely challenging. Despite all this, I’ve still picked up many other things, but as long as my craving for the top of mind problem is satiated, everything else is just gravy.