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You can have do or be ANYthing, but you can’t have do or be EVERYthing

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series What It Takes to Be Great

In college, I worked as a janitor. Supposedly because all the TA spots were filled up. Looking back, I should have been more enterprising. But more on that later. Whatever it is about janitorial work from 10pm at night to 6am in the marnin’, it brings out something in people. In my case, it was arguments about the randomest crap ever. My favorite kid to argue with was dark-haired, buff, belligerent, French-looking and French-speaking Chris.

He was a 400m runner on the track team, but had quit because he thought he would never get good. Specifically, he said he had quit running because he could never be as quick as the Africans on the team; they had “fast-twitch muscles”. I told him that he was spewing 24-carat B.S., and that the real reason he could never be good was that he had given up on it. So, I guess the bullet point you can take away from that is persistence matters and never give up. My good mate Calvin Klein 😉 put it best:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Which is nice, and we could talk about Calvin Coolidge all day. But enough of designers and dead presidents; back to me. So, later, still in college, at a nicer job, I worked with yet another dark-haired, bellicose, French speaker. His name was Peter. He also argued that because he wasn’t African, he could never be good at basketball; he could never be Michael Jordan; he could never be 6’8” (or however tall MJ is), look good with a bald head and have “fingers as long as bananas”…He must be right, right?

Rhetorical question. Peter was wrong. Handsome, but wrong. If his goal was to look like Michael Jordan, then that was one thing (cosmetic surgery). If his goal was to play exactly like Michael Jordan, then that, too, was one thing (acting). And if his goal was to score as many points as Jordan, or play in the NBA like Jordan, then that was yet another thing (practice).

In my own roundabout way, what I’m trying to explain is that Peter thought that playing as well as Jordan meant the same as being Jordan; he was failing because he had conflated Jordan’s appearance with Jordan’s skill; he was trying to be too many things: to be tall, to be black and to be good at basketball. He should have just picked the one: becoming good at basketball. Practice would get him there. He has a nice body on him, and could teach that body basketball. At the end of the day, Michael Jordan is a human being; he breathes air and his pooh smells; he taught himself an advanced skill just like every other human being has; he became the best in his field through extensive practice and dedication — he and Larry Bird are famous in the NBA for being particularly dedicated to practice, with the habit of always starting it earlier, doing it longer and harder than all their teammates. As Calvin Klein said, talent won’t get you anywhere, nothing is more common than talented people who are failing in what they do.

Now, unfortunately, in order to be like Mike, Peter might have to scale back on things like school, candy and hanging out with ditzy girls with names like “Kimberley”. But if he really wanted to do it, he could get into the NBA and break Jordan’s records. But therein lies the problem: Peter probably wasn’t willing to do those things. He wanted it all. Sorry, Peter, no dice.

You can have be or do ANYTHING. It’s not just something the nice teacher at school told you; it’s the truth. But you cannot have, be or do EVERYTHING.

You can learn Japanese to fluency. But it will cost you. Not much money; I must have spent less than $1000 directly on Japanese over a period of 18 months. But time, friends, attention; these things are a form of wealth, too. And Japanese demands them.

Your parents may have told you, when you were a kid, “nothing in this world is for free”; “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. They were probably angry at you, or themselves, when they said this, so it has a bad association for you. They were probably giving you the “don’t flirt with pedophiles” talk…

What your parents meant to tell you is this: everything in this life is acquired in exchange for something. Whether or not that medium of exchange is money is inconsequential. It’s kind of the “Law of Conservation of Stuff”: all things being equal, stuff is neither created nor destroyed, but is traded for other stuff, one way or another. Even if someone gives you something for free, they are exchanging the loss of that thing, for the gain of extra space, or your friendship. Our parents may have made it all sound like a bad thing (“nothing is free”), but it’s actually a good thing; it’s wonderful. Because the fact that everything has a “price” (an exchange rate) means that everything can be “bought”. All you need do is make the exchange.

