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Hard work doesn’t have to feel hard

Comic books are for serious learning. No, really.

There is something counterintuitive about language learning that presents a roadblock to students: when done correctly, it doesn’t feel difficult.

I’m a huge fan of a manga called Attack on Titan. Last week, the latest volume of the manga was released. Of course, I had it preordered on my Kindle Fire (an excellent gift from my wife a year or so ago). That means that it was downloaded and ready to go in the morning, well before the book stores opened, and I finished reading it before any had opened.

Of course, the manga is in Japanese. The good news for me is that the Japanese in Attack on Titan is about mid-level in difficulty. What that means is that I can read it quickly, and I meet a new or rare word only once every few pages. Usually I can guess the meaning of the word without looking it up. Depending on the amount of text, I may not need to look up any words to understand the plot like a Japanese person would. Reading it isn’t difficult for me.

Some people might think that consuming material of such low difficulty will prevent me from progressing in my Japanese learning. That’s where they are wrong.

Language learning is a numbers game. You will never be able to memorize a word the first time you hear or read it (unless you are a rare kind of genius). You need to be repeatedly exposed to the word, and then recall the word after some time has passed, for you to successfully memorize it. There is no shortcut.

While reading the latest volume of Attack on Titan, I came across a word that comes up semi-regularly in the series: 彷徨う、samayo, wander. It’s not a word I hear used often in daily conversations. Typically, if teachers come upon a student wandering the halls during class time, they get angry and yell, 「うろうろするな」。They don’t like it when students うろうろ, uro-uro。 But, I never hear them say 彷徨う、which essentially has the same meaning. There are many words that are written, but not really spoken, in Japanese, and 彷徨う is one of them.

As far as I can recall, Attack on Titan is the only source of the word that I’ve encountered. The first two or three times I read it, I looked it up in a dictionary. But, when it popped up again in the latest volume, I didn’t need to look it up. I read and understood it the first time.

To be clear, I learned a fairly unusual word from an easy-to-me source of Japanese that the average teacher would never consider using in a classroom. Classrooms are for serious material, like textbooks and Powerpoint presentations, not comic books.

There is meaning in that.

Do what feels good, baby.

People are constantly told by our environment that valuable, real things, only come with significant effort. That’s usually true. However, the mistake we make is believing that the effort to get those things must feel difficult.

Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes we need to make special efforts to find time, make plans, and meet with a man or woman that we like. We are often forced to confront menial, mind-numbing tasks in order to get to the good stuff. Or maybe we have to do the exhausting, messy work we hate after doing the stuff we like.

But when we work hard, it doesn’t always have to feel hard.

I was, unfortunately, a victim of the hard-work-means-bad-feelings mind virus for a significant portion of my life. Even now, I have to regulate that feeling. For much of my life, I wanted to learn how to program. However, I had the dumb idea that I needed to be a real programmer. I needed to be able to take on the biggest challenges and do the most difficult kinds of programming. My dad advised me to learn a programming language called Visual Basic. It was almost an insult to ask me to learn anything basic. Basic wasn’t for me because easy meant fake, useless, not worthy of respect. So instead of learning Visual Basic (perhaps one of the more useful programming languages to know), I tried to learn Lisp, a niche programming language that was said to be good for programming AI. That sounded hard, so it was obvious to me that Lisp was a real programming language.

And yes, it was hard. In fact, it was so hard that it perhaps was the final straw, after many years of trying to learn to program, that made me decide to abandon programming altogether. Instead, I decided to focus all my energy on learning Japanese.

My experience learning Japanese has taught me that learning isn’t about the feeling of effort, only the effort itself. If we can find an activity that is valuable to ourselves and others, and it doesn’t feel like it takes any effort or energy for us to practice and master that activity, we are in the ideal place. That’s the place that dreams come true.

The hard work of learning languages is exposing yourself to sources of input for long periods of time, trying to understand, and then using what you’ve repeatedly exposed yourself to.

“Repeat after me” for more brain damage

But, there’s a problem: Teachers understand that repetition is the key to learning language, but they often fail to understand or act upon the more important principles: energy and attention.

I will never feel exhausted after reading Attack on Titan. I could read it over and over and never feel bored. Reading it doesn’t take energy from me; it gives me energy. Proof of that is that I can focus all of my attention on it without being distracted. In fact, thoughts of Attack on Titan distract me while I’m doing other activities.

I have yet to preorder a Japanese textbook.

