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ShuHaRi: More Advice On How To Take Advice (Including Mine)

“Are the people I’m following going where I want to go?”
Earl Nightingale

“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.”

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Alice in Wonderland.

Yeah, we’ve covered this ground before, but it needed covering again — it needed another coat of paint. So…here we are. Back. Paintin’.

So I have a friend who was raised in used to be a member of what the French government calls a cult. Then again, the French government thinks that everything that isn’t the French government is a cult, so…anyway, what some call a cult and what others call a great piece of Americana.

And this friend, let’s call her Stacy, still feels traumatized by her cult experience. I tell her it’s her fault for being born into it, but that just starts her crying again and…I know, right? It’s totally her fault. Chicks.

Because of this, Stacy is skeptical of belief itself. She is skeptical of all ideas. She’s always looking for holes in them. She can’t just let it go. If it doesn’t make perfect sense now, it’s bollocks. So angry is she at her past self, at being duped, that she’s on a permanent BS witch-hunt: she will shoot the messenger and the message and if either one dies…it’s a witch.

This — Stacy’s skepticism — is not a bad thing. It’s just a misplaced thing. A mis-sequenced thing. It’s not a matter of whether or not to be skeptical — you definitely want to be skeptical — it’s a matter of when.

Here’s how I take advice, and how I suggest you try taking advice, even mine.

Step 1: True believer. When I find a new person, and I like their stuff, and I want to be like them, do what they do, have what they have, I read and listen to everything they’ve got that. All of it. I talk about it and them all the time. I suspend my disbelief and follow their tips to the letter, even — especially — the parts that seem a bit “off” or weird to me. If no physical pain, discomfort or injury is involved 1, I’m there. Following. Trying. I figure they must know or be doing something I’m not if they’re having and experiencing things that I want to but have yet to…this is a grammatical clusterhump, isn’t it?

Step 2: Loyal doubter. Having actually tried some of it and experienced success or…”tweaking opportunities” ( 😀 ) I start to find holes in the original advice. After what seemed like an eternity of largely unquestioning TB (true believerism) I finally start to actively doubt, to reject, to disagree. Not for the sake of disagreeing. Not because it’s cool to be a skeptical hipster. Not because it’s some mindless, reflexive “critical thinking” exercise that condescending, brown-haired women with psychology degrees and names like “Meredith” try to — what, do I sound bitter? — try to get you to do. But because I’ve actually had some empirical experience; I actually have data of my own to bring back.

Step 3: Individual again. I stand on my own. I’m not the same person I was before step 1. I’ve integrated the advice into my being, with experiment-based modifications along the way as necessary. And now I’m living and (in some cases) giving it in new ways. My way. I’m ready for to do and try new things, and perhaps to go through this same process with a new sensei.

Believe it or not, shock horror, it turns out I wasn’t the first person to notice and experience this three-step process. Not by a long shot. Almost a thousand years ago, a, no, the man from Japan who (if I recall correctly) invented “Noh” theater, lived, taught and named this idea: 守破離 (ShuHaRi).

  1. 守: Follow the rules (guidelines).
  2. 破: Break the rules.
  3. 離: Make your own new rules.

Just rejecting things out of hand is jumping to 破 (ha) before the 守 (shu). Step 2 (破) is when to start being a Skeptical Stacy. Not Step 1 (守). You give it a chance first, beat it up later. Grow first, outgrow later.

Now, I don’t like being told to do things in sequence. I don’t even read books in order (no, not a joke about how Japanese books are bound). But perhaps this is the exception. If you like the sensei, if you want to be, do or have like him or her, then give them a chance. Pretend it’s a movie. Suspend your disbelief. Become a true believer — temporarily mind you, only temporarily. Eat, sleep and drink their ideas. Take in all you can take while you can 2. And then reject and remake all you like. And then maybe go believe something else again, for a little while.

Is this the best way? Dunno. Prolly not. But it is what I do. And it works pretty well and pretty fast.

