Throughout my life, I have found that in most cases when I fail to achieve something, it is because I have set myself up for failure. Success is often difficult if not impossible if we do not make proper preparations to ensure success before we begin. As I start this article, I am sitting in Chengdu, China, taking a break from studying Mandarin. I have no particular aptitude for languages and in fact nearly failed the course when I tried to learn Spanish many years ago. That failure came despite the fact that Spanish was a language I had previously learned as a child living in Guatemala, but had since forgotten. Given my previous failure, before starting I looked up all the information I could find about how people learn to speak a new language, then I went to China to learn Mandarin. I set everything up to ensure that I would succeed: I surrounded myself with the language, I hired a private tutor, and I worked on it for over 40 hours each week! It seems like every couple of weeks, I learn something new about Mandarin that will make continued learning even more difficult. The tonal aspects of Mandarin which I had always heard were so difficult (and they are) are nothing compared to some of the other difficulties it presents. Even many of the Chinese people I have met recount how much they struggled with Mandarin as children when they were in school. Despite the obstacles, I am slowly learning, and it is clear that, given time, I will eventually reach my goal of good conversational skills.
If you want to plan your success, it is important to consider the following:
- Realistic expectations / how we define success. No matter how much you work out, you won't be able to pick up a skyscraper with your bare hands. While this may be obvious, in many cases it is harder to be certain of what is and isn't possible. For my current language studies, I arrived in China with three months to spend learning Mandarin, starting from scratch. I had no idea what a typical person could learn in that time frame, let alone what I could do. If nothing else, my expectations were realistic as my last attempt at language classes left me uncertain if I even could learn Mandarin, so I simply planned to learn as much as I could in three months of full time study.
- How important is it that you succeed? Your chances of success at any task increase in direct relation to how high a priority it is for you. If it is more important than anything else in your life, your family, friends, job, etc. your odds of success greatly increase (though these other things may suffer as a result). After I graduated from Oregon State University years ago, I sat behind a desk and gained a great deal of weight. I fought the weight gain for years, taking off about 2/3 of the excess fat, but the last 35 lbs I could not get rid of until I finally made it my first priority. I declared that my job / customers and everything else were now lower priority, refusing to do any work on my job each day until I had completed my morning workout. If I didn't feel well enough to do the morning workout, I wasn't well enough to work and took the day off. Once I had made a real commitment by making it my first priority, I immediately took off the 35 lbs in less than five months (averaging 2lbs per week of body fat loss for the first three months). Exactly how I did it is best left to another article, the point is that I was not just successful, I was immediately successful once it was my first priority! For my language studies, given my past language experience, I set myself up for the best possible chance of success by going to China to study, and doing it full time (40 to 60 hours per week) for the time I had available, making it my first priority each day.
- Having correct information to work from. No matter how great the claims of the salesman, you won't become a competitive body builder on the "New and Improved All Cake and Ice Cream Diet!". Bad information can prevent you from succeeding in almost anything. Imagine if I were trying to learn Mandarin using an introductory text book on French. Failure would be a certainty! We often don't recognize the bad information in our lives and this can seriously hold us back. Among the worst sources of bad information we face are things we were taught at an early age which we may blindly believe in, including religious beliefs that may limit us to solutions we like or prefer. In many cases these blind beliefs prevent us from applying any solution which is actually workable. Other common sources of bad information often include: "experts", books, newspapers, the internet, close friends and relatives. You are probably thinking this is just about every source of information, so I should clarify, I mean EVERY source of information is bad (except of course this web site :-) Everyone makes mistakes, remembers some things incorrectly, has blind spots, things they blindly believe in that aren't true, ulterior motives like financial gain, etc., so any source of information can be wrong on minor or major points. If you are serious about succeeding at any task, try to check your information sources: where did they get their information; how does it compare with other sources. Checking credibility is also very important, advice on weight loss from a fat person or on learning languages from someone who can barely speak one language should be considered suspect, though of course it is possible to learn about something without ever applying it to yourself.
- Do you believe you can do it? If you don't believe in yourself, you are pretty much doomed to failure, because the first time things go wrong you are likely to give up. This includes believing you are not smart enough (which is a common excuse), IQ has recently been shown to be directly related to the amount of education you have, so like muscle, your intelligence is largely determined by how much of a workout you are willing to give your brain on a regular basis. I learned from an early age to assume that I could do anything I wanted (see The Gift) so this at least has never been a significant problem for me.
- Do you have patience? In the Western world, our concept of patience seems to center around waiting because you have no other choice, possibly extending the definition a bit by requiring the "patient" person to not complain while waiting. I view such a definition as completely meaningless. When you have no other choice, that's life, not patience (not whining about it is just a way to keep from irritating your friends). In some cultures patience is more about waiting because it is the right choice. It is about recognizing that there is a proper time frame for some things to happen, and a calm acceptance of that fact. This doesn't mean you shouldn't try to make things happen more quickly if you have some control over it, but you are in no way concerned about how long something takes that you have no control over, and you never try to do something more quickly if the end result is likely to suffer. A patient person will succeed where an impatient person will fail simply because the patient person can accept that it may take longer than they expect or would like and will not stop working towards the goal. The goal is reached when it is reached and it does not matter that you would have preferred it sooner. It may seem obvious, but you cannot succeed at anything if you quit before the goal is reached, and you have not failed at anything until you quit trying to achieve the goal! With my Mandarin lessons, I don't know how long it will take, but I am already planning my return trip to China and looking for other avenues of study to continue learning when I am not in China, as it is clear it will take longer than my first three months of full time study. I will simply keep working at it until the goal is achieved.
None of the above is meant to imply that accidents, illness, genetics and even luck won't play a part in whether you succeed, rather that until you have actually dedicated yourself to the goal and applied all of the above, how can you even guess at what you might be able to achieve?