The Importance of Choosing What to Suck At
Do you want to write the most beautiful kanji with ease, to translate your favorite stories back to your own language, and to speak Japanese so well that nobody in Japan would think you were a foreigner if talking to you over the phone?
Or do you want something else—for example to understand anime, manga, novels, and movies so well that you get lost in them just as easily as you do in the first language you learned?
Perhaps like many people who decide to study Japanese, you want all of these things—and not a moment too soon. I hate to say this but all of that isn’t going to happen, certainly not soon, and maybe not ever. In other words, as the Dread Pirate Roberts once said:
That you can’t do it all is one of the most obvious statements that people agree with and then immediately ignore.
In learning Japanese, it sends people down so many different paths that they get nowhere fast, leads them to feel needlessly frustrated at their lack of progress, and turns meeting other people studying the same language into a constant source of unhappiness.
The solution is not to work harder at everything, all at once. (Trust me, I’ve tried.) It is to consciously choose what you are going to suck at.
What does that even mean?
I’ll tell you. And, to quote the Dread Pirate Roberts once more,
Choosing what to suck at means being aware that you can’t do it all and deciding exactly what you do not want to do.
For example, you may decide that you are going to suck at speaking, something you may not do much of in your own language anyway. Or you may decide that you are going to suck at writing beautifully, as twenty years of chicken scratch in your own language never cost you a minute of sleep.
Whatever it is you choose, making this decision has enormous benefits.
For one, it frees you from the urge to compare your progress in specific skills with other people on a different path. In fact, it turns the unhappiness that usually arises from such comparisons into a useful kind of inspiration.
The person who speaks much better than you is no longer a reminder that your speaking sucks—after all, you’re fine with that. Instead, it fuels your desire to become as good as that person is in the area you value most—for example, in writing kanji, or reading novels, or watching (and understanding) anime.
This decision also helps you to not be overwhelmed with the huge amount of resources that exist for studying Japanese. You can happily ignore all those books teaching the latest slang or, perhaps, all those books teaching super-polite Japanese, and focus instead on working through a series of Anki decks that bring you to fluency step by step.
Whatever you choose, it’s important to remember there is no duty to learn all of Japanese, nor exactly one order for learning it.
As Adam says, “This is your quest.” It’s not anyone else’s. You get to decide what you need to learn in order to do what you want to do. You also get to decide what you don’t need to learn.
Here, ultimately, is why you should do both.
1. Make sure that your actions are taking you in the direction you want to go.
2. Make sure that you don’t lose your path in the woods along the way.
The good thing about both decisions is that they’re negotiable—because you are the one in charge.
You may decide to suck at speaking while you’re a high school student in Iowa so that you can build up your vocabulary and your listening skills until you can enjoy your favorite anime in Japanese. Later on, as you prepare to study abroad in college, you may decide to not focus on improving your listening skills in order to focus your efforts on learning to speak with ease on topics that interest you.
Of course, you can’t really excel in one area without improving others. But that’s just another benefit of choosing what to suck at. When you’re not trying to improve a skill, you don’t get frustrated for not doing so. And when you improve in that skill anyway, even a little bit, it comes as a pleasant, unexpected surprise.
What skills are you focusing on at the expense of others?
What have you decided is most important for you right now, and what have you decided you’ll save for another day (or never)?
I love reading books in Japanese and plan to start translating them into English in 2015.
All i focus on is reading and listening, probably why i can understand 95 percent of keion and nazo no kanojo x manga, but i cant speak more than a simple sentence. I can understand way more japanese when i read compared to when i listen. I used to write kanji by hand everyday but stopped so i could focus on reading more.
I’ve been in this camp the longest. In a way, I’m still in this camp in English (as I like to read much, much more than I like to talk).
I’ve taken the path of neglecting my speaking skills :-D
I do a 50 min online conversation class once a week though Japonin, but otherwise mostly don’t bother improving my speaking skills. Even in that class my speaking is awful.
But, I don’t plan to live in Japan, so I’m not concerned. When I visit there I know enough to get along just fine. Also, I hate having conversations in my native language, English, anyway.
My main focus is reading. I started studying Japanese so I would be able to read manga not available in English. My second focus is listening but it takes a back seat to reading.
I also looove studying kanji, which I find really interesting. When I finish RTK3 I want to continue learning more and more.
I relate to both avoiding conversations and wanting to read above all else. I also think you’re doing it right: being perfectly fine with speaking “awful” and yet still pushing that skill forward a little bit while focusing most of your attention on what’s most important to you.
I disagree with the full article.
I’m just focusing on everything I can, I think they’re all interlinked and help each other.
