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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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.

Forming Habits

It’s hard for me to tell what is typical of me, and what is part of ‘the human experience.’ That is: it seems obvious to me that I’ve organized my life into a series of habits and routines that I could carry out in my sleep, which may be part of the reason that I’m able to function as sleep-deprived as I often do.

But, I don’t know if more people are more. . . conscious. To me, it seems like the way that people move through the world, and it’s a ‘model’ that I often use to explain the actions of others to myself. (“He probably wasn’t looking for me there, probably didn’t see me.”)

However, where I was once proud of my ability to set up routines and habits that I thought were constructive, I’m beginning to feel trapped.

Not trapped in my habits, trapped in my inability to form new habits.

Looking back, running was the last habit that I’d set up deliberately. And, perhaps some of my knee-jerk don’t-use-that-tone reactions that I have with my children.

If I’m going to continue thinking of myself as a work-in-progress authored by myself, I realized, I’m going to need to work on the authoring.

So, aside from fitness — I’m trying to get into the habit of doing strength-training every day — I’ve set up a few habits to get into. In the near future, I’d like to be a proficient fireside guitar player. Even more, I’ve decided to learn Latin.

I can sell guitar-learning as a brain-plasticity, do-it-for-the-kids kind of thing. After all, I’d like to have some campfires with them. Why not be able to do some songs.

Latin is easy for me to get: I’ve been meaning to learn another language, but I didn’t know which one. Part of living here and being in the international community, I know a ton of people who actually speak something other than English or German natively, but none of them do I know well enough to learn their language (it’s like asking someone to take you to their hometown… if they don’t invite you, you don’t go). So, I was stalled.

But, more than travel, I like obscure armchair-level scholarship. And, I like ancient Rome. Why not learn to read some texts in the original, wind up having a good base from which to learn another language? That’s what I’m doing.

Of course, I tell people I’m doing it to get the experience of learning a language as an adult, find tips to suggest to my own students. Look for opportunities to say “This is what worked for me…” And, that might be part of it, but really it’s just how I mention it to people in the hope that they’ll keep me accountable.

So, look for updates on the guitar and Latin here.