Seven Lessons Learned from 80 Days Around The World: The Epic Lives of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland

Around the World in 80 Days the board game.

It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t read or at least heard of the popular novel, Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. At the time Verne was one of the most popular authors alive, and the book inspired people to travel and adventure and much debate arose questioning whether or not it was in fact possible to travel around the world in 80 days.

The story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s competition is an obscure but fascinating tale within which are lessons I think are as amazing as they are important. Which is why I’m sharing with you a brief summary of their story and some of the amazing lessons I’ve learned from it.

Verne’s novel was published in 1873 and in 1888 brave young journalist Nellie Bly pressured her editors to let her test the book’s basis. She was known for her audacity and willingness to put her life on the line to uncover a story – most notably when she faked being insane so she could bring to light the horrors of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. It took her a year to convince her editor, but eventually she was allowed to go. She was 25 years old.

The day she left for her journey the paper she worked for published an article announcing the trip. An editor for a competing paper saw the article on his way into work. Once there he called into his office the timid Elizabeth Bisland, who at the time was only 28 years old, and told her to go pack her things and be on the 6:00 p.m. train to San Francisco. She was instructed to beat Nellie Bly.

Newspaper clipping

Meet the Women

Nellie Bly

Before we tell you their story, let me first give you a bit of a background about these two women so you know what kind of people they were. Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, came from a humble family. Her father was a laborer who after years of hard work was able to buy the local mill and most of the land surrounding their home. His lesson of never giving up would stick with Bly for the rest of her life.

Nellie Bly

Unfortunately, her father died while she was still young and money quickly ran out – the family lost all their land and had only her mother to rely on. Her mother did eventually remarry but the man she married was abusive and a drunk; the marriage didn’t last long.

Through watching her mother’s struggles Bly learned that as a woman she couldn’t depend on anyone else – she had to be self-sufficient and strong. Which is why when a misogynistic article was published in the Pittsburgh Dispatch arguing that a woman belonged at home and at home alone, she was understandably upset and wrote a scathing rebuttal under a pseudonym. The editor of the paper liked the article so much he asked her to join the paper. Though he rescinded his offer once he learned that Bly was a female, she persuaded him to hire her anyway. It was a much better job than the work she was doing at the time being a maid. It was common for female journalists to take on a pen name rather than use their real name, and Elizabeth chose Nellie Bly.

Female reporters were a rarity at the time and for the few that were they weren’t allowed to write for anything other than the arts and gossip pages of the newspapers, but Bly was different. She refused – she was audacious and willing to risk her own personal safety to expose evils and mistreatment where ever she found it. Frustrated with the Dispatch for refusing to let her, she eventually talked her way into being a reporter at Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, the New York World. Her first story: pretend to be insane in order to be admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island and investigate reports of patient abuse. These were the kinds of stories she loved most.

Elizabeth Bisland

Born on what was once a great sugar cane plantation, Elizabeth Bisland was almost the antithesis of Nellie Bly. A sophisticated, learned writer and poet, Bisland didn’t seek out the limelight but rather enjoyed a quieter existence.

Elizabeth Bisland

The Battle of Fort Bisland was fought on the estate Elizabeth Bisland was born on however the family fled during the war, relocating to a home her father had inherited. Using torn and burnt copies of Cervantes and Shakespeare she had found in her grandfather’s estate, Bisland taught herself first to read. Later, she taught herself French so she could read Rousseau’s Confessions in the original French text.

As a teenager Bisland often sent small works of her poetry to the New Orleans Times Democrat under a pen name, although once discovered she moved to New Orleans to write for the paper. Around 1887 she moved to New York and worked for various newspapers, eventually becoming an editor at Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Bly’s style was unrefined and coarse, while Bisland was more elegant and refined. Bly was also more adventurous and scrappy while Bisland was more interested in books and conversation. The only things they had in common were rough upbringings, an interest in writing and that both women would publish detailed accounts of the trip afterward.

The Challenge

In 1888 after having exposed the cruelty of the Mexican dictator and the horrors of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, Nellie Bly had become fascinated with Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days and wanted to see if it were in fact possible to circumvent the Earth in 80 days or less. In modern times you could fly around the world in a plane in a couple days, but back then the most they had were steam ships and trains. She had a plan: she’d begin by catching a steam ship to England and would send back brief reports via a new technology, telegrams, and send longer reports via letter. There was a problem though that stopped her editor from allowing it: She was a woman.

Women shouldn’t go across town unescorted, why on earth should she be allowed to go alone around the world? Only a man could do this! Furthermore, she’s a woman: she’ll need 11 trunks worth of clothes and cosmetics that will slow her down trying to keep track of all those things and carrying them from place to place. These were some of the problems the editors of the New York World had with her trip. But that didn’t deter her – it hadn’t stopped her before and it wouldn’t this time either. But Bly wasn’t about to give up, she told them: send a man and I will go for another paper and I will beat him. They remained firm in their decision

A year later though she got a break. The World faced shrinking circulation and needed something to boost readership – a publicity stunt – and Joseph Pulitzer knew just the thing: Nellie Bly. He gave her a few days notice to pack her things and then she would be out. She left November 14, 1989.

On his way into work, Cosmopolitan Magazine owner and editor John Brisben Walker read the front page story in the World announcing Bly’s trip to see if Phileas Fogg’s fictional record of 80 days was possible and if she could beat it. Immediately, he knew this would be an incredible opportunity for him and his publication to get in on. So once he arrived at the office he called for a young writer to be brought to him – and it had to be a female. Literary editor Elisabeth Bisland – who was unaware of Bly’s trip – was called to his office and they exchanged brief greetings before he got to business: She needed to go home and pack her things and be on the next train to San Francisco because she was going to challenge and beat Nellie Bly around the world.

Bisland refused.

She gave excuses at first – she had dinner guests coming that night, she didn’t have enough time to pack, etc. But eventually he wore her down convinced her to go. Her real reason which she admitted to later was that she was a shy, studious and serious writer and as such she cherished her anonymity and privacy. She didn’t want publicity or celebrity – which she knew this would bring. She knew that this would be a sensational story and wanted no part in it. Bly on the other hand reveled that fact.

Bly had left that morning on a steamship east to England but Bisland’s editor believed it would be faster to travel West and so Bisland went via New York Central Railroad to San Francisco.

In Chicago Bisland talked her way onto a fast mail train headed straight for San Francisco. There was a $750,000 contract riding on that train being the fastest yet, and everyone else on the train was either a mail or railroad official. She was the only woman. In Utah the train stopped and changed engineers, the new one being Cyclone Bill Downing who was known for his lack of fear. A few minutes before 1:00 a.m., the train lead by Cyclone Bill Downing slowly began to move forward – but it wouldn’t last for long. He pushed the train to it’s limits careening up and down mountains, around passes, through tunnels and across long plains.

Derailment was common back then and everyone aboard feared the worst – and their nerves were not eased by the trains violent rocking and roar bouncing off the mountains. From the rear car passengers could see a spray of sparks trailing behind them like fire. Many aboard got seasick from the ride, and those that didn’t got sick from the smell of other’s being sick. One man writhed on the floor in terror and was handed brandy to help calm himself.

Bly didn’t have it any easier – she was on an actual ship for the first time and got seasick for a few days. To further complicate things other passengers had no idea why she was on the ship – especially alone. Rumors began circulating about her being an American heiress traveling to mend a broken heart, causing a number of single men to attempt to court her – several of them even proposing.

She eventually devised a plan to end the attention – she “confided” in another passenger that she wasn’t rich, but that a couple charities had raised money for her to go on a long trip to restore her health. The proposals ceased.

Once in England Bly met with a correspondent for the World that told her if she traveled overnight, didn’t sleep and made a few detours she could meet with Jules Verne at his estate in Amnion, France. She was ecstatic – who cares if she had to spend 48 hours straight awake and on the road? She got to meet an immensely famous author whom she respected and loved! While there, she even got to see the map he used to plot out his character’s journey and one he made of hers. He told her that if he beat the fictional record he’d applaud her. He was very supportive of her, even sending her a telegram when she made it to San Francisco to congratulate her.

The two women sent brief reports back via telegram, which the brilliant Joseph Pulitzer realized he could use for more than just status updates. He sponsored a contest for readers – whoever could guess closest to the second that Nellie Bly would arrive back in New York would win a free trip to Europe. Naturally, contestants had to purchase a paper first since the entry form was inside.

Pulitzer’s marketing scheme worked splendidly – the contest was huge and received nearly a million entries. He was careful to never mention Bisland and keep the focus on Bly. The winning entry was off by 2/5 of a second. Second place was off by 3/5 of a second. The contest and paper launched Bly into becoming one of the most famous women in the world at the time.

On the other hand, Cosmopolitan Magazine did a rather poor job of publicizing the race and brought much less attention to Bisland, which was okay since she didn’t want the attention anyway.

