The One Reason People Fail at Developing Good Habits and How to Avoid It

As complicated as... by Aunullah

Developing good habits is easy... if you can avoid making it complicated.

Developing a new habit is difficult.

Okay, so that’s not entirely true. Let me rephrase that a bit. Developing a good habit is difficult.

It’s easy to develop bad habits. We do it all the time. People get in the habit of hitting the snooze on their alarm clock and curling back into oblivion. They get in the habit of spending their evenings mesmerized by a flickering television while mindlessly cramming snacks into their faces. They don’t usually get in the habit of eating healthy, working out, or spending a little time everyday learning something new.

Why is that? Let’s take a look.

Why People Fail

Developing good habits is fundamentally different from developing bad habits. The reason developing bad habits is so easy is because it’s almost always something part of us wants to do deep down. Not in the way that we want a goal, but in the way that we naturally always want to take the path of least resistance.

The same just isn’t true of good habits. Good habits are almost always something that we want to do because we know it’s good for us, but deep down don’t want to do because it involves work, difficulty, sacrifice or a break in our usual routine. No matter how much you gear yourself up and tell yourself that you really want to go workout first thing in the morning, by the time your feet hit the floor in the morning all you’re going to remember is your driving need for coffee.

Now, there are ways to get around our limited supply of willpower and make the habit stick. The thing is, just about everyone I’ve talked to who have tried it and failed had one single thing in common. They made the same mistake I did at first – too much enthusiasm.

Rewind a little bit to when I was first trying to take control of my life and start taking things in the direction I wanted them to go. Caroline and I decided that we were going to make some serious changes. We wanted to learn instruments, we wanted to learn languages, we wanted to write lots of articles, we wanted to practice our martial arts, we wanted to get in shape, we wanted to eat right, we wanted start businesses… oh, yeah, and we were still in college.

I remember one of the schedules we concocted in our fervor had every single minute of the day blocked out with a different prescribed activity. Literally zero free time.

I think it goes without saying that we failed, and we failed hard.

I don’t think we managed to stick to our ridiculous schedules for longer than one full week. Honestly, I’m impressed with myself for even completing one week.

There was just way, way too much stuff to handle all at once. There was no way we were ever going to manage that schedule long enough for any of those things to develop into habits because it was just too overwhelming. It seems really obvious to me know, and yet I still constantly see people making the same mistake I made without ever realizing it.

Developing a good habit is difficult. It just doesn’t make sense to try to developing 10 good habits all at once, but people still do it all the time! Then they get frustrated because they failed and wind up giving up until enough fire builds in them again and they make another futile attempt to will themselves into starting 10 new habits at once. It just doesn’t work.

How to Succeed

We may have failed back then at developing all those habits, but since then we’ve managed to pick up a lot of those habits successfully. What was the difference? Taking our time.

Rather than try to force ourselves to do everything all at once, we took it slowly. Ridiculous schedules were thrown out of the window – instead one item at a time got picked to be slowly developed into a habit. We would move onto the next item only after the first had been pretty well entrenched as a new habit.

It was very, very slow; but it worked. We started with working out. A time was chosen three times per week and we focused all the energy we’d formerly spread around all our other activities into just being absolutely sure that we managed to work out three times a week. It felt pretty good to make it a complete week without missing a single workout. It felt awesome to make it three weeks without missing one. By the end of two months of never missing a workout, we were elated.

By that point it had become automatic – exactly what we were going for. The key is to remember to not get too crazy with it. I know it’s hard, I really do. If you’re anything like me, when you decide you really want to do something you go all out. Fight the urge to spread yourself too thin and focus all that energy onto one single task.

Promise yourself that you are not going to worry about any of the other things, and all you want to do is stick to this one thing. To own it. Tell yourself that you are going to absolutely dominate this one thing. Then, and this is actually a pretty important part, actually go out and do it.

The best part is, you don’t even have to think of it as focusing on developing a new habit. Just focus on doing it when you said you would, on being there, and after a little while you’ll find you don’t have to force yourself. You’ll realize you don’t have to think about it anymore, that you just feel like doing it – you’ll realize you’ve developed a new habit.

What do you think? Ever had success trying to develop a bunch of new habits at once? Have something else you think should be added? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Aunullah

The 6 Keys To Efficient Language Learning

The Key of My Mind by ul_Marga

These are the keys that will help you unlock the door to fluency.

There are a lot of opinions out there on how to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language. While there are likely some that are a bit more misguided than they are helpful, for the most part they’re all valid as long as they help you reach your goal. In all my time researching languages, studying all the ways people acquire languages, talking to successful polyglots and becoming one myself, I’ve noticed a common thread that runs alongside all the success stories – including my own.

The common denominator was that regardless of the learning methods people used, all of them adhered in one way or another to these six key principles. No matter what your personal study method is applying these six pieces of advice will go a long way to making you another one of the success stories.

1. Start Speaking Immediately!

This is the very first of the six key principles because it’s not only the most helpful, it also is the one people seem to have the most trouble with. That’s also why it gets the exclamation point, I am yelling this at you from my computer. Can you hear it?

The fact is, if your goal is to speak a second language fluently, then you need to be speaking it. I’ve talked before about how language is a skill – if you want to learn a skill you start practicing that skill right off the bat. Putting it off doesn’t make any sense, you will never improve until you start practicing.

If you wanted to learn to play the guitar you wouldn’t set out to learn all the scales and chord progressions before you ever put your fingers to the fret-board – that would be crazy. If you want to learn to play the guitar you pick up a guitar and start practicing. Sure, at the beginning, you’re going to sound horrendous. Who cares? The longer you stick to it the better you get.

Languages are just like that. If you want to speak, you need to start speaking right away. Only know how to say hello? So what!? Go find a native speaker and say hello. Practice is always more valuable than study.

Putting it into practice

If you literally know not one single word in the language you’re learning, go to the list of phrases on Omniglot.com and memorize as many as you can (I particularly recommend ‘My hovercraft is full of eels’). Then go out and find someone to use them on. Maybe it’s at a local international restaurant or market, maybe it’s on Lang-8, maybe elsewhere. The point is to get speaking right away.

2. Relax. Mistakes Happen.

This ties very, very heavily into step one above. Being scared of making mistakes is the single biggest reason people don’t start speaking from day one. They’re scared.

