Lessons From Learning Chinese | #132

🏫 Do we design life around learning? Or do we hardly fit it in? Do we really need to learn that much to live a decent life?

March 13th, 2021: Greetings from Taipei!

This issue is a bit of a mixed bag. Some thoughts on learning Chinese, the US healthcare system, leaving a path that makes sense and a bit more. I’m hosting a Interintellect Salon next Saturday with internet friend and friend of the newsletter Orpheas. He’s been working at Amazon from his hometown in Greece for the past year and just decided to leave after struggling with the decision for a while. We’ll be going deep into our relationship with work and seeing if we can imagine a better path forward.

A fun fact about Taiwan. A couple years ago my wife mentioned that it was an exciting thing (though sad for the story) when Buzz Lightyear figured out he was a toy. Where was he made?


#1 On Learning Chinese

I’ve been busy the past two weeks going to Chinese class for three hours and then studying another two or three hours every day at home.  I was a bit stressed before the class started but have been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed the classes. 

This shouldn’t be a surprise. I’ve been transported back to campus and now remember how much I loved being in school.  I still claim to love learning but if I am honest I don’t do much of it.  I imagine I’m like most people.  I learn a lot of new things by solving problems.  This is one reason I like self-employment.  It forces you to learn many different things.  But these are all small things.  Like learning SEO.  Or learning basic CSS and HTML.  You can get to a good understanding of those topics in less than a week.  

I haven’t spent much time in the deep, focused state that brings me back to studying engineering in school.  The state in which you are slightly beyond your current capabilities and that if you trust the system you will eventually arrive at the answer.  I loved that.

I’ve gotten better at writing but I also have a suspicion that I might have improved faster if I gave it more focused attention.  The kind of environments that can enable deep learning are magical and we probably don’t give them enough credit in the non-stop criticism of higher education.  Higher education has lots of problems but in most schools there are those magical programs and professors that can help enable this kind of learning.

I thought it might be worth trying to reflect on some of the things that are helping to make this experience so good so far:

  1. An Enthusiastic Teacher: Taiwan has some of the best Chinese teachers in the world.  Our teacher is enthusiastic and seems to adapt well to each of our learning speeds and levels.

  2. Classmates: There are seven of us in the class, all of us with spouses or significant others who are Taiwanese.  We have a Thai-American, Australian, Dutch Brit, German, Korean, Japanese, and then me.  It’s fun to be in such a diverse group, share lessons on understanding our partners and also see the various ways people are learning (Japanese speakers often know 70% of the characters and tend to struggle with pinyin whereas English speakers need to go from English => Pinyin => characters)

  3. Ritual of an In-Person Class on Campus: I’ve written quite a bit about online learning and I’m still quite bullish about the potential.  However, nothing beats biking across a campus (without cars!) past hopeful young people and heading to class every day.  It’s magnificent

  4. The Learning Design: It seems as if words and character become “known” to me as if by magic.  It’s really quite incredible.  Before I took this class I had taken a couple shorter seminars and used a tutor but the design of this course and the balance or speaking, listening, writing, and reading seems to have unlocked something that was holding me back.

  5. Motivation: I want to have kids and those kids will likely be fluent in Chinese.  Being able to speak to them is a perfect kind of motivation. We often don’t think too deeply about how to align the things that motivate us most in life and what we want to learn. I do this by often thinking about the future and then working backwards to what I might regret not doing.

  6. 3 hours a day, 5-Days Per Week: We had a test yesterday on material we had started on Tuesday.  On Thursday I felt like I didn’t know any of it.  Yet by the test on Friday I had somehow added 20 more characters to my brain and was able to write, read, and listen confidently in Chinese.  Something about the daily motions of going to class and reviewing just a little bit seems to have big compounding effects.

  7. Middle of the day class: I took a class two years ago that started at 8 every morning and by the third week I felt like I was ready to collapse.  I don’t think I’ve ever learned well in the morning.  The afternoon seems to be a better time for me and I think having class 12-3 instead of 8-11 had been a huge factor in giving me the space to study at night and then reviewing again before class. The time for sleep seems to help me remember things and add some spaced repetition to the process.

  8. Design: For the past few months I’ve been trying to back away from various commitments while also limiting the number of business-related meetings I take. This has definitely meant a hit to potential opportunities but I wanted to make sure I had enough time to study when I’d like and not feel like I have to fit it into a schedule.

  9. Conversations At Home: Chinese is hard to learn because you can’t casually walk around and pick up random words. You need to know the character first, then the pinyin pronunciation, and then start to remember it. Luckily Angie has been practicing with me each day though she tends to try to teach me all the taboo sayings and words after

Learning is harder than we think and our world is not really designed for adults to do this kind of learning. When I started class I could feel the tension of not putting these hours towards “working.” It still feels scandalous. I wonder if this will always be the case or we might see this kind of “learning break” to become not only approved of, but encouraged.

Have you tried to prioritize learning in your life? How did it go?

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#2 The Path

Chris Wong wrote an amazing essay on “The Path” that seems like he might have stole some thoughts directly from my brain.

