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Do Ten Times as Much
Unpleasant advice that works
Almost no one learns how to speak a foreign language very well in school. By the numbers, it’s tempting to declare, “Learning a foreign language is impossible.” But that’s plainly false. Going from zero to fluency is ultra-rare, but I’ve seen it happen.
How does fluency happen? First and foremost, people who attain fluency practice a lot more than the typical foreign language student. “A lot” doesn’t mean 10% more, 25% more, or even 100% more. People who attain fluency practice about ten times as much as the typical person who is officially “learning a foreign language.” Sure, the quality of practice matters, too; immersion is the best method of foreign language acquisition. But unless you’re willing to give ten times the normal level of effort, fluency is basically a daydream.
When I see the contrast between people who succeed and fail, I generally witness a similar gap in effort. During my eight years in college, I spent many thousands of hours reading about economics, politics, and philosophy. Since high school, I’ve spent over ten thousand hours writing. When young people ask me, “How can I be like you?“ my first thought is, again, do ten times as much.
Ten times as much of what, exactly? The answer is usually: Whatever you already think the crucial ingredient is. “Why can’t I get ahead in my career? I strive to study and emulate my role models.” Great idea; you just need to multiply your effort by a factor a ten. “How can I save my marriage? I’m really trying to make my spouse happy.” Again, great idea. You just need to multiply your effort by a factor of ten.
Incredulity is tempting. In the spirit of Chris-R in The Room, you may object, “Ten times as much? You want ten times as much, Bryan? You know what? I haven’t got ten times as much!” But my advice is usually far more practical than it sounds, because most people who “want to succeed” barely lift a finger most of the time. Saying ten times as many kind words to your friends is easy in a world whether most people only say two or three such sentences weekly. Cold emailing ten times as many successful people in your field for advice is easy in a world where most people do so once in a lifetime. Never underestimate your fellow man’s lack of initiative.
Take parenting. Most readers summarize my Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids as “Parenting doesn’t matter.” But that is only one possible interpretation of the twin and adoption data. The data is also consistent, however, with the theory that most parents are barely trying to get results - at least on many relevant margins. I pondered this in depth before I started homeschooling my kids. I’m always stunned by all the economists who fail to teach their kids about supply-and-demand. All my kids know about these holy diagrams. What’s the difference between their kids and mine? I did ten times as much.
Still, once you internalize the “Do ten times as much” norm, you are in for some soul-searching. If you want to learn a foreign language, you need to budget about two thousand hours. If you want to master a technical subject, you need to budget about five thousand hours. If you want your kids to be pious Orthodox Jews, move to an Orthodox neighborhood, send them to Orthodox schools, deny them internet, and don’t let them make friends with outsiders.
Either that, or admit that you’ve got higher priorities. No one succeeds at everything. If you’re not willing to do ten times as much, just level with yourself: “I’ve got better things to do than learn a foreign language.” “I’ve got better things to do than become a great economist.” “I’ve rather raise my kids in the modern world than be a family of earnest Orthodox Jews.” If you take all of the time you dabble away in a hundred quixotic ways and concentrate it on two or three goals you truly prize, you’ll probably succeed at what you value the most. Pick your battles, friends. And wherever do you choose to fight, do ten times as much.