During a class last week, one teacher I work with made students do a repetition activity that I can only describe as inhumane. Imagine that the students were reading the previous sentence for this repetition activity. The activity went like this:

Teacher, reading out loud from a textbook: “During”.
Students, repeating out loud: “During”.
T: During a.
S: During a.
T: During a class.
S: During a class.

T: During a class this week…inhumane.
S: During a class this week…inhumane.

After a couple of sentences, the teacher asked me to take over. I had to hold back laughter when I saw one of the high-level, serious students being put to sleep by the activity. A young man that is usually active and well-behaved in class was forced unconscious. The other students were no more eager to follow along. However, they did, because the teacher is notorious for his short temper and strict enforcement of order and student participation. As he forced me to participate in the mass torture of 30 innocent students, I couldn’t help but feel a sick amusement. It was like watching those compilation videos of people falling and hurting themselves, except I was the guy putting the banana peel on the ground and making them slip. And I knew it. I knew this was the worse activity any teacher had made me conduct. I looked at that young man and thought, “Oh shit, this has to be causing brain damage.”

And it does cause brain damage. People are programmed by years of unrelenting torture in the classroom to believe that learning, like you get in school, must feel difficult and that you have to simply push through the torture. Then they try learning something like Japanese and think that if they are having too much fun and everything is too easy, they aren’t really learning.

Mass self-torture can be prevented if teachers understand that attention and energy from students must be earned. You can’t demand it without negative consequences. They absolutely fail their students and set them on a bad path by using their authority to force order and participation.

But, I don’t blame teachers for not understanding. The culture of education encourages them to conduct their classes the way they do. They have no great need to please their students when they can demand their attention and obedience.

The situation is further complicated by the individual interests of all the students. Even if teachers want to make the class interesting for the students, how can they possibly do so for all of the students? Won’t there simply be a few who never will be interested in the subject they teach?

Nobody cares…why should I?

It’s difficult to understand the challenge that teachers face. Let me paint a picture.

In a seventh grade class, there are two students that have tapped out very early in their educational careers. The boy and girl both consistently nod off during class. Long ago, they gave up even trying to follow along. They don’t see the value of English, and are completely unintimidated by any fear-mongering from the teacher about how much they’ll regret not studying later in life. The problem was bad especially at the beginning of the school year because students were still a bit rowdy, unaccustomed to life as junior high school students. They were more chatty and a greater number of students were showing early signs of giving up.

It was a dangerous time. Unproductive behaviors, if repeated, are called bad habits. Further, behaviors are contagious. Habits spread, whether good or bad. When they spread, they become what we call culture. And for many reasons, bad habits are more contagious than good ones.

If the boy who isn’t interested is talking and the teacher doesn’t do anything, that feels like permission to lose interest and to chat during class.

If the teacher doesn’t care if he does that, why should I care? If my friends wanna chat, why shouldn’t I chat? If they nap during class, why shouldn’t I? If English doesn’t matter to them, why should it matter to me?

Classrooms have their own culture, but students are members of the broader cultures of family, neighborhood, and nation. If mom and dad don’t care about my English test scores, why should I listen to the teacher? Why don’t mom and dad care? Because they notice that their neighbors, their friends, and their coworkers all speak Japanese and don’t need English. Is English really necessary?

Teachers are often at odds with very large, powerful forces that they are unprepared to challenge. Teachers can’t keep the attention of their students because their students are focused on their friends, family, and their nation’s cultural values. Students feel like their English teachers are wasting their time. Teachers demand attention and respect, but we direct our attention only at things that we think are interesting. Other ways of saying interesting are valuable, important, thought-provoking, or entertaining.

The Japanese word 面白い、omoshiroi, has two meanings. It often is used to mean “funny”, as in funny-haha (not funny-weird). However, it can also mean 興味深い、kyomibukai, “thought-provoking”.

If teachers don’t make their subjects 面白い, then they will always be forced to use fear and punishment to demand grudged attention and participation from their students.

But, each student has their own interests. How are teachers supposed to cater to all of their students’ interests? It seems like an impossible task. Much easier to simply beat their students over the head with fear and punishment for being bad students.

Bad habits are contagious preciously because they are usually easier than the alternatives.

I think I have a solution to the problem. Nothing changes for the better if we don’t first change our mindset. I have painted a dark picture of the situation, but there is hope. That hope can be expressed in three words.

You are important.

I have one teacher who makes her students repeat the same mantras at the beginning of every class.