I still didn’t even know where The Path led. I realized I didn't want my job, I didn't want my boss' job, and I didn't even want my boss' boss' job. I was making a significant amount of money, but I wasn't actually creating value. To be successful in this industry was not by creating value but by making your boss look good. That didn't come naturally to me. I had already undermined my career by not putting in face time and by questioning my superiors.

and on the games he needed to play

In finance, the answer to the interview question "Why do you want this job?" is a dirty open secret. You are not allowed to say money. Even though that is everyone's real answer. You must make up an answer to prove that you are not a masochistic psychopath. I couldn't lie anymore. The only reason to stay in this job was money, but to me cash was the applause of Performance Art and I would rather put on my own show in an empty theater.

This is something that people have a hard time understanding. For some people playing these games, contorting one’s self to 100 different ways you are supposed to think, act, and behave is just too much. One day you have to walk away.

Do read the whole thing, its a good read.


#3 US Healthcare Crisis

As hundreds of dollars of bills trickle in each month from my time in the US last summer I’ve become convinced the US Healthcare system is the biggest thing holding back entrepreneurship, creativity, and even at the most basic level, the energy required to go after a better job. Consider this comment from a small business owner:

On the patient side, especially if you have a chronic condition, it can be more painful than the disease itself. Luke O’Neill wrote about one woman’s fear of waking up in an ambulance after seizures she has because she has no idea what it might cost:

Every time I wake up it’s like, oh good, I woke up. Some people die in the middle of a seizure. Your brain turns off. So either you wake up, or you go into a coma, or you never wake up. It’s a crap shoot. When I wake up I don’t remember what happened to me, but I know what the feeling of a seizure is. I don’t know where I am. I don't know what year it is. But it’s like, ok, I’m alive. Ok. Cool. And to do that when you wake up on a stretcher, you don’t know where you are, but you know you have to get off the stretcher when you’re already tied to it… it’s this weird fight or flight moment. I’m just coming to, but all of a sudden I have to be like, Let me go! Let me go! 

My interactions with foreign healthcare systems has convinced me that if Mexico, Spain, Taiwan, and many other countries can figure out how to make healthcare work for the average person (I’ve been a mild user of healthcare abroad having dealt with parasites, dog bites, and dental surgery) then it must be possible in the US where it has more talent and money than almost any other country.

Yet people have more or less given up or hidden behind the “Canada has long wait times!” rhetoric from the 90s.

This summer as I was voluntarily subjecting myself to the system I did informal polling of the medical assistants, receptionists, nurses, and doctors. 100% of them agreed that yes, the system is absolutely terrible, but that there was nothing anyone could do. This was just the way it is.

The crazy thing is that people really don’t have any idea how bad the system is. It’s one thing to merely be outrages but as someone that loves thinking in systems I can’t help but think about the system design issues.

One of those is that we have a socialized system in the sense that anyone that walks into a hospital, they must be treated. Because of this however, the only way for hospitals to pay for this is to offset the costs onto insurers. Since competition would drive costs lower, governments allow hospitals to block any competition (you can read more about these state laws here).

Yes, you read that right. Capitalism isn’t ruining the system, it’s state control and hospital monopolies. John Cochrane recently talked about this with Tyler Cowen:

The problem with that is you can’t allow competition. If you’re overcharging people, then you can’t allow hospital B to come in and say, “We’re going to offer less price, and we won’t even have an emergency room.” So you’ve killed competition. That I think is the original sin, the deepest problem in our healthcare system.

They just recently said hospitals have to disclose prices. Heavens, disclose prices! Well, that’s a sign this is a horribly uncompetitive business. An airline that tried to not disclose prices until you get off the plane would be bankrupt because no one would go there. There’s competition in the airlines.

It seems that the healthcare system in the US is littered with many of these design flaws that have started to have dramatic effects on the costs and complicatedness of the system in the last 10-20 years.

If you’re reading this is a broad criticism of the US you are missing something. The US is an incredible place and I’m lucky to have been born there. I just want to dream about what’s possible rather than seeing my country fall into a massive status quo bias trap. The boomers are retiring soon.

I try not to criticize without taking action and with that in mind I’ve kickstarted a very small project to try to make some of these issues more visible and more clearly understood (not to mention some of the amazing things from foreign system that people don’t fully appreciate.) If you’re interested send me a note.

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#4 “It’s really surprising to hear that her career isn’t that important”

You can’t make this stuff up but this less is from a man who is disappointed that her formerly ambitious wife now wants to back off her career a bit and spend more time with her child:

“…I asked her why, and she said she enjoys being a mother too much to leave our daughter to go back to work when she doesn’t need to. This is such a departure from our plans before the baby was born. She has a good job that she enjoyed before going on leave, and had always been adamant that she wanted to continue working even after becoming a mom. We met when we worked at the same company many years ago, and one of the things I was most attracted to was her ambition and tenacity. It’s really surprising to hear that her career isn’t that important to her anymore.”

Just one anecdote, but man work dominates our minds, huh!?


#5 Friends of the newsletter

I had a fun walk and conversation with Michael Story from London on Tuesday, connected by another friend from the internet. It’s pretty amazing how many people I end up meeting from people I know online. Here we are after a walk on NTUs campus.


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