The race was neck-and-neck nearly the entire way. While Bisland knew her mission was to beat Bly, Bly had no idea she was racing against anyone else until she got to Hong Kong – about halfway through. The conversation with a ticket office employee went something like this:

Employee: You’re going to lose the race.

Bly: I don’t think so – I’m ahead of schedule.

Employee: Well, the other woman was here a few days ago and is ahead of you.

Bly: What? What other woman?!

The employee filled Bly in on the rest of the story, which greatly displeased her and made her more determined to go faster. On the ship from Japan to San Francisco Bly used her celebrity to convince the captain to go faster – and he did everything he could to get her there on time.

While the trip had its ups it also had its downs – bad weather, miscommunications, mechanical problems and conspirators slowed them down. In the end, it came down to Nellie Bly coming by train from San Francisco and Elizabeth Bisland by steam ship from Ireland. Either women could have won, and the world anxiously held its breath.

Spoiler Alert: Ultimately, Nellie Bly won. Thanks to a ticket salesman who lied to Bisland about missing one of her intended boats and forced her to catch a much slower ship which guaranteed Bly would prevail. Bly’s end time was 72 days 6 hours and 11 minutes while Bisland’s time was 76 and a half days.

Bly’s victory was celebrated with parades and much publicity – by this time she was more concerned with fame than with uncovering immoral actions and becoming more and more arrogant. She attempted to capitalize on it by going on a lecture circuit but it didn’t bode too well. Later s board game and an amusement park in Brooklyn would be made using her name and journey as their themes, however she didn’t profit from either.

Bisland’s return was much less grand although she was just as much changed. She was greeted by a small crowd of curious people and her sister. She wrote soon after returning that she wanted to live her life in such a way that her name would never again appear in a newspaper. However, she would continue to travel. The trip itself had broadened her outlook and opened her up to the world. She particularly loved Japan and would return many times.

Finally, the Seven Lessons Learned

There’s so much that can be gained from the lives of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland but I’ll just share a few of the more prominent things that stood out for me.

Screw Social Constraints

Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were unique – they were doing things during a time when women doing practically anything was frowned upon. While most women were being chaperoned to the store and back, Bly and Bisland were traveling the world alone.

Of course, that wasn’t all they did that was unique. During her early career (teens and early 20s) she would do anything required to expose social injustices – even if that meant going into an abusive insane asylum that she might not get out of (not to mention, many of the people there weren’t actually insane.)

Who cares what other people think of what your doing? Why let other’s opinions – which mean absolutely nothing – have an impact on your happiness? Be yourself, do the things you love, not what others have told you to do or love. Be different, and be proud. By doing this, you’ll encourage others to follow suit and do the things they love.

Things aren’t perfect, but everyone – male and female, and of all races – does have it a lot better than things were in the 1800s. If they could do amazing things then, you can do amazing things now. The only limits you have are the ones you set.

Take Risks

None of the things that happened in this story would have been possible if Bly and Bisland hadn’t taken risks. To me it seems that Bly threw all caution to the wind – she knew things would work out in the end if she was persistent.

Bisland wasn’t really one to attract attention to herself or go outside social norms, but yet she took those risks anyway – just in a very cautious way.

Bly took huge risks every time she did an investigative piece – she almost didn’t make it out of the asylum – but her risks paid off every time. People thought she was crazy for doing what she did but because of her life got better for a great number of people, and she even changed government policy to help protect people from abuses like the asylum.

The trip around the world was a huge risk for both women – not only was it dangerous for them to go alone, but if something did happen to them there would have been almost no way to know. There were no cell phones, GPS or cameras and investigative technology and practices were dubious – especially in the less developed countries they went to. But the trip was worth it. Both women learned so much from this trip, and society in general learned more about the world and grew more accepting of the idea of women being capable and able to handle themselves.

Whichever way suits you, you should take risks. Great or small, if you want something you need to be willing to take risks to get it. Maybe changing the world isn’t your thing – it doesn’t matter, even to get something selfish that you want (which is not necessarily a bad thing) there will be some risks involved. It may not be easy – but nobody said it would be. Of course risks have potential downsides, but whether or not you succeed you’ll come out ahead. If you fail, learn from it so you can try again in the future and hopefully then succeed. Take risks, learn from your failures and live without regrets.

You’ve only got one life, don’t waste it living someone else’s.

Travel!

Whether or not travel is something you are interested it, it’s something I highly recommend you do anyway. It’s not always visible at first but travel will change you.

It’s impossible to tell beforehand the exact ways that travel will affect you – it’s different for everyone. The only thing I can guarantee that it’ll do is change how you look at the world and give you a broader perspective than you could have imagined previously.

Furthermore, the world just isn’t scary – you have no excuse not to travel! If two women can muster up the courage to travel during a time when women couldn’t even go outside without a male escort, you can too.

Learning a Language isn’t Necessary for Travel

Bly didn’t speak a word of any language other than English, and while Bisland did speak some others she certainly didn’t speak the language of every country she went to, yet they got by. Things are even easier nowadays and so you can make it in nearly every country without using any language other than English.

There are certainly benefits of learning the language of the place you are going to, but if you aren’t going to stay for long or are only there to do touristy-type activities, then learning is not necessary.

You Have No Excuses NOT to Learn

You may not need to learn another language but if you want to, you really don’t have any excuses not to. Think about it, if Bisland could teach herself French in the 1800s from tattered books then YOU can learn ANY language NOW thanks to the INTERNET!

It’s not an easy task, but learning another language has gotten significantly easier thanks to the sheer amount of resources you have available to you right now for free. There are ways to get around money issues, if you really want it you will make or find time and with some strategic habit-building you can make yourself stick to it. The tools are all at your fingers – if Bisland could do it you can too.

Embrace Minimalism for a Simpler, Hassle-Free Life

Do you really need all those things? Really? Bly most famously only traveled with a single bag that she could carry with her – currently with The Smithsonian – containing only the absolute most essential items.

Going with only the clothes on your back may be a bit too extreme for some, but it should make you consider what are the absolute essentials – what could you live without on this trip? Do you really need multiple pairs of shoes, tons of clothes, or a bunch of electronics? What exactly do you want to do with your time there? Unless you intend on spending your time on your computer or with your nose in a book, skip those sorts of things. Take only a couple of your most versatile clothes (that can be dressed up or down) and only buy clothes at your destination if you need them. When you’re done you can donate, resell or give them to someone else.

What you pack should be indicative of what you will be doing, so unless you plan on spending a lot of time in your hotel, leave all the extras at home.

You are Limitless

When you consider the time period, the limited resources and social constraints that bound Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, what they managed to accomplish is incredible. The vast amount of resources, knowledge and overall freedom that we enjoy now gives everyone the opportunity to do amazing things.

Pretty much anything you want to do, you can do so long as you apply yourself and stick to it.

So what’s holding you back from pursuing your goals? What did you gain from Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s competition?

The Single Trait That Will Make You a Better Language Learner

0362 by Cia de Foto

Spending too much time in your own little world won’t make you a better language learner.

I completely and fully reject the assertion that some people are ‘just good language learners’.

Occasionally I also hear it phrased as someone being ‘gifted with languages’ or maybe ‘having the language gene’. It doesn’t matter how you put it, it’s wrong. On top of that and far worse whenever I hear it used it’s either to denigrate the achievement of some hard-working polyglot or as a pathetic cop-out for why they can’t learn a second language.

The fact is anyone can learn a new language or ten, while some people might hit the proper method more easily or naturally it doesn’t confer on them some magical advantage. You don’t need some imaginary ‘gift’ to learn a language.

That being said, there is a particular personality trait that makes you substantially more likely to succeed at learning a new language – but it’s something you can learn.

Social People = Better Language Learners

If you are a serious introvert please don’t leave because you need to hear this the most – people who are extroverted and more willing to take social risks make for much better language learners.

Language is at its core an inherently social thing. Its purpose is to communicate ideas with other people, to share experiences and knowledge. Sure, this can be done through the written medium in a relatively non-social way, but that’s an extension of language not the core of it.

If you’re learning to speak a language, to reach fluency in it and make it a part of yourself, you’re going to have to be social. You’re going to have to take risks.

Ok, if you’re one of the very small number of people who are learning a language solely to read it, maybe to enjoy some classics in their original form or because you’re studying a dead language, then fine. Being social may not be a huge benefit to your progress. You can leave now.

Now that two out of several thousand of you have left, we can move on.

Use of a language is a skill (like swimming) not a knowledge (like history). That means that to get good at it you have to treat it as such. After 10 hours who’s going to be the better swimmer, the person who spent those 10 hours in the pool practicing or the person who spent 10 hours reading books on swimming?

Languages are no different. Study will only take you so far, at some point you have to dive in and practice.

That’s what makes social people such better language learners, they take more risks and create more opportunities to practice their target language. The more willing you are to step outside your comfort zone socially in your use of your target language the more diverse opportunities you create to improve your skills.

