I just experienced a learning failure that makes me feel like a fish exposed to the air. That wasn’t really the first metaphor that came to mind but I wanted to share this idiom with you because Chinese idioms tickle me. In the story on which it’s based, river carp that are able to jump the Yellow River’s dragon gate become dragons; most don’t make the leap and simply die.
I signed up for an intense 90-day language challenge that promised “fluency” (a debatable term we shouldn’t get stuck on here) in my target language, Mandarin Chinese, by providing deadlines and online peer support. The end goal was the ability to have a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker. The ability to have such a conversation wasn’t my own personal highest goal. What I hoped to get from the challenge, more than anything, was a motivational boost and chance to rub shoulders with other people who find learning languages fun.
At the halfway mark, I’ve decided to bail. This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop studying Chinese, something I’ve been doing off and on for several years. It also doesn’t mean that a 15-minute conversation is impossible to shoot for. It only means that I recognized that the challenge structure—and this particular online community—wasn’t serving my needs. I feel a little bummed to quit. And yet, I know I did the right thing.
Is this post going to get around to writing, soon? Yes. But just rest on the riverbank with me a while longer, gills flapping and delicate skin drying.
Here’s when I recognized things were going really wrong. Chinese used to be the sweet-spot of my mornings—the first thing I wanted to do and the thing it was hard to stop doing. But six weeks into the challenge, I had dropped so many personal practices I really enjoy (like handwriting characters) in order to perform tasks the challenge requires (recording videos of oneself speaking, keeping up with discussion threads on a Slack app, replying to DMs) that I no longer loved studying Chinese. At one point, I described a particularly aversive part of the challenge to my husband as “torture.”
Hard can be good. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t dabble in difficult hobbies, from studying foreign languages to running marathons. On top of that, we should always investigate our resistances, because sometimes the thing we find uncomfortable is necessary for our growth.
But torture? Torture is never good. There are a few times in your life you may have to endure it—that final thesis draft, that final novel revision, that one part of the job you can’t skip. But mostly, you don’t.
I had a monthly coaching client who was trying to write a book, but he seemed to hate every minute of the process—even the times I told him that his only homework was discovering his own best process. Some people ascribe to the notion of “I hate writing but I love having written.” (I think that’s problematic, but it works for some.) But this client seemed to dread every phase of the work, even imagining its completion, when criticism from family members was a likely possibility.
After a few sessions, I talked myself out of a job by encouraging him to consider that he didn’t necessarily have to write this book. Or any book!
Sometimes we feel trapped by a goal. And sometimes, the problem isn’t the goal, but simply the structure for attaining it and the mindset around it.
I knew I felt ready to quit my fluency challenge after listening to a video by polyglot Steve Kaufman in which he emphasized the idea that learning Chinese is a lifelong process and there is no point getting stuck on a 3- or 6-month goal, as if it represents some magic finish line. I thought that by upping the intensity of my quest to speak better, I’d get over a beginner’s hump. But instead, I was threatening what was making my forever-quest sustainable: pleasure and reasonable expectations.
If writing is feeling burdensome to you, you might be like my client who seemed to find only misery in his writing. Maybe you don’t need to write—or maybe you don’t need to write the thing you thought you had to write. Maybe there’s another genre or form that will give you more satisfaction.
Or you might be like me, when it comes to languages: I do fine as long as I set my own pace, go slowly, and use the methods that work for me. All those rules we hear about, like write every day or publish regularly or build a platform? They are good advice in some cases, but not if they make you hate writing.
When we talk about the tortoise and the hare, we often forget that they both finished the race. When we talk about self-improvement in general, we forget that anything that becomes completely aversive is not likely to work in the long-run. (Hello, extreme diets!)
Is there something you find extremely aversive about the writing or publishing process that might not—despite what others say—be essential after all? Are there lessons you’ve learned about yourself that you forget when overwhelmed by well-meaning friends’ or strangers’ or mentors’ advice?
When it comes to Chinese, I have spent the last two weeks going slow, emphasizing the parts I enjoy the most and working to regain my belief in the long-term over the short-term.
When it comes to writing and publishing, I’ve also had to find my way back to my own best methods at times. I’ve had to take breaks from social media when it becomes a nuisance. I’ve had to drop projects that weren’t giving me joy.
What have you learned about your own learning failures or aversions? What can you do to find your way back to the most joyful part of your art making?
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of five novels including Annie and the Wolves, recently chosen by Booklist for their “Top Ten Historical Fiction of the Year” list and named one of “50 Best Fiction Books to Read This Year” by Reader’s Digest. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @romanolax.