I think this article is playfully exaggerated. It reminds me a lot of Adam’s article “your skills will be unbalanced”. I think this is a more comical take on the idea and he’s fleshed it out slightly more.
By the way, though it’s off-topic, I just clicked over to your website and fell more deeply in love with the Japanese language when I saw your word of the day: 木漏れ日 (or, the rays of light that filter down through the gaps of tree leaves).
The skills are definitely all interlinked and improving in any one helps the others. It’s also perfectly OK to focus on all the skills. (As I, or actually Adam, said: “This is your quest.”) But I think you disagree with this article too soon!
Choosing what to suck at is still important for you to do. In your quest, if I understand you right, you’ve chosen to use your time equally across all skills. This precludes excelling in any one, which is good to know if you meet someone who has focused all his time on, say, speaking (and tempts you to feel discouraged at where you are in that one skill).
Even if you take a step back from the language as a whole, you are probably choosing to “suck at” some things or not be as good at them as you otherwise would so that you can focus on Japanese. It may be another language you’d like to learn, or an extra 1000 hours toward a skill like coding, or whatever. I think it’s good to make those choices, conscious choices–to know that doing one thing means you can’t do another, and being fine with that.
That said, you’re (obviously) free to still disagree! I just wanted to add a bit more in case you might see how it applies in your situation.
hey, I guess he’ll suck at specializing in Japanese :P
Ha! One day he may very well be awesome at some specialized skill like writing Kanji but the time to do that will have to come from somewhere. And that’s my point: it’ll require him choosing (consciously or unconsciously) to forego doing something else (whether within Japanese or outside of it).
I’m having a hard time agreeing with this article. Eek, I’m sorry!
I’m having a hard time trying to think of a way to express why I’m having a hard time agreeing with it.
I’ve always held a natural approach to learning Japanese. I’ve gone where I’ve felt led. I’ve certainly never restricted myself. I cannot say I’m focusing on any one skill more than the other, except for maybe something as obscure as handwriting because it’s outdated.
If you’re going to translate stories, you got to understand them anyways. And translation is a totally different skill. It’s not a skill of Japanese like listening, reading, writing and speaking are. Those four naturally improve at some extent together, but translation does not improve with them in the same manner. A Japanese learner shouldn’t feel pressured to improve their translation skills. You shouldn’t even care a slightest about translation unless translation is something you’re interested in.
Eek, sorry about being critical (<_<). I'm sure this article will boost the confidence of a lot of people. The core of this article is the message that you cannot compare yourself with others, because everyone has their own focus. You may be super jealous of someone's kanji skill, but you don't know what other areas of Japanese they are struggling with.
I’m not in favor of anyone restricting their skills, but I think choosing what your goals are not gives you added clarity and time to pursue what your goals are.
I pretty much agree with you about translating being a skill that transfers less than others, but even there, I think this applies especially. For example, if I read what you recently wrote on your blog right, you’ve decided to stop translating as much in order to focus on speaking more. That’s a decision of what not to do, especially as an ongoing, serious commitment, in order to focus on something that you want to do more.
I actually think the choice to do anything (like focus on speaking more) includes within it the choice to not do something (like focus on reading more, or, really, a whole number of things, from earning more money to learning how to cook better). All I’m trying to say here is that there are some big benefits to making that decision consciously.
Well, you’re missing the point that I hate translation. I decided not to do it as a personal reason, because I wasn’t even able to hang out with friends, keep up with my housework, spend as much time as I wanted to with my husband, and so much more because the deadlines were too demanding. I didn’t have the passion to sacrifice myself to translation. I don’t associate it with my Japanese journey at all. It was a separate journey I was taking, and I decided to stop because it wasn’t right for me.
I can see your point if you’re talking more generally about giving up certain pursuits for the pursuit of Japanese. There was a time I had to put aside my writing to focus on improving my Japanese. I’m now back at writing. But school’s over. So it’s kind of like, I exchanged school for my writing hobby again. We only have so much time to do so many things, we do have to find a focus in life.
I’ve certainly done that with the languages I’m learning. They would go in order of: Japanese, Japanese Sign Language and Aynu Itak. Japanese being the language I focus on most, and Aynu Itak being the language I focus on least. I still chose to pick up learning Aynu Itak after all, because I regretted every time I gave it up.
But on a micro scale with Japanese, I just haven’t done it.
And by hating translation, I don’t just mean because it took up a lot of my time. I also hate the action of translation. I hate having to deal with turning Japanese into the English language. I hate losing part of the work when turning it into another language.
Translation went against everything I stand for when it comes to Japanese. I’ve always made a point that Japanese is a separate language from English. And now all of the sudden I have to connect it to English? I only got into translating because I wanted to read manga all day. It was an excuse that I’d get to be in Japanese all day as a job. But I realized the reason why the deadlines were so hard on me, and why I had a hard time motivating myself to translate, is because it wasn’t my passion, Japanese is.