The world is full of good books. A few dozen of them are even supergood books. Awesome books. Here’s the raw truth about each individual superawesome book: you’re screwed if you don’t read it. And but you’re also screwed if you only read it. You kinda need them all. Be a true believer. Just don’t ever remain one. Outgrow your heroes…just be sure to grow into them first.


  1. Not a fan of suffering. I don’t do it. Not even temporarily. Not for you, not for other people, not even for myself.
  2. I mean, information is like…a steal. Someone out there spent perhaps years of time and energy to learn and then write up the cheat codes to a certain section or level of the game of life, and all you have to do is read or listen to it.

  23 comments for “ShuHaRi: More Advice On How To Take Advice (Including Mine)

  1. Tom
    March 26, 2013 at 04:32

    Hey Khatzumoto! I really don’t know how you are doing it but it seems to me that somehow you have an inexhaustible source of inspiration. I love your writings and I always find something ‘gold’ in them that I can use for my own further development. Thank you! 🙂

  2. Octonion
    March 26, 2013 at 08:36

    Hm, there’s also more than a passing resemblance between this and Bayesian inference
    1. Make a hypothesis (your “prior” hypothesis)
    2. Gather data (“evidence”)
    3. Modify the hypothesis in light of the data (your “posterior” hypothesis)
    The posterior then becomes the prior for the next iteration.

  3. CWord
    March 26, 2013 at 10:41

    Maybe it’s just because I recently went through an “Alien” Movie Marathon, but this article (especially the last two phrases really reminded me of the movies. You know, the whole “cling on to them, grow inside them, burst out of them when they’re no longer useful, but always take some of their DNA with you to make yourself stronger.” Grotesque, but maybe not a bad way to go about studying methods…

  4. March 26, 2013 at 12:05

    So, if you meet Buddha on the road, kill him, but not before walking with and learning from him?

  5. The Real CZ
    March 27, 2013 at 10:18

    I like this post. I tried using SRS because I first found out about it on this site, but it turns out that I really hated using Anki and dreaded using it every day, so after a few months, I dropped it. I still learn words and grammar just fine without the SRS.

    • フレヂィ
      March 28, 2013 at 00:21

      Anki works because it keeps you in contact with L2 whilst not being in the actual L2 world (i.e. living in the country of L2). So, if you live in Japan or the country of the language you are learning, you might do well, otherwise… … … well, you’ll see.

      • The Real CZ
        March 28, 2013 at 10:02

        So does an iPod/mp3 player, a smartphone or a tablet. Even without the technology, there are these things called books and DVDs that you can read and watch.

        • フレヂィ
          March 29, 2013 at 02:49

          Yeah, but why do you have to be so defensive. Did I offend you? If I did, apologies.

          • The Real CZ
            March 29, 2013 at 04:03

            How is challenging your notion that SRS is essential to language learning make me being defensive? I was simply asserting that there are plenty of other ways to stay in contact with the L2 without Anki. If anything, it seems like you’re being offended that people learn languages without an SRS and yet still use a lot of Khatz’s advice.

            • フレヂィ
              March 29, 2013 at 05:09

              No, I wasn’t offended. And I really don’t even know how you came to that conclusion. As far as me taking Khatz’s advice… I was fluent in 3 other languages before I found this blog. I don’t know Khatz so I don’t live-nor-die by his word.

              I’ve no quarrels with you my friend. Best of luck.

              I guess my message came across or was written poorly. In any case, no worries.

              ~ フレヂィー

    • 魔法少女☆かなたん
      March 28, 2013 at 03:38

      You know, I think a lot of people take the spaced repetition advice too rigidly. When I go to various Japanese language learning forums/blogs on the rest of the internet–which I generally avoid, but sometimes I just can’t help but gawk–they go on and on about what you need to do and what you’re “supposed” to do and WHY YOU WILL NEVER LEARN NEEHONGOW IF YOU DON’T DOWNLOAD THE CORE OVER 9000 SENTENCES RIGHT NAOUGHW!!! They always make the SRS the focal point of learning.

