A lot of people have this misconception that you have to be smart to tackle big undertakings like learning Japanese, or anything else for that matter. The idea seems to be that if you’re not smart enough to be immediately good at something, then it will be an uphill battle the whole way.

But surprisingly, both conventional wisdom and modern science tells us that that is completely wrong. Being smart is nice and all, but it turns out success is less about brains and more about hard work and perseverance.

Being Smart Isn’t Everything

I just finished reading Outliers, a book that takes a look at what makes people successful. A lot of the book is debunking myths about success, including the myth that smart people are successful just because they’re smart.

Outliers looks at tons of different people with high IQs, including the man who most people say has the highest IQ in the world, Christopher Langan.

But what we find out is that the people with high IQs weren’t universally successful. In fact, a study that followed several high IQ people from childhood into adulthood found that they were just as likely to fail as anybody else.

Just because these people did great on IQ and other standardized tests doesn’t mean that their intelligence translated into success in other pursuits.

Success is the result of many different factors. A lot of it is environment (which is something that everybody has some control over), but some of it is mindset and hard work, too.

And, I’d argue, it’s sometimes even good to look stupid in order to succeed.

Looking Dumb Is Good

If you’re a long-time Tofugu reader, then you probably recognize this common piece of Koichi advice: when learning Japanese, make mistakes.

It seems counter-intuitive; generally, you want to look smart, or at least like you know what you’re doing. But screwing up and looking like a moron is actually one of the most useful things you can do when learning Japanese (or anything for that matter).

Speak Japanese like an idiot, use the wrong kanji, and butcher pronunciation. Anything goes as long as you learn from it. You don’t want to look like a total dweeb for absolutely no reason.

This comes up time and time again in our posts about learning Japanese, and was even important enough to make it to the top of Koichi’s “10 Things I Wish I Knew About Japanese Learning When I Was First Starting Out.”

In the words of the immortal Bob Ross: “we don’t have mistakes, just happy accidents.”

The Science Behind A Good Mindset

The idea that making mistakes to learn is a fairly old idea, but what is new is the science behind it.

Scientists are always doing new studies that look at why people behave the way they do; whether it’s social factors, environment, biology, or some combination of the three.

Last week, I read on Wired about a recent psychological study that tried to figure out why some people learn from more from their mistakes than other people.

I’m not going to get too detailed about how the study was conducted (mostly because I’d be lying to you if I pretended to know anything about psychology), but the results were interesting.

Researchers divided subjects into two groups of people: those with a “growth” mindset, who believed that they could learn more and get better at almost anything if they tried hard enough; and people with a “fixed” mindset, who believed that they couldn’t really learn much more than they already knew.

When people with a “growth” mindset made a mistake, their brains became more attentive and alert, and their likelihood of learning from and correcting their mistakes shot up. People with a “fixed” mindset, on the other hand, were less likely to learn and correct their mistakes.

Again, these people didn’t succeed because they have 150 IQ; their ability to learn from their mistakes came from a mindset, and attitude.

These people thought that they were able to learn more and, because of that attitude, they were actually able to. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Applying This To Japanese Learning

What this really all boils down to is that you don’t need to be a card-carrying, Mensa-certified genius to learn Japanese.

Sure, some people might have an advantage or two when first starting out; but in the long run, a good state of mind trumps virtually all else. Your mentality can be your greatest asset, more so than a high IQ. Attitude is everything.

  • Kyle Wagner

    Good article, I sometimes need to tell myself this from time to time. After studying for two years, I feel like I shouldn’t make mistakes because I “should know” the language fairly well.  But if I keep that mindset, I won’t likely learn much more.

  • Jagoda Stefańska
  • Martín Raúl Villalba

    “Whether or not you think you can do something, you’re probably right.” — Henry Ford.

  • Viet

    To expand off the “Looking Dumb is Good” section. The best advice I can give to anyone learning, especially college students: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Suck up the useless self-superiority ego you built up in high school and ask for help from anyone (peers, superiors, anyone). More times than not, they’ll be more willing to help out. I know I’m more than willing to help out others. But make no mistake, the main reason for helping others is a selfish one. Being able to teach someone new material and explain it in different ways reinforces one’s knowledge of the material. It gives me an indication that I can comfortably say I understood the material. At the same time, it allows for another set of eyes to evaluate my viewpoint and provide another.

    Also, that genius next to you is most likely not a “genius”. He probably has been exposed to the material before you, knows and developed the right tools for learning the material, and has trained himself to absorb material better than you. Once you have identified and obtain the necessary learning tools and methods, then you’ll be on the same level as them in no time. And, you’ll be better off in the long-run.

  • Mescale

    Are IQ tests really that good a metric for identifying smart people? I know its a good metric for identifying gits, that’s for sure.

    The first time I went to University, I found what it takes to pass University wasn’t intelligence, it was just work. There were people thick as pig shit, who got better grades than me (I am of course a genius) and the reason why, was they did the work. They may not have had the natural talent, skill, good looks, wit, etc. but they worked, they worked hard and they probably did well out of it. I on the other hand didn’t do work, flunked out of University and ended up doing shitty jobs for the rest of my life.
    And I’ll tell you they are the people who run the world, geniuses are hard work, they tend to be prissy primadonnas, hard to handle, etc. You might want maybe 1 or 2 of them, but what you really want is a squillion unsung heroes, the hard workers, who actually do all the work.

    So all you really need to do to do anything is just fucking do it, its the hard counter to everything.

    Don’t believe in the me that believes in you, believe in the you that believes in you!

  • Ko

    My biggest problem, and what I’ve seen with my friends who are learning languages (especially Japanese/Korean) is actually not wanting to look stupid/make mistakes, so I end up not practicing -even though I have tons of native-speaker friends who aren’t judgmental at all. It’s a hard mindset to get around!

  • ZXNova

    This article basically proves that having a High IQ doesn’t mean you’re smart, it just means you learn fast. But your IQ is just nothing if you don’t put effort into things. It’s not about how good your IQ is, it’s about how much effort you put into it. And having a high IQ just makes things easier, but you STILL need to put in the effort. That’s all that matters.

  • Shollum

    Awesome article! Ever since I’ve started trying to learn from my Japanese mistakes (like I do with most everything else in life) I’ve done much better at it. I may be a smart person (according to standardized tests) but I can’t learn things just by looking at them once.

    I don’t want to nitpick, but:
    “people learn from more from their mistakes than other people.” has an extra ‘from’ before the ‘more’.

  • Ali Akbar

    I guess that with the right attitude anyone can succeed. nice article

  • Dan

    130 million Japanese people managed to learn it. The only reason I could imagine any correlation to IQ would be higher IQs probably have higher standards of living and therefore the time and environment to decide to study a second language.

    But I think the key takeaway is that if you think your genetically programmed to be how you currently are – then you fulfill your own prophecy. I’m much rather hang around with those who know they can improve.

    Much like Martin’s quote
    “Whether or not you think you can do something, you’re probably right.” — Henry Ford. 

  • Jacky Lee

     That quote at the end, wouldn`t happen to be from Kamina in Guren Lagann? xD

  • guyhey

    Thanks for posting this! I was just asking these questions earlier this week, and you’ve given me the answer!

  • Jon E.

    I was wondering, as a general comment to the Tofugu website; could we move the author information of each article to the TOP of the article? I can’t tell you how many times I have began a new article on Tofugu and wished I knew who was writing the words I was reading, without having to scroll down the entire article (possibly even seeing spoilers!). :-)