Lower the Standard to go Farther

Discouragement is a real deal-breaker for perfectionists. We have to consciously set upper limits to keep from overwhelming ourselves out of doing anything. “Keeping it real” can sometimes be a nearly insurmountable goal in-and-of itself.

Take, for example, my off-and-on relationship with ChinesePod since returning to America. I don’t know how many times I’ve started again, only to quit. I’ve wasted numerous $29 subscription fees. In the end, I just realized that in 5 years, I’ve probably only completed 10 lessons. Maybe only 5.

Let that colossal waste sink in: I’ve been averaging one lesson a year.

Why? Mostly because of how I define the word “completed.” When I was in school, I had a meticulous, rigorous, and complex set of standards I had to meet before I clicked the “Studied” button on ChinesePod’s website. These standards served me well. They were appropriately challenging for a desperate full-time beginner struggling with the basics. They are not, however, appropriate for an upper-intermediate/advanced speaker and full-time employee and father of toddlers. Not to mention low-budget first-time homeowner of a property over half a century old.

What I need now is just more exposure. Lots more. Depending on who you talk to, learning a new word in a foreign requires being exposed to it between 20 and 100 times. I found that straight-out listening to Chinese audiobooks just wasn’t working well toward that goal. I still need something that’s graded to my current speaking level.

So I’ve started listening to ChinesePod Upper Intermediate and Advanced lessons on my 40-to-60-minute commute. And, to give my routine a fighting chance of continuing, I’ve set up some strict rules for myself.

1. No review allowed. Period. It takes 40 to 60 minutes one-way to get to my job, and that’s all I get with one particular lesson. I’ll probably hear the lesson itself once, the dialogue several times, and the audio review 2 or 3 times. Once I arrive at my destination, that lesson is done. No looking back. No using online tools. Next time I get in the car, I must choose a different lesson.

2. No planning ahead. Each day I get to choose which lessons I want to hear: One in the morning, one in the evening. I have around 600 lessons to choose from on my iPhone. At that rate, it will take me at least 3 years to merely listen to each one once. At that point, I can, if I want, consider review.

3. Four days a week only. On Friday, I listen to a lecture on parenting for one trip, and an episode of the Sinica podcast for the other. Occasionally I can sneak in an installment of Freakonomics Radio. No ChinesePod allowed. I get to do 8 lessons a week max. No more.

4. Repeat out loud only as desired. I’m not giving myself pressure to learn the words and phrases. But I have installed a Bluetooth pause button on my steering wheel so that I can pause and repeat out loud when I want to. I find myself doing this fairly often when listening to the audio review MP3 .

In the past week, I’ve made about as much progress as I’ve made in the previous 5 years. I guess you could say it’s going well. The kibosh on review keeps the dreadful reminders of my forgetfulness away. The constant and unpredictable changes of topics keep me engaged: everything from Macao casinos to alien abduction to marriage problems. I’m also noticing a greater natural impulse throughout the day to speak in Chinese.

Perhaps best of all: Since I already downloaded all these lessons back when I had a paid subscription, and I’ve made a decision not to use the online tools, it therefore isn’t costing me a penny to get going again.

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