Accepting Failure & Taking Risks

I think in general the main reason people miss out on opportunities to practice their target language as much as they could is because of social anxiety.

There can be a lot of causes of social anxiety, but a big one is the fear of looking strange, awkward or foolish in front of someone else and the resulting embarrassment. Fear of embarrassment can be serious business – I’ve known people who would become physically ill if asked to speak on stage in front of a group for fear they’d embarrass themselves.

Learning to let go of that fear and embrace your failures makes it much easier to take these social risks and open up additional opportunities.

I’ve talked a lot about how great failure is. I love failing. It’s really the best way we learn, and it’s definitely not something you should be scared or ashamed of. Particularly in the realm of language learning 99.9% of people who speak the language you’re learning will be ecstatic you’re learning their language and will be infinitely patient and supportive of you even if you make nothing but mistakes.

As for the 0.01% that will find out you’re learning a language and then deride, patronize and embarrass you for not magically being perfect at it from day one, we have a special term for them.

It’s asshole.

Be confident and practice under the assurance that the vast majority of people will gently correct your failures and you’ll learn a ton from them and that the tiny minority of individuals who will seek to bring you down for your mistakes are wretched things leading such dejected and miserable lives as to only be able to find momentary joy in crushing the spirits of others. You can ignore them.

Maximizing Your Return by Leaving Your Comfort Zone

The best learning occurs just outside of your normal zone of comfort. If you’re comfortable then you aren’t progressing fast enough.

That means you should always be looking for ways to push your social comfort zones in order to practice your target language.

This can mean different things for different people. For some pushing their comfort zone is going to mean getting on iTalki and chatting with someone over Skype half a world away who they may or may not ever talk to again. For others it might be going to the local international market or a restaurant from the same country as your target language and practicing with the staff there.

The point is to find your boundaries and step out of them.

Don’t do it in a non-committal way either. Go all in. Taking the first step of joining a Meetup group based around your target language is a fantastic first step, actually going to one of the Meetups is another, but once there you actually have to approach people and chat with them. If you go just to be there and hang out alone in a corner being shy then you’re not really getting any benefit from the experience.

If you’re already fairly outgoing, push your boundaries in other ways. It’s great to memorize the dialogue necessary to order a coffee in your target language then go to a restaurant where you can actually use it and repeat it there, but that’s very rigid and controlled. Do that, but rather than stop there go on and ask an open ended question like how business is going, what their favorite dish is or something like that.

That way you can push the conversation beyond the rigid dialogue you practiced beforehand and get some free form practice outside of your normal comfort zone.

In the end, forcing yourself to be a little more and more social and take more risks will lead to drastic improvements in your language skill that would take forever to come, if they ever even did, if you focused the majority of your effort on introverted study.

Have you seen more success with language learning by being more social or outgoing? Have any tips for people who have a lot of social anxiety? Help everyone out and share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Cia de Foto

Why Chinese is Easy

Homework by Simon Shek

I’ve heard it since I was little – Chinese is THE hardest language in the world! Back then before I knew anything about the language I would stare at the beautiful characters and wonder, exactly what makes it so hard to learn Chinese? It wasn’t until I got much older and decided to tackle learning the language that I have come to think that not only is Chinese not the hardest language to learn, but that I think the reason why people say it is is because of a fear of something different.

This is not to say that learning a language is easy – all languages require that you give time, dedication, a lot of hard work and effort in learning and practice and even to go out of your comfort zone regularly. However, I disagree that Chinese is any harder than any other language.

It’s So Different

The assumption that European languages are easier to learn than Chinese (largely because of them being “similar” to English) is what I think really drives the claim that Chinese is the hardest language to learn. Well, that and perhaps also a general ignorance about the language.

Yes, Chinese is different – in some ways. From European languages, it’s definitely different in that it has a logographic writing system instead of alphabetic. But does that necessarily make it harder to learn? Not at all! As I’ll discuss later, Chinese grammar and sentence structure isn’t too different from English which, in my opinion, makes it much easier to learn and remember. The point is really that any language can be difficult. Even between European languages there are huge differences – particularly between languages of different families (Romance, Germanic or Slavic) – that can make them difficult to learn.

Chinese isn’t as hard as one may think!

“Those Symbols” Are Meaningful

For a beginner, looking at a block of Chinese text can seem daunting – for a native English speaker there is no easily identifiable way to pronounce anything or get an idea of what it’s talking about. European languages are “easier” in that many use the same characters (some have a few additional letters or different letters) as English and many words have been shared between languages, giving us a leg up on meanings.

Many of the characters used are meant to look like the word they are supposed to represent. For example:

Shān Chuān Rén

Can you guess what these might mean? Okay, perhaps not immediately, but what if I pointed out to you that the first one kinda looks like a mountain. Can you see it now? Okay, going through the rest: a river, a tree, the Sun and the legs of a person walking. It helps if you’ve got an active imagination.

Much of written Chinese lends itself nicely to memorization techniques, like in the cases above.

I Can’t Memorize 3,000 Characters!

With many languages, our approach to learning is to memorize the most 2-3,000 most common words which will enable you to participate in most conversations and to read newspapers. The nice thing with Chinese is that you don’t have to memorize 3,000 characters though! Learning the basic words and a handful of radicals will enable you to figure out the meanings of other words.

Zhōng Xiǎo Xué

The words above are for ‘big’ ‘middle’ ‘little’ and ‘learn’. Once you know these words, suddenly you also know:

大学
Dà Xué
University

中学
Zhōng Xué
Middle School

小学
Xiǎo Xué
Elementary School

Many words are like this and if you know the characters you can often get the idea of what a bit of text is saying. Putting the words “electricity” and “talk” together gives you the word for “phone” or “electricity” and “view” gives you “television” or “fire” and “mountain” together give you “volcano”. While this isn’t true 100% of the time it IS valid for the majority of common words and phrases.

What are Radicals?

Another way to get clues as to what a word means are the radicals – or one of the components to the character. Knowing how to identify the radicals will help you look up words in the dictionary (although who cares anymore with handy apps like Pleco?) and in many cases can give some clue to meaning or pronunciation, or at the very least help you create a memory hook to remember a word.

Some examples:

林 晶
Lín Jīng

Remember those words from above for “tree” and “sun”? Well, the characters for them are also radicals. As you can see above I have a few words using those same characters. The first one is two trees together – can you guess what it means? Forest! The second is a trickier one – it’s three suns and means “sparkling” or “bright” (and having three suns would be terribly bright wouldn’t it?)

While Chinese has a character for water (水) it also has a radical for water (氵) and by knowing this radical you can get the idea that all these words have something to do with water/liquid or flowing: 洪水 Hóng Shuǐ (flood), 果汁 Guǒ Zhī (fruit juice), 电流 Diàn Liú (electric current) or 啤酒 Pí Jiǔ (beer). If you’re looking at a menu in a restaurant and see a list of words that all contain the 氵 radical, you’ll know those are the drinks! Similarly, knowing that 艹 is the radical for plant and is always on the top of the character you’ll be able to figure out which items on the menu are vegetable dishes.

Radicals may not always help you directly with knowing a word’s meaning or pronunciation, but as I mentioned earlier knowing them can help in many cases and often help in creating memory hooks.

Wait! Traditional vs. Simplified is Hard!

Lots of people fret about whether they should learn the traditional or simplified characters – which is something I think is pointless to worry about. What is your purpose in learning? Are you going to Beijing? Then learn simplified and don’t worry about the traditional. Going to Taiwan? Then traditional it is. Want to read Journey to the West? Simplified.

Aside from purpose making it clear which you should learn, I’ve learned both and I really don’t know why people fuss about it. In extreme cases it’s not much different than remembering there are two ways to say the same thing. More often than not though, the simplified versions aren’t that far from the traditional counterpart. Hacking Chinese had a great example of this:

銳 - 锐
銘 - 铭
釘 - 钉
鎮 - 鎮
釣 - 钓

Traditional is on the left and simplified is on the right. As you can see, all that changed is the radical. So much of what you need to remember is the two ways to write the simplified radicals, not every single character. This is much easier to do than people make it out to be!

Characters, Radicals, Traditional vs. Simplified, This is Why Chinese is Difficult!

I can understand if all the technical discussion above can make Chinese seem difficult. However, I find it a lot easier to remember all these things as I’m a very visually-based person and Chinese lends itself to a lot of visual memory hooks.

Furthermore, Chinese is really consistent which I hope you got the idea from with my examples of multiple trees = forest and electric talk = phone and so on. If you know a handful of single characters or words your vocabulary is instantly doubled once you start combining them!

Another great example of this consistency is, for example, when reading menus if you want to order stir-fried beef the word is literally “fried cow meat” (炒牛肉) whereas we have the obvious problem of “cow meat” being “beef” in English thanks to borrowing many food terms from French.

