Start Dirty: Why A Clean Slate Is Bad For You and What To Do About It

This entry is part of 15 in the series Intermediate Angst

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen

So, I’m a bit of recovering perfectionist. I’ve walked that terrible path; it still comes up here and there, especially if I latch on to some stupid feeling of having “something to prove”. But the overall tendency is always decreasing, always on the wane. Whatever. Enough confessional. The point is, I get to hear from a lot of people wanting to start over fresh, wanting to start kanji from 0, wanting to delete everything and reset and go back to the beginning.

And, this sounds like good idea, right? Any action’s better than no action, right? Sure. But it isn’t a good idea, and here’s the basic reason why: the whole “start over from 0” is the same pathology and has the same side-effects as that whole “New Year’s Resolution” nonsense.

Wiping the Slate Clean is Bulimic Behavior, Anorexic Action

That means it’s bad on two levels: practical and psychological. In fact, it even works a bit like an eating disorder 1. With respect to a game like getting used to a language, it’s sort of like a behavioral version of anorexia and bulimia combined. There’s starvation (doing nothing), binging (on action), then more binging (on guilt), then more starvation (doing nothing) and finally a purge (wipe the slate clean!) before another binge (on action) and then starvation, and then…

Yeah, not quite a neat cycle, but you get the idea. Wiping the slate clean is just a purge. And on the other side of that purge is a binge. And on the other side of that binge…well…yeah — you get the picture.

You see, when you try to drown all your mistakes in a slate-cleaning flood, you also drown all your previous work, your previous progress. Starting clean is annihilation over evolution. Starting clean is like destroying the Universe every time something goes wrong. Yeah, it’s clean, but at what cost?

At the risk of making a vague and specious argumentum ad naturam, it seems to me that that’s not how Nature likes to work. Nature abhors vacuums and annihilation. Nature likes to reuse and repurpose (exapt), so that even apparent destruction isn’t destruction: it’s just transformation. Nature likes to grow and build gradually and by accretion. 0 and emptiness may sit well in math and physics, but not in biology.

↑ That up there is probably a load of B.S., but you’re probably used to that from me. And if you aren’t yet, you’re gonna be!

What Sucks About Starting Clean

When you start clean, you reject past failure, so fresh and so clean clean, but you also reject past successes. So there’s a lack of self-affirmation right there. When you start clean, you start believing in “timing” and waiting for “a good time” or “the right time”; this is the worst form of procrastination because it doesn’t even seem like procrastination — it just seems like scheduling.

Starting clean also creates extra work — busywork — because you spend a lot of time rebuilding the good that you destroyed along with the bad. You chucked out a baby with all that bathwater, and you need to make you a new baby from scratch.

It’s like you’re Sisyphus…except no one is punishing you: you’re the one punishing yourself. You’re self-Sisyphussing, as it were 😛 2. You’re the one forcing the boulder back down the hill, negating your progress, and all for dumb reasons like “there’s a nick on it”, or “that roll up wasn’t smooth”. All because of a ridiculous desire — a compulsion — to apply all your improvements retroactively, and thus fix control the past as well as the future 3.

Perhaps most ironic of all, because starting clean destroys both good and bad, it (ironically) often results in the repetition of previous mistakes — that’s why there’s a binge-purge cycle. As much as a clean start destroys, it doesn’t seem to destroy that cycling tendency.

Wiping the slate clean is like burning down a library to fix a typo. Now, it may well be that you feel like dragging Western Eurasia into a Dark Age, and the best nearby library over in Africa needs a good burn-down (too soon?). But there are other ways. You could fix that one book. Put out an errata. Print a new edition. There’s no need to burn down the library. It may feel “clean” to clear out all the typos like that, but…no.

Imagine that you’re feeling road trippy, so you decide to drive from Utah to Texas. Or New York to LA. I dunno. Screw you. New York to LA. You’ve been going a coupla days, and you discover you’ve been going the wrong way. So you drive back to New York. Clean slate. Start again. Another couple days, you’re lost again. What do you do? Well, you have this slate-wiping habit, so even though you’re in what you think is Alabama, you go back to NY, because you’ve messed up. So you go back to New York. And start again. Are you seeing how inefficient this is?

You know some Japanese. You know something. You’ve achieved something. You’ve created some amount of meaning. Don’t turn your back on that 4. I felt like an absolute chump when I only had a couple hundred kanji/hanzi to my name, and even when I was hovering around 500~1000. I wiped the slate clean many times. Things didn’t change until I stopped starting clean and started starting dirty…

How SRS Changed My Kanji Life By Letting Me Start Dirty, And How It Can Change Yours, Too

My own Japanese acquisition experience that became the basis of this site, particularly the kanji part (which was initially a huge stumbling block for me; I always wanted to be good at kanji but I started out sucky), did not take off until I accepted the dirt. And the core artifact enabling that acceptance was the SRS. The SRS said: “hey, kid, we’re gonna learn a ton of stuff, but it’s OK if you forget some”.