In terms of learning Japanese, there is essentially one thing to exchange: your language. And that means everything that is in your language. The people, the literature, the food, whatever. You have to want to know Japanese better than whatever your native language is. You must desire Japanese so much that you would be willing give up (exchange) your native language for it. As it turns out, this exchange is only temporary. But, if you do not have the desire to make the exchange, if you desire to hang on to a non-Japanese life, to non-Japanese friends, and to non-Japanese books/movies/songs, while you’re trying to learn Japanese, then, I am by no means telling you that you will fail, but don’t be surprised if you do. And if you do fail, don’t blame it on your ability. Your ability was never insufficient. It was your desire that was lacking; your desire for Japanese was insufficient, it simply didn’t outstrip your desire to see Pirates of the Caribbean 4: Black People in the Lagoon are Cursing with your friend Matt, before the Japanese dub came out. You wanted it all; you wanted both the non-Japanese life and the Japanese life. Well, guess what — those two things tend to cancel each other out.

Let me say it again: you can have, do or be ANYthing, but you cannot have, be or do EVERYthing. As long as you want it enough to do something about it, then you will have native- fluency in Japanese. So, if Japanese is what you want, then get ON it. ALL OVER IT. STICK TO IT. Live Japanese. Breathe Japanese. Drink it. Sleep it. Everywhere. Everything. All the time. Ignore other languages; push them out of your life like small children that get in your way when you’ve been standing in line all night waiting to buy a PlayStation 3; hey, those kids had it coming ;).

And why do all this? Well, because you want to. You want Japanese, that’s why. You want to function in Japanese society; you want to read the newspaper, go to the bank, write the book, watch the anime, read the manga, make the friends….whatever. And you’re willing to make this exchange in order to get it.


Series Navigation<< Aim to FailHow To Accomplish Great Things: Small Victories, Winnable Games >>

  43 comments for “You can have do or be ANYthing, but you can’t have do or be EVERYthing

  1. 譲痔
    May 21, 2007 at 14:49

    Very nice post, Lately Ive been trying to stick to that japanese life you are talking about, but its sometimes hard to avoid all that english movies and the like, I do think its a perfect idea to watch jap dubs, but sadly I have no idea where to get them, could you perhaps tell me where can I?

  2. khatzumoto
    May 21, 2007 at 15:30
    The interface is in Japanese, so if that is a problem, I have a half-written post on how to sign up for it that I can finish…

  3. JDog
    May 22, 2007 at 00:22

    If you sign up & buy something, do you just use your credit card and it converts from yen to usd and deducts the amount?

  4. khatzumoto
    May 22, 2007 at 00:23

    That is correct.

  5. November 10, 2007 at 06:45

    Well written. Is it ever mysterious to you why you have such dedication to the Japanese language? Everytime I think about it I’m reallllllly thankful that I have motivation to learn more obscure vocabulary than to play another song on Guitar Hero.

    • Santiago
      July 11, 2011 at 11:13

      Why not get a mod and play songs in Japanese? 😀

      • Kimura
        October 21, 2011 at 06:32

        I tried doing that with Minecraft, but the language mod hasn’t been updated to 1.8… (Normally, changing languages is as easy as replacing en_US.lang and deleting META-INF, but since it’s a different character set, actual code modding is required.) Guess I have to be content with 日本語でマインクラフトのLPs…

  6. Ron
    May 5, 2008 at 11:56

    Wow, this article just falcon punched me in the head, sent me orbiting around the moon and back. Lol it’s really inspirational!

    • Vince
      September 29, 2012 at 07:09

      That is a great image.

  7. Justin
    July 6, 2008 at 06:23

    This is one of the most inspiring and informative articles that I have ever read!

  8. HiD3o5iTiE
    November 4, 2008 at 23:04

    I’m yet another 15 year-old infatuated with Japanese in general… i must say this article is a thinker…and it proved to me more than ever than what i really want to do is find myself in japan after acquiring my masters at the age of around 26. speaking, reading, living in Japanese…which will by the way be my third language after Spanish (native),English (raised in the u.s.), and then of course Japanese. K-man u might not know me..but you are surely an inspirational genius, and if all goes well…you hear lots more from me.