Beyond vocabulary Chinese doesn’t have genders, three different levels of the word “that” like languages in the Altaic family do (Turkish, Mongolian, Japanese, Korean), politeness levels or verb conjugation.

The Grammar is Simple

One of my favorite things about Chinese is how the grammar is nearly the same as English, but much more simplified. The word order is the same (Subject-Verb-Object, or “I go to the store”) unlike many other languages like Japanese where the structure is Subject-Object-Verb (“I to the store go.”)

For European languages, learning the grammar is where most of the work is at – all those rules for conjugations and the exceptions. But Chinese grammar is simple! The majority of the work in Chinese is just memorizing words, which you’d have to do anyway.

Learning the rules and exceptions to those rules of verb conjugations in Japanese was one of the things that frustrated me most when I was first learning it (which, in retrospect is silly as it’s mostly logical and easy, especially compared to Romance languages!) whereas in Chinese, none of this is a problem. Everything is in present tense unless you throw in a word to indicate otherwise such as “yesterday” or “tomorrow”. For really simple sentences, you can just use Le (了) which indicates that an action has been completed. Simple as that! Context and listening will tell you if something is happening now, happened in the past, or will happen.

Sounds NEVER get Dropped!

This is one of the big things for me – when you memorize a word and it’s character it is always pronounced like that. In other languages, like Japanese sometimes syllables get dropped in the middle of the sentence. Yes, you get used to them after a while and it becomes natural (as it should) but for a beginner it can be incredibly annoying.

English is notable for dropping sounds in pronunciation and a messed up spelling system – just look at the words subtle, enough, phlegm, gnostic or scene. There is no consistency between spelling and pronunciation! ‘Enough’ could just as well be spelled ‘enouf’. Or ‘fish’ could be spelled ‘ghoti’ using the gh from ‘tough’, the o from ‘women’ and the ti from ‘nation’. C, Ch and K can all be pronounced the same way (‘care’ ‘Chris’ and ‘kitten’).

The inconsistencies of English pronunciation are displayed wonderfully in the poem English is Tough Stuff. Here’s the first verse:

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

But you’ll never have to worry about any of this mess with Chinese. There’s only one way to pronounce each word and it is always the same.

So the Grammar is Easy but What About the Tones?!

Ah yes, tones. Chinese does have them – four for Mandarin – which distinguish between words. Many other languages have tones too – even English although the use is slightly different. Rather than meaning, tones in English indicate mood, emphasis and sometimes indicate that a sentence is a question.

Learning the tones isn’t and shouldn’t be difficult. Once you understand the, in my opinion obvious, difference between the four tones it’s only a matter of remembering which word is what tone. This may sound complicated, but there are tricks to making this easier.

Even if you mess up a tone in conversation the other person(s) will still understand what you are saying thanks to context. They may correct you, but they won’t be clueless. If I’m talking with a Chinese person about places we are going to go to and I accidentally say I’m going to the “bastard” ( 王八 Wáng Bā) instead of “Internet cafe” (网吧 Wǎng Bā) they may get a good laugh at me but they will know what I mean.

What Actually Makes a Language Difficult?

Having spent a lot of time learning how to learn I’ve come to the conclusion that learning any language is hard work but the level of difficulty hinges on having the right attitude, motivation and method.

Your attitude when you are approaching a language can hugely determine your success – generally if you think something is really hard then you’ll treat it as if it’s hard and it will become hard. But if you approach a language with a positive “this is simple!” attitude you’re changes of success will be much greater.

Similarly, if your motivation isn’t in line with your desires or needs then success will be difficult to attain. Learning French because you want to go to French and communicate for pleasure or business is a much better and stronger motivation than learning French to pass a class you have no real interest in. Whether it’s to understand a favorite show, communicate with others in that language, conduct business or whatever, you need a reason that will really motivate you to study and practice.

Finally, the method you use to learn a language also plays a significant role in how successful you’ll be. Not everyone learns the same way – sometimes even the way something is phrased can change your understanding of a particular element. Even though my attitude was positive and my motivation to learn Korean was extremely high, simply switching which grammar book I studied from made a huge difference. The way the grammar was explained in the second book was MUCH easier to understand. I find using an SRS (spaced repetition system) to learn vocabulary to be much more helpful over writing words over and over.

Chinese is one of my favorite languages and so of course it saddens me that people pass over this rich language because of a stereotype that it’s difficult. If you’re having difficulty with a language, take a step back and figure out why. Maybe you need a new grammar book, maybe you need to find a new source of motivation or perhaps your attitude is negative. If it’s your attitude, go take a break and play! Come back later when you are in a good mood.

What do you think? What has made a particular language easy or difficult? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Simon Shek

Why You Need to Go Out And Fail

Sad by Kate Alexanderson

If you never even try you’re worse than a failure.

I used to have a serious confidence problem.

It shouldn’t really be surprising, I was fat and awkward and nerdy and shy. Alone those attributes tend to not contribute to being bold and self-confident, combined they made for the perfect cocktail of personality traits to absolutely destroy any chance of committing myself to anything.

As a result of that, there were tons of opportunities I missed out on my whole life because I was too scared to fail.

Honestly there are too many to count, but one that comes to mind from when I was really young is Space Camp.

Remember Space Camp? If you grew up in the early 90s and watched TV at all you ought to. As a kid it looked amazing. You got to fly off to this camp to do incredible astronaut stuff and go through all this learning and training. It was like nerdy Disneyland.

I begged my parents to go, but it was really expensive. After a while though they gave in and said if I really wanted to go, they’d save up a bit and send me that next summer. I was ecstatic at first – I’d finally get to go after what was probably months of begging – after a few days though I started to worry.

I’d be surrounded by new people in a completely unfamiliar place thousands of miles from home. What if I did something stupid in front of everyone? What if no one there liked me? What if the training was too hard or the people running the camp were mean?

The day after I realized all that and freaked out I told my parents I’d changed my mind. I didn’t need to go to Space Camp anymore, they shouldn’t bother saving for it. I can’t remember the excuse I made up to explain away their confusion over my sudden 180, but I couldn’t admit to them that I was too much of a coward to even try.

More Despicable Than Failure

Thankfully I’ve gotten over those issues since becoming an adult, but I’ll always regret all the opportunities I let pass by because I was scared of being a failure. The most frustrating part of it is, I was much worse than a failure.

That idea might be a bit strange at first. There’s such an enormous amount of negative stigma attached to the concept of failure that some people consider it to be the very worst thing, or at least consider being a failure the worst thing you can be.

As bad as failure might seem to you, never even trying is far worse.

You can learn from failure. You can’t learn from never doing anything. On top of that when you try seriously, really commit yourself, and still fail then not only do you grow from the experience but that failure will generally come from some factor outside of your control.

In other words if you try your hardest and fail, the blame for the failure (if there even should be any) really shouldn’t fall on you. If you never try you’ve already failed and you’ve failed for a reason that was completely and entirely under your control and of your own volition. It’s your own damn fault.

When ‘I Tried’ Is Bullshit

Not everyone is so brazenly cowardly as I was in my youth. Some people are just as terrified of trying as I was, but are too embarrassed or scared to admit it so they pretend to try.

Imagine someone who wants to be a published author. They have some ideas and they write a couple short stories and maybe even a full novel. They send them all out to a handful of agents or publishers and they all get turned down.

The ‘aspiring author’ says something to the effect of, “Well, I tried. I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” and promptly abandons their path toward author-dom. In my book this basically amounts to mental masturbation – you tell yourself you did the best you could and it feels good that you ‘tried’ and you get a little boost of self-satisfaction and move on.

You feel like you’ve accomplished something when in reality you’re just giving yourself a convenient excuse to give in to your fears while saving face and not looking like a coward to others or, possibly even worse, yourself.

Nine times out of ten, the phrase ‘I tried’ is bullshit.

People who’ve genuinely earned the title of failure, people who have committed themselves fully but couldn’t make it, almost never say ‘I tried’. The reason for that is that ‘I tried’ is what people say when they give up.

When people who commit themselves fully, who really try, fail at something they don’t quit. They learn from that failure and try again.

Why People Choose to Be Worse Than Failures

I’ve found in all the examples I’ve come across of people giving up before they’ve started or half-assing things so they can feel good and say they tried the motivations for such behavior boil down into two categories – fear and laziness.

In my opinion fear is the more common one, though I’ll admit it may just be easier to recognize because it preyed on me for the better part of my life. This can be fear of consequences (not asking out someone you like because they might reject you), fear of uncertainty (not changing careers to one you think you’ll enjoy more) or fear of some other aspect – the uniting thread is that there’s something that scares you and it’s easier just to avoid it.

When it comes to laziness it’s usually tied to a sense of complacency – things are just fine the way they are so why commit to something that’s going to shake everything up? This can also be expressed via a sense of defeatism. If you say to yourself, “Why bother? I’m not going to be able to do it anyway,” then you might as well be honest with yourself and admit you’re just too lazy.

