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Tortoises and Hares

Remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare? Well, that fable is bollocks. You see, they got the personalities backwards.

In real life, human “tortoises” are laid-back, nonchalant, happy. Meanwhile, human “hares” are destructively disciplinarian, destructively obsessive, and destructively obsessed with quick results.

What happens is that the hares self-flagellate to the point of burnout. Their very obsession with the “race” and “running” it better, faster and longer causes them to come to hate anything to do with “running” and thus avoid it at all costs (here, running = action; race = project).

That’s why hares are always resting and procrastinating instead of moving — it’s not arrogance, it’s self-preservation: hares are refugees from a war being waged by, on and within themselves. They’re not shirkers; they’re not lazy; they’re just trying to get a break from their own mental violence, their constant negative self-talk, their tantalusian expectations.

Hares, under the premise of “delayed gratification” often actually practice “zero gratification: it’s just never good enough. Ever. They never give themselves the carrot — only the stick. Like Tantalus, they get neither the cool, refreshing water nor the sweet grapes of satisfaction. Only the grapes of, what, wrath? I dunno…

So hares procrastinate and appear to shirk. It’s perhaps a subconscious(?) way for them to hijack/sabotage their own system of cruelty and give themselves at least some carrots, water and sweet grapes between the beatings, hunger and thirst. Neil Fiore talks all about this in “The Now Habit”.

The tortoises, on the other hand, just play their way through the whole thing. They run the “race” not because they have to, but because it’s there. Tortoises screw around, putting one playful, jiggy foot in front of the other. They have so much fun that their victories are practically side-effects (which is a good thing, because moments of victory are far too short to be the be-all and end-all). Yea verily, let it be known that I kid you not — I learned Japanese almost by accident.

Kanji acquisition is a good example of the tortoise-hare dichotomy. Even going at just 10 kanji a day, every day, will have you acquiring 3650 kanji over the course of a year.

Conversely, hare-like attempts to force 100 kanji a day often lead to stress, fatigue and overload. The irony of trying to force too many kanji a day is that it often leads to zero-kanji days, zero-kanji months and even zero-kanji years.

Forced high speed often also leads to poorly remembered kanji — I have seen many people feel the need to start over again from scratch. Where’s the speed in that?

I’m not saying “don’t do 100 kanji a day”. If you can do 100 a day happily, then do. If not, then don’t. Find your sweet spot — everyone’s will be different. Find a number that you can hit every day, no matter how small, and then go with that.

During my US-based Japanese project, the so-called “hardcore” phase of AJATT, I was a tortoise. Japanese has always been a toy for me, just something I screw around with. My Chinese, however, has often been hare-like; it has often become a grim duty, something I should do and have to do fast and have to prove a point to the whole world about — more status symbol than self-contained game. And we all know how well status-symbol-seeking language-learners tend to do (see “English in Japan and Korea” for details).

In my experience, only when I act like a tortoise, do I succeed in long-term projects, Sinic or otherwise. As far as I know, only the tortoise model is sustainable. And that’s the key to anything long-term: sustainability — stamina. The tortoise only seems slower. But because she has a model that she actually sustains, you could say she gets to enjoy the metaphorical “compound interest” of her efforts.

Put away the whips and sticks. Relax. Just do one. Enjoy each step. Savor each bite. Become a tortoise and start winning. Remember, it only seems slower: you’ll get there sooner than you think, and well ahead of any hares — those kids all die of heart attacks, suicide and depression* anyway. Be mellow. Be like a grandparent (think about it: maybe it’s not the advanced age that makes grandparents mellow, but the mellowness that allows them to live to an advanced age). Be like a tortoise.

*I don’t know if people clinically die of depression, but…how many sad centenarians have you ever seen? I guess I should say “sadness”, if I’m going to be so vague and non-clinical…oh well 😀 .

  37 comments for “Tortoises and Hares

  1. Angeldust
    February 14, 2010 at 14:14

    Thanks for the post Kahtz, it was just what I needed. 🙂 I had set a date to get the kanji done so I was pushing (trying) 25 a day. But it just isn’t working out. I could do it with the first 400, but now at 500 it’s too much for my memory. So I think I will be less of a “hare” and more of a tortoise and do 15-20 a day. A little disappointing to my “I-want-to-get-it-done-by-April” drive, but better to take longer and remember them than have it done and forget! I’ve definitely been a hare most of my life. But in things not related to language, my memory was always better. Language just seems… different.