Help each other
Be Original
Learn from your friends
Express your ideas
Hole in one

Keep smiling
English only
Eye contact
High five

However, I think she would be better off with just one sentence.

You are important.

She learned the mantras from some other source that probably told her that reminding the students to do all those nice things can actually influence them in a good direction. It also reminds the students what the teacher expects from them.

Or maybe she learned that ideal classes express the above behavior. Asking students to express that behavior would lead to the ideal classroom environment.

Here is the problem: That’s a lot of words, and they become hypnotizing, meaningless noise if the students aren’t reminded of the importance of them. How can the teacher remind them? Well, she can model the behavior. Challenging, but doable. She can remind them of the mantras. But what if they don’t buy what she’s selling?

She has a difficult class that these mantras have no effect on. The class culture is very bad. Students laugh at each other when they make mistakes. They love sarcasm. They talk constantly and are easily distracted from class material. It’s unsafe for the teacher to introduce any interesting information or encourage discussion of the material because students immediately get sidetracked. They roll their eyes when she scolds them. They show little respect for the teacher or the system they are in.

They are absolutely obsessed with each other, though. Certain students are clearly the leaders of the classroom. They take the teacher’s scoldings directly and laugh them off. Other students support the leaders so that they don’t have to take the scoldings themselves. They feed off each other’s energy and behavior.

How does the teacher handle them? Fear and punishment. Does it work? Not so far.

One time, she was absent from school. The next day, she said that she went to the doctor. She “joked” that it was due to work stress. Just a joke, she assured me. As the school year has dragged on, her words have become more aggressive and adversarial towards the students. She is a teacher at war.

She has reminded them repeatedly that their ability to get into good schools will be affected by their test scores. If they don’t pay attention to what she teaches, then their test scores will suffer. As a result, they won’t get into good schools and their futures may suffer. They need to “feel nervous” (she literally said that) and to take studying more seriously because what they do now will effect their future. Further, if they talk, they aren’t only hurting themselves. They are hurting the serious students, their friends, too.

In other words, she is saying that the hard work of following her lessons might feel hard, but there’s no choice unless they want to ruin their lives.

Those mantras aren’t working. The teacher’s actions are like holding up an “Applause” sign, being ignored, and then getting angry at the audience.

But how can you be angry that people don’t pay attention? How can you be angry that people are easily distracted by things that they see as more important than what you are doing?

There is a better way. As I was observing this class, I remembered something I learned from one of Dale Carnegie’s books, How To Win Friends and Influence People. In one section titled “How to Make People Like You”, Carnegie writes:

Philosophers have been speculating on the rules of human relationships for thousands of years, and out of all that speculation, there has evolved only one important precept. It is not new. It is as old as history. Zoroaster taught it to his followers in Persia twenty-five hundred years ago. Confucius preached it in China twenty-four centuries ago. Lao-tse, the founder of Taoism, taught it to his disciples in the Valley of the Han. Buddha preached it on the bank of the Holy Ganges five hundred years before Christ. The sacred books of Hinduism taught it a thousand years before that. Jesus taught it among the stony hills of Judea nineteen centuries ago. Jesus summed it up in one thought—probably the most important rule in the world: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”


You want the approval of those with whom you come in contact. You want recognition of your true worth. You want a feeling that you are important in your little world. You don’t want to listen to cheap, insincere flattery, but you do crave sincere appreciation. You want your friends and associates to be, as Charles Schwab put it, “hearty in their approbation and lavish in their praise.” All of us want that.

So let’s obey the Golden Rule, and give unto others what we would have others give unto us, How? When? Where? The answer is: All the time, everywhere.

People want to feel important. So, make them feel important!

Carnegie then gives an example of how a school teacher applied this philosophy.

The life of many a person could probably be changed if only someone would make him feel important. Ronald J. Rowland, who is one of the instructors of our course in California, is also a teacher of arts and crafts. He wrote to us about a student named Chris in his beginning crafts class:


Chris was a very quiet, shy boy lacking in self-confidence, the kind of student that often does not receive the attention he deserves. I also teach an advanced class that had grown to be somewhat of a status symbol and a privilege for a student to have earned the right to be in it. On Wednesday, Chris was diligently working at his desk. I really felt there was a hidden fire deep inside him. I asked Chris if he would like to be in the advanced class. How I wish I could express the look in Chris’s face, the emotions in that shy fourteen-year-old boy, trying to hold back his tears.


