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).
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.
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.