As you might have gathered at this point, I listen to the Scott Adams podcast. He’s a pretty intelligent guy and generally I respect intelligence. Of course he has a few blind spots of his own, but he’s only human, I suppose.

His opinions in theology and philosophy are generally useless, but he makes up for it with understanding the human mind and how to hack it. He said something the other day that has me thinking, and I think my approach to learning Japanese has failed.

He tends to harp on the idea of “systems vs. goals”. So, for example, for me, a goal would be “I want to learn Japanese”. Scott would say, and rightly so, “that’s a goal, and Japanese is a big goal. You’ll never meet it”. That would be correct. Not only would I have set a goal for myself that is impossible to meet (learning any language fully is impossible. I haven’t even learned English fully, even though I’m fluent and a native speaker!), I’ve set a goal that I have no motivation to meet. As I have said previously, I have no idea why I was learning Japanese. If you set a goal, and you have no idea why you’re trying to reach it, will you ever reach it, even if it’s possible? No.

Now what would a system be, in contrast? I system is kind of a set of mini goals that are only tangentially related to what the actual goal would be. Scott would deny, and has denied, that systems and goals are the same thing. I see his point, but I disagree. A system, though, is a set of small goals that may get you to the big goal, but is deliberately not the big goal. For example, a system for learning Japanese would be “I’m going to spend an hour a day on Japanese”. That is a goal – spending an hour a day. It’s measurable and you can tell whether you’ve accomplished it. But it has nothing to do with the (discarded) end goal of learning Japanese. The system is the goal.

How can you tell whether it’s a system or a goal? I think there are several ways. Taking leaning Japanese as an example, it’s a goal and not a system if you cannot go where the system takes you. For example, if I were to say “studying for an hour isn’t enough, I don’t think I will learn Japanese that way,” well, it’s not a system. The goal has primacy. A system can only lead to discouragement if you can’t meet the requirements of the system. There is no end game.

So I have in the past had the goal of learning Japanese. It was a goal without a reason. And no wonder it failed. I’m going to start learning again, but this time with no goal. I’ll just find some way of studying that I like and then do it every day. Maybe I’ll get better. Maybe not. But at least this way I don’t have to be discouraged for not achieving an impossible goal.

And who knows where it will take me…

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