Saturday, June 16, 2012

Focus: The Most Important Skill In Your Life

I’d like to invite you to join me in an experiment. For the duration of this blog post, I’d like you to ignore all the normal distractions that incessantly steal your attention throughout the day. Disconnect from chat, close your social network feeds, log off your email. If your phone gets a text, let it sit there unread. Turn off the tv. Take the earbuds out of your ears and pause your music. Don’t switch away until you’ve finished reading. I’d like you to simply focus on this post and nothing else for the next few minutes of your precious time.

Can you do it?

Over the past year, I’ve had an awful lot of time to reflect. I’ve been systematically trying to simplify my life - getting rid of burdening possessions and spending my time and energy on projects and people that I love. Yet what you have and what you do are only the outward manifestations of your state of mind. Simplification comes from within, and I consistently find myself returning to the following idea: that the ability to focus one’s thoughts is the single most important skill in your life.

In essence, learn to control your thoughts so that they don’t control you.

I stumbled upon this idea while exploring the fascinating lifestyle that we call “entrepreneurship”. The beauty about charting your own path through the world is that there’s no guideline, no set of prescriptions to follow. You build your day as you see fit. Yet as all entrepreneurs know, the creative life is at once both immensely gratifying and astoundingly lonely. The price you pay for going your own way is that you are the one holding the flashlight in the darkest part of the tunnel, shining the light on your immediate next steps while blind to what lies just beyond the edge of your own shadow. You take it on faith that you’re moving in the right direction, but steering through unchartered waters, you are forced into a constant state of making decisions, evaluating their effectiveness, and recalibrating the ship so that it stays on track.

This is what it means to step off the beaten path.

And if you spend enough time thinking about how you spend your time, you begin to think about the thinking itself. Why do we decide to do the things we do? How does the mind choose what to spend its cycles on? Why do ideas come rushing into my head as I lie in bed awaiting sleep? How can I get “into the zone” and plow through a week’s worth of work in a couple hours?

Why is my mind filled with the thoughts that it is, and is there anything I can do to change that?

The answer is a resounding yes; you can change the way your mind works, once you accept that everything you do, every second of every day, is a consequence of the thoughts that have been accumulating in your mind up to that point.

In today’s day and age, we’re fighting a losing battle against distraction. The reasons are diverse - it’s not as simple as blaming modern technology. Cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, etcetera are merely tools for scratching the primal need to connect. Humans were evolutionarily designed to be around other humans, and once we developed ways to feel like we’re always connected without being physically proximate, we couldn’t get enough of it, despite the interactions becoming less intimate and more like shadows of the real thing. Yet it’s addictive, so we keep doing it, obsessively absorbing and consuming information at ever-increasing volumes in a never-ending 24/7 lifestyle that we call a miracle of technology-driven connectedness.

And slowly but surely, our ability to focus has been chipped away by a thousand tiny virtual cuts. Have you ever found yourself browsing the web while on the phone? Do you instinctively pull out your phone when you get to a crosswalk that’s not green? Have you closed a website only to open a new tab and reflexively go right back to the same site? Ever look at the clock and realize the entire work day has slipped by, but you can’t remember what you actually spent your time on?

These are all symptoms of a lack of focus, and the consequences are devastating. By spreading our mental energies over more and more targets with less and less time devoted to each one, we’re simply shortchanging all of our objectives. Study after study shows that humans can’t multitask effectively, yet we try to cram more stuff into each day with the mistaken belief that we’re getting more done. But the opposite is true - less gets done, with the unfortunate additional downside of increased stress levels due to more things to worry about. It’s an unsustainable way of life, but the good thing is that it’s completely reversible.

So, how can you improve your ability to focus, and why would you want to? Let’s start with the why, cause it’s more fun. If you develop a less distracted, more focused life, you may experience the following side effects:

- You’ll feel like you have more time. It may seem counterintuitive, but stopping to take a few deep breaths in the middle of a hectic day literally changes your perception of time and allows you to tackle your tasks more effectively.

- Your senses will become heightened. By learning to calm your mind, you can free it up to concentrate intently on sensory experiences. Music will sound better. You’ll notice details in landscapes that you never saw before (pop quiz: When was the last time you looked up above eye-level on the way to work? When’s the last time you stopped to examine a building, a tree, a bird while you were rushing from point A to point B?). You’ll be able to detect a more diverse array of flavors in the food you eat and the libations you drink. You’ll basically be able to derive more enjoyment out of the things you already do.

- You will become a more productive person. Work will seem easier, because instead of focusing part of your attention for more hours, you’ll focus all of your attention for fewer hours.

