Being Malcolm Gladwell

With my own attempts to learn Latin, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about deliberate practice and the value of grit. So, Freakonomics Radio’s focus on productivity this month is certain a welcome coincidence.

The last ‘real’ episode was all about the ten thousand rule made popular in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. (Summary: you probably misunderstood it.) And the value of deliberate practice — defined as practice that is not simply going through the motions, but instead is focused on improving specific elements of your overall goal — as opposed to simply doing something.

(Parenthentical explanation: me reading and re-reading the few Latin texts written for my limited vocabulary is just practice, focusing on noun endings and matching adjectives to nouns, even though it’s much more boring, is deliberate practice. I think.)

Today, I just wanted to share a really great, barely edited podcast in which Freakonomics host Stephen Dubner talks to Malcolm Gladwell. Like I said, the episode before it was ‘meatier,’ if this is a topic that’s interesting to you, but I just really enjoyed the feeling of listening to two well-informed people talk about something I found interesting.

Go have a listen.

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The Right Way isn’t Easy

software_architecture

I don’t know how often I’ve come across this comic. But, stumbling about the internet teaching myself to code in what is probably the worst was possible (figuring out how to fix one problem at a time) I’ve come across it several times. I believe it’s from here.

Not long ago, I was writing to my nephew about how I wrote a text-based game for him. In it, I was honest about the fact that I did things the ‘wrong’ way, and that I was certain the ‘right’ way was easier.

Now I know: it’s certainly different, but it might not be easier. At least, not at first.

Recently, I’ve been inspired to re-visit a project to automate a part of my work (whenever I find myself thinking “this is monkey-work!” I begin developing an algorithm by which it could be done — I’ve never successfully done it) I thought that, since I was starting over from scratch, this would be the right time to do start learning to do it right.

You know from the title where this is heading: it’s not easy.

I’ve generated so many pages of text, describing how I want using the program to be, how the XML it uses should be structured. I’ve followed the advice of a programmer I know and, where possible, did the GUI first and the ‘guts’ second.

And it’s exhausted me. So far, I’m not super far into the project, and I have a much better idea of what I’m doing and where it’s going… But it’s not easy.

I made myself hold off on any coding until I had a pretty solid skeleton sketched out in prose. Then, once I started coding, what I think I should have done is only coded as much as felt needed to keep fleshing the skeleton in, not the other way around. It’s pretty typical for me to — as I work on code to add tags to XML elements — realize that I’ll need to organize things in a different way but not to update the planning documents.

It’s reached the point now where, instead of having all the planning done and being able to ‘mindlessly’ code as another friend described his approach to coding, I’ll need to find the energy and concetration necessary to get the planning documents back in harmony with what’s actually happening in the code.

Of course, this is my first rodeo, so to speak, and I wanted to begin trying this in oder to get the learning curve behind me. Nonetheless, the learning curve does not feel good.

First Latin Progress Update

So, it’s been a little over a month since I sat down and filled out my own copy of the ‘motivation worksheet‘ here on the blog, and I thought it was time for a brief update.

First things first: Latin is still going, but not always going strong. I’ve noticed that it’s a good bit of concentration to do some Latin exercises, requiring a bit of prep (get everything out, clean up a workspace) and time with few interruptions. I don’t think my motivation has waned, but the newness certainly has. And, with it, the number of days per week I invest in Latin.

That said, I’m still going. Something that’s really worked well for me has been the rule that I have to do my exercises on Memrise before I look at Facebook. That gives me a decent ‘bare minimum’ so that I know that I’m not wasting the day, and I’ve done okay at that.

However, Memrise is not enough to actually make progress. Something that’s helped me — and this shouldn’t surprise anyone — is invented (and expensive) social pressure. I selected Chegg almost at random from the sites that offered online tutoring and started making appointments with a woman in England who’s studying classics. She corrects the exercises I do during the day and answers my questions, giving me little lessons and pointers. (She, however, also thinks I’m crazy for wanting to speak Latin. Apparently I’m a decade or two too late for that craze.)

What has not worked is the idea of getting up early to start my day with Latin. It’s a long-term goal, but when I get up early, it’s to prepare myself in a state of panic for the coming day. I’d like to make that part of my routine, and that seems like the part of the day that I can best set aside for myself, but, I don’t know.

I don’t know if I have a takeaway from all this for my language students. First, obviously, it’s hard. I’m a professional and I know how important the ‘a little every day’ aspect is, but I just find it insanely difficult to make the time. Second, bundling works: the only thing that I’ve been able to stick to consistently is combining Memrise with Facebook.

But, on the other hand, I think that I’m convinced that the method I set out for myself does work: experiment, but set reminders to go back and reflect upon how it’s going. I’ll be setting another reminder for in a month. We’ll see.

The challenges of being super-dad!

This post is a little bit about how life has changed (yawn) since I was a kid, a bit about television and (yawn) how hard it is to keep my kids away from it, and mostly about me dumping what’s going on in my life right now.

Let’s dive in.

A while ago, I decided not to forbit my kids to watch TV. The reasons are legion: it’s a great sedative when mom or dad need a break, it exposes them to more English, I like some TV and want to share it with them.

But, I do turn the TV off, and I do compete with it from time to time.