Seeking the Epic Fail

So you recognize some of these things in yourself, maybe in an opportunity you passed up you wish you’d taken or maybe in an endeavor you took a dive on in order to say that you at least tried. Now that you know it’s a problem, what do you do about it?

Learn to chase after the huge, epic failures.

It sounds strange at first, seeing as how we should be chasing success rather than failures, but chasing success is what everyone else does and when you don’t get it encourages you to be depressed and discouraged and quit. Given that we’ve established you’re a quitter, that’s just not going to work.

People who have earned success did it by first earning hundreds and thousands of failures. Sure statistics dictates you’re going to have a few lottery winners, but you shouldn’t base your actions on the anomalies. When you look at the stories of people who have made it starts sounding a bit repetitive after a while. They all fail, adjust, fail some more, keep adjusting and don’t quit until they’ve got it figured out.

If you think Angry Birds was Rovio‘s first game, you are likely extremely deluded as to how the world actually works.

Instead re-frame your approach so you get into things totally expecting some manner of enormous failure. Not in the sense of pretending to try and setting yourself up for failure, but in the sense of going all in knowing that if you fail you’ll have earned that failure and you’ll learn from it.

Understand that when you’ve really thrown everything you have into something failure is a wonderful thing. It’s a badge of honor. It’s something you should be proud of.

When you start to back out of something before you’ve started stop what you’re doing and devote yourself to going all in and failing. When your subconscious says, “Don’t do that, what if it doesn’t work out? What if we fail?” Slap your subconscious across its incorporeal face and shout, “Fuck that. I’m going to go out and fail like a hero. I’m going to earn that failure, and like slain foes I will pile those failures against the wall between me and success until I can march right over and take what I’ve earned.”

Then go forth and be incredible.

Do you have a trick for getting over your fear of even beginning? What are some things you regret never doing because you were too scared to commit? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Kate Alexanderson

Want to Be Incredible? Break Your Kettles and Burn Your Boats

Boat Burning On The Water by Peewubblewoo

You have to make sacrifices to get what you want.

Timid people don’t make history.

Timid people back down when they’re faced with a challenge. Successful people are the bold ones, the ones who go all in and understand that the only two ways to truly be defeated are to quit or to die.

Xiang Yu knew this was true as early as 208 B.C. When his small army crossed the Yellow River to reinforce Julu (an area that’s now the city of Xingtai in Heibei province) he found his 50,000 men faced by a Qin army of 400,000 soldiers. Knowing that his men would have to fight their hardest to defeat an army that outnumbered them so badly he ordered them to save three days worth of food, destroy their kettles and cooking utensils and sink the boats they’d used to cross the river.

That meant there was no retreat, and next to no food. Xiang Yu’s army had two choices, defeat the Qin army before their food ran out and take their supplies or starve.

Xiang Yu’s army did just that – a feat leading to the old Chinese saying ‘破釜沉舟’ meaning ‘Break your kettle and burn your boat’. In other words to remove your option of backing down and forcing yourself to go all in past the point of no return.

Are You Willing to Burn Your Boats?

If you want to be more than just ordinary (which, if you don’t, you’re reading the wrong site and you need to leave now) then at some point you’re going to have to learn to burn your boats. That means choosing to go all in on whatever it is you’re doing – really committing to it fully.

When you choose not to commit fully to something that is genuinely important to you then you’re already setting yourself up for a fate worse than failure – never really trying to begin with.

People who live incredible lives, people who are happy and genuinely have a positive overall impact on the world, people who live in such a way that others find them naturally fascinating, they don’t half-ass things.

They focus and work hard on it.

They sacrifice for it.

They’re willing to take serious risks in order to force themselves into serious opportunities.

If you also want to lead an incredible, book-worthy life then you need to look at the things you’re doing now and ask yourself, “Am I fully committed to this? Am I willing to potentially give up everything in order to succeed or does that sound too hard?”

This applies to everything from language learning to fitness to entrepreneurship and finding truly fulfilling work.

Are you willing to skip TV time and go a month without video games in order to spend that time chatting with language partners, practicing words on Memrise and writing passages in your target language to get corrected by natives? Why not?

Are you capable of not eating the crap you usually eat, exercising your self-control when it’s the most difficult to do so and putting in the hours of sweat and toil in the weight room?

Are you bold enough to quit the secure job that you despise in order to have enough time to find out if your dream business can actually succeed, even if there’s zero guarantees that it will?

Break your kettle and burn your boat.

If you’re always too scared or lazy to go all in, you’ll never be more than ordinary.

Have you gone all in and fully committed yourself to an endeavor? Share it with us in the comments and how it worked out for you.

Photo Credit: Paul Woods

3 Reasons You Should Wake Up Early and How to Actually Do It

Good Morning by Frank Wuestefeld

Seeing the Sun rise is just one of the perks of waking up early.

I have never in my life been an early riser.

In fact I was quite the opposite – a quintessential night owl who was more likely to be heading to bed when most others would be waking up. On top of that when you did finally wake me up I was generally grumpy, malicious and horrible to be around. For the first few hours I’d shuffle around filled with hate for everything until I woke up all the way.

That is until recently, when I finally made the transition to being able to wake up early and actually feel happy and energized.

Now I love waking up early. So what are the benefits to getting up early instead of sleeping in late?

Reasons to Wake Early

  • Increased Productivity – Waking up early allows for you to get substantially more done, both in that it affords you a lot of additional productive time and in that it gives you the time each morning to plan out the remainder of your day in such a way as to be as productive as possible. I know I can get more done in the morning between when I wake up and when I head into the gym to train clients than many people get done in their entire day – and I get my to-do list in order and my most important tasks for the day selected so that productivity echoes throughout the remainder of my day.

    Now, it may not seem like it would really allow you to be that much more productive since you aren’t really gaining any additional time. You still need as much sleep, so part of waking up earlier is going to sleep earlier. Your number of waking hours really shouldn’t change. So if we aren’t gaining more time, aren’t we just changing when we’re productive from later to earlier? How does that translate to more productivity?

    The trick is in the timing of things. Productivity is a lot like boiling water – it takes a lot more energy to start the water boiling than it does to keep it boiling. In other words, the toughest part about being productive is the very start of being productive. Taking care of that earlier in the morning lays the foundation for you to coast on that momentum the rest of the day. On top of that, it’s a lot easier to get distracted or run out of steam in the evening and just say, “Screw it I’ll do it tomorrow.”

    Just like how you should take care of your most important tasks for the day first to ensure you get them done, you should focus on being productive first so that you guarantee you get what you need to do done.

  • Less Stress – One of the biggest benefits I’ve noticed is that I no longer spend the majority of my mornings stressed to my limit and on the verge of murdering someone. It used to be I’d roll out of bed filled with hate with barely enough time to get ready and into work. I’d shuffle in clearly having just rolled out of bed four or five minutes late in the mood to tear the head off anyone who gave me a good excuse. If I’d ran out the door without time to finish my coffee, it was even worse.

    Essentially, I started out every morning stressed and annoyed. Can you imagine the kind of effect that had on the rest of my day?

    Not only did that mood ripple through the rest of everything I did that day but it meant by the time I was home after work I just felt wrecked. I had gone through such a stressful morning each day that I didn’t want to do anything in the evening but relax – not exactly conducive to getting anything important done. Add to that the cortisol and all the other physiological effects of all that stress and you have a recipe for a lot of compounding problems.

    Getting up early means I have plenty of time to have a cup of coffee (or too) get ready at my leisure and get some things done. I even have some time to do things I enjoy before I head in to work, like reading, meditating and exercise. That means when I do arrive at work in the morning I get there early and in a bright, cheerful mood that would’ve made the former me want to punch the current me in the teeth.

    Much like being stressed out and angry set the tone for the rest of my day previously, being in a good mood tends to carry me throughout the rest of the day making each day fun and productive.

  • Serenity – Just like your mood in the previous section impacts the remainder of your day in a strong way, your environment at the start of your day can set tones that will stay with you, if not for the rest of the day then for a substantial part of it. Starting your day peacefully in the calm of the early morning quiet sets you up for a much more relaxed day than leaping out of bed and dashing to the car with mismatched socks on and burnt toast jammed in your mouth.

    At the risk of waxing poetic there’s a serene, meditative quality to the time before the majority of the world has woken that is unique. Going for a walk in the near silence of dawn as you watch the Sun rise is an amazing and incomparable experience and, even if for some reason it doesn’t contribute to making your day better, it will contribute to making your life better.

How to Actually Wake Up Early

Learning to wake up early can be a bit difficult. I certainly didn’t have an easy time of it – it was a huge struggle and something that I’m still a little surprised I pulled off. If I can do it though, anyone can. Here are the biggest things that I found to be instrumental in making the switch from night owl to early bird.