“I’m not ready to start speaking yet,” I hear, “what if I make a mistake?”

Who cares?

“People will laugh at me!” they squeal. “If I don’t perfectly speak my target language every time I open my mouth everyone will think I’m an idiot!”

Who cares?

First of all if you met someone who you knew did not speak your language natively but was in the process of learning it and they made a mistake in their speaking, would you think they are stupid, mock them, think less of them, laugh at their mistake? No. (Incidentally, if you would do those things, please go away. I don’t want you on our website.) You wouldn’t do those things because they’re horrid. Of course someone who’s learning a second language is going to make mistakes, it’d be even weirder if they didn’t.

So if you understand that you and every other decent human being would never even consider mocking or thinking less of someone who made a mistake while speaking a language they’re learning, why do you expect it to happen to you?

In my experience it’s a much bigger problem that people are too polite. Native speakers will gloss over my mistakes and ignore them for fear of offending me by pointing them out, when what I really want is to have my mistakes pointed out!

On top of everything else, mistakes are how we learn. Your brain is wired to better remember things that have a situational or emotional attachment. When a native speaker corrects you on something, you will remember that grammar point forever. Learn it from a book and it might be gone before you’ve finished your morning coffee tomorrow.

Putting it into practice

Learn to accept your mistakes for what they are, positive and valuable learning opportunities. I love making mistakes. I feel that way because I know when I get corrected I’ll remember what I made a mistake on – guaranteed.

If you have a severe paralyzing fear of making mistakes then I suggest you go and practice making some mistakes. Yep, that’s right, practice making mistakes. Find a controlled environment (Lang-8 is a good choice again) where you can consciously or otherwise make a few little mistakes and know you aren’t going to get burned at the stake for it. If you need to, say something wrong on purpose.

After a while, you’ll find you don’t worry so much about it and can start trying new grammars and things without having any idea if you’re doing it right in the hopes that you’ll be making a mistake and getting a correction.

3. Surround Yourself In The Language.

Most people accept that a great way to learn a new language is to go live in a place that speaks that language natively. While this is hardly a magic pill solution, you can mimic the same conditions without ever leaving home.

As we mentioned in key number one, the most valuable way you can spend your language learning time is practicing. That being the case, doesn’t it make sense to restructure your environment so you’re almost constantly practicing your target language?

When you surround yourself in your target language, you can’t help but be practicing. You get on the computer, you’re reading your target language. You listen to music, it’s in your target language. You write a shopping list, you write it in your target language. You get the point. You are always practicing.

Putting it into practice

The easiest way to put this into practice is to go through every thing you have control over and change it into your target language. Start reading the news in your target language, start playing video games in your target language, looking up recipes in your target language etc. The more things that you can change into being in your target language, the more practice you’ll be getting – that means more and faster improvement.

4. Get social.

The point of learning another language is to be able to communicate. Sure, you may be learning it because you like movies in that language or literature in that language, but if your goal is fluency it’s because you want to talk to people. So go find some people to talk to!

The value of having a native speaker is immeasurable. A native speaker is a walking grammar reference. Not only that, they’re the best kind – an implicit grammar reference. They may not know what the conditional past-participle subjunctive is, but who cares!? They can listen to you say something and then tell you, “No, that sounds funny. We would say….” In that one little sentence is a billion times more help than in stacks and stacks of grammar books.

As if that weren’t reason enough to make friends with a native speaker, they also are a walking dictionary. The time it takes to ask a native speaker, “Hey, how do you say…?” and get an answer is always going to be shorter than the time it takes to look a word up in a dictionary or with an electronic translator. Even if you could look it up faster than you could ask, with an actual human you get synonyms, antonyms, slang versions and example sentences. Win.

Now, don’t take what I’m saying the wrong way. At the risk of sounding a bit ‘after-school special’ the biggest, most important benefit you get from being social with your language learning is friendship.

Well, friendship and someone to practice with…

Putting it into practice

Even if you aren’t a very ‘social’ person, it’s easy to meet new people to practice speaking with. The easiest, lowest commitment way is to send a message to one of the people who has corrected one of your posts on Lang-8 and politely inquire if they would be interested in exchanging Skype info.

Now don’t expect everything to be about you. They’re going to want to practice speaking your native language as much as you want to practice using theirs. Usually you can agree on a good 50/50 split, if need be agree to switch languages every other time that you chat.

The slightly more advanced method is to use Couchsurfing.org to find language partners. Sign up, search in your city filtered by language and ask to meet for a coffee. Remember, unless you’ve agreed beforehand on some kind of teaching arrangement, if you badger them with language questions and demand they fulfill the role of unpaid tutor they may not agree on a second meeting. Treat it as a friendly chat and if you feel like they’ve gone out of their way to be helpful, buy them a coffee or something. The point is still to make new friends, not find a free teacher.

Find Real Motivation.

Learning a new language is hard work. Now, that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, enjoyable and rewarding hard work – but it’s still hard work.

If you really want to be successful, you have to make sure your motives are the right ones. It might be hard, but you need to be really honest with yourself here. Some people may be able to pull it off, but I’ve found that for most if you have the goal of speaking another language fluently just because you ‘think it would be cool’, than you probably aren’t going to have enough drive to get there.

If you want to become fluent, you need to live it. At every second you should be thinking about or in your target language, when people walk into your house they should feel like they needed to have their passports stamped at the front door. This kind of dedication is crucial if you want to be more than a little successful. This kind of dedication is hard to maintain if you don’t have what you consider a really good reason for doing it.

Now, this is a subjective thing – I’m not going to pass judgement on the validity of anyone’s motivations. If you are the kind of person who is seriously driven to impress people by learning a second language and showing off is your sole motivation than that’s fine. The key is to be honest with yourself.

A student of mine once told me that even though he was taking an intensive one-on-one conversational English course, he was learning Italian a lot faster through self-study than he was learning English. He figured it was because Italian was a lot more similar to Spanish (his native language), but when I asked him about his motivations I got to what I think was the real cause.

Asked why he wanted to learn Italian, he became wide-eyed and gushed about his dream of touring through Italy, his love of Italian food and how all of the best movies and books were Italian. He was seriously driven to ‘be Italian’. Then I asked him why he was learning English.

“Oh, I have to for business,” he curtly replied. “It’s a requirement for my company.”

See the problem?

