[Updated on 2018-06-14 to fix typos, add links, clarify some points]
A few years back I went through a ‘pop-psuedo-science’ period in my book reading. I went through an avalanche of books dedicated to popular psychology, economy, scientific trivia and ‘how to learn’ hacks. I also read a number of ‘instant success’, ‘get rich quickly’, ‘how to be ideas man’, and ‘learn a foreign language in 5 minutes’ books, including these written by Ferris, Tammet (exposed as Corney), Kiyosaki, Wiseman, Ariely, Cialdini, Zimbardo, and a number of other khem… clever authors.
If you are wondering why this choice of books – it’s simple: a bit of curiosity, a bit of naivety, a bit of hope that perhaps I am just such a narrow-minded tool and you know… I am probably missing out while there are big truths out there… truths that I just choose in my ignorance to overlook …
And… so that you don’t need to read (and buy!) all these books I wrote this one post!
TL;DR; My advice is – don’t waste your money and time!
The authors of these books are all making money on gullible book readers by giving them a bit of an adrenaline rush – a rush that makes the marks temporarily believe that hard things can be made easy, the success is just an algorithm, money grows on trees, and trivia knowledge helps you to be a smarter person. And it’s enough of that adrenaline to make you spend that dollar. And they are happy to take it.
All book categories I listed belong to the very same place: a large thrash bin.
For example, there are no obvious shortcuts (yet) in learning languages; there is a lot of hype about frequency lists, mnemonics, memory palace (loci method), spaced repetition, and full immersion, etc. – yes, they may and will help, but the real language is alive and requires understanding of sentences and contexts + active listening and speaking + reading, and writing skills.
None of these aforementioned techniques give you a tool to memorize and practice the language with a guarantee of success. If you are a serious practitioner of memorization techniques and doing it for a longer time – this gives you a bit of an edge in vocabulary memorization. But it’s NOT gonna make your life easier when you need to ask question, or answer the phone in real life. And I really want to emphasize that I am not completely dismissing these learning methods. They are useful and I can even confirm that to certain extent they work (I used SuperMemo, Memrise, Anki to learn vocabulary; I also experimented with frequency lists and tried to play with memory palace). Most of the books that teach you how to quickly learn languages basically focus on… describing these few learning techniques! And funnily enough, to master these techniques f.ex. for mnemonics and memory palace you also need quite a bit of time first. No free lunch!
Remember, a basic proficiency you are after will allow you to live in a new place, and act like a local – not only say ‘thank you’, or ‘one beer please’. For example, when you are settling down you really need to call a real person on the phone, that person often speaking with a heavy accent, and speaking much faster than you… and you will want them to f.ex. register an account for you to get the basic utilities sorted for your flat or a house… or you won’t be able to function! You know.. real-life scenario. That my friend, is basic proficiency we are after.
Also, there is no set period after which you will acquire certain level of language proficiency. If you see a book where authors claims that s/he learnt certain language after 2, 5 weeks/months of study – ask them to prove it by showing results of their proficiency test. You can study the language for a few months, true, but you can’t “learn” the language. Such claims are simply insincere (and yes, exceptions do ex exist; e.g. some military personnel learns 8h a day and can speak that foreign language much quicker, but… who is professionally active and has the time to just study like this?). And on a personal level – there is not a single day when I don’t question my proficiency in my second language, one that I have been learning for 25 years. I still suck at it.
If you never took any language proficiency test, I strongly recommend it. You will be pleasantly(?) surprised how difficult it can be. You will be tested in 4 domains:
- listening (different accents and fast pace! no rewinds!)
- reading (very tricky texts that require full comprehension and referencing other parts of text, or relying on subtleties that imply certain things and with lots of messages that must be read between the lines; expect synonyms and homonyms, decoys and red herrings)
- speaking (apart from a casual conversation you get a random topic and need to present on it within e.g. 2-3 mins)
- writing (you have to write a quick essay, make an argument, defend you opinion, etc.)
I took some a few times and it’s a great eye opener.
Next time you visit the bookshop have a look at test materials for IELTS, DELF/DALF, etc.