      What these blithering fools fail to realise about Anki or any other spaced repetition system is that it’s near impossible to learn from it, because everything that you put in it is in a bubble. It works great if you don’t want to forget something though. But only when your input is something you enjoy, have just learned, and entered by you especially for you because it’s actually cool, interesting or sophisticated. It’s never a replacement for enjoying actual media, just something that can make your life easier. What this means for you–yes, you–is that you probably don’t need it now.

      Also, as an aside, those “critical thinking” exercises. The ones that are ostensibly based on teaching someone to “learn how to learn” instead of “memorising facts”, but are suspiciously more like the latter. Somehow I think that Meredith is just wasting my time.

      • The Real CZ
        March 28, 2013 at 06:26

        “You know, I think a lot of people take the spaced repetition advice too rigidly.”

        I think you’re right, seeing as how my comment has three dislikes because the “almighty Anki” didn’t work for me.

        My decks were always made by me, but after getting a few thousand cards in, it seemed more like a hindrance than something that was actually helping me. It just took too long to find sentences worth putting in the SRS and I dreaded reviewing the cards. I personally like reading a lot and looking up words as opposed to trying to remember everything via the SRS. If I only retain 60-70% of 100 words I see in a day, I see that as more effective than spending more time trying to memorize 100% of 30 words.

        I also agree with about “how to learn” vs “memorization”. I’ve always used rote memorization and have attained good grades. I’m also able to talk about the things I memorized in depth during class discussions or in papers that I have to write. I think the “how to learn” gimmick is for people who just don’t want to try to memorize anything and are trying to look for an easy way out.

        • Pingfa
          March 28, 2013 at 19:17

          For what it’s worth, although you’re right in that SRS is not needed for fluency, the beauty of the SRS is that it allows one to memorize the language at a much quicker rate than would be possible without it because it guarantees frequent exposure – you might come across a few new words today and forget them by morning, and it may be some time before you see those words again.

          Most importantly for me, I dare say if one wants to reach native level within a few years an SRS system is necessary. I don’t believe it is necessary for technical fluency within a few years at all, but if one wants to become a native within the same timeframe, it is absolutely necessary.
          An adult native has 18+ years on a none-native, we’ve all got a lot of catching up to do.

          Khatz still uses SRS for that reason,

          Here’s some tips to make SRSing less painful:
          Don’t add any words you don’t understand, wait until you’ve seen them enough times in context. Use the SRS for maintenance, not learning.
          Don’t bother searching for sentences specifically to add to the SRS. Do L2 stuff, add whatever you deem worth adding.
          Most importantly, don’t dedicate a set amount of time to SRS. Instead, Do 1 or 2 at your leisure. SRSing became such a breeze when I started doing this, I was able to do hundreds a day with ease. Maybe you read a few pages of a manga, have a quick flick through a few cards in the SRS, go back to reading your manga. Maybe you watch a movie, have a quick flick through 2 or 3 more during uneventful scenes, or perhaps during intermission. Make SRSing a part of your day instead of some project you need to get out of the way before a deadline.

          You don’t have to SRS at any time or within any amount of time. All the SRS has to do is be there.

          • The Real CZ
            March 29, 2013 at 04:16

            I have tried to adapt the way that I used SRS and none of them ever worked. I have even tried what you suggested before.

            “the beauty of the SRS is that it allows one to memorize the language at a much quicker rate than would be possible without it because it guarantees frequent exposure – you might come across a few new words today and forget them by morning, and it may be some time before you see those words again.”

            I think this is the fundamental part I disagree with. I’m not trying to memorize anything. When I used to try to memorize words, with and without Anki, I would remember them for a short period of time. Once the reviews started getting really spaced out, I started forgetting a lot of words because I treated Anki as my main source of language learning.

            To guarantee frequent exposure to certain words, there are several ways to remedy this that people have been using long before SRS. One method is intensive reading. You will see those words a lot while intensively reading a novel. Another is to read extensively about a specific topic. For example, reading a lot of baseball articles will reinforce the baseball terms that I learn. It works in other areas too.