Personally, my motivation is a combination of love and fascination for languages themselves (hence my linguistics degree), and the drive to meet people and have fantastic experiences. For me languages, as much as I love them, always wind down to just being the tools necessary for really communicating with new, awesome people in different, awesome cultures.

Putting it into practice

This one is simultaneously the easiest and the hardest to put into practice. Easiest because putting it into practice only requires you to take a minute to sit down and examine your motivations, hardest because we have a bad tendency of being more dishonest to ourselves than anyone else.

Sit down for a minute and think about why you want to learn a new language. Be honest with yourself. Write down your answer even. If you find that it’s something you really genuinely are passionate about than this exercise will not only have confirmed your dedication but strengthened it by identifying what really motivates you.

If you find that your motives don’t really hold up to your own honest scrutiny, then you may want to try and find new motives or just accept that you may not have the drive to go all the way yet. Really, if your motives are that weak, it’s probably not a big deal to you if you quit anyway.

Have Fun!

Yes, I am yelling at you again. For good reason though, too many people forget this part of language learning and it is as huge of a determiner of success as the other five.

If you’re going at learning a new language like it’s a chore, work or something you have to do – then the whole experience is going to be like pulling teeth. That’s bad. Do you know what happens when a task is tedious, tiresome or boring? You don’t do it! You procrastinate, you make excuses, you forget about it completely; none of these behaviors are conducive to learning a new language.

Imagine two people, one commits to 1 hour of language study per day because they have to do it. This person rigidly schedules each study session and is bound and determined to grind their way through it. The other person doesn’t set any specific study time but every day they find that at some point they really want to do something in their target language. In the end, they only spend about 30 minutes a day working with their target language, but they’re excited to do it. Who do you think will have progressed more after a few months?

Putting it into practice

Have fun! I know this sounds contrary to everything you’ve ever been conditioned to do courtesy of public education but don’t study! If you force yourself to study when you don’t want to, you’re just going to continue to build anger and resentment around your target language – not a good thing.

Instead, go find something you already think is fun, and do it in your target language.

Do you love to read? Go find some of your favorites that have been translated into your target language and work your way back through them, or go find some new favorites. Do you obsess over martial arts? Go find some tutorials or watch some videos about your art in your target language. Are you the most hardcore knitter on Earth? Guess what? Run some knitting terms through Google Translate, do a search, and dive into your target-language-knitting wonderland.

When I was studying Japanese, I did two things that made me want to study – I found the Harry Potter series translated into Japanese and I found a bunch of old SNES games in the original Japanese. Which sounds better, learning Japanese slaving over a grammar book and kanji lists, or playing Chrono Trigger in Japanese with a dictionary sitting next to you? Exactly.

Like I said, in general the method doesn’t matter so long as it really helps you meet your goal. No matter what method you use though, implementing these six key tips will make your path to fluency not just shorter – but a whole lot more fun too.

Have you given any of these a shot? Do you think it should have been 7 key things? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Danielle Margaroli

Lessons from the Master: A Finger Pointing at the Moon

Hello Moon by Stephen Poff

Don't miss all that heavenly glory.

“Don’t think. Feel. It is like a finger pointing out to the Moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” – Bruce Lee

It might surprise some to learn that, in addition to arguably being the greatest martial artist that ever lived, Bruce Lee was a philosophy major. His writings, heavily reflecting both his love of martial arts and his love of philosophy, are widely regarded as some of the best on martial philosophy. However, for some reason people often fail to see the applications outside of martial arts.

Take the quote above for example. Lee often expressed that his study of martial arts was the best method of self-expression he could find for himself. His martial arts were not an end in and of themselves, but rather a path to self-knowledge. The finger pointing at the Moon was study of the martial arts itself – if you focus only on the study of martial arts you miss the ‘heavenly glory’ of self-knowledge.

On a slightly more shallow level, this quote expresses another truth about martial arts training. Many people who study a martial art get hung up on whether or not their style or their training method is the best it possibly can be. People argue over whether to do kata or sparring, if traditional arts are better than contemporary arts, if hard styles or soft styles are better and on and on when really – none of this matters.

True proficiency in the martial arts comes when you have gotten beyond the training and can ‘feel’ what you need to do intuitively. When muscle memory takes over and, rather than thinking, you just react; then you are a proficient martial artist. People who focus too much on analyzing the training miss out on the true goal of being able to blend elements of the art together in new ways without needing to think about it.

So what other areas of life can we apply this to?

Language Learning

If there is one area where people most seem to completely miss the Moon for their focus on the finger, it’s in the area of language learning. People go crazy about figuring out which method is the best to learn a new language. They try local courses, Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, online programs and everything else they can. As much money and time as they spend focusing on finding the perfect learning method, they never realize that studying a language isn’t the answer and that you can learn it all for free.

When people start getting too obsessed over the method, they completely lose track of what their goal was in the first place. In the end, all language learning methods are fine as long as they get you where you want to go. Personally I’m a big advocate of learning through immersion and speaking from day one, but if you find a way that works for you that is entirely contrary to everything I suggest – awesome! What matters is that you reach your goal, not how you reach it. Don’t concentrate so much on the method that you miss out on your goal.

Entrepreneurship / Business

I know that most of the people who are interested in living the kind of life Caroline and I are working towards tend, like Caroline and myself, to feel a very strong proclivity toward entrepreneurship.

It makes sense, particularly given that owning your own business and being able to make a living without being tied to one particular location is a huge asset in really being free to live how you want. The problem is, entrepreneurship can be really complicated. Do I start a blog? Do I develop a product? Do I try to make my living off of affiliate links or advertisements? How do I handle all this social media stuff?

Most people, when faced with a complicated situation, turn to the experts for advice. This is where a lot of people can get into trouble though. Not because the experts give bad advice, the majority of the real experts give fantastic advice. The problem is that the prospective entrepreneurs fall victim to paralysis by analysis and information overload. They get so hung up on optimizing minutia like post timing and Twitter strategy, that they lose sight of what they were trying to do in the first place.

If your goal is to build a fantastic blog then worry about creating awesome, useful content before you worry about your social media strategy. If your goal is to sell a new product, make sure you’ve created an incredible product and are connecting with your customers before you worry about tweaking every little bit of your sales pitch.

General Self-Improvement

By now you should be seeing a bit of a pattern. When people set out to do something, it’s an extremely common mistake to focus on the method more than the goal.

