You Are What You Do

This post isn't just about language learning, but it applies to language learning. The is really a post about everything you do in your life. This is a post about what you are, and what you want to be. It's about why you're not there yet, and how you can get there.

Your body is what you do to it

Several years ago, I took an interest in weight training. I was skinny and I wanted to gain weight, but not by getting fat. I started lifting weights a few days per week, running every day, changing my diet, etc. And I did gain some strength and some muscle, but it wasn't what I wanted, it wasn't where I wanted it, and it wasn't how I wanted it.

I was getting frustrated because in spite of the fact that I actually was getting really strong, I was still pretty skinny. It didn't make sense, and was starting to lose interest, until one day I read the magic words: "your body is a machine built to do what you do."

I was eating light and running a lot. No matter how much my strength increased, my body was primarily a running machine, and to be an effective running machine it needed to be light. Once I changed my routine to involve much less running and much more lifting (especially squats), my body started to change itself into a machine for lifting heavy things. And that's when I started seeing the results I wanted.

Our bodies are the products of what we do to them. A runner's body is naturally lean. A weightlifter's body is more broad and solid. An office worker's body has a flat rear end and a paunch - designed for sitting. You get the idea.

You can look at someone and immediately recognize, by the shape of their body, what kind of person they are. Someone with great legs is probably on their feet all day. Someone with big fingers probably does a lot of manual labor. And so on.

Your mind is what you do

It turns out, the same is true of your mind. It is, after all, a part of your body. Your mind becomes a tool for performing the tasks you make it perform. And you can look at a person's mind (not physically, of course) and understand a lot about that person.

I have friends who love to play poker, and they do it all the time. When they tell stories to each other, they say things like "caught trips on the turn" and immediately know that means a 53% probability of winning their hand. It's amazing to me because I can't do that, but I know that if I played poker as often as they do, I would understand it all too.

A person who works on cars a lot, or who builds things, or repairs things, often has an impressive ability to look at a bolt and know which wrench size he needs. Those assistant shoppers in the fancy stores can look at a customer and know what size clothes they wear. A tech support guy can often surprise you by knowing what programs you have installed before you finish describing your problem.

And this principle, more than anything else, is the key to successfully learning a language.

Language learning

A person who speaks Spanish a lot will be good at speaking Spanish, whereas a person who speaks rarely will be not as good, no matter how much that person has studied.

Someone who spends their time studying grammar will become, by virtue of having done it, better at grammar than someone who does not. Someone who memorizes characters (eg: Mandarin) will become more adept at learning characters than someone who does not.

This is why classrooms and lesson books all include exercises. This is why programs like Rosetta Stone use so much repetition. It's the same reason football players run the same plays over and over every day in practice: you become an instrument for the things you do.

If you want to be a better reader, spend more time reading. If you want to be a better writer, spend time writing. And if you want to speak and understand conversations, you need to be having them!

People who don't do conjugation are usually pretty bad at conjugating. People who never do declension are guilty of always choosing the wrong cases. People who don't practice accents and pronunciation sound painfully foreign.

You are what you do.

What about natural advantages?

So you're probably already squirming in your seat right now, with that question burning a hole in your mind: What about people who have a natural advantage?

Yes, there are natural advantages. But they're not worth much. My genes are 99.9999% the same as yours. And we're both the same in comparison to someone else. The things that make one person different from another don't add up to much.

Does Lance Armstrong have a natural advantage? Yes. But if he hadn't spent 10 hours a day on a bicycle, that advantage wouldn't have meant anything. Does Michael Phelps's body make him a better swimmer? Yes, but that wouldn't mean anything if he hadn't spend 5 hours every day in a swimming pool.

Right now there are millions of people out there with natural advantages bigger than those of anyone we've seen today, at any activity. But they're not doing the work, so those advantages will never be known.

Get to work!

If you want to be good at something, stop blaming nature. Stop blaming your genes or your parents or your body or your mind. 99% of success is doing the work. So get to work.

You are what you do. Your body becomes a machine for doing what you do. Your mind becomes a tool for the things you do. So take control of what you do.

If you want to remember how to form the subjunctive, start using the subjunctive. If you want to be fluent in Italian, speak Italian. If you want to be a polyglot, get to work learning languages.

Being good at something is easy. All you have to do is be that thing. Over time, being good at it will happen naturally.


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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • 100% truthful post, It personally gave me insight on my problems, such as procrastination.

  • another good ass kicking...love it!

  • This is such obvious common sense.And that's exactly why it's worth mentioning, over and over.Great post!

  • Almost all Germans I've met in my life have never done declension but are never guilty of choosing the wrong case either. For them, it has been enough to hear the correct usage over and over again. With enough input, they were able to develop a clear instinct for what is right and what is wrong. Instead or doing declension as a conscious process, it's at least an alternative if not more effective in the long run to firmly establish correct patterns by getting massive amounts of exposure. After having heard 5000 times "Ich gebe Dir ... (ein Stück Kuchen, whatever)", nobody will say "Ich gebe Dich ...".Quite generally, I don't agree with the notion that practice makes perfect in language learning. Practice makes permanent. It makes permanent what you practice. If you start practicing before you've firmly established correct patterns, you'll be more likely to make wrong usage or foreign pronunciation permanent.

  • I think that is, essentially, exactly what I'm saying! I never said "practice makes perfect", I said "you are what you do". And I think it stands to reason that if you do it wrong, over and over, you will lock it into your brain wrong. So yes, I absolutely agree.Still... Germans *DO* do declensions. Perhaps not as part of a grammar exercise, but in every sentence they speak, they are uttering a declined noun. And if you (generic "you") don't start doing that, you will never make it a part of you.