    So this is my first comment, but I’ve been reading your blog for about a month. I really enjoy reading your blog. Light-hearted, yet written intelligently and definitely inspirational. And I love your language learning method. Surprisingly most people I’ve talked to about learning Japanese the AJATT way have been really supportive. Maybe I just have smart friends. 😉 ha ha.

    I do have a question… I would like to get a good dictionary with example sentences, but I’m a little scared to go monolingual right away. Do you have one you would recommend?

    Thank you for the great inspiration and encouragement! And thank you for writing this amazing blog!

  2. Saru Sponge
    February 14, 2010 at 14:29

    It all goes back to your idea of ‘just doing’. Personally, I find it very hard to ‘just do’. I feel like I want to learn this language, but I also keep skipping to my love of all things foreign – other languages, other cultures. I can’t seem to stop, and settle, and just go forward. Distractions seem to destroy any benefit I would get from settling down and doing what needs to be done. In the end I end up questioning my motivations, go back to the start and then question my questioning. It’s a terrible cycle I can’t (subconsciously do not want to) escape.

  3. February 14, 2010 at 16:02

    I’m actually doing the 10 Kanji a Day thing, it does seem slow at first, but after a few months you see how high the retention rate is and you realize that’s the way to do everything. I also do this with practicing guitar, only practicing 2 or 3 bars at a time until I can play them at 100% speed and accuracy then continue. This process can be boring too but that’s why I mix in some fun little tunes to play every now and then, those I don’t worry about playing perfectly, just to have fun. With Japanese I have things that I study: textbooks, Remembering the Kanji, etc. I don’t use anime, manga, or drama for study purposes, it takes the fun out of it.

    Anyways good post Khatzu

  4. Jes
    February 14, 2010 at 20:20

    @Angeldust: – Enjoy

    Thank you for the new way of explaining this modern dilemma Khatzu!

    The main reason for the hares is believing your fearful ignorant thinking…as though it were the truth. There was something imperfect about how much one can do, did or would be able to do. Or something perfectly wrong with how much one can do, did or would be able to do.

    If you are suffering or you don’t even believe you can succeed so why try. Question what you are thinking and/or believe about yourself! (lol, choir preaching here on ajatt probably) Do you really know already?

    SRS’ing is just an “in the now” way to reaffirm your larger belief of “Yes, I can motherfoxes”. Cause deep down all of us here love eating ‘quacks’, well that or you really are a fox and taught yourself type and use the internet and are putting us humans to shame…who are metaphorically impersonating you…

    I’ve found at the very very least I just need to have some Japanese around me somewhere,(a japanese home page, some kanji scribbled on a scrap paper or anything) in order for my brain to continue to make connections and improve. It’s that “use the environment’s inertia move oneself” thing you talked about before. That totally works. So everyone paint a big ole’ 勝 on the ceiling above your bed and just see what happens.

    The other side of this (seemingly)’free energy device’ is what to do with all the desire that will build up. Again, just take the forks in the moment (the road) that are simply more Japanese…as though you needed help spending your time! What’s this have I been had?! We’re all geniuses on the subject of spending the time of our lives doing what we love? Sheesh, I completely forgot, crap there’s no delete button…shamed for posterity I am. マアいいか

  5. February 15, 2010 at 01:19

    talk about synchronicity. thanks for the article – it really made me think hard about my progress with japanese. i think this line of thinking – the tortoise and the hare – can be very useful to people having difficulty determining how fast (or slow) they should progress through RTK, or sentences, or whatever.

    that said, if i may – i’d like to throw out my own 2円.

    having been motivated to charge through RTK at a steady rate of 50 – 70 a day, i’m now within a week of finishing RTK 1. i had deliberated for the longest time if i should go slowly or speed through, and greed took me over. i start each morning reviewing the previous days’ lesson, allow my SRS to tell me what i need to review, and pile on the new ones.

    yes, my failure rate is high. but as khatz has mentioned elsewhere in this site, eventually, they will stick. some kanji’s i was giving myself a 0 on, over and over, consistently screaming at me, day after day, some 6 weeks ago are now painfully easy. and you know what? no matter how many kanji you’re doing a day, there are just some kanjis that are a bitch, and some kanjis that will stick with you the instant you invest in it. it doesn’t matter if you’re doing 10 a day or 100 – some will innately suck, and some will love you without condition. melancholy, for instance, was a biiiiitch to remember. and funny enough, as soon as i learned another kanji that included melancholy as a primitive, it reinforced the original kanji, and i never had a problem with it again.