There are only a few ways to learn languages quickly that I know of:
- be born in a place where polyglots are a norm:
- Countries of Benelux (French, Dutch, English)
- Switzerland (German, French, English)
- Hong Kong (Cantonese, Mandarin, English)
- Singapore (Mandarin, English, Hokkien, and a few others)
- Malaysia (Malay, English, and lots of other languages)
- Philippines (Tagalog, English)
- Southern states of U.S. (English, Spanish)
- India (Urdu and/or Hindi, Tamil, English, and lots of other languages)
- Borders of Spain/France (French, Spanish Castilian, Catalan)
- be a child of international couple & parents invest time to teach the kid both (or more) languages
- be a child of rich parents who will send you to a private, international school or will invest in good private classes
- grow up with children of immigrants (I know a Slovak person who speaks fluent Hungarian thanks to that)
- work/live with a family that speaks other language (I know a fluent Cantonese speaker from Caribbeans who learnt this extremely difficult language while living with a Hong Kong family that stayed there for 7 years)
- be a true hobbyist polyglot (lots of people just fancy learning languages; only true, devoted hobbyists really conquer a number of them!)
- be born in a less-privileged society; this may sound counter-intuitive but these guys really work their butt off, because that’s the only way they can climb!
Otherwise, and actually, in many cases listed… you just need to study hard!
As a bilingual person with lots of linguistic dreams and fancies since I was a kid, and many unsuccessful attempts to conquer a number of foreign languages, I have a good, and sadly, rock-solid foundation of failure that I base this post on. It’s a really hard task to learn even the basic semi-conversational level of a new language.
If you have a chance to live in a place where they speak the language everyday, that’s a better chance for a success. Still, if you go there and surround yourself by people who speak your own language these extra percents will go away.
To learn the language you need a motivation. It cannot be whimsical ‘I just want to read Arabic’. You need to have a strong reason – be it personal, business, cultural, or professional (or whatever else). And you won’t be able to speak instantly, don’t fool yourself.
The motivation is one thing. the time is another, and even more crucial. If you work full-time, if you have a second job, if you have a family, have kids, maybe a number of pets you are probably not going to make it. Yes, there are exceptional polyglots out there, there are great practitioners of memorization as well. Yet these who are successful, often learnt and practiced for far longer than they claim.
And again, those claiming that it’s easy, or that you can lifehack learning the language… other than blogs that are easy to create, even ghostwrite, or videos that can be easily manipulated you can’t really validate the claims made by these people. Even holding a basic conversation about simple topic is not a proof enough. Don’t assume they are smarter language-learners than you are. They are just better marketers. And their product is not the linguistic proficiency, but the dream of one. You buy into it – you are just yet another mugu.
And to add one more relevant bit on a practical level – the world-famous courses that help to learn languages (f.ex. Pimsleur) are often sought-after. Remember that many of them are obsolete, even archaic today; they often were created many years ago and learning from them potentially puts you in a disadvantaged position. And for what it is worth – I once tried to learn some Japanese phrases from Pimsleur – when I played it to a person who speaks this language fluently, she just shrugged her shoulders off. The phrases were just not something you would use in a daily conversation today.
This reminds me of another claim many language hackers claim – the knowledge of more exotic languages. They not only learnt Spanish or Italian; having Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic, Urdu, or Hebrew is definitely a must-have on their resume. I learnt how to count in Cantonese by repeating it many times and trying to mimic the intonation; yet my wife continues to laugh every time I make an attempt to recognize a number called by the restaurant staff in Hong Kong (for these who don’t know, there are lots of queues to restaurant and you have to wait until they call your number – obviously – in Cantonese). The tonal languages are an absolute nightmare to learn; for a demo – try to ask your Chinese (who speaks Cantonese) friend to say ‘Monday’ and ‘Sunday’; if you are lucky you may recognize the tone difference, but good luck trying to use it in a daily life and make an appointment with that friend in his/her native language…
People who want to learn languages often end up reading books about learning languages, or about people claiming to know more about learning languages. While this may be sometimes interesting and amusing, nothing will replace a good course at Alliance Française, Berlitz, Instituto Cervantes, or similar ‘structured’ learning and classes, perhaps _supported_ by these life hacks.
Sorry, no shortcuts, no algorithms… you will need to practice a lot. Unless you are a savant, the way to be multilingual is going to be bumpy.