Once you’ve realized this tendency you can check yourself in any endeavor you take to improve yourself. Whether it’s learning a new skill like swimming, or working towards your dream of traveling the world. Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and there are always systems and methods to help you do those things. Always remember though that those systems and methods are just fingers pointing to the Moon, if you concentrate on them too much you’ll never realize your true goal.

Do you have any other specific areas where you’ve found you or others tend to focus too much on the finger? How did you get past that tendency? Share with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Stephen Poff

A Beginner’s Guide to the Deadlift

First Deadlift by Oplotnik

Ok, when I said beginner's guide....

If you want to be as strong as possible, you need to include the deadlift in your training.

The deadlift is absolutely the second most important exercise for developing full body strength (the squat still being #1 in my book) because it engages every one of your muscles and works them with the heaviest loads possible. Deadlifts will not only make your entire body stronger, fix lower back pain, enhance your rate of force development (power) and dramatically increase your grip/wrist strength – they’ll also condition you to pick up heavy things with a straight back. That means next time you need to toss some bags of dirt around for landscaping or lift a flipped car off of someone, you won’t destroy your back.

So, how do we do it then?

How to Deadlift

  • Start from the floor – If you’re pulling the weight from the safety pins of the rack then it isn’t a deadlift. If you’re starting at the top then that’s a Romanian deadlift which, while an excellent exercise in its own right, is not the deadlift you’re looking for (had to resist the urge to wave my hand there). Th point is, the bar starts on the floor.
  • Center the bar above you feet – You want to stand with your feet a bit under the bar at a little narrower than shoulder-width. You’re going to want to give your arms enough room and if you stand too wide your legs will get in the way.
  • Grip the bar – Your arms should go straight down and grip the bar overhand (that’s palms facing you) with your shoulders directly over the bar. It helps to grip the bar hard and make sure that you don’t bend your arms – this is a deadlift not a curl.
  • Bend your knees – Not too much, but just enough that your shins touch the bar. You may have naturally assumed this position when grabbing the bar to keep your shoulders directly above it. Make sure not to lower your hips as much as you would for a squat, or you’re going to end up scraping your shins or hitting your knees on the way up.
  • Head up, chest out – Look straight ahead and keep your chest out so that your head stays inline with the rest of your spine. Your shoulders should be back and down, not squeezed together like for a squat. Keep your back straight.
  • Lift – Roll the weight a bit over your shins and knees keeping it close to your body until you get to the top position and your knees and hips are locked. Again, keep your back straight and once you get to the stop don’t lean back unless you hate your shoulders.
  • Rinse & repeat – To put the bar back down where it came from, start by pushing your hips back first. Start bending your knees after the bar passes them otherwise you’re going to hit them with the bar and that gets old quick. The bar should be resting on the ground before you start your next lift, don’t cheat yourself.

That’s all there is to it.

Common Questions & Problems

There are a handful of problems that people tend to have when first starting the deadlift. Additionally, because this is an exercise for serious people who actually want to get strong not just pretend they’re getting their money’s worth from that gym membership fee, people usually have a lot of misconceptions. I’ll try to address the most common ones.

  • Won’t deadlifts destroy my back? – The short answer, no. The long answer, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO. In fact deadlifts are an excellent exercise for reducing lower back pain because they strengthen the muscles of your back and the entire posterior chain. As long as you maintain proper form deadlifts will alleviate back pain, not cause it.
  • My shoulders hurt after doing deadlifts. – You are probably leaning back at the top of your deadlift, or are pinching your shoulders on the way up like you would for squats. Keep your shoulders back and down and at the top of the lift don’t lean back.
  • I keep smacking my knees/shins with the bar! – If you’re knees are getting bruised chances are you’re bending them too early as you’re putting the weight back down. Start lowering by pushing your hips backward and don’t bend your knees till the bar passes them. If your shins are the part getting mangled, it’s likely you have your hips too low at the start of the lift. Raise them up a bit, but keep your shoulders over the bar and your back straight.
  • Some guy I met at the gym says deadlifts are a terrible exercise and/or are dangerous. – I don’t want to get into one of those ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ arguments… but they’re wrong. Deadlifts are completely safe provided you maintain proper form.

That’s all you need! Go get started! If you have any questions about proper technique or have hit any problems that weren’t covered share them in the comments and we’ll do our best to help out!

Photo Credit: Oplotnik

The Biggest Mistake in Learning a Language: Studying

Study Study by Lethaargic

Think studying for hours is the best way to learn a language? Guess again.

Tons of people every year decide they want to learn to speak a second language and every year they inevitably decide to do the one thing that will guarantee that they’ll never be successful – they study that language. I’ll pause for a second to allow for shocked gasps….

I know it seems counter-intuitive – particularly in a culture that forces everyone to spend at least the first 18 years of their lives constantly studying things – but the only way you can do more harm to your goal of fluently speaking a language than studying it is to never start learning at all. Thankfully, there is an easy way to reach fluency and it doesn’t involve countless hours slaving over a textbook, slamming your forehead into mile long vocab lists or parroting back sentences off of a CD.

What is it? We’ll get to that shortly. First, I want you to meet Maria.

Maria’s English Exasperation

Maria was a student I had as an ESL teacher a while back. To be polite I’ve changed her name, but Maria held a very high position in the Venezuelan branch of a large international corporation and had been studying English for years. The problem was, she still couldn’t speak it.

Maria had spent four years studying English at a university in Venezuela, one year at an English school in Scotland and another six months on top of all of that at a language school in Houston. Add in all of her self study with textbooks and the like and Maria had spent a lot of time studying English.

When she finally arrived at the language school I was teaching at, she was honestly a little bitter. She felt like no matter what she did she could never learn English. Coming to our school was her very last attempt – if Maria couldn’t make it work here, she was ready to give up entirely. In fact, she almost gave up before that when she saw the score she got on her placement test – 10%.

So, what did Maria have to show for her years and years of studying English? Well, she had a fantastic command of the grammar – but only explicitly. If you asked Maria to tell you the first-person-conditional-future-perfect-progressive form of ‘fly’, she’d reply with ‘If I will have been flying.’ Fantastic. If you asked her what she did yesterday, she might say, ‘Yesterday I go at restaurant in 4th street and have eat a dinner.’ Not so fantastic.

