“It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little.
Do what you can.”
~ Sydney Smith
When I first came to Japan, I hated how people wouldn’t take a stand. In the West, you’re taught that you have to have an opinion and it has to be a strong one, and if you don’t have strong opinions, you’re weak, stupid or both. In my first few weeks and months here, I was shocked at how often people simply wouldn’t take sides on an issue; they wouldn’t take a stand. They were neither apathetic nor passionate. They were simply…impartial.
And it bugged the heck out of me. I’m all for being undecided, but not for being decidedly impartial. That just seems wishy-washy. I mean, people in the West love to say ridiculous things like: “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”; that used to mean something to me…now it feels more like a hollow, idiotic threat (“Oh, crap! I’d better hurry up stand for something!”).
As time has gone on, I’ve come to love Japanese impartiality (plus, I mean, it’s not like people are impartial on everything — I am being a bit simplistic here). And I’ve come to dislike opinionated people who think they know everything. Even when they’re right. Ironically, though, that itself as a form of…opinionatedness. So it’s not like I’ve become toadly acculturated. Because if I were toadly acculturated, if I really did 「以和為貴」 (value harmony), I’d be all: 「人それぞれですね」(“well, everybody’s different, and that’s mmm kay”)。
Anyway, back on topic. The point is: we plan and (attempt to) act with too much certainty – not in ourselves, but in the environment. We act as if the environment were full of certainty, as if we were cogs in a giant machine in which everything has already been decided. And that’s stifling. In many ways, we humans don’t like certainty. Boring jokes, boring people and boring movies are all called “predictable” – too certain.
We’ve all written to-do lists before…
…And then proceeded to do nothing that’s on the list.
Because we’re dumb?
No, because we’re smart.
Those lists of things to do (or, more accurately, the way we use them), rob us of the freedom to exercise our creativity. There’s too much certainty. Certainty of having to be stuck doing a specific thing in a specific place in a specific (read: boring) way. There’s this idea that there’s this One True Best Optimal Correct Method of Doing X, and our only job is to find it and then execute. If we find it, we succeed, if not, we just kind of suck.
But let’s take a step back here. You have to realize that your certainty is false. It feels real, but it doesn’t exist. Are you freaking Nostradamus? Can you tell the future? How do you even know – when you write the list – that those things actually need doing? I mean they probably need doing, but there’s no certainty. Heck, most of the time, you don’t even do the things on the list after about the second item, so why do you even bother write them in the first place?
We are oppressed by a false certainty – a false certainty of method, boredom and location.
So the first thing to do is free yourself of the notion that you know how, where or when anything should or will happen. Because you don’t.
Now we’re having fun. We’re unpredictable now. We’re like an early M. Night Shymylan movie, or a good-looking but mentally unstable woman, or homemade cookies. No one knows what the heck’s going to happen next.
But a part of you counter-rebels against this rebellion: “Isn’t that just irresponsible? I mean, we simply throw our hands up and let things go to the wind?! Isn’t the goal for us to work like clockwork, acting with perfect reliability and precision? OK, maybe not perfect, but isn’t it at least our goal to be somewhat reliable?”
There you go pulling words out of my mouth again.
The keyword is, indeed, “somewhat”.
So, that false certainty we discussed earlier might be described as a deterministic action model. A part of us knows that this model is flawed, but we still try to force it to work, and the result is usually analysis paralysis – we just don’t do…anything. We procrastinate; we spin our wheels; we stare into space; we go to Facebook; we check our email. Anything but deal with the lunacy of trying to make a deterministic action model work in a world where we can’t even predict next Tuesday’s weather with certainty.
Think about this for a moment – we can look into deep space, but we don’t know for sure whether or not your picnic next weekend is a go.
What I’m suggesting is that we embrace the holes in our knowledge, embrace our flaws, embrace our imperfect human nature (even as we strive to continuously improve), and adopt a more probabilistic action model.
Don’t try to get things done. That’s too hard. Too painful. Too annoying. Too prone to failure.
Don’t try to get things done.
Do try to increase the probability that they will get done.
Don’t try to get things done. Do try to increase the probability that they will get done.
Don’t ask if you’re doing the right thing.
Do ask if what you’re doing increases the probability of having what you want to happen, happen.
Do ask if what you’re doing increases the probability of you getting what you want.
Don’t work with the certainties; it hurts too much; it’s too painful. Work on pushing up those probabilities.
Next time you feel so overwhelmed in your quest to become fluent in Japanese, that you just sit there and do nothing, sit there and watch English-language shows on Hulu to try to drown out the guilt you’re tripping on (just like Maddie used to), stop yourself, wake up and smell the probabilistic coffee.
Watching a Japanese anime instead of running off to Hulu may not be as “perfect” as doing your SRS reps, but it demm </SouthAfricanAccent> well increases the probability of your actually learning Japanese, more than some English escapism ever could.
Doing just one SRS rep may not make it so that all your SRS reps get done, but it demm sure raises the probability that that will happen, more than sitting there doing nothing does. (The wording on this blog is getting weirder and weirder).
Ditto for listening to Japanese music while you read English-language documents..
Or doing your Japanese SRS reps on your iPad while you sit in on an English-language meeting.
It’s not perfect; it’s not certain. But the probability that you will (1) learn some Japanese now and (2) get back into doing more Japanese later is infinitely higher than it would be if you were doing nothing.
You catch my drift? If you can’t do the so-called right/perfect/correct thing, whatever you fantasize that thing to be, at least do something that helps. Something that moves you forward. Something that gets you in the ballpark. Something that’s somewhat right. Size doesn’t matter. Details don’t matter. Only ballpark. General direction. General area. All up in there (literally waving my right hand in vaguely circular, kinda conical way). That’s the basic idea. That’s AJATT immersion. It’s also what the situational goals thing is about.
Maybe you can’t do the 100% certain, perfect, ideal, Platonic thing that gets you The Desired Outcome. But if you do so many fun, easy, simple, short, quick, little things that The Desired Outcome has a 97% probability of happening, then, well…call it a win. It’s the difference between a deterministic algorithm that you don’t have the time or energy to execute, versus, small, short, simple, easy, lazy, ad hoc (=random) methods – probabilistic algorithms – that, while imperfect, will actually get done, because they’re so easy to run repeatedly.
100% * 0 action is still 0%.
0.485% * 200 tiny actions is 97%.
An action that has a 50% chance of not helping you with your Japanese (i.e. that has only half a chance of helping you with your Japanese), repeated enough times can still give you a 99.99% probability of success in Japanese.
OK, I’m getting a bit carried away here. Fake math facts, real math truth. You get the idea. You know who you are. Make your choice.
“Nothing” is the only too little; “not now” is the only too late.
PS: Paradoxically enough, I am finding that it’s important that you (1) abandon certainty in the environment, while simultaneously (2) embracing certainty in yourself. But we’ll leave the details of that for another time…