And before I close the languages bit, have a look at this study.
These estimates is the best assessment of investment you need to make to learn a new language. The primary driver for you to be successful here is an availability of a vast amount of study time. If you are young, start now!
The very same principle applies to the ‘instant success’, or ‘get rich quickly’ books. They work on a premise of giving you a reading equivalent of getting high. They make you believe that things are easier than they really are.
For instance, many of the guys who claim to be ‘working remotely’ and traveling all the time, making lots of money abroad completely ignore the reality of living and working in foreign places. It’s actually not that rosy. It may work for a year, two, but don’t ignore your distant future. You will need some support from the social and health system, pensions, and many things that the ‘cosmopolitan life architects’ fail to mention.
I actually suspect that they simply don’t know, don’t plan, don’t foresee.
I wonder if they ever heard of a need to have a work visa, and understand the concept of a fiscal residence. There are taxes to pay, there are corporate taxes to pay and local country’s rules to obey (national insurance, pension, etc.). Either you do it, or you are potentially exposing yourself both fiscally, and immigration-wise. It’s potentially a good road to obtain a status equivalent to one of an illegal immigrant. There are also political issues that may affect their life (coups, immigration rules change e.g brexit, etc.), and fundamentally, you are not going to live as an expat on Tenerife or Tahiti forever.
Yes… many of these clowns act smart creating an idyllic picture of a hacker sitting on a beach in Phuket or Bali and making tones of money while everyone else is wasting their life…
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Ignoring the obvious issues like sand in the USB ports… if they indeed live their life this way, why do they even bother writing blogs about it. It’s against the whole idea of optimization and lifehacking they pretend to promote. Plus, what serious business owner shares their best ideas with others? And why even bother at all instead of outsourcing life troubles’ to some poor chaps in a poor country?
Obviously, writing blogs, running podcasts is just a part of the marketing. They need it, because they need you to read and watch them. The surface of them, the one they want you to see. They need all this, because they need you to fill-in their pockets. Any SEO or marketer knows that the income is directly related to a conversion – the more visits, the more bucks. Once on the site, they lure gullible souls into buying the e-books, personal consultation hours, videos, etc..
And this business is as old as a human race. It used to be ‘you can do it!’ books, audio-tapes, CDs, now it’s web sites, e-books, podcasts. It used to be ‘how to be a successful insurance salesman’, now it’s ‘how to live the life of an international nomad’. It’s just a different form of an old con. They feed your ego and your fantasies, and you pay for it. The spectacle you are paying for is that of peeping Tom quality.
Again, there are just a few ways to make money in this world, or be successful:
- be born to rich parents
- inherit money
- marry into money
- be born in a developing society and be clever enough to use opportunities that present themselves during such growth period (at the time of growing prosperity when there are a lot of possibilities)
- win a lottery (good luck with that!)
- become a successful criminal (notice the ‘successful’ there; it’s actually not that easy! out of all criminals, how many Escobars you see out there; also, note how many of them reach an old age)
- be a border-line con-like man (not a criminal in a mobster sense); many successful con men ride the religious, political, financial ideas and milk them for profit without any punishment (and they operate within legal framework so no one can blame them when mugus are giving them money)
- climb high in a corporate hierarchy (this comes with good bonuses, and shares)
- climb high in a political hierarchy (rubbing each others back is always profitable)
- join a startup that succeeds (note that most of startups’ shares are worthless, because companies wrap-up after money from venture capitalists are spent; only if you join a successful one they will turn you into a millionaire)
- somehow save a rich person from death and they will become your sponsor 😉
- work a few jobs and change them climbing on the way
- start your own company (and again, be successful – you will need to have people working for you!)
- know, or learn how to get to know right people (it’s not a secret that the most important lesson they teach you during MBA is this: networking is everything)
In most of these cases, whether you are a good, or a bad guy, you actually need to work really hard. If you are ever wondering how come some immigrants reach a much higher financial status than the locals from the same area… it’s because they need to work twice as hard as them.
Think of it for a second. There is no safety net of a family you can lean on, there is no safety net with regards to immigration issues, there is no safety even against casual violence and racism… basically, there is no safety net with regards to any aspect of life. Hence, you work your butt off and work harder, wake up earlier, go to sleep later, don’t waste time on entertainment, complacency, or lose money on compulsory spending, and consumption. You build that safety net, success follows naturally.