All those years spent studying meant she had a huge vocabulary and knew tons of grammar, but had never practiced actually using any of it. She could tell you want the subjunctive form was, but couldn’t make small talk. She knew the definitions of words like equivocate and transliteration, but had serious trouble ordering a latte. Obviously, this caused her lots of frustration.

So what made all of those years of language study practically useless to Maria? She, and I assume all of the teachers she had studied under previously, had been treating English as if it were a set of facts to be memorized. They forgot that speaking a language is a skill. See, language is like juggling.

Language = Juggling

Bear with me here.

Imagine, for a moment, that you have to individuals with the same goal; to be world class jugglers. Person A does exactly what Maria did. He gets every book he possibly can on juggling, he watches tons of videos on juggling, he enrolls in a prestigious juggling college and attends hundreds of lectures on the finer points of juggling physics, gravitational theory and detailed breakdowns of advanced juggling techniques.

Person B doesn’t bother with any of that. He grabs two oranges off the kitchen counter, and starts trying to juggle. Of course, for the first few weeks a lot of fruit finds itself bouncing on the floor or off the surprised head of Person B. He keeps at it though, and does his best to juggle every day, even if only for a minute or two.

After one year, who would you bet is a better juggler – Person A who did more reading than juggling, or Person B who never read a thing and juggled all the time?

Learning a language is no different. If you want to speak a language you practice speaking a language. You don’t wait until you’ve learned some grammar, or developed a ‘big enough’ vocabulary whatever that is, you start speaking from day one.

How did things turn out for Maria?

The very first day, after I saw her placement test and she related her history of frustration, I threw her grammar book right out the window. Not literally of course, the school frowns on the defenestration of school materials, but we spent the next two weeks talking. Just talking. Any topic I could come up with, we discussed. We read the newspapers and talked about the articles. We watched videos on my phone and chatted about them. For 4 hours a day, for two weeks straight, we talked endlessly. Every time she would make a mistake in her speech I would correct her and write down the proper sentence in her notebook.

By the end of those two weeks, Maria had made more progress in her ability to speak English than she had made in a decade’s worth of study.

Go Practice

If your goal is to speak another language fluently, stop studying and go speak! Don’t worry about making mistakes or not knowing enough words, just practice, practice, practice. I promise you it will do more to help you meet your goals than anything else you can do.

Has anyone else found themselves in a situation like Maria’s? Do you completely disagree and think that language study is the key to fluency? Let us know what you think in the comments!

Photo Credit: Lethaargic

3 Free Online Resources You Can Use to Learn Any Language

Working Lat(t)e by Kuba Bozanowski

Internet required. Coffee optional.

I used to be a rabid consumer.

Maybe it was the fault of the culture, maybe it was because I’m also a raving bibliophile and it meant acquiring more books, maybe it was because I felt like I had to spend money to make any progress – whatever the reason, when I first started learning Japanese I threw paycheck after paycheck at the problem at the bookstore.

Any book, software or audio set that promised to have me speaking Japanese in no time at all got whisked off to the checkout line. Naturally, after having spent several hundred dollars on language courses, I was speaking fluent Japanese by the end of a few weeks right?

Yeah, you know better. All that stuff didn’t get me anywhere.

The truth is, you don’t need to spend a dime to learn a new language. Caroline and I successfully completed our entire 6 month Korean fluency challenge without purchasing a single thing. One of the main keys to our success was our use of three particular websites.

These three websites are all free to sign up and use and, best of all, can be used to learn any language as long as someone else out there speaks it.

Lang-8

The first resource is Lang-8.com – a free community of language learners where you can post journal entries in the language you’re learning and then have them corrected by native speakers.

After signing up for a free account, you write posts in your target language and correct the posts of people learning your native language. Easy.

Are you an absolute beginner and don’t even think you know enough to make a single post? No problem! Find some recent entries written in your native language by people who speak your target language and correct them. Before long, you’ll start getting friend requests (Caroline received around 70 in our first week using it).

Most of the people who send you a friend request are also learning your native tongue and would be more than happy to exchange Skype info. You teach them a little English, they teach you the basics of their language and most of the time you form a new, genuine friendship.

Everybody wins.

You’re not limited to reading your own posts either. You can go dig through tons and tons of posts written in your target language by other people and then corrected by native speakers. Not that you should have any shortage of reading material, what with the Internet and all, but it’s a good option if you’re bored of reading news and blogs in you target language.

Rhinospike

Text is great, but if you want to be able to actually speak a new language you’re going to need to know a thing or two about pronunciation too. That’s where Rhinospike.com comes in.

Rhinospike has a similar community structure to Lang-8 – except instead of native speakers correcting the grammar in your entries they record themselves reading the text aloud and then post the recording up on the site.

Used in conjunction with Lang-8, that means you can not only get your entries’ grammar corrected, but also download a free recording of a native speaker reading it. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a large selection of recordings other people have had done that you can browse through and download.

There are a ton of potential uses for this. The most obvious is that you can have a native speaker reading your posts to compare your pronunciation to, but there are so many more. You can post articles, short book excerpts, news stories, vocab lists, all sorts of things and then download them to your iPod or whatever to always have native audio to listen to. You can write out little dialogues and then pretend that you’re one of the speakers, answering the questions rather than parroting back what the recording says. You can even record yourself on your computer right after the native speakers recording and compare to dial in on speaking with a native accent.

The pre-recorded library is, on it’s own, a fantastic resource even if you don’t request anything recorded for yourself. Glancing at it now there are 380 recordings in the Korean section. One of those is the first 633 of the most common words in Korean, and another is 310 of the most common verbs in Korean. If you’re looking for some good listening comprehension practice rather than worrying about pronunciation, just jump around to random recordings and see if you can figure out what they’re saying.

If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could download all the recordings to load onto your MP3 player and then just put it on shuffle.

Couchsurfing

I’m trying not to use the ‘last but not least’ cliche, but it fits here. Couchsurfing.org is the single best free resource available for learning a second language.

The key to learning a new language is, has been and always will be speaking it with native speakers. I guarantee you after one month a person who spends an hour per day chatting in their target language with a native speaker will speak better than a person who spends five hours per day digging working through textbooks. Couchsurfing provides a fantastic way to meet new friends who speak your target language.