            “Most importantly for me, I dare say if one wants to reach native level within a few years an SRS system is necessary. I don’t believe it is necessary for technical fluency within a few years at all, but if one wants to become a native within the same timeframe, it is absolutely necessary.”

            Is it absolutely necessary despite people attaining native fluency in another language within a few years for thousands of years. No, it’s just another tool that can assist you in becoming natively fluent, but the SRS alone will not make someone natively fluent in a language.

            I think it’s great that SRS helps people. However, I don’t think the time a person has to invest into creating cards is worth the effort. I personally prefer a lot of reading and listening while looking up words in a dictionary preferable to an SRS. I get much more input and I’m not trying to memorize 100% of a small number of words as I learn them. For me, I’d rather see a lot more words and sentences in that same amount of time. It’s just a difference is preferences and I don’t see what the big deal about people not liking the SRS is. Not everything works for everyone.

            • 魔法少女☆かなたん
              March 29, 2013 at 05:25

              “Not everything works for everyone”

              No truer words have been spoken.

            • Pingfa
              March 29, 2013 at 13:36

              I certainly agree that SRS should not be the main source of learning. As I said before, I recommend SRS purely for maintenance, not learning.
              Sure enough, more reading and more listening is key.

              To reiterate, technical fluency without SRS is absolutely possible. The reason I suggest that being native level within the same timeframe is not is because there are tons of words, names of objects, places, allusions and so much infrequently used vocabulary that the average native would know. No matter how much exposure one gets, there will still be many infrequent words you may not get enough exposure of to remember within a certain timeframe.

              SRS provides enough frequent exposure to certain words within a shorter timeframe than would be possible otherwise.
              Now one may think one can just read a certain topic intensively, problem solved – but there’s only so much of so many topics one can read within a certain timeframe.

              So to sum up: SRS is not necessary. If one wants to maximize the amount they remember within a certain timeframe, I am confident a spaced repetition system is the best way to do this (this depends on how much time one is dedicating to the SRS, of course, which is why I recommend spending mere seconds on it here and there).

              Anyhew, I don’t wish to convert anyone, just sharing information that may be of use. I only mention this as in future you may find SRS to be useful for you, I wouldn’t write it off altogether.

              Have fun. =-)

              • Pingfa
                March 29, 2013 at 14:03

                Just had a quick flick through my current flashcards. Now I’m technically fluent in Chinese now and don’t use SRS often as I do most things in Chinese, but I still use it for maintenance.
                From my flashcard list, here’s an example of the kind of words that may require an SRS to remember within the shortest time possible:

                硫酸 = sulfuric acid, vitriol
                博愛座 = priority seat
                燧石 = flint
                咬人貓 = stinging nettle
                鎖骨 = collarbone
                嗎啡 = morphine
                獅身人面像 = sphinx

                I don’t need to know these words, and one can be technically fluent without them, but these are all words a native would know. The reason I care to know these words is because many words like these may be referenced in conversation, as a reference, as a metaphor, a joke, and in a room full of natives I would be the only who doesn’t quite get it.

                Thus, to reach native level within the shortest time possible requires some way to guarantee frequent enough exposure to these kind of words.

                Just something to think about.

  6. March 28, 2013 at 21:25

    I find that deleting cards is fun now. I’m usually listening to some Japanese music as I do it. It’s another active way of learning really because you aren’t just doing passive reviews. You are making active decisions about whether you want a certain card (unless you are doing massive culling, which sometimes make sense). Lately, I’ve had this feeling as I’ve deleted card that goes a little like, “Oh yeah, you were nice. I know I will probably meet you in a more fun context. またね!” Delete.

  7. フレヂィ
    March 29, 2013 at 02:58

    I think this post, judging by the comments, has served it’s purpose. All of us have a very different way of learning L2.

    I only dedicate 30mins a day to SRS and somedays I don’t add anything but I always SRS, everyday. Like some have said (above) I always stay glued to something L2; audio, blog, manga, etc.

    I find myself deleting more cards now and my decks are low because I’ve memorized those deletions.

    Whatever works for you, just keep doing it. No need to get all pissy about the next man’s/woman’s way of doing things. To each his own.

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