Don’t Be Afraid to Go at Your Own Pace

It’s okay to learn slowly.

That might sound funny from a guy who is known (perhaps even notorious) for trying to learn things faster, but it’s true.

My motivation for doing the MIT Challenge was (a) to see if I could do it and (b) if I could, hopefully help other people imagine self-education goals that they’d like to pursue. The same was true for the year without English.

But the intention was never to make people feel inferior if they don’t decide to take on all the exams for an undergraduate degree in one year, or don’t try to learn four languages back-to-back. Indeed, given that it takes me almost a year of planning and I work hard, more than full-time, during the challenges, it’s absurd to feel that the takeaway of those challenges is that everyone should try to do exactly the same thing I did.

My intention was that people might take inspiration, or even some methods, from my, admittedly, extreme examples, and apply it to a project that fits their own lives.

Many people have done that. I’ve heard from people who have taken on subsets of the MIT Challenge curriculum at a slower pace and have learned semesters’ worth of courses for free, entirely on their own. I’ve heard from people who have started using the no-English rule to try to reach the next level in just one language they care about.

But occasionally I get emails from people that seem to miss the point.

An interesting one was from a father of two, working full-time, asking me whether he could complete the MIT Challenge in his spare time in one year.

Now, I’m not one to quickly jump to saying certain accomplishments are impossible, but my guess is that if he had the stamina and intelligence to do that, he wouldn’t have to ask me.

Do You Need to Learn a Language in Three Months?

It’s easy to dismiss the previous example as someone who either didn’t read anything about my challenge (where it’s clearly posted the hours I worked), or is simply overly optimistic. But I have gotten other, more nuanced misunderstandings of my message, which I think do deserve an actual clarification.

My principle Korean teacher is in her forties and three years ago started learning English. Comparing linguistic ability with different languages is problematic, but her level of English is definitely better than my Korean and likely better than my Chinese. It would be harder to compare against the European languages I know, but that’s not really fair since they were easier to learn.

She spoke with me candidly about her thoughts on people like myself and Benny Lewis claiming to reach functional levels in just a few months. She said it disagreed with her experience. Languages, in her view, take years to learn to fluency, not just a few months.

The truth is, I agree with her. But I also agree with Benny Lewis and my own experience that a language can be learned in a short time. Isn’t that a contradiction?

The reason for the seeming contradiction is that the question is ill-posed. “How long does it take to learn a language?” isn’t a meaningful question.

Yes, languages do take years to learn. This is particularly true of so-called “hard” languages (Chinese, Korean) compared to “easy” ones (Spanish, French).

My teacher already speaks English well enough to sustain full conversations and read books. But what she really wants to be able to do is speak with excellent English, without the tell-tale mistakes of grammar and pronunciation that plague non-native speakers. She also wants to be able to read works of literature in English like Woolf and Joyce.

I speak Chinese well enough to have one-on-one conversations about most things and I can read intermediate texts. But I’d like to be to read books like the Dao De Jing and modern Chinese novels. I’d also like to be able to give presentations in Chinese and have question-and-answer sessions about topics I’m knowledgeable in.

Those are both goals which will take years of continued practice to realize.

However, yes, languages also can be learned in a matter of months. After three months of immersion in China, I was able to have full conversations about Tibetan politics, differences in cultural attitudes between the East and West and recreational drug use with people who can’t speak English. In Spanish, due to its relative ease, three months was more than enough time to be able to discuss essentially any topic and read most books.

The problem isn’t that my Korean teacher has an ineffective method for learning, or that people who claim to learn languages quickly are charlatans. It’s simply that different goals take different amounts of time. Sometimes learning “slowly” is best and sometimes learning “quickly” can be more efficient.

Why Does the MIT Challenge Have to be Done in 12 Months?

Why does it have to be the complete curriculum, including classes that have nothing to do with computer science? Why focus on passing exams instead of building real-world applications? Why does it even have to be MIT instead of a coding bootcamp?

The answer of course is that there is no reason. I simply picked what seemed compelling to me at the time.