    as with the sentences, just trust that eventually, you’ll get it. even if you’re going fast and end up re-reviewing older kanji more frequently than if you had gone slowly, it’s okay. if it’s what you need to do to stay motivated, that’s okay. remember: it takes japanese elementary school students 6 years to learn around 1000 kanji (full disclosure: i am an english teacher in japan). if you spend an extra two months re-reviewing (because you blazed through), don’t fret about it – you’re still learning the kanji, and that’s pretty rad.

    i don’t mean to suggest that everybody should be the hare. as khatz said, everybody has to do things differently. but for those on the fence that innately know they WANT to go fast, but are on the fence, rest assured: you will effff up, but it’s fine. you still have your SRS, you still have AJATT, and you are still learning.

    anyway, i love the site. thanks for provoking this.

  6. Chuck
    February 15, 2010 at 02:38

    Thanks, Katz. I needed this.

  7. February 15, 2010 at 03:39

    Brilliant subversion of a classic piece of pro-work propaganda 🙂

  8. Lane
    February 15, 2010 at 05:40

    I have to agree with michaelovan. That’s been my experience to the letter. I’m finished with RTK1 and working on RTK3… it’s always been interesting to me how some kanji don’t seem to stick at all while others give you no trouble what-so-ever. I’ve had to quiz some kanji more than 20 times before getting them to stick while some other kanji are easy to remember the first time I see them. Of course, the vast majority of them take maybe half a dozen reviews before I can knock them out confidently and consistently.

    I was also a hare once. It took me about 18 months to learn RTK1 because of my inconsistent study. It happened exactly how the Khatz said. I loaded myself down because I had a ‘deadline’ to meet. I decided it was more important to ‘make progress’ by adding more unfamiliar kanji than it was to go slowly and make sure I knew the ones I’d already added.

    The result was that I blazed through all of RTK1 in two months, became overwhelmed at the backlog of reviews I’d accumulated and didn’t do a single review for months because how do you tackle a mountain of thousands of due kanji when you’re not really familiar with any of them?

    I ended up restarting two more times and one of those times was with sentences… again, where I was determined to add no fewer than ‘x’ sentences per day and adding and activating made me fall behind on reviews and i put that down for months again until last fall or so.

    This has been a hard process because I made it hard. I used to kick myself and say “I could be [this far along] if I’d kept up that insane pace for all this time” and “I’d be ‘finished’ if only I’d done x, y and z”…

    I’m a tortoise now. : )

    I’m finally resigned to the prospect of spending 3-5 years to really pwn things. It’s a lot less stressful and a lot easier to continue at a healthy pace when you let go of the expectation of completely learning a foreign language in record time so you can hold up your time trial as some testament to your genius…

    Slow and steady. 100 reviews a day may only take half an hour, but it’s 35000+ per year. That’s almost twice the number I did with my binge/purge method where I’d do 700 reviews in a single day sometimes to ‘catch up’… instead of whittling down my debt. That binge/purge method got me something like 20,000 reviews in 18 months. So that tortoise and hare thing really does hold.

    The biggest obstacle in a process like this is yourself. All the tools are there. The opportunity is there. You just have to sit back and enjoy it.

  9. Drewskie
    February 15, 2010 at 13:31

    I hate to post something completely and utterly unrelated, but the location for ‘completely related’ is currently uncommentable. Probably because Khatz reads comments as compulsively as I do.

    A few posts ago, I think maybe during the post about Maya’s mass-deletion effort, I mentioned that I felt something similar coming on specifically related to dictionary-born cards. Somebody said something like “The SRS only helps you remember what you already know.” It was a simple statement, but it went directly counter to my strategy at that point. It was a smack in the face for two reasons: One, it meant that if it were true, I had been doing it wrong for quite a while, and Two, I knew immediately that it was utterly correct.