So it has nothing to do with putting aside something to improve my Japanese. It had to do with giving up something I thought I wanted to pursue, but in the end, actually hate doing.
I hate translation as well. I am the only non-Japanese person in my company, and they’re in the process of making things available in multiple languages, and as a Native English speaker I got to translate everything into English (and set up the localized strings, which is also something I’m not fond of doing), despite being a software developer. It was a rather painful two weeks… My communication with my coworkers was all in Japanese, but during that time, I didn’t communicate with anyone and just spent my time turning Japanese into English — honestly, something I was trying to escape from at the time.
Translation, or focusing on translation, wasn’t the point of the article though.
In general, when learning Japanese (or any other language), it’s okay to let something fall to the wayside so you can focus on what you really like. If you really enjoy having conversations in the language, but you’re finding yourself stressed or unhappy because you feel like you also have to become better in reading and writing even though you don’t enjoy it as much, it’s okay to let those skills go for now, and focus on speaking and listening, since it is what you enjoy about the language the most. If you want, you could go back and improve your reading and writing, or you could not.
Your situation was different in that you didn’t let go of translation because you wanted to focus on another aspect of Japanese (with the possibility of coming back to it later or not), but because you absolutely hated it (and you never want to go back to it). This situation was not the point of the article. Of course you should stop doing something if you hate it, and I’m glad you were able to move away from translation and enjoy what you really wanted to do with and in Japanese.
I was just responding directly to Daniel about his interpretation of a blog post I wrote. He thought I gave up translation to focus on my Japanese speech, but that wasn’t the case.
” For example, if I read what you recently wrote on your blog right, you’ve decided to stop translating as much in order to focus on speaking more. That’s a decision of what not to do, especially as an ongoing, serious commitment, in order to focus on something that you want to do more.”
My comment about hating translation wasn’t related to the article. It was responding to the quote above.
Sorry, this is a well written article but I just can’t agree with it at all.
I can’t see why somebody would deliberately choose to suck at something.
Also, speaking and writing go hand in hand. Writing is written speech, speaking is spoken writing.
If you choose to suck at speaking, you also choose to suck at writing. If you can’t string your sentences together in speech, you definitely won’t be in writing either.
You say that you don’t like talking in English as much, but that’s different than sucking. The point is, you still CAN, even if you don’t want to. It’s how you’re able to write an article like this.
Because you don’t do something in your native language, doesn’t mean you can’t, that’s what I’m saying. Yeah, you can write with chicken scratch your whole life, but you CAN write well. If you sit down and focus on your strokes, you CAN write very beautifully.
If you decide to suck at speech because you don’t talk in your native language that much, that’s totally different. Like I said above with the chicken scratch, Just because you don’t, doesn’t mean you can’t. Just because somebody doesn’t necessarily like to talk even in their native language, if they had to give a presentation in class, they still would be able to do it. But if you chose to suck instead, you won’t be speaking, and you won’t even be able to either.
Just because you hate having conversations in English, doesn’t mean you aren’t able to. Hence being able to write that post.
Yeah, it seems more like to be one’s talking about their shyness, rather than their actual ability to speak fluently.
Presenting is a skill of its own too. But that’s just presenting. If you decided to take courses on how to be more confident while presenting and tips and tricks on improving your presentation skills, you’d be able to do it because you’d have the language in your native language behind it to still present. While if you were to do it in Japanese, you wouldn’t have the skills behind it to present in Japanese, because you have decided to not focus on speaking. So it’s totally different, not being able to speak in English and not being able to speak in Japanese.
It’s totally fine to not care about speaking in Japanese if you choose to do so. But it doesn’t mean people who actually want to achieve all these things shouldn’t. It’s like the author is saying it’s impossible. This article feels a bit like an attack, rather than a strategy. And an excuse, like Shirobon said.
Please don’t take this personally though, Daniel! It’s just a disagreement.
The way I interpret it is – if you choose to focus more on certain skills, you’re also accepting the fact, that you won’t make as much progress in those areas you decided to leave out of your focus. So, if you’re choosing to excel in something, you’re also implicitly choosing to “suck” at something else.
For example, when I was learning English, I primarily focused on reading, and I didn’t care much about talking. As a result, I didn’t feel comfortable talking in English until much later. Had I focused on improving my speaking skills, it might not have taken as long, but my reading comprehension might have suffered instead. Who knows?
This is exactly what I think, with one exception. The choice to do one thing better implies the choice to do another not as well, just as you said. But I don’t think a lot of people accept that (which causes the problems I mentioned in the post).