“Who me, Mr. Rowland? Am I good enough?” “Yes, Chris, you are good enough.” I had to leave at that point because tears were coming to my eyes. As Chris walked out of class that day, seemingly two inches taller, he looked at me with bright blue eyes and said in a positive voice, “Thank you, Mr. Rowland.”


Chris taught me a lesson I will never forget—our deep desire to feel important. To help me never forget this rule, I made a sign which reads “YOU ARE IMPORTANT.” This sign hangs in the front of the classroom for all to see and to remind me that each student I face is equally important.

Although the situation in that story and the situation in my English teacher’s classroom are very different, I think that You are important is a simple idea with deep meaning. It means:

You have my attention.
You are worthy of attention.
Others are watching what you do.
Others are counting on you.
What you do matters.
Your life matters.
I and other people expect great things of you.

Tool of Persuasion: Pacing

I thought a lot about whether in modern society, telling students You are important might be counter productive. Especially in the US, students often appear to have over-inflated egos. As a former young person, I can say with confidence that many young people think they are important. Is it really responsible for teachers to feed their students’ egos? Shouldn’t students feel humbled by their teachers and pay attention to the very important things the teacher has to say?

The great students of persuasion will say no.

Before leaders can change minds, first they have to synchronize with the people they wish to lead. Scott Adams calls it Pacing. Pacing means using the same words, body language, and expressing the things you have in common with the people you want to lead. Once you pace them, you are in a good place to lead them by expressing different opinions.

Why Pace first? Because by Pacing, you build trust with those you wish to lead. People like and trust those with whom they share something in common. Once someone likes and trusts you, you are in a position to change their mind. Your disagreement doesn’t pose a threat because they believe you have their best interests in mind.

Do students in my teacher’s English classroom think they are important? Yes. Much more important than the teacher and the study material. They and their friends are #1. Before any teacher can lead them, first they need to know that the teacher agrees with them on that point. In fact, if the teacher doesn’t express a genuine appreciation for the importance of her students, her students will not trust that she has their best interests in mind.

She doesn’t care about us. She only wants to torture us with boring questions, activities, and robotic busy-work. She wants us to shut up because that makes her job easier. She’s just mad that our bad grades make her look like a bad teacher. She knows English isn’t important, so she’s just wasting our time. It’s all about her.

If I’m being honest, I’m somewhat sympathetic to that line of thinking. She comes off very robotic and disinterested in making students enjoy English. She plays music at the beginning of class, but then cuts it off—for time—at the end, then sucks the fun out of it by making the students read it again and record how many words they read. She doesn’t seem to even pay attention to the students much of the time. (As an example, it took her about 20 minutes into one class to realize that a boy in the front row had drawn a somewhat clownish design on his face with marker.) She has even told me that she tries to keep students busy so that they don’t have time to goof off.

What she says often appears to the students to be attacks on them and what they think is important. She tries to persuade them with fear and punishment, but that only serves to entrench them further. It makes it more difficult for students to look like “good” students because they then appear to ally themselves with the enemy. They see comfort and unity together—against her. To them, she looks angry, weak, and out of touch.

You are important can help fix that.

It tells the students what they want to hear. It is what they really believe about themselves. And if all of them are equally important to the teacher, then whether active or passive in class, what the student does matters to the teacher. The teacher is paying attention.

The teacher knows I’m capable of great things. She wants us all to succeed. She wants to see us do great things. This class, English, school, and life have meaning. If she gets angry, it’s because she cares about our future, not because we are making her look bad or making her job more difficult.

What do you do?

She might also take some more advice in Carnegie’s book. A world famous magician once told him that other magicians, before going out on stage, would say things like, “Well, there is a bunch of suckers out there, a bunch of hicks; I’ll fool them all right.” But, the magician said something else. Every time, before going out on stage, he said to himself:

“I love my audience.”

How about, “I love my students”?

You are important and I love my students reminds the teacher that the class isn’t about her, it’s about her students. Finishing the material before the tests come up isn’t the goal. Getting from A to B in the curriculum isn’t the goal. Serving the needs of the system isn’t her goal.

Helping turn weak students into strong, free adults is her goal. The Very Important business of English is secondary to teaching them how to live and learn.

What is the best way to live and learn?

Well, follow where your attention and energy lead you. Learning English, or Japanese, or anything, needs to be interesting to you. Don’t torture yourself like others have tortured you. You can work harder and longer and get better results when you enjoy what you do.

Because, you see, hard work doesn’t always have to feel hard.