That was a huge revelation for me. It’s okay to forget some. I took that inch and ran a mile with it. It was okay for the process to be messy; it was okay to forget. And if that was okay, then it was probably also okay to start right from where I was. No need to take it from the top. I could start using this “SuperMemo” (the original software SRS) on new kanji and go back and enter old (already-learned) kanji later.

My kanji studies took off when I accepted dirt: the “dirt” of previous attempts, the “dirt” of my existing knowledge, and the “dirt” of my forgetfulness. Because SRS admitted and accepted imperfection. It “allowed” me to forget some so that I could remember most (in both relative and absolute terms). It freed my mind; it freed me from thinking in all-or-nothing, 0%/100% terms. It gave me permission to not be 100% while guaranteeing me an effortless 90~95%. SRS is not about perfection and native-like speech is not about perfection. Both are about extremely high-functioning imperfection.

Later on, when I developed and shifted to the “Lazy Kanji” method, I didn’t start clean. I didn’t go back and lazy-kanjify old kanji 5. I just started using it with new kanji.

Now, let’s take a look at what all this “starting dirty” stuff means for us. Let’s go through what happens when you start dirty…

What’s Awesome About Starting Dirty?

Starting dirty accepts the good you’ve done up until now. That’s a huge confidence boost. No, it’s more than that, it’s an affirmation of your entire life, of your very existence and thus your right to exist 6. Where starting clean says: “you’re a pile of excrement and your life up until now was a pile of excrement and here is a new, unsullied, unsoiled life for you and you’re going to get it right this time and DON’T MESS UP!”, starting dirty says: “You did good, kid. Let’s build on that.

When starting dirty, any time is fine to start, because you’re dirty anyway! No need for the illusions of milestones and perfect times and arbitrary dates in the Gregorian calendar. You can start right where you are. As we say in Japanese: 思い立ったが吉日(おもいたったがきちじつ, omoitatta-ga-kichi-jitsu) — every day is a good day to start 7.

On the practical plane, starting dirty reuses, repurposes and recycles previous work, which saves time, effort and energy. Think about it: chickens don’t have nuggets; cows and pigs don’t have sausages. Yet these are some of the most popular animal foods there are.

“Old wine in new bottles” is often used as an insult. But every creativity book I’ve read 8 says that that’s exactly what creativity is: a new combination of old/existing ideas 9. That applies to both little-c “creativity” and big-C “Creativity”. Think about it: Isaac Newton didn’t start by inventing Latin or fire or even numbers. He started dirty. That didn’t stop him doing something amazing — it enabled it. In his own words: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. That’s not humility: it’s fact. 10

Starting clean is annihilation. Annihilation is revolution by brute force (cf. French Revolution).
Starting dirty is evolution. Evolution is revolution by growth, by nature (cf. Canada, or growing from a child to an adult — at no point do we kill the human being and “start over”).

You’re Good Enough Just As You Are

There’s this idea that if you could just go back to the beginning, back to childhood even, and start over, knowing what you know now, everything would better 11. No, it wouldn’t. Don’t wish to be a baby again. Being unable to walk, talk or even see properly? Are you kidding me?! There’s no joy in that. Rejoice in what you’ve learned up to this point. Build off it. Don’t wish for a virgin planet and an empty mind. Build off this wonderful foundation you’ve constructed already. Right here. Right now.

Even the things you’ve messed up have been learning experiences and that’s fine. The very idea of wanting to go back to the beginning but take your accumulated knowledge back with you, testifies to the fact that that knowledge is of great value; you have learned things of value; you have gained wisdom.

Like, we only know what plants and animals are poisonous because some of our ancestors took a hit for the team. Even if chemical analysis machines and animal experiments make suffering 12 and accidental death unnecessary for future learning about poisons, the foundational base of toxicology knowledge owes itself to (occasionally fatal) human error 13. The same goes for flight and even space travel. And, again, that’s fine 14. We learned.

Fortunately, getting used to languages is not fatal. There, I said it; it’s a medical claim. Call the FDA; I don’t give a ####. LoL. Am I saying you should never start over? No. I’m saying that you want to: “[s]tart where you stand, and work whatever tools you may have at your command“. And one of those tools is your accumulated experience. Not to mention accumulated effort.

OK, let’s review:

Starting clean

  • annihilation over evolution
  • wait for good time (procrastination, perfectionism)
  • rejects past failure but also past successes
    • fundamentally, rejects self
  • tendency to create extra work (as a result of rejecting what you’ve built up until now)
  • (ironically) repeats previous mistakes, leading to binge-purge cycle
  • Starting clean is like destroying the entire Universe every time something goes wrong, like burning a library to fix a typo

Starting dirty

  • any time is fine — you’re dirty anyway; no need for the illusions of milestones and perfect times and “auspicious days”
  • accepts what you’ve done up until now
    • by extension, accepts self
  • reuses previous good work — thus saving effort and energy
  • evolves; builds on the existing foundation; stands on the shoulder of giants
    • (sometimes that giant is what you’ve done up until now)

Wow, crappy post, huh 15? At least I take my own advice with the perfectionism 😛 .