By the way, you write English very well. That’s a terribly hard thing to do, and it’s too often taken for granted by everyone who grew up in an English-speaking country. I hope you feel good and maybe even proud of yourself for being able to do so.
I agree. I read this over, and even though I read “I was learning English,” it didn’t cross my mind that English isn’t your native language.
I think people are taking this article too literally. The main point is to divide your goals and conquer them instead of worrying about all of them at once. You’re going to suck at things in Japanese for a long time, so it’s a matter of choosing what to improve for the most personally enjoyable and optimal progress. You’ll be worse (i.e. suck) at those other things temporarily, but you can focus on them more heavily later.
I’m a very literal thinker. I don’t like when things aren’t meant seriously. It’s just my personality.
This is why I really hope Daniel doesn’t take this personally.
I don’t take disagreement personally. I actually think disagreeing in a polite way is a great thing. (If only it was more common online!)
Just to clarify one point, however: despite the references to The Princess Bride, I do take this seriously. We may disagree about the value of clarifying what goals to not focus on (for a period of time), but I think slowing down and thinking carefully about this sort of thing is a very mature, serious thing to do.
The fundamental principle underlying the choice to do so is recognizing that our time is limited, as well as our energy, and so we have to use it as wisely as we can. We have to both use it toward our goals (which can be hard) and we have to keep it from being used toward things not related to our goals (which can be hard too).
Ultimately, I think not making these kind of choices explicit is not being serious. In a way, it’s “playing around” (though that’s a perfectly valid choice, too, depending on each person and his goals).
I thought you were taking it seriously. As in “I always take things seriously” I mean, “I always interpret what others say as being serious.”
My husband always teases me about this and often makes jokes without me realizing (>_<).
I didn't mean to say I think you aren't being serious.
I wouldn’t dream of arguing with Westly, but I might suggest also bearing in mind these words from Jake the Dog:
Love it! That’s actually great advice for acquiring whatever skills one wants to. It reminds me of Anne Lamott’s advice (in Bird by Bird) for writers to aim for a “shitty first draft.” It’s not the end goal but it’s the first step to a final, polished copy and one many writers put off.
It’s probably excellent advice for learning to speak well, too. I wonder how many Japanese learners put off speaking because they are waiting for their words to somehow spring forth from their mouth perfectly eloquent and fully formed, like Athena springing out of the head of Zeus?
I’ll admit that I for one have felt this way, that if I only read and listen and shadow more, I can skip that awkward part which requires me to stumble first so that I can get awesome later.
Oh my gosh, that’s exactly how I’ve felt!
Not with speaking in particular, as I always was up for any opportunity to speak, but for some reason with writing! I always held off writing off of my own ability. When I did write, I sought corrections from my husband. I never gave myself a chance to grow! And now I finally am.
Thank you so much for writing this. It’s just the kind of insight I needed.
Today I had a conversation in Japanese for the first time in ages. I felt like a total beginner. Forgetting words, mixing polite language with casual, tripping up on simple sentence structures … This despite of having studied Japanese for about eight years.
To be fair, about 97% of my time has been devoted to reading and listening. So in a way, I still am a beginner in regards to speaking.
As for now, comprehension is all I really care about. I don’t live in Japan and I’m not planning on it. I just want to be able to pick up a novel and read it, forgetting about the language and getting lost in the story; or to get out more of my daily nicovideo.jp binge-watching. I choose to suck at speaking without feeling lousy for it.
Good for you. And I’m glad this post helped. Not feeling lousy with yourself for something you never set out to do is the key thing (in learning Japanese or living life) and you got it.
If this article helps someone, or motivates someone then I’m all for it. We all have different ways of thinking and what gets us moving. I personally don’t agree with this at all but so what? Sometimes thinking about something in a different way helps. For example, the conventional way of doing anki reps is how many new cards per day. For me, that is incredibly de-motivational, like I can’t even do anki reps with that mindset. Eventually, I discovered if I think about it in terms of x hours per day of anki reviews, my motivation shoots back up. However, that might be incredibly de-motivational for the next person.
This article could very well help someone break down this mountain into bite sized chunks.
I think it’s a great article but I’m not going to spend any time thinking about it, or re-reading it, it simply doesn’t apply to me nor has any value to me, so what? I’m sure it helps someone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of studying to do ^^
I learned a while ago that I (like most people) am leaning toward one skill more than others. I know you have to prioritize something to learn it first. I’m torn between three options.
1. Learn using vocab and sentences from anime subtitles to watch “Anime”.
2. Learn to speak and write formal Japanese to use in translation and interpreting “Jobs” online.
3. Learn to pass the “JLPT N1” test because that is my excuse for learning Japanese.