  • Moving the Alarm Clock – I have a severely unhealthy obsession with the snooze button. If I can, I will always snooze. It is a tragic flaw of mine. As a result of that I find the snooze button to be one of the most damnable inventions ever to plague mankind and I sincerely hope whomever invented it was set on fire and torn apart by alligators.

    The snooze button serves no purpose but to ruin your day with false promises. Like some sinister drug pusher it snares you at your most vulnerable by tempting you with more sleep at a time when your dream addled brain is most likely to be craving just that. It promises to quiet that shrieking alarm clock and allow you a bit more sleep. It never seems that bad either – just five more minutes. That’s all. It won’t hurt.

    But it’s never just five more minutes, is it? Five turns into ten, then twenty, then thirty, and before you know it you realize you needed to be showered, fed and out the door ten minutes ago and your whole morning is screwed. The worst part? You’re not going to feel more rested after 5 more minutes of sleep. No one ever woke up feeling crappy, hit snooze and shut their eyes for five minutes, then reopened them feeling rested and energized. The snooze button tempts you at your weakest with a siren song of false promises that it can’t even deliver on and then ruins your whole day.

    So how do you resist the sinister silver-tongued snooze button? One way is to put your alarm clock as far from you as you possibly can without reducing its effectiveness in waking you up. That forces you to get up out of bed to turn it off, and once you’re up and moving around the temptation of five more minutes of sweet slumber is much easier to resist. If you find that’s not enough, or for some reason your situation makes it impossible to get your alarm far enough away to force you out of bed, make it a rule that you must leave the bedroom for something immediately after shutting off the alarm.

    This can be to get a glass of water, use the restroom, do some jumping jacks, whatever – the point is to get you away from your bed long enough to escape the mental fog present that clings to you following your escape from dreamland. Once that’s been dealt with you’ll find it much easier to resist the urge to return to bed and you can get on with your day.

  • Get to Sleep On Time – If you’re trying to get up at 5 a.m. you’re going to have a much, much harder time of it if you’re going to sleep at 1 a.m. than if you’re asleep by 10 p.m.

    Waking up early isn’t about reducing the total number of hours you’re sleeping. Not getting enough sleep will cause a ton of health problems. I can’t overstate how much you need 7 to 8 hours of sleep. With that being the case if you’re going to push your waking time to earlier then you need to push your sleeping time to earlier too.

    If you’re having trouble getting to sleep on time there are a handful of things you can do. The first is to limit your expose to electronics and media long enough before bedtime to allow your mind to wind down. You should also begin limiting your exposure to light about an hour or so before you want to go to sleep in order to encourage your body to begin producing melatonin.

    Reading before bed is a good option as a way to wind down a bit, but I would recommend reading on a physical book if you can. Now, we’ve pretty much gotten rid of all our books, so if you have to I recommend at least reading in the dark with the brightness on your device turned low enough so as to not be too hard on your eyes.

    Exercise in general will help you get to sleep easier as well, though some people have issues with exercising before bed. Some people it winds down, other people it keys up – figure out which one you are before committing to lots of exercise right before bed.

  • Do Things Gradually – Don’t try to go from waking up at 8 a.m. to waking up at 6 a.m. in one go. That’s too much of a change to throw on yourself all at once. You may do it once or twice but in the end you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’re just going to get discouraged when you eventually fail and then give up.

    Instead, make the change as gradual as possible. Wake up five or ten minutes earlier each day, or each couple days even if it’s a bit harder to adjust, until you get down to the time you want to be waking up at. Each successive success at waking up on time will make you feel a little more confident that you can do it and before long you’ll be at your goal.

    The change each time doesn’t have to be drastic. The point here is to go slow, so don’t push it and just let yourself adjust each time before you make the next small jump earlier a bit.

Have you tried any of these strategies to help yourself wake up earlier? Do you actually enjoy waking up earlier? Why? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Frank Wuestefeld

Tortoises, Seinfeld and Productivity: How to Use the Chain System

Jerry Seinfeld by Alan Light

Jerry Seinfeld knows a thing or to about being consistently productive.

Yesterday I introduced my latest challenge, attempting to change my productivity style from oscillating between frantic productive bursts and long depressive periods of idleness to a nice steady stream of consistent if small accomplishments.

As I explained in the other article, I’d like to go from being a hare (someone who sprints through tasks in bursts then goes through an extended cooldown period) to a tortoise (someone who works consistently on tasks for an extended period of time). To get used to working as a tortoise I’m challenging myself to go 330 consecutive days writing one article, learning 15 new words and mobilizing my ankle for 4 minutes every single day. So how am I going to pull it off?

That’s where Jerry Seinfeld comes in.

The Seinfeld Method

Or, more specifically, where Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity method comes in.

The Seinfeld method goes by a bunch of names including the Chain System and “Don’t Break the Chain”. It’s impossible to say if Jerry Seinfeld can be credited for inventing the system, but honestly it doesn’t matter if he did or not. When you look at the sheer volume of consistent work Jerry Seinfeld has produced over his extensive career it’s clear he’s doing something right.

As the story goes a young comedian was performing in a club when he met Seinfeld and he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get a bit of advice from someone who’s regarded by many as one of the greatest comedians of our time. Jerry Seinfeld told him that the secret was to write something everyday, whether it was good or not was irrelevant – just sit down and get something on paper every single day.

To make sure that you do it everyday, he told the young comedian, get a year calendar and put a check mark on it everyday you write. After a while you wind up with a long chain of check marks and it creates a psychological pressure to not break that chain. Hence the other names.

I intend to use the Seinfeld method for my challenge using a big chart I’ve made with 330 squares on it. I’ve marked off some important milestones as well, such as the 100 day marks and where I’ll have hit 1,000 words, so that I have some short term goal posts to aim for outside of the end of the 330 days. Since I’m grouping all tasks together I’ll be using checks instead of lines (which we’ll get to in a moment).

How to Use the Seinfeld / Chain Method for Productivity

Want to give this system a try yourself or follow along with your own challenge? Here are the basics of how to set it up along with a few modifications for different situations.

  1. Choose Your Timeframe – The first thing to do is to choose how long you’re going to apply the Seinfeld Method. That’s not to say that you have to have a limit, you can set off to do it indefinitely, but having some target date to shoot for I think provides a little extra motivation. People like finish lines. The trick is to pick something far enough away to be effective (over 30 days) but not so far as to be potentially discouraging (over 2 years).
  2. Choose Your Task(s) – You can pick one task or many, it’s up to you, although I would advise against starting with too much. The goal is definitely not to overwhelm yourself here. You want to choose a task or tasks that will help you toward some goal but are simple enough to complete without too much struggle. Run 5 miles is probably a bad choice. Run one mile is better. Go for a run is best. Similarly write 30 pages is not so good, but write 500 – 1,000 words is. The idea is for each day’s task to be small, relatively insignificant accomplishments that will add up to something great when compounded over a great deal of time.

    A slight word of caution though, try to avoid time limits. Set minimums instead. If you make your goal ‘write for 1 hour’ then spend most of that hour screwing around and getting distracted it just wastes your time. There can be exceptions (my own stretching goal being one) but in general it’s better to set a minimum accomplishment like a word count.

  3. Get a Calendar, App or Chart – Depending on your personal style you can go as digital or analog as your heart desires. There are lots of apps out there that you can use specifically for this method, Goal Streaks and Way of Life being to for iPhone at least that are decent. Personally, I tend to like to make a big chart since it invests a little of me in the project. Alternatively you can always go the traditional route and just buy a year calendar. Find what you like and go with it.
  4. Get Started – Start that day or the next day. Don’t put it off – the longer you wait the less likely you are to really get into it. Dive in while you’re pumped and use that momentum to keep you going through the first stretch. If you’re going with a single task you can choose whatever symbol you want to mark off your successes, a check mark, a big green circle, a smiley face, whatever.

    If you’ve chosen multiple things to track you can use this method as well, or you can use the line method instead. To do it that way you’ll need one color marker for each task you’ve selected. Then you just make a long connected line through each day you’ve completed that task with its respective color. Before long you’ve got a rainbow of success streaking across your calendar and you won’t want to stop.

  5. Make a Provision for Speedbumps – Eventually, something will come up completely outside of your control that prohibits you from completing your task. If you get food poisoning for instance, you’re not likely to be going for a run that day. Now it would be wrong to mark that day with a check since you didn’t actually do your task. Conversely it hardly seems fair to have a break in your glorious chain just because some moron didn’t cook your chicken right.

    The solution in my opinion is to have a ‘N/A’ mark to indicate that day was neither a success nor a failure. You could even put a big ‘S’ for ‘Sick’ on there. The point is just to have some kind of alternative ready for the unavoidable consequences of life. Just don’t use those an excuse to slack off without feeling guilty.

