Distilling Skills to Imagineer Your Life: Master Mandarin Chinese

Have you ever looked at a master perform a craft and thought to yourself: Wow, I wish I can do that too? Here is good news for you: Nobody was born a master, yes you can! It’s our aim to teach you how.

This is the first blog post of a monthly blog series “Distilling Skills” where we will “distill” different skills into their basic ingredients and show you how to learn them in a more efficient manner. Over time, we will show you how you can make yourself a master of all trades!

In this competitive world, your ability to learn new skills gives you an extra edge over your competition. If you can figure out how to learn any skill, you can do anything.

The faster you learn a skill, the more you will be able to achieve.

What does this have to do with imagineering your life?

You can pursue your dreams better and faster when you learn and acquire the skills of your choice. Levelling-up the right skills is the key to living a more wealthy, happy, interesting, and fulfilled life.

Life is more than mere consumption. Learn how to create for a fulfilled life.

Let’s begin this series with my own example. I’d like to share the story how I ended up speaking fluent Mandarin Chinese while I grew up believing that I got no talent for learning foreign languages. My grades in French and English were nothing outstanding.

My appetite to learn and improve at foreign languages ran into a speed bump because I strongly believed not being good at it. I hated studying languages during school because it did not seem to be worthwhile. My negativity was made worse by a teacher who made me believe I truly had no talent learning languages.

Instead of a growth mindset, I felt stuck in the fixed mindset.

A few years later, I won a large cash amount at a TV gameshow “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” which filled my bank account with six-figures at 21 year old. Concurrently I graduated with my economics Master and the world suddenly seemed to be filled with opportunities. Since I was born in Panama I chose to go on a solo backpacking trip to Panama and Costa-Rica to learn Spanish!

Something must have happened during this trip. Before the trip I strongly believed I have no talent for foreign languages but after less than three months studying Spanish, I immersed in the language and was suddenly able to converse with anyone on the street!

I couldn’t believe it.

My English improved a lot as well. The whole experience was fun, empowering and something clicked in my head: Maybe my teachers were wrong about my language skills? Maybe I found a key to “unlocking” a new skill through immersion?

Don’t say impossible.

Say I’m possible!

When someone tells me something is impossible, it usually gets me really interested.

Back in Panama, I double dared myself. When I left the Spanish school, my teachers and friends asked me: What’s next? My goal was clear: I got intrigued to test myself and see if I could learn Mandarin Chinese next!

Instead of why.

Ask: Why not?

I had barely returned from my Central America back-packing trip and announced: Next stop will be the Far East! Within two weeks I signed-up with AIESEC for a management traineeship. And another two weeks later I landed in Taipei, Taiwan!

It was my first trip eastwards of Europe. It was one of the most exciting adventures I’ve ever embarked in my life.

Little did I know what else would start from there. This new trip was like “unlocking” my skill-adding button. Some of my friends and family told me learning mandarin Chinese was one of the hardest to learn languages for Caucasians. I’ve accepted the challenge.

Instead of one day.

Say: Day one!

On my very first day in Taiwan I got to know my future wife (!) and a ton of wonderful new friends from the international AIESEC community. AIESEC is one of the best organizations for young people to expand your horizon and explore! It was day one for my mandarin Chinese challenge.

Once I had my basic life organized, I quickly arranged for a language school (TLI – Taipei Language Institute) and started mandarin lessons. I was sure how to go about it and quickly switched from initial group lessons to 1:1 style with a private teacher three times a week after work. Tuesday and Thursday nights from 8-10pm and on Saturday mornings from 9am till noon I started learning Chinese. 7 hours a week. It worked. It was fun.

I learned so much more than just a new language though. My lesson was much deeper. Thinking back, this was the moment where I’ve learned to find a way inside myself to unlock my motivation, my appetite for adventure as well as the discipline and motivation to follow-through.

Once you find your “way” inside yourself, you can add any skill you’d like.

The key take-aways for me where that I could repeat this with anything I’d ever want to learn in life. There’s a huge menu list of skills I’d still like to add. For me the basic ingredients are:

  • Motivation
  • Challenge yourself
  • Set yourself up for success, schedule it
  • Stay the course and follow through
  • Be fearless in the pursuit of what tickles your interest

Earlier this year I got to know Mike (@distillmike on Twitter), the blogger behind “Distill Institute”, I shared with him my above experience and how it affected me in a great way for the long term. We decided to start this monthly series “Distilling Skills to Imagineer”. Mike will lead you now through the technicalities behind my above “lucky” story so this lesson of mine becomes truly applicable for whatever skill YOU choose to learn!

Over to Mike:

Let’s Distill For Skill!

Matts’ journey of mastering so many difficult languages offers many more lessons than just “luck” for you to learn from.

Let’s use Matts’ experience as an example on how he subconsciously distilled the skills of learning languages and you can use them to replicate his success.

In the heart of distilling skills, we will use the DSSS method: Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing and Stakes. This is a quick learning tool made famous by Tim Ferriss, the author most known by his 4-Hour Work Week book that ignited the New Rich trend.

Step 1: Deconstruction

First, you need to pick apart a language down into minimal learnable units and identify what builds a language.

There are countless words in a language but if you can learn the most common 3,000-5,000 words, you can consider yourself proficient in the language. Learning a language may seem like an immense project, but once you break it down into the simplest parts, it doesn’t look so scary anymore.

Remember that even the Great Wall is built by laying the first brick. Don’t overwhelm yourself, know that most languages are spoken and written in simple phrases and words that anyone can master.

Deconstruction helps to simplify a skill that seems complicated at first.

Step 2: Selection

Now that you have identified the minimal learnable units, it’s time to apply Pareto Law. Pareto Law is the principle that 80% of your output comes from 20% of your input.

In the learning context, it means that you have to pick out 20% of the minimal learnable units that would give you 80% of the results. This process requires you to find the smallest actions that have the biggest effects.

In language learning, it means finding the 20% most common words in everyday’s conversation. When you nail those frequently used phrases down, you would get by with speaking to the local like Matthias did.

Learning is about constant calibration. Get your basic strong and you can continue to refine your skill from there.

Step 3: Sequencing

Once you have picked out what are the minimum learnable units for the language you want to learn, it’s time to decide on which to learn first. Many people get caught in trying to learn everything at once and neglected to learn the foundational pieces. As a result, they don’t see it through the learning because they aren’t getting anywhere.

You need to realize that by getting the sequence wrong, you might be learning the intermediate building blocks instead of the beginner blocks. This will make your learning inefficient and ineffective.

Learning becomes fun when you’re getting better at a skill. So it’s critical that you can get the sequence of learnable units right. Start with the most impactful fundamentals will save you from wasting time and overwhelmed.

Step 4: Stakes

When there’re real consequences on your failing to learn, you tend to learn faster too. In Matts’ case, life would be very difficult for him if he didn’t speak the local language. The definite goal is to speak to the locals and the punishment is the inconvenience of not knowing the language.

So this pushed him to learn faster. The self-discipline is built in when there’s a price to pay for not learning and there’s reward for learning quickly.

When you’re learning a skill, implement actual punishments and rewards to keep yourself in check.

Distill to Imagineer Series

In this collaboration between Financial Imagineer and Distill Institute, we want to let people know that fast learning is a key to imagineer your life. We are going to use real world examples to distill skills for you so that you can learn fast too. We plan to release one new distill to imagineer post per month.

Stay connected for more!

The world is wide open for you to imagineer with the ability to distill any skill!

If you can learn anything, you can do anything.

Mike and Matt

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