    I started focusing on what I think is probably more typical sentence material, and those were nice, but I still hadn’t recovered from the funk I felt coming on. In fact, it had gotten worse. Tonight, I was having an enormous amount of trouble starting my reps, which have piled up in the hundreds three or four in the last couple weeks. I couldn’t even do them anymore. I forced myself to start reviewing, when after only 8 cards, I couldn’t stand the garbage any longer. All of a sudden, I realized it was nearly all garbage. My cards have progressively gotten better–both format and content–but because of this, there was a tremendous amount of unevenness. For every great card, there were 10 merely okay cards.

    So at 1600 cards, I’m finally cutting my deck apart. Of the 700 cards I’ve examined in the last half hour, I’ve kept less than 25. It feels really, really good.

    The point of this comment is to thank everyone for the advice I got in the last thread. I had intended to write something like this much earlier (even though the content would’ve been different), but the comments turned off and I wasn’t able to make that post.

    And I’m sorry that I don’t have a thing to say regarding the topic of this post. Khatz is just plain right. I got out of my hare phase during the kanji and never looked back.

  10. Flo
    February 16, 2010 at 01:15

    Thank you for the article.
    To be honest I was a bit surprised because after having read all the previous articles, I thought your profile woud be more “hare”, because of the ideas of always moving forward, don’t do anything in another language, etc.
    But as a matter of fact it’s logical. I’m still in the kanji phase now. For the first 1000 kanjis I used to be a hare, and after I improved the pace (I was like 10 a day and after 1000 it became 20 a day). Today I’ve learnt about 1900, and when I do the reps, it dawns on me that it’s much easier to remember the first 1000 than the following ones.
    But anyway, the failure rate is not so high though, it’s like 20 kanjis forgotten out of 100. Since I plan to keep reviewing even after having finished the book, I guess it will eventually stick sooner than later.

  11. Flo
    February 16, 2010 at 01:17

    *I meant “For the first 1000 kanjis I used to be a tortoise”

  12. February 16, 2010 at 02:43

    This is very true. When I was going at an extreme pace, I would add maybe a 100 a day for a few days but then I would just stop adding cards and do the minimum amount of reviews for a few weeks. This was terrible for the rhythm.

    Now I add just 10 cards a day plus do all my reviews and if I’m feeling energetic, I’ll add a few more for fun.

  13. Patrick
    February 16, 2010 at 11:21

    Anyone out there having any luck being a tortoise and not SRS’ing at all? (sentences I mean)

    SRS’ing makes me a hare and i sometimes wonder if spending that time experiencing some japanese via other means is better spent? I mean, it takes alot of work to make some good SRS cards that aren’t copy and paste-able.

    Apologies if this idea has come up in other thread comments.

  14. アメド
    February 16, 2010 at 14:18

    Yea i’m definitely a hare. Although i do take it easy, i feel i can handle the load due to timeboxing it all within 1 hour each day. And rest is immersion. I think personally i’ve reached a good level so far in japanese. But i feel that i can do more and therefore enjoy it more. I always do reward myself with fun material after wards, such as anime,games,sites,etc.

  15. lucy
    July 11, 2010 at 12:07

    You know, I’ve never really thought about it but it really makes sense when you think about it.Up until know I’ve always been a hare but now I’ll try to be a tortoise.
    Thanks khatz!

  16. Chris
    July 15, 2010 at 03:58

    I guess after reading all your posts I’m really a tortoise o.o

    I usually don’t even get through even ten kanji a day even though I spend maybe three or four hours per day at minimum immersed in Japanese (and enjoying it). So after about a year and a half I know around 700 kanji, which seems like not much at all after reading what you guys say. Most of you are using Heisig right? I’ve tried it a few times, but I find it ineffective for myself. I think that I’d much rather learn word compounds then kanji strictly by themselves.

    I don’t know so well, but for myself using an SRS and Heisig have bored me, so I just spend time now reading books and news articles, and looking up new words 😛

    Hopefully there isn’t anything wrong with this (>.<)

  17. Tyler
    July 26, 2010 at 05:02

    I got a fortune from a fortune cookie the other day that reminded me of this post.

    “Winners forget they’re in a race, they just love to run.”

    Ultimately, if you make the experience as enjoyable as possible and keep from focusing on getting it over with, you’ll be better off in the long run. The thing is just to get lost in the language, to enjoy running for running’s sake. Everything else will take care of itself eventually.