- You will become more creative. A lot of people grow up to believe that they’re not creative people, yet it’s total crap. Everyone is creative when they’re young, and years and years of rote schooling and work serve to blunt and kill that creativity. Yet it never really dies; it’s just lying in wait under the surface. The only way to unleash that creativity is to calm your mind and let it naturally come out.

- You will become a more compassionate person. By learning to focus your thoughts, you will improve your ability to relate to and understand other human beings. You will become more empathetic and sympathetic without explicitly trying. You will become a better listener. You’ll become a better friend, family member, and lover. All because you will learn to always be in the moment rather than with someone but mentally elsewhere.

- You will become happier. I’m certainly not original in saying this, but a calm mind is the secret to happiness. Really.

So, what can you do to embark on this new way of living? Well, old habits die hard, and this is a lifelong adventure, so it’s not easy, but I promise that it’s worth it. Some small changes you can start with:

- Turn off non-essential notifications on your phone. Do you really need your phone to buzz every time you receive an email or someone likes something on Facebook? Try reserving “immediate” notifications for texts and nothing else. If people insist on treating email as an immediate-response communication mechanism, train them otherwise by not responding immediately.

- Next time you have a one-on-one conversation, resolve to focus entirely on the conversation. Don’t glance at your phone - it’s not going anywhere, and you didn’t miss anything important. Listen to the words being said, and look for nuances beyond the words themselves. Listening is a skill, and it’s directly related to the ability to focus.

- Focus on the journey the next time you leave your home to walk anywhere. Look around you as you’re walking. Notice the other people going about their days. Listen to the sounds around you - a car passing, people shuffling on the sidewalk, a dog barking in the distance. Feel your feet making contact with the ground - when was the last time you thought about how your feet felt as they traversed the earth?

- Read a book. Becoming engrossed in a book is a fantastic way to hone your focus. Nothing exercises the imagination in quite the same way as getting lost in a great book.

- Literally stop and think. Focus on something simple, like your breathing. Start small - can you last ten slow breaths, concentrating solely on the movement and sensation of your breath? It’s okay if your mind begins to wander - simply return to your breathing and try again. You’ll get better over time.

- Exercise. There’s something about physical exertion that calms the mind and allows it to focus. Humans were not designed to be sedentary. Any exercise is better than nothing, but for me, it takes about 20-25 minutes of light cardio in order to “reset” and multiply my productivity.

Consider this the beginning of something great. A new way to look at the world. You, too, can learn to take back your life by calming your thoughts. And with that, I’ll leave you with one final thought:

Mindfulness is about more than simply living a better life. It’s about freedom. If your life is overrun by distractions and broken thoughts, then you’re a slave to your own mind. Take back the reigns and start living.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Why Korean Is Hard For Native English Speakers

A couple of days ago, as an experiment, I wrote my first blog post ever in a non-English language. It was an attempt to explain some of the reasons that Korean is hard to learn for native English speakers, so I figured I might as well try to write it in Korean. Those of you who actually read Korean can see how awkward the attempt was =).

In any case, the post came from an email conversation I had with The Korean from Ask a Korean, a fantastically well-written blog about all things Korea from the perspective of a Korean who moved to the United States during high school. Since I tend to geek out on language things, I figured I might as well post part of that conversation. An edited version follows.


Out of the languages that I've attempted to learn so far, Korean has been the hardest. I've done a lot of meta thinking about learning Korean, and I think there are a number of reasons it's difficult for non-Koreans (and especially Westerners) to learn:

1) Obviously, the grammar. If you are used to a right-branching language such as English or Romance languages, then learning a left-branching language such as Korean or Japanese requires a complete rewiring of your grammar center, which is formatted in a certain way during the formative stages of language development.

The "branching" direction of a language refers to the shape of the parse tree of a sentence. In non-linguistic terms, you can think of it as the direction that a sentence extends as it gets more complicated. Languages aren't entirely right or left-branching. English is mostly right-branching with some instances of left-branching, but Korean (and Japanese) are very strongly left-branching. It's easier to see with some sentences.

Let's start with the simple English sentence "I went to the restaurant" - the subject is "I", the verb is "went", and the object is "the restaurant". It follows the "Subject Verb Object" (SVO) order that is common to English. In Korean it would be, "전 식당에 갔어요", which follows the SOV order that's common for left-branching languages. SVO versus SOV is a big pain point for early learners of a language, but it's really nothing compared to what happens when you try to make longer sentences.