  9. Diego
    November 20, 2008 at 01:33

    Wow, I must say this makes you think a lot! I’m 18 and I started my Japanese journey around June or July, however not in the right way. I started with the Kana system buying books to learn the characters and what not and even though I can recognize most of the Hiragana and Katakana, it’s not like I can understand what I’m reading. I found this page like 2 days ago and it has blown my mind!! It takes the process of learning the language in a completely different direction then what I believed at first. I simply love Japan and have decided to learn the language and become fluent. Like HiD3o5iTiE, my native language is Spanish and I was raised in the U.S. therefore my English and Spanish are both at a high level. I’ve read several of the blog posts already and it is going to be quite hard to change my lifestyle in such a drastic way. Outside my house I speak English, at my house I speak Spanish, so creating a Japanese environment between these two worlds is an interesting challenge. I have yet to start the Kanji since I have not yet ordered it, but I plan on getting the book as well as the kanjiposter. I’ll begin to research popular Japanese bands to transform my ipod, and I’ll start watching manga without the subtitles, and as you’ve suggested I’ll slowly change aspects of my life day by day into a more Japanese environment. Thank you Khatzu, you have truly motivated me into understanding Japanese instead of trying to learn it in an inefficient way. Keep those posts going, you’ll be hearing from me again soon enough.

  10. JB
    December 9, 2008 at 09:43

    Great post. I’m taking your advice from the last two paragraphs, but substituting words like “grad school”, “philosopher”, “writer”, and other things I’m toying with in place of “Japanese”. You’ve made some good points.

  11. ウォーリック
    January 11, 2009 at 02:13

    Personally I feel a little wary about getting movies dubbed outside of their original language. I just can’t help feeling that whenever a text gets translated something gets lost somewhere.

    Not that I’m generally all that worried about getting western movies as my Japanese DVD collection outnumbers my English collection 22 to 4 (and I still can’t work out why the heck the DVDs for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and The Animatrix would come without a Japanese language track)… I’ll still get Wall-e when it comes out though.

  12. Harry
    January 27, 2009 at 05:03

    Breathe Japanese? Drink it, sleep it, Live it? Sounds good. I suppose its time to get out of English completely. :]

  13. Kyotokid
    February 2, 2009 at 17:45

    I disagree with your analogies but I agree with the conclusion. Michael Jordon was one in a million, and not everyone can be him. I also don’t care how much you want to grow wings and fly, it will be impossible.

    However, anyone can learn any language. The question is just how much time and effort is put into it. Some with greater natural ability will need less work, but absolutely anyone can learn a foreign language, particularly if they follow your strategies.

    Finally, why all the African talk in your posts? I don’t find it offensive or anything, but you seem to harp on race more than necessary. Another obsession perhaps?

  14. Aether
    February 26, 2009 at 22:47

    I actually do think growing wings and flying is possible, just perhaps not in our time (If someone made flying with wings their goal in life that might all change). Nothing is actually impossible, but some are unlikely to be achieved. If someone is okay with the possibility that he/she may fail then why stop that person? Also, he talks of race because it’s a valid point. A person might give up on something because someone else is better and depending on the situation might use race as an excuse. I’ve seen this happen (even did it myself once) and I must admit that many times the person just doesn’t want to persist and dedicate themselves to the goal. Even if you don’t have the physical build of Michael Jordan, that doesn’t mean you can’t be as good or better than him, and even if I’m wrong and race plays a factor, you could surpass him in something he lacks, maybe mastering how to catch others off guard or special passing techniques, whatever, but saying an advantage someone has over you makes it impossible to improve or gives you a reason to quit is just an excuse.

  15. March 6, 2009 at 08:53

    I’m passionate about languages, thought I haven’t tried out this 24/7 technique yet I can’t help but feel wrong reading this blog in English when I could be focusing on another language. I haven’t delved in to the Japanese language yet, but I’m glad to have looked into your site and to find that your posts really apply to the study of any language. 🙂

  16. NaNa
    April 23, 2009 at 06:49

    Hmm… I agree with you that complete immersion into Japanese would be the most effective way to learn the language, but the whole section about “willing to give up your native language” or your “Non-Japanese life”… I’m not sure I could do that. Isn’t that exaggerating a little? For one, my passion is writing. No way I can ever give that up, even for a few months. But doesn’t that mean I would “fail” at learning Japanese? Maybe your method works, however, it’s not for me I guess.

