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Falling off the Horse Posted by on Feb 9, 2015 in CL-150, Language Learning, Reference/Usage Tips

As of right now, my 2015 could use a complete reset. Anyone remember playing Atari? I was the ‘reset’ master of Atari. I wanted the perfect game.

Unfortunately, no such button exists in the real world. Let me explain how this year, begun with such high expectations turned into one huge failure in execution. Last Saturday, I was running the stairs for the only the second time all year. I felt fat, slow, my lungs stung like those summer days after swimming all day long, and I was criticizing myself nearly the entire way around the stadium.10511385_747251175336885_2868547980112640873_o

It got me thinking about how often life gets in the way of my best laid plans, and thought, this is probably a universal issue—not a Brian issue. How many times have we wanted to do something: get in shape, learn a new skill, change an unhealthy behavior—STUDY MY FOREIGN LANGUAGE—and simply failed within a few days of some resolute promise?

To preface this discussion, I must admit that I’ve basically sworn off all New Year’s Resolutions. They’ve never stuck, and it pains me to continue to fail all the time. I prefer “Monday’s Resolutions”. I consider Mondays to be 52 New Year’s Days a year. A chance to get it better once again.

Even though I despise the idea of deliberate New Year’s Resolutions, I still cannot help but fall into some of the ‘I’m gonna do this differently from now on’ kind of thinking. It’s contagious. Everyone is talking about it, so in the end, I can’t resist making mini-resolutions.

Last year, my wife and I chose to lose weight. We host a race in August, and thought that maybe we should look like a couple of people that direct races. I actually got down to my High School weight… and waist-line! It was both challenging and liberating.

We were, understandably and legitimately, proud of ourselves. I ran a marathon in October, and then the winter holiday season set in. My high school weight was suddenly a few pounds away—then by the time I stepped on the scale 26 December—I’d added 10 pounds! YIKES! Time for some dramatic action.

After the holidays, I took my dogs, Wiley and Abby, for a walk. Wiley coyote is the only domesticated coyote in the Western Hemisphere…actually he’s a rescue, but we tell him that he’s a wild coyote, and Abby is our 14 year old Lab/Husky/Shepard mix. Afterwards, the dogs convinced me that they needed frozen yogurt, but when I brought some back to the car, Abby was indifferent to it.

She did not look well, and her back legs were not working. Fear shot through me as I quickly catastrophized and raced home. I had to carry Abby into the house.

She did not bounce back the next day. Abby suffered from degenerative myelopathy, and it had even moved into her front legs. We decided that Friday would be her last walk. It sucked, bad. All week I slept on the floor next to her.

I fell into the common pattern of emotional eating. Each time I woke up, I’d grab a piece of banana bread or some other snack. I didn’t work out. I was so exhausted.

At the same time, my work life got unusually busy.  There were a few work-related dinners and lunches planned, and I don’t have to tell you that it is exceedingly hard to eat responsibly when you don’t prepare your own food. Those 10 pounds became 15 in a short two weeks.

Here are the tapes that generally play in my head, “You suck. You’re fat. You cannot stick with anything. You’re performing poorly, and you’re getting worse.”

But, here is what I know. I cannot believe everything that I think. I can act differently than I feel or think. I know how I lost the weight. I know the path ahead of me. All it takes is action.

George Leonard wrote in “Mastery” that one of the keys to mastery is to maintain a ‘Beginners Mind’. That is, don’t expect to be great at something. Expect to fail, a lot. You will fall off that horse. His examples are all based on Aikido, and two black-belts exhibiting different disciplines. One demonstrated a Beginners Mind, the other was arrogant. Who do you think learned something?

So, last Saturday I got back to Stadium to run the stairs. Sunday, I ran another 8 miles with Wiley. I’ve decided I want to run with Wiley as much as possible, it is his greatest source of joy. I signed back into CL-150. Even though I feel dumb for not having studied like I planned to. I started to journal again. Here is the funny thing: I immediately felt better.

Abby’s loss still hurts. The work pace has settled, but it will pick up again. Life has a habit of getting in the way of our best-laid plans. We stumble.  Frequently. That is the point. It is not about flawless execution. It is about getting back on track when my immediate history is unglamorous.

The voice in my head told me I was out of shape on the stairs. The eight miles was at a slower pace than a couple of months ago. I wrote. I studied. Maybe I’ll never achieve 20 dead hang pull-ups, but that doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying.

So how does this relate to language training? Language training is hard. Solving a Sudoku puzzle or a crossword puzzle during a break at work is rewarding. There’s a dopamine release when we figure something out. It feels good.

Memorizing words, alas, triggers no such release. I think of studying language like speed days at the track. Brutal. Intervals of maximum effort, with a minute or three of bent-over, hands on knees gasping for air—only to repeat another 8-10 times. It takes more mental discipline to complete a speed workout than to simply run 5K.  Especially when training alone.

Language training is alone. It is hard. There is no dopamine release. So how to stick with it? Data, mini-habits, and continually finding small wins.