There are three main options for how to go about doing this. The first is to travel. Unless you already travel a lot, or want to travel a lot, this will probably be the least useful to you. All you have to do is search by language spoken next time you’re looking for a couch to stay on while traveling. Tell the person up front that you’re learning their native language and would like to practice a little while you’re staying with them if that’s ok. Don’t expect them to give you an intensive course or anything, this is free remember, but usually people are more than happy to help.

The second option is to host people who speak your target language when they’re traveling to your city. Again, be upfront when responding to their couch request and let them know that you’re learning their language and would like to practice a little if they don’t mind. Chances are, they’ll want an opportunity to practice their English with you too.

The third option is to just do a search in your own city and then send a nice message to a native speaker in your area who has marked that they’re open to meeting for coffee that you’re learning their native language and would be interested in meeting sometime to chat about it. Not everyone will be interested, and some people may just chat with you over Skype instead, but you can often find someone who is cool with meeting up to chat.

Now, when traveling or hosting, don’t expect the person to spend a long time coaching you and giving you lessons, unless you’ve already agreed on something like that beforehand. The focus of the site is still to travel and meet new people, so if you’re hosting remember that your guest probably has things they want to do and see and if you’re traveling remember that your host has a life.

The real magic, in my opinion, happens long after you or your guest has left. In my experience, when you stay with someone or host someone in your house, you tend to wind up becoming friends. Not to cheapen the relationship, because I think the friendship is more valuable in the end than the end goal of learning a new language, but having a friend who speaks a language you’re trying to learn is the greatest way to make tons of progress quickly.

Have you used any of these resources in the past? Are there any others that you think I should have included? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo: Kuba Bożanowski

Why We Will Never Buy Another Physical Book. Ever.

We used to own a lot of books.

We used to own a lot of books.

All our lives Caroline and I have been rabid bibliophiles. When I was little I read through all the books that had been bought for me and was so fervent about needing something else to sate my hunger for literature my mom caved and let me devour her collection of novels – a decision that led to 1st grade book reports on titles such as Cujo and Eaters Of The Dead accompanied by slightly concerned teachers.

I am the kind of person who would have to be dragged from my house if it caught fire while I happened to be reading. My tendency to bury my nose in books while walking has lead to countless Mr. Magoo style near escapes, some of them humorous others genuinely coming close to finishing my life before I could finish the book.

Understandably as a result of our combined bibliophilia we have amassed a fairly large collection of books.

In the wake of going over our goals for our annual review process we realized that owning all of those books encumbered us more than they helped us.

That’s a problem.

One of our biggest goals is to be able to travel and travel constantly. We want to be able to head off for foreign lands and not come back ‘home’ for months or even years at a time. Maybe not quite as long as Benny’s 8 years and counting of constant travel, but something pretty close. Once we begin traveling we intend to put our current house up for rent (I don’t want to make payments on a house I won’t be staying in), so we would have to find somewhere to store everything we wanted to keep until we returned and found a new place to stay.

It just doesn’t make sense to have boxes and boxes of books that we have to find some place to store while we travel. As a result we’ve come to a decision that has shocked most of our friends and family.

We’re selling all of our books.

Or at least, almost all of them. There are a handful we do want to keep long term, a handful of reference books that we still get regular use out of and a collection of cookbooks that we aren’t finished digitizing yet. We’ve also decided to never buy another physical book.

Instead, we’re switching entirely over to digital copies. So far, we’ve gotten rid of a little over 150 of our physical books and replaced them with digital copies.

Why Switch to Digital?

There’s still a lot of argument back and forth about whether digital really is better than a physical, paperbound copy. I’m not going to argue one way or the other for everybody, but for our situation digital is a lot better and here’s why.

Portability

Portability is easily the biggest factor influencing our decision to go all digital. With our iPhones and with Google Books, we can take our entire book collection with us everywhere we go. That means that if I get the urge to read an old favorite while I’m halfway around the world, I can. It also means I don’t have to worry about storing all the books that I have somewhere here in the States. After all, I’d need to either impose on a relative or friend to put up the space for all our boxes of books or we would need to pay for a storage container.

It’s the information in the books that’s important, not the hunks of wood pulp themselves.

Replaceability

If I had only physical copies of my books and a tornado came through and demolished everything or there was a fire or whatever, those books would be gone for good.

Sure I could salvage some of them, or make a list for the insurance company and try to re-purchase all the books I had lost, but with the volume of books we own that would be ridiculously difficult. I would have bigger things to worry about than getting all of my books back of course, but the fact is the task of getting them all back would be slow, tedious and expensive.

On the other hand, all of our e-books are backed up remotely. If everything I own gets destroyed, I at least know that as soon as I can get back on a computer or an iPhone all of my books will be there waiting for me. A small consolation perhaps in the face of having all of your worldly possessions obliterated, but a nice one nonetheless. Even our PDF books are backed up both remotely on web servers and locally on external drives.

Of course, I’ve had people argue with me that those precautions aren’t as secure as having the actual book in your hands. They say that iTunes or Google could get wiped and we would have no way to prove we owned all of those books. That’s true – but which happens more often, houses burning down or all of Apple’s servers getting wiped? Thought so.

Searchability

I am constantly, constantly finding myself referring back to certain books. We have about a 50/50 split of fiction and informational titles. Usually, after we’ve finished an informational book, it takes a little while for everything to sink in – that means lots of referring back to the text.

I have probably wasted so much time digging through indices, tables of contents, appendices, etc. looking for that one paragraph that I can’t quite remember or that one key sentence that is escaping me that ties the whole idea together. If you’ve not experienced this, believe me, it is maddeningly frustrating.

Digitized books come with a search bar.

Sustainability

E-Books are buzzword approved! Wait, is ‘sustainability’ even a buzzword anymore? Whatever. The point is, millions of trees died so that young girls and middle-aged women could swoon over an insipid love triangle between a vampire, a werewolf and an angst-filled, whiny teenage girl.

That saddens me a little.

A book’s value lies in the information it contains, not in the number of tree carcasses that were ground into a pulp and flown thousands of miles to produce it. If the information can be had without arboreal martyrdom, why kill the trees?

It just seems silly to me at this point, when there is a clear, simple alternative, that anyone would want to burn tons of oil to cut down thousands of trees and then burn more oil to process those dead trees into books which are then shipped over huge distances to get to you. I’m not saying e-books are perfect, I plug my phone and computer into the wall to charge to read those e-books and the servers that hold them all plug in, meaning somewhere oil or coal is likely burned to keep them going. Overall though, I think digital causes less harm.