Let's make the sentence more complicated by adding a descriptive phrase for the object: "I went to the restaurant that we went to last week." You can see that "the restaurant" is now further modified by the phrase "that we went to last week", and that the sentence extends to the right as we make it more complex (technically this is not an entirely accurate description of the branching direction of the language, but it's intuitive and instructive for my point, so just go with it).

In Korean, this sentence has now become way more complicated than the initial sentence: "저는 우리 지난 주에 갔던 식당에 또 갔어요." The highlighted portion is the new "that we went to last week" part. For the non-Korean readers out there, if we directly translate this sentence back to English, it reads, "I we last week went to restaurant to again went." As you can see, the sentence extended from the middle to the left! Simple enough, but imagine sentences with multiple descriptive phrases, some nested within other phrases. You know, the types of sentences that you use all the time in your native language. And then you can understand better why most Koreans who learn English and most English-speakers who learn Korean stick to simple sentence structures.

(As a bonus, after starting to get more comfortable in Korean, my Japanese, which I never really took the time to study properly, magically got better. The format of the sentences all of a sudden made a whole lot more sense to me once my brain was partially formatted for Korean grammar.)

2) I've found that not only is creating the proper grammatical structure difficult, but since Korean tends to be spoken fairly quickly, you need to speak it quickly enough that the phrases are attached to the right particles in the listener's mind. Prosody (the change in pitch of your voice as you speak) obviously plays a huge part in this, too. Beginners can't think and speak fast enough to complete a grammatically complex sentence quickly enough for the structure to make sense in the listener's mind. This problem is actually kinda funny - unless you speak at a sufficiently fast pace, the Korean listener loses track of what word you were attempting to connect your long and pause-ridden descriptive phrase to.

3) In addition to Korean being spoken very quickly (since its information density is comparatively low), Koreans drop a lot of sounds as they're speaking. Which makes understanding full-speed Korean harder than Japanese, for instance, since Japanese, one of the least information-dense (and thus most quickly spoken) languages, tends to be enunciated more clearly. Some of you might object, but at least to my ears, Japanese often sounds clearer, even at high speeds (note that this says nothing about my comprehension, though).

4) When I lived in Korea, I discovered something interesting - most people are really bad at helping non-Koreans understand Korean. The same applies for most languages, actually, as knowing a language and knowing how to teach it are totally different, but there's a whole lot more "good English" at hand to learn from than "good Korean". I often tried asking people politely, "What did you just say?", so that I could learn, but not only is it difficult to get someone to repeat themselves in Korean when they could switch to Kongrish/English, but many people actually don't know what they just said. This goes just as well for my fluent bilingual friends - they literally cannot repeat what they just said. But like everything, people get better with practice. Best to find very patient people to ask =).

5) In Korean, a lot of things are vocalized that are implied in English. It took me a long time to even start to get the hang of relatively simple constructions like -지, -잖아, -다고, etc, and there are literally hundreds of other endings and constructions that each convey a specific circumstance or tone which, in English, would be conveyed via tone of voice or possibly word choice (as opposed to conjugational endings).

6) This is a touchy subject, but it often feels like East Asians think that non East Asians are somehow intellectually incapable of learning Asian languages. This mentality decreases with increasing numbers of fluent foreigners (e.g., it's quite common to see business conversations taking place completely in Japanese between Japanese and Western businessmen). AAK's The Korean says that this is an example of the "The Foreigner Rule", which basically says that foreigners get away with not understanding how things work in Korea, simply because they're foreigners.

Anyway, due to this bias, the bar is really friggin' low for foreigners there - if you can say basic survival phrases, people are impressed. If you can have a conversation, they call you a genius or ask if you've been in the country for 10 years. In fact, 99% of the time I open my mouth in Korea and Korean comes out, the first thing I hear is some comment about my Korean (한국말 잘 하시네요!, etc). No one ever calls an Asian immigrant to America a genius for learning English, which is a pretty damn hard language to learn. In any case, the fact that the bar is so low does not create a great environment for mastering a second language. But as Korea continues to grow in importance on the global scale, The Foreigner Rule will necessarily diminish as important business is increasingly done in Korean.

So, what to do? For me, the biggest strides in learning Korean have come from the 10 weeks of class I actually took (although we learned awkward, textbook Korean), reading comic books (to learn "real" dialogue, not to mention plenty of "colorful" language =P), and watching Korean dramas/movies with Korean subtitles. And of course, the obvious one - speaking Korean with my Korean friends.

Anyway, this post has gotten pretty long, so if you've made it here, you probably have a genuine interest in languages. As such, a quick public service announcement - next time someone asks you how to say something in your native language, tell them exactly how to say what they're asking, rather than a shortened or simplified version. They will most definitely appreciate it.

Happy learning!