  17. Neema
    September 15, 2009 at 23:51

    Your post – which is excellent by the way – made me think of this lecture by Alain de Botton. See below:

    In particular, at about 13:30 when he says “You can’t be successful at everything…You can’t have it all. Any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on.”

  18. AD
    November 10, 2009 at 17:19

    It’s called opportunity cost.

  19. Tal
    November 13, 2009 at 06:30

    Hm. This article *almost* made me completely abandon learning Japanese.

    You are telling me I have to not see my friends, not participate in society, not make NEW friends except for with people who speak Japanese…




    This reads like some sort of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Language God”. Don’t watch that movie on the weekend w/ your friends, YOU’LL FAIL!
    Don’t chat with people in English… YOU’LL FAIL!

    That entire post was about as demotivational as possible. Also, a ton of hogwash, as you yourself said that you had “a life, a job”, etc etc etc.

  20. AD
    November 25, 2009 at 15:36

    I don’t know if you’ll read this Tal, but it is pretty obvious that the reason he is so demanding is because he knows that we are all adults, and all have English in our lives somewhere. He even stated this.

    However, if he suddenly said, ‘f it, just try and put the Japanese wherever it seems good, preferably after dinner and before late night with talk show host’ then the whole meaning would be lost.


  21. NinKenDo
    March 7, 2012 at 23:43

    I’m afraid I am NOT willing to do all that, not quite.
    To me, the prospect of success afforded when I maintain my current life while also leading a “Japanese life” is good enough.
    Maybe I won’t learn Japanese to the level you did in 18 months, hell I may never get to your level, but I know Japanese can be learnt without such drastic measures and I’m happy to pay the time penalty and the extra difficulty if it means maintaining a good protion of my current life.
    Still, really enjoyed this article. It really put some things in to perspective for me.

  22. Kimchi
    July 31, 2012 at 13:16

    with ditzy girls with names like “Kimberley”. . .gee thanks. *insulted*
    Anyways. . .
    I’m sad, sad because I knew all along that I have to sacrifice tihngs I love beyond my own understanding to get to the place I’m gonna get to. You just made it even more obvious, and real.
    But acknowledgement is the first step. The rest comes afterwards.
    (sudden urge to eat water chestnuts)
    The people that are closest to me are on opposite ends of the scale on this.
    On one hand, a person who knows equal exchange and therefore sacrifices a lot of time with family to be with friends and a lot of time with those friends to play videogames (true passion)
    On the other a person who wants to do everything right and true and preferably all at once too.(imagine how much that person gets done in a day. . .not much)
    So i know the joy of doing what you want to, and the sadness of the people you give up to do that.
    You can’t jump to one trapeze without letting go of the other but damn if most of us don’t try to anyways.
    Ah, all the things I’m gonna miss. . .

    • Leon Macfayden
      December 21, 2019 at 03:28

      Yeah, for me its time to get a divorce, quit my job and disown my family. Or you could be realistic and not take AJATT so literally because for many people it is LITERALLY impossible to function without English. So for me, I will be doing my usual 8 or 9 hours immersion and keep my family. Although this was posted a long time ago and you are probably done with Japanese by now.

  23. cél
    March 30, 2013 at 07:18

    It’s SO difficult to make a choice and “mourn over” ALL the others one woudl like to master.

  24. Jon
    January 2, 2014 at 14:01

    Good perspective.

  25. Ron
    February 6, 2015 at 13:44

    I am currently passionate about getting to grips with the French language and take the spirit of your principles and am motivated to drop all else in my life for a short while and go for it 100% or as close as possible. That does mean making some tough choices because it is so unbalanced but maybe if I can set a time period then just perhaps . . . . . . Cheers.

  26. February 2, 2020 at 07:52

    You are wise and hilarious and a good writer! You should write a book. Have you? Not just about Japanese but about how to get what you want in life. There is a lot of good stuff here! But you need to update the look of your blog.

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