And the ‘success’ word is so abstract – the one that is sold by the marketing masses is so boring. It’s cut to one measure. It’s just money, status, glamour. And the real success is personal. It’s the small advance we make day by day. It’s the second job you get to progress plans to go to study, or a course you finish to climb higher, or enables you to change the job. It’s a promotion at work. It’s any kind of self-improvement. It’s a long-term gig overall. Again, no shortcuts.
And it’s a very peculiar feeling that I have with regards to success. I believe it’s especially resonating with me in Hong Kong. I love this place. Despite being such a crazy (and capitalistic) melting pot I do get a very strong vibe of purpose from people living there. It’s not visible in many other places I lived in, or visited. There is a sense of purpose on people faces, literally… it’s like there is a plan for the day, a to-do list to follow.
Hong Kong people are amazingly well organized and always have something to do. Doing extracurricular activities is a norm. Borrowing money is a shame. Self-improvement and a built-in drive for quality is a true phenomenon. And this is what is a ground for success. And it has its roots in a very strong competition they face since very young. Things need to be earned. And this is what books about success don’t talk about. The entitlement is there by default. And that’s a recipe for a failure.
Want success? Want money? Think like immigrants, self-improve like Hong Kongese.
With regards to pop-sci and ‘ideas’ books. The one thing is obvious. Pick up any book from this theme, and you will find two very common patterns:
- they use catchy, ‘mental trigger’ titles; typically something clever, maybe even a neologism, a lure that makes it stand out from the crowd; reading it will give you that instant sense of a value because it will stimulate you to solve some little puzzle, question a paradox, appeal to your feelings one way or another; examples include:
- portmanteaus: freakonomics
- clever, paradoxical combinations of words: predictably irrational
- ‘action’ titles: confessions of an economic hitman, steal this book
- manuals: how to win/make lots of money/pick up girls…
- alluding to the old shady past: confessions of…, three-letter agencies in U.S. and Soviet Union or Russia or Israel, 4-digit special units in Israel, etc.
- slogans of any sort
- some ride on success of others: companies, “hagiographies” of Jobs, Gates
- pretty much every pop-sci book will make references to a number of well-known experiments e.g. Stanford prison experiment, marshmallow test, Mozart effect, or scientists f.ex.: Milgram, Skinner, Pavlow, Maslov, Zimbardo, Freud, Jung, and you may be sure there will be a quote from Sun Tzu incorporated somewhere
What you get out of these books?
Hmm trivia. Even more trivia, old trivia.
None of it is important, many of these experiments they refer to are actually seriously outdated, often even debunked!!! (For Milgram: read this article, on Stanford prison experiment read here, here and here). Many of these experiments are now questioned as many of them can’t be reproduced (google ‘Replication crisis‘). It’s just a bubble – lots of volume, void inside. It is actually… a pseudoscience.
Don’t buy into it. You can read TL;DR of all of it on wikipedia, or just google around.
And for the future, learn to recognize when the book (or website, or any media really) triggers an emotional response in your head.
Ask: Why? What vulnerability in your life they try to exploit?
The emphasis is on ‘vulnerability’. People who reach out to books about success, ‘lifehacking’, and cutting corners… are typically vulnerable one way or another. Only a few in this world can go from rags to riches. Most countries have a very well established class system and we can hate it all the way we want, but there are simply no shortcuts for an average Joe to climb. When you live your life delivering what you are asked to you will remain in this class. Add to that the decline of a middle-class, worldwide. You born poor, you die poor. You born rich, you often die… richer.
All of us poor have equal prospects for the future… and… most of us have it pretty gloomy, contextualized to our local environment, constantly comparing ourselves to our family, friends. Stepping out of it does not require any help from ‘evangelists’. It’s just a pretty damn difficult thing to go from a passive, even aggressive entitlement to demand these rapid, big one-off changes happening (and to a dramatic effect), to an active, humble and purposeful, long-term, repetitive yet very small (and somehow boring) changes…
So, there you have it. It’s just my opinion and you don’t need to agree.
“Think like an immigrant” on the bookshelves next week.
Just kidding, but admit it – wouldn’t you buy it?