  18. Some random guy
    October 27, 2010 at 01:18

    I have been following your blog for quite some time, and I figured out that when I am a hare, I never remember any kanji at all. However, when I do the tortoise, It dawned to me that I nearly recognized all the JLPT N5 Kanji (yeah, I’m still there). Thanks for the awesome post. It was really inspirational ( and the first on that got me to comment on it!). I feel like I just want to jump in doing everything in Japanese without that slow and steady transition!

  19. Patrick
    February 3, 2011 at 07:35

    “I learned Japanese almost by accident.”

    I know exactly what you mean. After studying Kanji everyday for a couple months it just becomes part of you and something you do without stress. It’s a lifestyle change and if you’re willing to make it, the language is yours.

  20. November 2, 2011 at 02:00

    I want to be a tortoise. They’re cool and cuddly. And they get things done.

  21. Marc
    December 2, 2011 at 23:08

    I more or less realized this stuff conciously when we had to clean up the living room, and my wife said she didn’t even know where to start… I just pick up the neasrest piece of rubbish and put it where it belongs, picking up other stuff (or not) when I pass it. There’s no system, but the room’s clean before you know it 🙂
    Nice article!

  22. Kimura
    December 3, 2011 at 15:48

    That “attempting to force 100 kanji a day” thing is what really nailed it for me. My original plan was to finish RTK by the end of the year, and at my current amount of completion (~450 kanji), I’d have to do 100 a day to get there. But lately I’ve been looking at that amount in Anki and going “Screw it, I’m playing Minecraft.” But at the same time, dropping it down to my if-I’m-lucky rate of 25 kanji a day means I won’t finish in time for what I need to do (an internship at a local Japanese cultural center, but I’ll probably be using English there anyway). I dunno, maybe 25 kanji twice a day, see what happens? Or just drop down to just 25 kanji once a day, since my retention level is bombing right now…
    Probably the other thing that’s slowing me down is the prep work I have to do, since the deck I’m using 1) removed about 150 rarely-used kanji (it’s the Japanese Level Up deck), and 2) is configured for 5th edition while my copy of RTK is 6th edition, so I have to figure out which ones in the book are actually in the deck before I can do them…

    • December 4, 2011 at 02:43

      When I first started to watch anime raw, I had this notion that I would be “ruining” a good plot line by not understanding most of it. But then I realized, what’s more important: absorbing the message of this anime, or becoming fluent? I thought the answer was obvious.

      So relating back to your situation, what’s more important to you? Getting all your kanji down for your internship, or getting the kanji down correctly so you can continue to build and gain fluency?

      Also, I wouldn’t worry about the differences in the 5th and 6th edition right now. If this issue is slowing you down to the extent where you actually aren’t doing kanji, then just don’t worry about the the extra kanji in the 6th edition. Just skip them for now, and just check them out at the end with the 5th edition’s supplemental pdf (which is legit and free).

      It doesn’t matter how many kanji you do a day/how many sentences you’re learning/how much vocab you’re picking up, all that matters is that progress is being made. I know that sometimes it can feel like we’re lowering our standards by just striving to make progress, but then again, if you are like me, who had month long gaps in the initial stages of RTK study, maybe it isn’t a lower standard after all.
      I hope this helps!

  23. February 21, 2012 at 20:02

    Very good point! I’ve also found that taking on too much can lead to not doing anything. However, my personality is such that I do need to set some kind of goal, challenge myself in some way, because otherwise I’m also not doing anything. Studying characters doesn’t seem worthwhile if I can’t say when I might know enough to use them.

    I recently wrote a blog post about “fast” and “slow” in language-learning: 

  24. Lance
    March 29, 2012 at 15:15

    My method of thinking is that i would do 10 a day and whenever i get done i get done. so far its working out good. I never want to set date of when i want to get something done especially something like memorizing +3,000 kanji. Because i might rush threw it at the end and will not remember the one i rushed through.  

  25. Phil
    April 7, 2018 at 02:19

    I’m really surprised NO ONE caught the contradiction in the very beginning of this article.

    You call the fable bollocks, then go on to reinforce the point of the fable. “Slow and steady wins the race.” You literally say that “hares self-flagellate to the point of burnout. Their very obsession with the “race” and “running” it better, faster and longer causes them to come to hate anything to do with “running”.” This is exactly the point of this Aesop’s Fable. Slow down, enjoy it, and don’t kill yourself in the process.

    Other than calling a good fable “bollocks,” this is a great read! Kudos.

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