  • Thank you!

  • Thanks!

  • Wow, I'm happy to have helped!

  • An excellent book on the subject of "talent v hard work" is "Bounce" by Matthew Syed. It is a highly readable scientific examination of "practice" and is focused on what it takes to be a champion at something. It actually goes as far as to say that talent is virtually non-existent and that all prodigies and geniuses can be explained by their childhood and circumstances. Worth the read.

  • Sounds pretty cool.

  • I see, and I seem to have misread you. Now I remember that you often emphasize doing it right, which fits well with your reply here. "You are what you do" makes a lot of sense.

  • Agreed, and on an odd note I also weight lift and also noticed that I got much better results when I just cut out the cardio altogether and focused on the workout and my diet, and that's while I'm cutting (losing weight), I haven't even started bulking yet, I've got another 20 lbs or so to lose before I do that.I've learned the hard way that you really need to keep your system for doing whatever it is you're doing (language learning, weight lifting, whatever) as simple as possible, KISS really is a principle to live by ;)Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Randy,I've read a lot of your writing and I must say that this is your best piece yet! Really fluid writing, good examples, and took a topic talked about very often and gave it a new perspective. Great post.

  • Absolutely, good post, take a look at the book Outliers also, you can get a feel for it here https://www.gladwell.com/out... Pretty relevant to much here.The only problem of course is that knowing you have to do stuff to make it happen doesn't always tell you what exact stuff to do and how to do it.I don't agree with the simplification of the 99% genetically similar though, that tiny difference accounts for huge changes (otherwise I may as well be interested in all women equally, which would have saved a lot of effort). And if you are 5ft one inch tall you are probably not going to be a professional basket ball player (I guess the tail off there is probably about 6ft ish).What Outliers and similar does teach you is that most people can be most things given the right experience etc. which is a positive message. Random chance though can stop you being anything (including alive) but that doesn't bother me because that applies to everybody.The negative message (if you can't cope with negativity which in my humble opinion is just the flip side of a natural balance, then don't read this) is that circumstances may well have cut your potential even before you get to make any choices.You decide to be a polyglot, as an adult, then no problem, but you have to do it, some kid in Malaysia grows up speaking 5 languages then they are a polyglot it just happened. If that person pursues language learning further then all else being equal they will do it better.When you can grow more hair on your back-side than the top of your head it is time to realize that it is probably too late to be a child prodigy, that does not of course stop you being many other things, what is sad sometimes is when you see people fighting nature, nurture, genetics, probability and common sense attempting to achieve something that in all likelihood they never will (also addressed in Outliers) whilst you may applaud their heroic efforts or idolize the one lucky sod who makes it that doesn't make it any less sad.

  • Thank you!

  • Over the years, I've tried a wealth of different systems for gaining, losing, bulking, cutting, and a bunch of other nouns with -ing on the end.Turns out, nothing is more effective than doing the things that would be done by a person with the type of body you want. And usually, those things suck the most! But that shouldn't come as a surprise... you don't (yet) have the body built for doing them.

  • There was a pro basketball player named Spud Webb who played in the NBA from 1985-1998, and even won the slam dunk contenst in 1986. Oh by the way, Spud Webb stood 5'7" tall, yet he excelled in a game where the average player was 6'5". Genes mean nothing!Sure, life can deal you a bad hand: you might have spinabifida or epillepsy, or maybe you've lost a leg in a car accident. But I believe most of us really do have the capacity to be whatever we want to be. And if you start early enough and work hard enough, we can even be among the best at those things.

  • 6 inches taller than 5ft 1 then, its a numbers game, and what else made Spud Webb a basket ball player? You need to look at the whole picture. I am prepared to bet that more short people who want to become basketball players and give it a shot fail than tall ones even if they inject the same passion and practice.
    That is the whole point of Outliers you have to look at the whole picture. In some cases starting early enough means being born into a country or family or set of circumstances. If you had a kid who looked was wavering between Soccer and Basket ball and who was short would you not be influenced in the advice you gave?
    The flip side of not accepting that sometimes circumstances make more difference than we like to think is that it is too easy to be self-congratulatory about our own achievements.
    That Malaysian still owns most of us in languages of course .....I should point out that none of this prevents me doing things :) but I prefer to be realistic, if I pull off a long shot I congratulate myself other wise I was just in the right place at the right time and just needed to push a little harder to achieve something.

  • Sure, but I don't think it helps anyone to tell them that they're too short, or too poor, or born in too isolated a country.If you count the number of people who reach the top of any activity, whether it's sports or languages or whatever, you'll find that the numbers are already stacked against you every reaching the top.But I believe that most of us can be quite satisfied without ever being the best in the world at what we do. In fact, where language learning is concerned, I don't see any place for competition at all.The point is to learn to communicate with others. Personally, I'd happily be the worst in the world at doing it so long as I'm doing it. Talking yourself out of trying just because you can't be the best is destructive.

  • Ahh I agree there but if I offer advice to someone especially someone I care about then aside from protecting their feelings I absolutely will base it on the numbers, and if the thing I am trying to achieve impacts others then I will make a judgment call (if a short child of mine was dead-set on being a basketball player I would support him but be frantically building a safety net in the background).
    I have said on other forums (where language learning is the be all and end all) that for most of us it isn't actually a big deal (we could achieve something else just as meaningful). Your post was very general though and there are many situations for many people where not reaching a certain level is an absolute fail and potential disaster (less so in the first world to be fair, we are somewhat cushioned :)).

  • Great post, but you should update it; it has been revealed that Lance Armstrong was victim to doping.

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