Saturday, June 09, 2012

영어가 모국어인 사람들은 왜 한국어를 배우기가 어려운 이유

이 포스트는 내 처음 한국어로 블로그 포스트인데, 한국어에 대하니까 잘 어울린다. =) 자, 시작합시다! 왜 외국사람에게 한국어를 배우기가 어렵다? 난 한국어를 배우고 있는 사람이라서 이 문제에 대해 많이 생각하고 있었다. 여러가지 이유가 있는데 오늘 몇 이유만 논할 것이다.

1. 분명히 한국어 문법은 영어에 비해 너무 많이 다른다. 영어는 “오른쪽으로 분지(分枝)의 언어"라고 하는데 한국어는 “왼쪽으로 분지의 언어"이다. 뜻이 무엇이나요? 예를 보면 이해할 수 있을 것이다. 간단한 문장만 말하면 (외국어를 말하는 남들은 간단한 문장의 수준을 지낼 수가 약간 드물다), 간단한 걸 기억해야 돼: 영어는 “SVO”인데 한국어는 “SOV”이다. “I’m going to school”라고 한국어로는 “저는 학교에 가요"라고 말한다. 영어로 똑바로 번역하면 “I’m school to go”이다. 두 언어 다르는 게 목적어와 동사의 곳을 교환해야 한다. 별로 어렵지 않다. 하지만, 조금 더 어렵게 만들자. “I went to the restaurant that we ate at last week.” 한국어로는 “전 우리 지난 주에 갔던 식당에 또 갔어요"라고 말한다. 영어로 똑바로 번역하면 “I we last week went to restaurant to again went”말이다. 한국어가 왼쪽으로 분지 언어라서 문장 중에 왼쪽으로 확대한다! 이렇게 좀 더 쉽게 볼 수 있다: “전 (우리 지난 주에 갔던 식당)에 또 갔어요”. 주제가 “전"이고 동사가 “갔다"이고 목적어가 “우리 지난 주에 갔던 식당"이다. 영어 문장은 오른쪽으로 확대한다: I (S) went (V) to (the restaurant (that we went to (last week))) (O). 그래서 두 숙어 문장 만들고 싶으면 생각속에서도 순서를 변해야 된다.

2. 첫 째 점이니까 다른 사람을 자기 말을 아라들게 하고 싶으면, 충분히 빨리 말해야 한다. 그렇지 않으면 다른 사람은 드는 숙어들을 연결 할 수 없다. 근데 외국어를 공부할 때 빨리 말하는 게 진짜 어렵구나! 영어하고 다른 오른쪽으로 분지 언어들은 조금 더 쉬운 편인 것 같다 - “I went to … the restaurant … that we went to … last week”. 멈춰지기가 있는데도 이해할 수 있는 것 같다. 그리고, 한국어는 비교적 빨리 말하는 언어이다, 왜나면 정보 이론 관점에서 보면, 한국어의 정보 밀도가 진짜 작다. 그래서, 보통 말하는 속도가 시작하는 학생들은 불편하게 빠르다.
설상가상으로, 빠른 말하는 속도니까 한국사람들은 자주 단어와 발음 소리를 빠뜨린다. 분명히 중요한 소리를 빠뜨리면, 학생들은 듣기가 더 어렵다.

3. 오늘 마지막 이유가 언어에 대하지 않은데, 문화이다. 한국사람들은 외국사람들이 한국어를 잘 말하는 가능성을 그냥 상상할 수 없다. 외국 뇌 그냥 우수한 한국어를 배울 수 없다. 그렇게 생각해서 외국사람이 한국어를 말하면, 예상은 정말로 낮다. "안녕하세요"라고 말할 수 있으면, 전재라고 부른다. 제대로 음식을 주문하면, 10년 한국에서 살아 있었다고 물어볼 것이다. 이 낮은 예상의 결과로, 한국어 오류하면, 한국사람한테서 제대로 된 설명을 받기가 참 고통스러운 난제군요! 예를 들면, 한국 친구가 나한테 영어로 "넌 잘 지내냐고 했어"라고 어떻게 말한다고 물어봤다. 난 "She asked how you're doing"라고 대답했다. 그 다음에 내가 서로 물어봤다 (한국어로 어떻게 말하는 거야). 친구가 "잘 지내"라고 말했다. 아니다! 완전히 다르잖아! 불행하게도, 이런 일은 흔치 않은 일아닌다. 반면에, 이 언어를 배우고 싶으면 더 재미있는 도전이군요!

어유! 오늘 여기까지. 다음에 다른 한국어의 복잡한 내용들을 탐구할 것이다!