Habits beat motivation 10 days out of 10. Even when life gets in the way and we stumble—we gotta quickly remember that the true joys of speaking another language are the serendipitous little conversations at Costco, in the airport, or on vacation. Having 1000 words in one’s working vocabulary can change a chance meeting into a life-changing event.

BJ Fogg of Stanford University writes about ‘tiny habits’. Tie one habit to another one. Say it is your first cup of coffee. Instead of saying I’m going to spend 15 minutes studying foreign language—start small, start tiny. When you sit down with your coffee—log in to Transparent Language Online. That’s it. Do that every day. You’ll find that you’ll do more.

Open Transparent Mobile while standing in line. Wedge the work into spare moments that would otherwise go to waste. There is so much ‘windshield time’ in life. Turn off the radio (especially talk radio—it just makes us all angry), and listen to your lists.

While language training is hard, hacking your life—getting a sense of ‘stealing back time’ can be very rewarding. It builds one’s sense of self-efficacy. We begin to see ourselves differently.

Finally, failing sucks. The antidote is one small step of action. It shuts the negative inner voice down. It is hard to think about how crappy you performed when you’re trying to remember how to say ‘authentic’ in Russian.

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About the Author: bnelson

Brian Nelson is a Major in the Washington Army National Guard and currently serves as the Deputy Director of the Joint Services Section. He is a combat veteran (Afghanistan 2006-2007) where he served as the Operations Officer for Task Force Dagger. He is a Russian-speaking Intelligence Officer with a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership. Brian also developed a foreign language immersion program, and a web-based ‘daily workout’ of language training called LingFit. With his wife Kelly, he co-founded Kindred Souls Foundation and produced “Unleashed at Stadium Bowl” in Tacoma, WA.


  1. Joanne:

    Thanks for the reminder! “Habits beat motivation 10 days out of 10.” is a really good thing to remember!

    • bnelson:

      @Joanne Joanne,
      Thank you for taking the time to read my post. I appreciate it. Sorry for such a delayed response, I caught a nasty bug that has continued to trip me up the last couple of weeks.

  2. Jack:

    Brian you are a true inspiration. Thanks for the reminder. Keep fighting the good fight.

    • bnelson:

      @Jack Thanks Jack, I appreciate the kind words.

  3. Will:

    Brian, excellent write up! I love the idea that each week, each day, and every moment can be a new resolve to do or be what you want to be. Then with each of those small or big steps we create the habits that will carry us through the bumps, stressors and trials that inevitably come. Thank you for you thoughts and the reminder for me.

    • bnelson:

      @Will Will,
      Thanks brother, habits win everytime. I do not profess that habit creation is easy. The only easy-button things in life are generally pointed towards atrophy in some regards.

  4. Shawn:

    While the learning itself doesn’t give you the dopamine, I find that as I stumble across things on the Internet written in Hindi and I try to read it and can actually understand it I get that dopamine boost. My brain says “Hey, you actually know and understand most of these words”! Sadly it’s shot back down when I try to converse with an actual Hindi speaker….ha ha…..but I try!

    • bnelson:

      @Shawn Shawn,
      Good point. I remember the first time I actually dreamed something in Russian. I was the monkey in the smart class (all my classmates were on their 3rd language, and everything seemed so easy for them). All my classmates had talked about having dreams in Russian. I hadn’t.
      Of course as dreams are by their nature surreal, I only waking up saying, “As usual, he’s late again..” in Russian.

      You are correct, there are numerous joys and rewards with ‘knowing’ the right word. I find the act of learning language arduous, but joy in execution.

  5. andy:

    A good read! Makes me want to start setting mini goals and use short periods of free time more wisely!

    • bnelson:

      @andy Andy,
      Check out BJ Fogg’s site:
      I think he’s done a TED talk as well. Smart guy. I love the ‘hack your life’ ideas out there. Tim Ferris with his 4-hour franchise is onto something as well.

      Let me give you an example of how I’ve tried to pack my day more wisely. For the last 10-15 years I’ve tried to read the Bible in a Year. It occurred to me 15 years ago that for all the books I’ve read in my life, I never actually read the Bible. In those years, I’ve only completed it twice. It is so hard to stay engaged.

      This year, I found an app that, while not ideal (I only want to listen to the Bible, not all the commentary–and I cannot speed up the app to 1.5–the speed I usually listen to books) I can execute this goal while I clean litter boxes and feed our cats.
      Yes, that is one of my glorious morning chores…unintended consequence of marrying the love of my life!

      Here is another example. After I workout, I always sit in the steam room. I read a fascinating book, The Brain That Changes Itself, that mentions strength gains through visualization. So, now instead of simply sitting in the steam or sauna–I meditate and do a visualization of my last set (press, squat, deadlift, or bench) while in the steam. I get another short meditation in, and who knows—maybe some more strength.

      Thanks for reading.

  6. matt:


    Like it. Motivation is definitely fleeting. Two things, weekly resolutions make sense and tying habits to one another do too. Motivation through momentum can’t be stopped…at least not easily.

    Thanks for the pick me up and keep going!

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