Affordability

Equally important, to me anyway because I’m kind of a cheapskate, is that e-books on average are a lot cheaper than the old paperbound ones. It makes sense that they should be, given what we just mentioned about sustainability. Cutting down and processing trees, not to mention all the shipping both of materials and of the finished product to distribution centers and stores is really expensive.

All of that expense is passed on to you when you buy the book. Just paying for some data, the information that gives real value to the book in the first place, without all that extra processing is a lot cheaper because it cuts out all that extra work.

Do you really want to pay extra, just so you can get your information in a form that has become largely outdated? You could always get all your books inscribed into stone tablets instead.

For all of these reasons, we’ve decided to ditch all of our books and never buy another physical one again. What do you think though? Are these good enough reasons for you, or do you think we missed the mark somewhere?

Photo: Natalia Osiatynska

My Goals for This Year – A Piece of My Annual Review

Goal Setting by AngieTorres

It's important to have yearly goals to work toward.

Every year Caroline and I have an annual review. (Well, actually twice a year but we’ll get to that in a second.) First, if you don’t know what an annual review is, then please go read ‘How to Conduct your Own Annual Review’ by Chris over at The Art of Non-Conformity. Honestly, even if you’re familiar with annual reviews, go read the article again first – it’s one of the most useful posts on Chris’s site and considering the quality of the rest of his stuff that’s high praise. Really, go read it. I’ll wait.

All done? Cool.

So where do we come back in? Well, Caroline and I do things a little bit differently. Due to all the holidays, and a small horde of binding familial obligations encircling the New Year, I’ve found it’s just not practical to conduct our big annual reviews at the end of the year.

On top of that, while I like Chris’s structure of one big review at the end of the year and quarterly reviews at each season, I see my year beginning on my birthday. I first started circling the Sun on August 6th, 1987 – so that’s when I figure my years should begin.

Of course, the concept of a year is largely an arbitrary thing, blah blah blah, subjectivity, human perception of time, I know. Like I said, the main reason is because I like to take my time on my annual reviews and that’s extra difficult around the New Year. I also feel like saying ‘I will accomplish [blank] before next year’ sounds like a doomed-from-the-start resolution, whereas ‘I will accomplish [blank] before I turn [age]’ sounds like a firm commitment. Maybe it’s just me.

Anyway. So far, we’ve mostly just gotten the past year’s successes and shortcomings mapped out as well as a general outline of our goals for the coming year. I won’t subject anyone to our full annual review, unless people really want to see it, but since this blog is as much about accountability on our part as it is about helping others live out their dreams I am going to post my goals here for everyone to see, divided into general categories.

This Year’s Goals

This list may change as the year goes on, and I’m not going to post the full list, just the highlights. With that in mind, here’s what I’ve got planned so far for what I’ll accomplish before I turn 25.

Road to Epic Goals

  • Reach 4,000 unique visits per month.
  • Stick to our Tuesday/Thursday post schedule for the entire year.
  • Write at least one guest post for another blogger per month.
  • Complete and implement a custom theme for the site.
  • Finish at least three of the RtE side projects I’m considering.

Health/Fitness Goals

  • Have my bodyfat percentage tested by a reputable facility (BodPod etc.)
  • Learn to complete 5 free-standing handstand pushups.
  • Learn to deadlift at least 350 lbs.
  • Run a mile in under 5 minutes.
  • Complete one marathon.
  • Attend a Crossfit gym for at least one month.

Travel Goals

  • Spend time in at least 4 different countries before next year.
  • Return to China and Korea.
  • Spend at least two weeks in Japan, preferably one month.
  • Attend the Wik Family Reunion in Chicago.

Language Goals

  • Have at least one conversation with a native speaker per week in Korean and Japanese.
  • Finish reading the first Harry Potter book entirely in Japanese.
  • Read one entire book in Korean.
  • Re-Learn Mandarin Chinese to fluency in 6 months.
  • Learn 1,000 Mandarin Chinese words in 30 days.
  • Make a short video in either Japanese or Korean.

Financial Goals

  • Earn at least $4,000 per month off of our own projects.
  • Completely pay off our debt (minus our mortgage) which currently amounts to around $9,000.
  • Find and explore at least two new sources of income.
  • Sell at least 30 unnecessary possessions.
  • Secure an investor for one of our non-blog side projects.

Miscellaneous Goals

  • Write an entire novel in 30 days.
  • Film a Parkour video.
  • Construct a set of Sasuke/Ninja Warrior training equipment.
  • Rejoin a martial arts school.

There you have it. That’s most of what I have so far set to accomplish before my next birthday.

While it’s probably not your birthday, what are some of your goals for this year? Have you given it any thought? Share some in the comments!

Memento Mori: A Birthday Note About Death

Genbaku #2 by Mrlins

The Genbaku serves as a reminder of all the people whose lives were cut short on this day 66 years ago.

Before reading, please note that this isn’t so much of an instructional or informational post like most on here so much as it is a… philosophical one. The intent here isn’t to teach you anything new. Rather, as its name suggests, this post is a memento – a reminder. Specifically, a reminder of our mortality; something that I think is far too easily forgotten nowadays. So if you’re looking for something more informational or just think it’s a downer to be reminded of how fragile your life is, we have lots of other good articles to read. Otherwise, enjoy.

Today is my birthday. On this day 24 years ago, I drew my very first breaths. On this very same day in 1945, 42 years before I got here, 100,000 people in Hiroshima, Japan breathed their last.

It’s fairly safe to say that none of the people who died that day knew what was coming. These were people who were going about their normal day, not worrying about whether they were going to see tomorrow or not. There were children with homework to worry about, people planning vacations, people with dates that evening – likely even people celebrating their birthdays, like I do today.

For all of these people the thought that their last few moments of existence would take place that same day probably never crossed their minds. Honestly, they probably didn’t expect their lives to end for years. They were going about their days just like any other when, quite literally in a flash, they were gone.

Every year on my birthday, as I celebrate the fact that I made it around the Sun one more time without my heart stopping, I’m reminded of all these people who had their lives cut short without any warning.