Just like the decision to challenge a language over three months or three decades depends a lot on what you want to accomplish (and, indeed, the two aren’t mutually exclusive), the decision of how to learn computer science also has considerable flexibility.

If I wanted to learn programming in order to land a job as a developer, I’d probably join a coding bootcamp. That way I’d know I’d be learning the most current technologies and have access to referrals for employment later.

If I was already a programmer, but wanted to have a stronger background in theory, I might do the reduced MIT curriculum I mentioned here, which omits all the non-computer science courses I took as part of the challenge.

If I simply wanted to experience a world-class education that would cover not only computer science, but physics, economics, biology, chemistry, logic, philosophy and be taught at a level that doesn’t dumb down for its students, I might take on the entire challenge.

But even those goals don’t presuppose the pace I took. It’s perfectly reasonable to take it over four years or forty, to skip the ones that don’t interest you or spend your time lavishly on the ones which do.

When Should You Learn Slowly?

I like looking at outliers. Achievements that seem to break my model of what is possible, so that I can question some of my own methods. I do this for a lot more than just learning.

I’m fascinated by cases like Tim Ferriss gaining muscle quickly, or Ramit Sethi building a blog into an empire in only a few years. Even if I decide not to follow their particular methods, there’s usually something I can learn from studying those unusual successes.

But that doesn’t mean I need to go at the same pace, or that if I don’t, I’m somehow a failure. I’m fine with going to the gym over several years, steadily improving my fitness. I’m fine working on growing my audience and business at my own pace, making regular improvements.

Sometimes I can’t follow their pace because I lack the resources or abilities they have. Perhaps Tim’s extensive self-knowledge about fitness and previous athletic experience make gaining muscle unusually quickly something that works for him but not me. Perhaps Ramit’s incredible business growth is due to an uncanny business intelligence, mentors or focus.

Sometimes I don’t follow their pace because it isn’t the best strategy for my goals. My fitness goals are more modest, so going slower and having more sustainable improvement matters more for me, even if it sacrifices speed. My career and life goals aren’t the same as Ramit’s so I’m content to reach my own milestones in keeping with them.

I would offer the same advice to the people who have shown an interest in my own unusual endeavors. That I hope you can gain some interesting ideas to apply to your own learning, or perhaps even consider learning goals you hadn’t before. But that you’ll pursue them at the pace which works for you, and if you can’t or don’t go quite as fast, that it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

  • Olena

    I like very much your way of explaining these cases of learning. The key idea for me is that each one can learn from others but adjust their experience to his/her own goals!!! That sounds so simple and at the same time so strong and absolutely right! THANK YOU!

  • Olena

    I like very much your way of explaining these cases of learning. The key idea for me is that each one can learn from others but adjust their experience to his/her own goals!!! That sounds so simple and at the same time so strong and absolutely right! THANK YOU!

  • Hi Scott, great article.

    I love to learn slowly. I tend to spend a decent chunk of time (daily for a few weeks) on a topic, and then put it down for months before I pick it up again. I don’t do this on purpose, it just seems to happen, but I’ve found that the break actually has some nice properties: It let’s me digest and consolidate the material in my mind, and it allows me to relate it to many other things in my environment, thus deepening my understanding by the time I pick it back up again.

    This has been true with cooking techniques, languages, science topics, and many other things. I love learning slowly 🙂 Although of course I’m not looking to making a living on any of these things…

    Thanks again for the interesting thoughts,
    ~Katharine

  • Katharine Di Cerbo

    Hi Scott, great article.

    I love to learn slowly. I tend to spend a decent chunk of time (daily for a few weeks) on a topic, and then put it down for months before I pick it up again. I don’t do this on purpose, it just seems to happen, but I’ve found that the break actually has some nice properties: It let’s me digest and consolidate the material in my mind, and it allows me to relate it to many other things in my environment, thus deepening my understanding by the time I pick it back up again.

    This has been true with cooking techniques, languages, science topics, and many other things. I love learning slowly 🙂 Although of course I’m not looking to making a living on any of these things…

    Thanks again for the interesting thoughts,
    ~Katharine

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