Walk To The Edge And Then Step Over

This is a post about going too far. It's about stepping over the line. It's about pushing your boundaries. This is a post about stepping beyond what you know. It's about crossing past your comfort zone. And most of all, it's about choosing to do that willingly.

I just had lunch with a friend, and we talked about a lot of interesting things — traveling to new places without a plan, starting conversations about crazy things with complete strangers, working on new and exciting projects that haven't been done before, etc — and I realized that the people I consider to be my friends all have something in common: they like to go to the edge.

What's at the edge?

Everything in life can be thought of as a circle. At the center of that circle, everything is the same. If that circle is your wardrobe, the center is the clothes you wear most often. If that circle is your friends, then at the center are the friends you talk to most often. And if that circle is a language, the center is all the words you know the best and use the most. (There's a reason they call it the "core".)

But you don't get new ideas when you spend all your time talking to the same people. You don't have new experiences when you spend all your time in the same places. And you don't learn anything new in your language when you spend all your time doing the same things you already know.

The edge is where everything happens. The edge is where the circle of everything you know butts up against the universe of everything you don't know. The edge is where you learn.

It's only learning when you don't already know it

If you want to learn, you need to test your boundaries. You need to take risks. You need to do things that make you (and perhaps the people around you) uncomfortable. If you want to learn, you have to stop being safe.

I can understand the desire to be safe. It's true, safe never offends anyone. Yes, safe never gets into an argument. Of course, safe never gets hurt. And safe never has to say I'm sorry.

But safe also has nothing to show for itself. Safe never has anything interesting to say. Safe has never had an adventure. Safe doesn't have an opinion. Safe is boring. And safe never learns.

It's only learning if you don't already know it. You don't learn to ride a bike by already knowing how... you have to take that risk, and scrape your knee, and get back up and do it again.

Stop worrying and just do it

When I first learned to develop film, I bought a book about processing film. I worried when I saw the elaborate darkroom in the book, and I didn't have any such thing in my home. I worried about chemical mixtures and light leaking under the door, and not getting the times right.

There were a lot of details to manage, and there was a lot to think about, and it was very stressful. By the time I developed my first roll of film, I was a nervous wreck. But after having tried it once, I realized it was utterly simple. And after my fifth try, I realized that all those details were trivial — all you have to do is dump some chemicals into a can and watch a clock. The mixtures don't have to be perfect and neither does the time. And that light creeping through under the door doesn't matter either.

And in much the same way, it's totally possible to overthink a language. There are conjugations, and tenses, genders and maybe even declensions. You have to think about pronunciation, and word order, and intonation... oy! It's overwhelming if you think about it. But if you just do it, and stop thinking about it, well... it turns out that it's actually not so hard.

Go to the edge

Stop worrying so much and just go to the edge. Get outside of that safe center of your language circle, and start putting your feet on the boundary. Try something you don't already know.

Go sign up for a new email account on a web site in a foreign language. Choose a foreign option the next time you use an ATM machine. The next time you call your credit card company, take a chance and marque el number dos para español.

Go to that one neighborhood in your city where all the stores are Mexican, or Polish, or Chinese or German, or Italian, or whatever it is that you're learning. Go buy groceries in your target language. Stop waiting until you're ready, because you'll never be ready until you do it.

There's nothing to lose

What's stopping you? You have nothing to lose. If you push the wrong button on the ATM, it's not going to give your money to someone else; the worst thing that could happen is you have to cancel and start over in English.

If you press "2" on the phone system and suddenly you don't understand the Spanish instructions, they're not going to cancel your credit card. You just hang up and start over in English. No big deal.

And if you go to the store in a foreign part of town, and find yourself unable to understand, they'll probably just switch to English and you'll be fine... but even if that's not an option, everyone can point and read and figure things out. And if not, you can just leave. There's still nothing bad that will happen.

So quit worrying. Quit delaying. Stop being "safe", and start pushing your boundaries. How else are you ever going to learn?


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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Very cool post.

  • AMEN!! Great post!

  • Excellent post, now where's the Italian part of Chicago?

  • "You should do something every day that scares you."I believe Tim Ferriss said that, regardless it's a good point. My experience has actually shown the best way to learn something is to go try it out for a bit with absolutely NO preparation at all, and then come back and read some books about it or take some formal courses on it. This tends to work well for things that aren't dangerous if you don't know what you're doing (you shouldn't learn to fly an airplane or shoot a gun using this method).Cheers,
    Andrew

  • "It's only learning when you don't already know it"? I know a group of philosophy majors that would beg to differ, though I'm not one of them.Very nice post. It's true that if you want to stary in your comfort zone, you'll never leave the comfort and security of your native language, because we'll always feel more secure in the language our mother spoke to us as a baby. We have to push ourselves away from hat comfort and struggle a little bit before we'll start to feel secure in another language as well.

  • I'm pretty sure that Eleanor Roosevelt said that, long before Tim Ferriss was even born. :)I think that with most things, it's nice to get a look at the rules/instructions/whatever first — which is also a good plan with firing a gun or learning to fly — but to not worry so much about the details, because even in the case of flying an airplane, it all boils down to pulling a handle and turning a wheel... not nearly as difficult as we imagine it to be.

  • It's a simple law of cause and effect — everything must first be unknown before it can be known. We have to do new things before we can get comfortable with them.Thanks for commenting!

  • Thanks!

  • Thanks, Katie. I'm glad you liked it.

  • Well, there's "Little Italy", which is hard for me to get to (but I'll get there). I have managed to find a few little Italian delis and stores, and there are endless Italian restaurants where I find opportunity to talk to people. Next week I'm thinking of going to the Italian cultural center.

  • I'm fond of Khatsumoto's phrase, "Exposure comes *before* knowledge, not after". Too many people are afraid to speak or pick up a book because it's too hard and they don't know everything yet. Time to jump right in!

  • Chicago's Italian Cultural Center has lots of good stuff going on throughout the year. Love them.

  • Yeah, he's got a lot of great one-liners.

  • Are you a fellow Chicagoan?

  • this is exactly what I'm saying!
    i'm an exchange student in Taiwan right now. and the whole reason I did was ( to learn Chinese, of course) to push my boundaries and to show that being safe is boring!
    I love this blog and it has taught me a lot .
    Thanks !Jelecia from Taiwan.

  • Thanks!Also, I love your name. :)

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