Now, you might think that that’s a really depressing thing to be thinking about on your birthday and you’re right, to a point it kind of is. However it’s a fantastic memento mori. What’s that? Well, my Latin is a bit… rusty, but basically it means ‘Remember death”, or rather “Remember your mortality”. The exact Latin translation is unimportant, (although individuals more learned than I will probably be horrified by my using it as a noun) the point is a memento mori is something that reminds you that you are mortal and one day, perhaps years from now perhaps later this evening, your life will end.

Ok, but isn’t that a depressing thought too?

I guess it can be, but it depends largely on how you look at it. See, I think that most people don’t think very often about the fact that they may only have today left. That, unlikely as it may be, they may be stricken dead tomorrow and then it would be all over. You might scoff, but the people of Hiroshima would have too on August 5th.

I think its human nature to not think about it very often, or to keep living in a state of pseudo-denial about our mortality, but in the long run I don’t think it’s beneficial. I think people just need to look at things the proper way.

There are several personal memento mori which I have around the house to remind me each day that by this time tomorrow I may no longer be drawing breath. These are things connected to lost loved ones or other events which in some way remind me of my mortality. It isn’t a depressing thing, having all these reminders of my mortality around. In fact, it makes my life a whole lot happier.

I know that if I didn’t have little reminders around that today might be the last day I ever have, I’d be much more likely to squander it. It’s really easy, if you aren’t mindful about things, to completely throw a day away doing things you don’t really want to be doing.

In the end though life is far, far too short and too top it off tomorrow is not a guarantee. I’m not saying you should be stressing out constantly to squeeze every last bit you can from each moment you do get, that would be missing the forest for the trees, what I’m saying is that you should be checking everything you do against whether or not, if you were to die tomorrow, you would be happy you had spent your time doing it.

So place a few memento mori around your house and remember, you will die. Your heartbeats are finite and your days are numbered. You have little more than a blink of existence to do everything you wast to accomplish, and there are no second chances.

So don’t waste what little time you’ve got.

This has been your reminder.

How to Fail by Society’s Standards and Have Fun Doing It

Fail Road by FireflyThe Great

This is the path society has laid out for you.


As a male citizen of the United States born into an upper-middle class family, there are certain expectations that are placed on me.

I’m told that I need a good, stable 9 to 5 job. I’m told that I need to have a college education in order to find that career. After all, I’m told I can’t settle for just any job, it has to have good benefits, and a sufficient salary to provide for my family. I’m told I need to have a house. Not an apartment, no, I’m told I need a yard, property, I need to own land. This property better have a garage too, because I’m told I need to have a car. Not just any car, though. I’m told I need to have a new luxury car. I’m told it should be at least as good as, if not better than, what the neighbors drive. I’m told I need to have about two children. I’m told they should be a boy and a girl, though of course I’m told such things are up to chance.

I’m told all of these things are what it takes to be a success in life.

Of course, with all the telling going on, I’ve noticed no ever thinks to stop and ask, “What do you actually want?”

This really shouldn’t be a novel idea. Yet, I constantly find more and more pressure placed on me to do what I’m expected to, regardless of my own wishes. My own wishes, in fact, seem to be entirely secondary to the opinions of others on how my life is best lived.

Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

Live How You Want

All of that advice on how to live a successful life may have been relevent 50 years ago. Maybe even 20 years ago. The thing is, it’s not anymore. Now, in large part thanks to the Internet, there is no excuse not to be doing what you want to be doing.

Chances are though, you’ve been pushed into following a path in life that society wanted you to take, rather than what you wanted. How can you tell if you could be doing something more with your life?

Evaluate Your Priorities

Sit down for a momement and think about what things in your life are really important. It sounds kind of ‘self-helpey’, but taking a few minutes to sit down and list out all of the things you really want in life can make a big difference.

As an example, let’s look at a few of the things that are important to me and I want in life. I want to travel all over the world. I want to have the financial freedom to go wherever I want when I want. That doesn’t mean I need to be rich, just that I can’t be slave to a job that is location dependent. I want to constantly be improving myself, and helping others as much as I possibly can.

What’s most important to me is continually learning, improving myself and helping others.

Compare Those Priorities to Your Life

Look around you. Is the way you’re living right now congruent with the priorities you just wrote down? If you said your priority is spending time with family, how much time do you spend away from them each day? If you said you want to travel more, what are you doing right now to work toward that goal?

Chances are, the life you’re living isn’t one that’s actually going to move you toward what you really want.

I’ll use myself as an example. When I graduated college and Caroline and I got married, we had tons of plans for how we wanted to travel the world and start businessess and be location independent. So, what did we do?

We got a mortgage and bought a house with help from my grandparents.

Seriously. While I am bound and determined to turn it around and make the whole thing come out profitable in the end, I am amazed at how bad of a decision that was.

Our goal was to travel the world, so the very first thing we do after getting married is saddle ourselves with mortgage debt and chain ourselves to a house. I’m going to plea temporary insanity on this one.

Really, if you ask me now why we made that decision, it just seemed like the thing to do. I know that’s a ridiculous reason to buy a house, but that’s all I’ve got. Like I said, temporary insanity.

The point is that it’s really easy to get lost in the short-term and get pushed into what society expects you to do, rather than think in the long-term about what course of action will actually get you where you want to go.

We’re stuck now, because when buying the house we recieved a $16,000 tax credit. If we sell the house before two years time, we have to pay the government back the $16,000. We just can’t afford that kind of hit, and two years of mortgage payments works out to less than what we’d lose if we sold the house early, so we’re stuck with it.

Are we mad about our decision? No, not really. Sure, if we hadn’t bought it we would be closer to living our dreams – but it’s just one more hurdle making the fight to live life how we want a little more interesting. Wouldn’t be fun without a challenge, right?

Once you’ve figured out what you really want in your life – go for it!

It doesn’t matter if you look crazy or like a failure in society’s eyes, what’s important is that you’re following your dreams.

Posessions Vs. Experiences

When it comes down to it, a lot of the clashes between what society wants you to do to be successful and what you want for your life are an issue of possessions vs. experiences.

Society largely places its value in posessions. You should have a big house, a nice car, a fancy TV, and lots, and lots, and lots of expensive stuff. Society assigns value to a person largely based on what they own.

I value experiences. I’m of the opinion that life isn’t about what you own or how expensive it was, it’s about what you do. It’s about the people you meet, the places you see and the experiences you share with all the people you care about.

You don’t have to live your life the way you’re told to live it. Stop what you’re doing, take a look around, and start living the way you want to live.

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