The thiings is, my kids — like me — are basically couch potatoes. And — like me — they feel better when they’re outside. We just don’t always think to go outside, and, I’ve found that I often go outside wrong.

I discovered the outdoors via hiking and jogging. (Well, I knew about the outdoors from having been sent there — mostly as a punishment — by my parents. I’m talking about discovering that there’s something therapeutic about being outside.). I’m carrying a bit of baggage from my initial experiences with the outdoors: I have an obsession with measuring the time I spend outside in kilomters, in steps.

I drag the kids out and I make them walk. They want to stop to poke at a bug on the ground and, after a minute or two, I say it’s time to keep going.

I do it wrong.

My kids, like me when I was a kid, are happiest to just go into the woods and start poking around, dragging sticks from one spot to another, trying to build a fort. Or, collecting leaves or bugs. Realizing this, I remembered the hours we spent outside as kids just goofing off and getting dirty.

The things is, my parents could send me out unsupervised. Or, only supervised by the rest of the group. I don’t know if I can send my kids out without supervision, but I know that i won’t. (If something does happen, I don’t think I’d be able to forgive myself.)

So, I have to head out, with my kids, and find a way to distract myself while they entertain themselves. And, the thing is, it’s usually me who wants to head back home. It irks me that I’ve found something that they genuinely enjoy doing more than television, and which I think they should do as much as possible, and the only problem is me.

For the rest of the week, we’re all off (Germans have so much vacation! And even our daycare closes for Easter break) and it’s on me to keep being super-dad. But, it turns out that that means it’s on me to find a way to distract myself in the woods — where, really, I enjoy being.

 

Willpower and Habit

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about willpower and habit lately. Partly, I suppose, this has been prompted by my reflecting on habit with my students, but it’s more than that.

I wonder if I have less willpower than other people, and maybe have simply been ‘programmed’ with decent habits by my parents. I know I have less willpower than I’d like to have.

One thing that bothers me is that I don’t know that I’ve ever really exercised to the point of muscle failure. At least, I can’t recall it. I feel like I exercise to the point of will failure.

And that’s something to work on.

But, recently, I’ve tried to make simple changes to my life: stop snacking in the evening, try fasting, stick to an exercise routine.

You know where this is going: I do great for a while, but then I cave. What bothers me, is that I know I’m going to regret giving in to whatever urge-of-the-moment I have when I do it, and I still do it.

I don’t regret changing my mind, like I did yesterday when I was planning on fasting until dinner and someone I genuinely like asked me to have a piece of his birthday cake. That’s a simple question of priorities: he was more important to me than the fast. But, I do regret the times that I know I’ll be upset if I grab a snack, and I do it anyway.

Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I’d like to develop to a point where I decide for myself who I am, rather than feeling  like a bag of chemicals that basically does whatever the urge-of-the-moment is.

Living with the Seasons

It starts, I think, with the idea of eating seasonally. You know, tomatoes and strawberries only in the summer, kale in the late autumn. The reasoning seems sound: we evolved eating the foods that were available at the moment.

That idea really appeals to me. And, as I experiment with it — eating lots of root vegetables and grains this time of year — I’d like to extend the idea.

Here’s the problem: I live in a city. It’s hard to feel the seasons here. I’ve thought about things like growing my beard out in the winter, or changing the color of the table cloth (which would require me to start using a table cloth).

I like the idea of living in tune with the seasons, but I don’t know how to do it in the city.

That’s just what I’m thinking about at the moment.

My Habit Motivation Worksheet

So, I’m forcing (encouraging?) my English-learners to work with me on making language a habit. To that end, I’ve made a habit worksheet which I’m going to make them fill out (but not read to the class).

This is all part of a bigger project of mine, which is my learning Latin as we work together to talk about how to learn a language. So, to that end, I thought I’d share my answers here.

In the original, the questions are all about English, I’ve changed them here to be about Latin.

  1. Why are you learning Latin? — The short answer is to practice learning a language, but also, I’d like to get some language-nerd street cred and, to be honest, I’m 36 years old and want to prove there’s still some plasticity in my brain.
  2. When you imagine ‘sucess’ with Latin, what does that look like? It looks like me being able to read Julius Ceasar in the original, being able to describe my life in Latin, and being able to seek out other Latin speakers for conversation (whether I wind up liking that experience remains to be clear).
  3. Brainstorm a minute or two on things that would be good ‘tiny quotas’ for you, personally. I think that Memrise is a good personal quota, maybe focusing on doing both the Familia Romana and the Cambridge Latin Course courses. From there, I think that would push me to keep up with both courses, as the vocabulary caught up to my activity. I think that doing an exercises or two every day could be a realistic goal, so would (in the beginning, at least) finding a Vikipaedia article to read through. Also, I want to continue practicing reading Familia Romana out loud.
  4. Think about a normal day in your life. When could you find time to perform your tiny quota of work? I think that, for me, making it a goal to do a little bit each time I’m home and nobody else is is a good time. Or, to say that I’ll do Memrise before I open Facebook on my phone.

I’ve set a reminder for myself to come back to these things in a month and see how I think I’m doing. Right now — while I’m full of enthusiasm — I like the idea of making habits, forming who I am. Even more, I like the idea that I’m the kind of person who makes his mind up to learn a language and then learns it.