You’ll quickly find using this method that once you get rolling it really is hard to stop. In terms of psychology the fear of loss is much, much stronger than the anticipation of gain. I suspect it’s that fact that makes it so difficult to look at a long chain of successes and allow yourself to break that chain and lose your long streak of accomplishments.

Have you ever used the Seinfeld Method? Have any tips or suggestions to make it more efficient or effective? Share them with us!

Photo Credit: Alan Light

The 330 Day Productivity Challenge

Prague Orloj by Luca Gennari

330 days of consistent productivity – can I pull it off?

It’s been a while since I’ve put myself up for any kinds of challenges so I decided recently that I was way overdue for one. The problem was, I wasn’t sure what kind of challenge I should take.

On top of that, things have been kind of crazy lately and my normal writing schedule has been completely obliterated. As a result I have a huge backlog of articles I’ve been wanting to write and publish, but haven’t been able to actually sit down and take care of all of them. Additionally having recently wrecked one of my ankles in a bad landing while practicing vaults, I’ve been struggling to get my old mobility back now that it’s finished healing.

As a result I’ve decided to make this latest challenge all about productivity.

Specifically long term productivity.

Tortoise or Hare?

In general when it comes to productivity styles there tend to be two categories of people – tortoises and hares.

Like the fable I’m borrowing the titles from, tortoises take things slow and gradually. They focus on consistency of work over quantity of work. They’re less concerned with getting a lot done right now than they are with getting a little done at a time that will eventually accumulate into a large volume of work. Tortoises tend to not have a lot to show for their work at the outset, but wind up with a lot in the end.

Tortoises are marathoners.

Hares work the opposite way. Rather than focus on taking things slow and gradually they like to work fast and frenetically. They focus on insane bursts of super-productivity followed by stretches of repose – quantity of work done in a specific period of time is more important than working consistently. After a productive period a Hare will often have a large volume of work to show for their effort but will then take a long break where they don’t get much if anything done.

Hares are sprinters.

Now, I don’t honestly think there is any inherent advantage of one approach over the other. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

Personally I have always been a hare. My habits when it comes to productivity are to go a long stretch where I just don’t get anything done. I feel out of it. Uninspired and entirely devoid of motivation. Then, out of nowhere, in a manic burst productive fervor I will destroy a week’s worth of tasks all at once. I’m the kind of person who goes two weeks without doing any work and then in one coffee fueled frenzy writes ten thousand words. I’m the kind of person who will stay up until 4 a.m. because I’m so fired up I can’t sleep until I finish whatever I’m working on.

I wrote my 34,000 word graduate thesis in 5 days. We’d had roughly six months to work on it, and I basically did nothing until that last week, at which point I went into a sleep deprived, hyper-caffeinated, cloistered work mode and got the whole thing done. I’ll have you know I got an A on it too.

In writing this, describing the peaks and valleys of my surges of productivity, it occurs to me it sounds a little like I have some kind of psychological problem. I guess that’s something to worry about another time.

So what’s the point of this tortoise and hare business?

Changing Teams

Like I said I don’t think there’s anything inherently better or worse about either modality. Unlike the original fable in real life there are times when it’s more beneficial to be a tortoise and times when the advantage is the hare’s.

That being said, I have noticed that a pretty large number of successful people tend to be tortoises rather than hares. I also realized that, there being advantages and disadvantages to each, the best possible state to be in would be one where you could switch from one method to the other as the situation dictates.

That’s how this latest challenge was born.

As I said, I am a dyed in the wool hare. (Died in the fur? Whatever)

I think it would be extremely beneficial to me to train myself to embrace tortoise-hood in order to learn how to change from one way to another whensoever the situation I’m in predicates an advantage of one over the other. So I’m going to work to become a tortoise.

The Challenge Goals

The bread and butter of tortoise style productivity is an extremely long stretch of consistent productivity over the manic bursts I’m accustomed to.

That being the goal, rather than set a hard number of things to accomplish which would tempt me to work ahead in bursts and then take some time off I’m going to make my goal to perform certain actions every single day. I’ve done 30 day challenges similar to this in the past, but 30 days has never been long enough to actually force any kind of change in my behavior or habits.

So I’m turning it up to 11.

Rather than 30 days my challenge is to go for 330 days without missing a single day of productivity. Specifically, in order to target a handful of areas I particularly want to work on, my challenge will be to:

  • Write One Article Per Day for 330 Days

  • Mobilize My Ankle for 4 Minutes Per Day for 330 Days

  • Learn 15 New Words Per Day for 330 Days

I’ll write a post about how I intend to tackle this challenge tomorrow when I begin it, but those are the goals I’m shooting for. Ideally by the end of it I’ll have spent enough time in a consistent productive mode that I’ll finally be habituated to it and will be able to switch back and forth from one method to another.

What do you think? Can I do it or am I just setting myself up for failure? Have you ever tried doing something consistently for close to a year? How did it go? Any productivity tortoises out there want to share some tips? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Luca Gennari

Workouts for Wimps: Your First Pull Up

Kyra on the Monkey Bars by OhKyleL

Don’t look so down, you’ll get your first pull up eventually.

Pull ups are easily one of, if not the, most psychologically intimidating exercises for people who are just starting out.

If you grew up in the U.S. you may still be haunted by memories like mine – as a fat kid in junior high I was subjected to the most distilled form of public humiliation inflicted by a school upon its students, the Presidential Fitness Test.

The mile run wasn’t so bad, I managed to walk most of it and still get in under the 12 minute cut off. The push up test wasn’t too bad either – sure I was fat but one of the benefits of moving a large volume of lard around on a regular basis was at least enough strength to outdo some of my skin-and-bones peers. At 26 push ups or so in a minute I wasn’t the best, but I wasn’t the worst of the boys either.

Then there were the pull ups.

Some of you are already nodding in solidarity as you read this, but if you were never a fat kid you may not understand my vitriol and psychological baggage in regards to this particular exercise. Imagine being an obese middle schooler for a moment. Your self-confidence is already severely damaged by a horrendous body image and the crushing force of being immersed on a daily basis into a viciously hierarchical social structure. (Seriously, there are no creatures more emotionally and psychologically destructive than teenagers)

Now that baseline of negative self-esteem is the norm for day to day activities. From there, picture yourself being commanded to come over to the pull up bar, in front of everyone, in a gym uniform that pretty much by definition accentuates how fat you are. You are then told to grab the bar and do as many pull ups as you can. You jump up and grab on and fight, struggle and squirm – hoping with all your might to get at least one so you won’t be the very worst of everyone.

After several seconds of futile dangling and thrashing on the bar like a panicked whale being airlifted back to sea by helicopters, it becomes clear that you aren’t going to even do a single one and you’re told you’ll be tested on how long you can hang there instead. So, publicly defeated, you are forced to hang there in your shame in front of everyone as they judge your inadequacy.

You can see why some of us are a bit scarred from these experiences. There are few things more satisfying than your very first pull up, and few things more frustrating than being unable to do one. (Tweet this.)

There is hope though. I have gone from being completely unable to do a single pull up to currently doing multiple sets of them with additional weight hanging off of me and you can do the exact same thing. All you have to do is follow these easy progressions and you’ll be rocking out pull ups in no time.

Getting Your First Pull Up

The way this program works is to slowly build you up through exercises progressing from easier to more difficult all the way up to a pull up. You’ll want to start at the beginning and then work your way up – you’ll do at least three workouts per week with each workout consisting of three sets of each exercise of how ever many reps you can do up to 12. Once you hit 3 sets of 12 reps on an exercise you can then move up to the next one for your workouts.

I’ll lay out the program in an easy to follow way at the end – first though let’s look at the movements we’ll use.

1. Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

Many people will actually be able to skip this step, but this is where you’ll start if you are a complete, absolute beginner. To perform a dumbbell row you’ll find a bench, couch, wall or pair of chairs about knee height. Hold the dumbbell in your right hand and place your left knee on the bench, then bend over and place your left palm on the bench so that your left arm is straight below your shoulder. Your right leg should be straight down to the ground and you should be bent over with your back flat like a table and your right arm hanging straight down holding the dumbbell.

From there you want to use your shoulder muscles to pull the dumbbell straight up to your right armpit, kind of like starting a pull lawnmower. Make sure to pull with your shoulder and arm muscles and not twist your torso to the left to cheat. Once you’ve done your set on the right side, switch to your left.

Once you can do three sets of twelve repetitions on each side without any trouble increase the weight you’re using. When you can do it with 30 pound dumbbells for three sets of twelve you’re ready to move up to the next weight. If you’re a little heavier yourself, make it 40.

Don’t have dumbbells? No problem, pack a backpack or tripled-up shopping bag full of cans, books, rocks or whatever you’ve got on hand and weigh it to see what you’re working with. You can also make fairly heavy dumbbells by filling an empty plastic milk jug with sand and then running water into it until all the sand is thoroughly soaked.