Series Navigation


  1. I don’t actually know anything about eating disorders, so…yeah…this is just random amateur musing.
  2. Auto-sisyphic behavior? Autosisyphication?
  3. Tip: apply your SRS card/format changes forward, not backward, from now on, not to existing cards.
  4. Start going in the right direction from right where you stand. Correct from where you stand, not retroactively. And, if I recall correctly, as the Mormons like to say: go forward in (with?) faith. Hey, you don’t get to choose where your wisdom comes from; you just get to choose wisdom.
  5. (lazify old kanji cards?)
  6. And right now, you’re like: “Khatz, that sounds gay and self-helpy”. Good. Let it. Don’t you get it? That’s your fundamental problem. Your problem is that you hate yourself. Or…you don’t love yourself. Take your pick. You think you’re a pile of crap. It sounded lame to me, too, the first time I heard it, from a woman whom I’d previously mocked, no less. And maybe you can’t love yourself yet, but you want to love or at least be neutral about the getting-used-to-a-language part of yourself.
  7. That’s obviously not a literal translation but it communicates the meaning far better than a literal translation; we don’t have time to explain “auspicious days” and all that other cultural background.
  8. So…two books…hahahaha! (Foster and Young)
  9. Example: Essentially, an iPad is ‘nothing but’ a Newton on steroids. Or an iPhone writ large. Doesn’t make it any less awesome.
  10. He synthesized new knowledge from existing parts.
  11. I personally used to desire to (and routinely fantasize about a) return to childhood with adult knowledge.
  12. Well…of humans
  13. Chemistry came from alchemy — a legitimate science from a magical pseudoscience, yo.
  14. Frowny face for the people that croaked, though: 🙁 .
  15. This is called compliment-fishing. Seriously, though, I know it sucks; I was right here writing it.

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  17 comments for “Start Dirty: Why A Clean Slate Is Bad For You and What To Do About It

  1. Otacon512
    July 16, 2013 at 04:36

    “On the practical plane, starting dirty reuses, re-purposes and recycles previous work, which saves time, effort and energy. […] ‘Old wine in new bottles’ is often used as an insult. But every creativity book I’ve read says that that’s exactly what creativity is: a new combination of old/existing ideas.”

    True dat. This is something I especially noticed while programming, although it applies to everything. I started out by copying someone else’s code and learning how it works, then I copied my own code across projects, and now I copy it from old projects and improve it along the way. Saves a lot of time since you don’t have to “reinvent the wheel”, especially with GUI projects which can get convoluted.

  2. Agent J
    July 16, 2013 at 05:53

    This is probably your best post this year, because it abides by the quality standards that your older posts in the older days used to go by. Also return of the section headers.

    “Imagine that you’re feeling road trippy, so you decide to drive from Utah to Texas. Or New York to LA. I dunno. Screw you. New York to LA. You’ve been going a coupla days, and you discover you’ve been going the wrong way. So you drive back to New York. Clean slate. Start again. Another couple days, you’re lost again. What do you do? Well, you have this slate-wiping habit, so even though you’re in what you think is Alabama, you go back to NY, because you’ve messed up. So you go back to New York. And start again. Are you seeing how inefficient this is?”

    This analogy is probably something every SRS Japanese learner should read.

    • Agent J
      July 16, 2013 at 12:13

      Also disclaimer: This comment was opinionated and slightly dismissive of other posts.

  3. aspiring
    July 16, 2013 at 09:39

    “like burning a library to fix a typo.” >:{

  4. 魔法少女☆かなたん
    July 16, 2013 at 17:53

    You know, there was a time when certain psychiatrists working for certain governments thought they could cure all mental ills by wiping out a person’s old personality. This did not go so well. (see for an example)

  5. sargon
    July 16, 2013 at 23:26

    I requested a clean start on SS. Here’s why:

    1. I was in SS BB. That doesn’t teach you the jouyou kanji. At all. Zero.
    2. I don’t know the jouyou kanji. I thought I did, which was why I signed up for BB. But I don’t.
    3. That was preventing me from learning everything else. My failure rate on SRS cards was 95+%. In Anki, every card would be marked as a leech. In Surusu, it would just show me tons of cards, both new and old, hoping I would eventually learn one. I didn’t. I faithfully did reps for A YEAR. I learned next to nothing.

    So, I need to learn the jouyou kanji. I’m in BB, and that’s the wrong program. So how do I get Neutrino to teach me the jouyou kanji? By switching to normal SS, not BB. But if I just switch, it would keep my current progress; it would think I knew the jouyou kanji.

    So, I need to do the jouyou kanji section of vanilla SS neutrino. How do I do that? Switch programs, and start over.

    I just felt I had to defend my request a bit after that post.

  6. Jicheal Mackson
    July 18, 2013 at 15:39

    I agree with Agent J, best post of the year. Keep it up Khatz. You became fluent in Japanese almost 10 years ago(hard to think about isn’t it) and yet you still put up content and support this site. I just want to let you know that people appreciate that.

  7. Erik
    July 19, 2013 at 10:26

    Well I gathered all my old anki decks and tallied the cards. I have over 9000 cards almost 8000 of which are in old decks….its gonna be hard but after reading this post I’m gonna go through them all weeding out the bad cards with the plan to combine them into one. Hopefully it goes as well as I’m making it sound.

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