2. Inverted Bodyweight Rows

Our second movement on the path to your first pull up is the inverted bodyweight row. To do an inverted row ideally you’ll need some kind of bar between chest and knee height – playground equipment, a tree branch, smith machine or broom stuck between two chairs all work.

All you do is lay beneath your bar of choice and pull your chest up to it keeping your body rigid and your heels on the ground like a hinge. The more horizontal you are the more difficult the movement becomes, so if you start out with a chest height bar you can slowly move your feet away from it to increase the difficulty. If you can’t find anything else to use, you can also do these by lying underneath a kitchen or dining room table facing up so your head is poking out one side and pulling yourself up to the edge of the table.

Once you can perform three sets of twelve completely horizontal with your feet on the floor, prop your feet up on something like a chair so your feet are the same height or higher than your hands to increase the difficulty. Once you can do three sets of twelve with your feet elevated without any issues move on to…

3. Assisted Pull Ups or Negative Pull Ups

The next step gives you the choice between using either assisted pull ups or if you’re more comfortable with them negative pull ups.

Assisted pull ups can be done a handful of ways. The most ideal though hardest to do for most people are band assisted pull ups. These are done with an assistance band or a bunch of surgical tubing lopped over the bar and then beneath your feet to help take some of the weight off of the pull up.

Since these can be expensive, the next option would be self-assisted or partner assisted pull ups. For partner assisted pull ups you bend your knees and have a friend stand behind you and hold on to your feet or knees, As you do your pull up they help push you up just enough that you can complete the rep but not so much as to make it too easy. Self-assisted push ups are done by placing a chair behind you then bending your knees and placing the tops of your feet on the back of the chair so that you can push up with your legs as needed while you do your pull ups.

For band assisted pull ups, reduce the strength/size of the band every time you reach three sets of twelve reps. For partner or self-assisted pull ups when you can do three sets of twelve take one leg away so only one leg is using the chair or friend as assistance. When you can do three sets of twelve that way, move on to the next movement.

If you find the assisted pull ups aren’t really doing it for you, give negatives a try. To do a negative you either use a stepping stool or just jump to get into the top position of the pull up with your chin above the bar. (Careful not to lose any teeth here if you’re jumping)

Once you’re in the top position lower yourself back down as slowly as possible. From the bottom climb or jump back up and repeat. When you can do three sets of twelve reps with each rep taking at least 25 seconds to get from top to bottom then you can finally move on to…

4. Your First Real Pull Up!

Ok, so technically this will be your first real chin up, but that’s ok. What’s the difference? A chin up is done with your palms facing toward you and a pull up is done with your palms facing away from you. It may seem like a minor difference, but chin ups are actually much easier than pull ups.

The way you’ll make the jump from negatives to pull ups is to start by working in a single chin up rep at the beginning of each set of negatives. Then next workout go for two chin ups and ten negatives, then three and nine and so on.

Once you can do three sets of twelve chin ups (honestly, once you can do three or four per set really) you’ll be more than able to do a pull up, and likely will be able to do several.

The Full Pull Up Progression

Here’s the full progression laid out in one big list.

Done three days per week with one day of rest between each workout. When you can complete three sets of twelve of each exercise move down to the next on the list.

  • 3×12 Bent Over Dumbbell Rows – Increase weight up to 30 lbs. then move on to next movement.

  • 3×12 Inverted Bodyweight Rows – Move feet away from bar or elevate feet once parellel to increase difficulty. Move on to next movement after 3×12 with feet elevated becomes easy.

  • 3×12 Assisted Pull Ups or Negative Pull Ups – Move on when 3×12 assisted pull ups with only one foot under assistance is easy, or when you can complete 3×12 negative pull ups with a 25 second descent on each rep.

  • 3×12 Mixed Chin Ups & Negative Pull Ups – Start with one chin up and eleven negative pull ups per set, then two chin ups and ten negatives, then three chin ups and nine negatives until you achieve 3×12 chin ups.

  • Go Rock Out Some Pull Ups!

Additional Tips

The first thing to note is since you’re moving your own bodyweight being able to perform your first pull up may come down to both increasing your strength and decreasing your bodyweight so you don’t have to lift as much. That means if you’re particularly heavy, learning how to get your nutrition into check and shed some excess fat can make a big difference.

The second thing is to do your best not to cheat. That means when doing your actual chin ups and pull ups when you get to that point resist the urge to bend your legs and wiggle and fling yourself around. Sure it makes it easier, but you’re cheating yourself out of the benefit of doing a strict pull up or chin up and you’ll find your progress stalling out quickly.

Have you tried this program to finally get your very first pull up? How did it go? Do you have any suggestions or additional tips to help out? Let us know!

Photo Credit: OhKyleL

What’s English Prime and Why Does it Matter?

Optimus Prime by El Dave

No, E Prime doesn’t have anything to do with Transformers.

English Prime, or E Prime, is a constructed variant of standard English developed in the 60s in order to provide a form of English that reduced or eliminated any difficulty of the listener or reader to distinguish between fact and opinion and make the biases of the writer or speaker more evident.

Like most languages created for the purpose of promoting sweeping social and cultural good (cough, Esperanto, cough) it never really took off beyond a small group of hardcore devotees.

While it’s merits as a clearer form of English are debatable, the premise behind it and the form of it can actually teach us a lot about the way we perceive things in the world and help us be more mindful in our thinking.

How Does E Prime Work?

In it’s essence, E Prime works by eliminating all forms of the verb ‘to be’ in English. The idea behind this is that by removing the copula it removes a speakers ability to make value statements about a thing or event as if they were objective facts.

In general, people do tend to abuse the use of ‘to be’ in English. This does cause some faulty reasoning from time to time, so the premise at least has some merit in that regard.

Take for example the assertion, “That movie was good”. We can’t use ‘was’ in E Prime since it’s a form of ‘to be’, so you have to reword that sentence as “I enjoyed that movie,” “That movie made me laugh”, etc. This changes the structure in such a way that you are no longer describing the movie itself but instead are describing your own experience of the movie. It makes clear that you are making a subjective value statement rather than an objective one.

Now I don’t think everyone should actually start speaking like this – there are too many linguistic issues with it in my opinion to make it viable large scale – but I do think we can learn a lot about how we approach things by the way it works.

E Prime and Mindfulness

Even if it isn’t valuable as an actual means of communication E Prime is valuable as a tool for reflection on mindfulness and the way we think about things.

First of all it helps us notice that many times things expressed as absolute facts are really opinions. When you remove the absoluteness of the copula it reveals the fact that everything we express is a reflection of our own experience.

When someone says, “That’s a bad idea,” they may really mean “I dislike that idea,” “That idea won’t work,” or another similar sentiment. Rather than just dismiss it as ‘bad’ they have to elaborate at least a little bit to explain what their problem is. When people make a hard assertion like “[blank] is [blank]” that assertion should always be understood as being colored in some way by their subjective experience.

If you say something like “Earth is the center of the universe,” E Prime makes it clear that what you really mean is “Earth appears to be the center of the universe.” This exposes more clearly that you’re just relating the experience of a fallible observer and not making an absolute, infallible statement.

That’s not to say you can’t make statements like that in E Prime. “The Sun orbits the Earth,” is a good example of an authoritative sounding E Prime compliant sentence that doesn’t really reveal that it is colored by the perceptions of an observer.

That’s fine. The point is really just to recognize that whenever people express a value statement or report actions they are always heavily colored by their own subjectivity.

The reason this is important for increasing our mindfulness is that it reminds us constantly that when you’re talking to people the things they discuss are always filtered through the subjective lens of their world view. Being aware of this in the moment helps us make better judgments based on the reports of others and helps us better understand the thoughts and motivations of those around us.

Similarly it reminds us of our own subjectivity and fallibility in the statements we make. It discourages us from making hard, absolutist statements about things as we recognize that we can only report our own experience. This understanding makes it much easier for us to be open to changing our views on things which is an important part of growing as a person.

If you only think of your statements and opinions in terms of absolutes, it makes them harder to change. Someone who says, “He’s wrong,” is less likely to reconsider than the person who says, “I don’t agree with that.” The second person, in some small way at least, recognizes that their own thinking may be incorrect.

Now a quick note on subjectivity – it’s important to understand that people’s statements are influenced by their own subjective experience, but there are still things that are objectively true. I don’t buy the whole “That’s your Truth but not my Truth,” idea. However, if you think I’m wrong and that there’s no such thing as objective truth, I encourage you to decide gravity is no longer part of your subjective truth and then to step out of a second story window.

E Prime, while not really useful as a communication tool in my opinion, can help us be more mindful about our own thinking and the thinking of others by reminding us that everyone’s statements pass through the filter of their own experience before being expressed into the world. Are there any other lessons you’ve learned from the way E Prime works? Have you actually tried using E Prime on a day to day basis? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Photo Credit: ElDave

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