Aim to Fail

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series What It Takes to Be Great

“Genius is…the eventual public recognition of dozens (or hundreds) of failed attempts at solving a problem”
Seth Godin

Babe Ruth Was A Big, Fat German Failure

If you read enough personal development books, you will eventually come across mention of one of the most profoundly meaningful statistics in the history of sports. That statistic being that for many years, Babe Ruth simultaneously held both the career home-run [714?] and strikeout [1330?] records.

Crazy, huh? It’s almost as if he were trying to become a living object lesson. Remember, he didn’t have “a lot of strikeouts: he held The Strikeout Record; he failed More Than Anyone Else at hitting, not just for a couple of months but over his entire career — we are talking about a professional, by the way, a person whose job it was to play baseball. Notice how he had a 3-digit homerun count and a 4-digit strikeout count; he struck out almost twice as many times as he hit a touchdown…wait…He was the best because he was the suckiest. He succeeded the most because he failed the most.

What does this mean? It means, to paraphrase Anthony, son of Robbins, that: massive failure is the key to success. Michael of Jordan said it himself:

The Ring cannot be destroyed, Gimli, son of Glóin, by any craft that we here possess. I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

Even some random guy from some random organization called International Business Machines said it:

If you want to succeed, double your failure rate. The ring was made in the fires of Mount Doom. Only there can it be unmade.

Now, I’ve heard all these quotes so many times that they don’t really grab me any more when I read them, but let me illustrate using my favorite person — me — as an (yes, I am that narcissistic) example.

I Am A Failure

At this writing, my KhatzuMemo stats indicate that since New Year’s Day 2007, I have done about 58000 flashcard reps with a retention rate of about 91%, where retention = a rep score of 3 or above. Sounds respectable enough. But, you realize that what this means is that I have failed to correctly read and/or comprehend a Japanese sentence item at least 5200 times over the course of two years and change — can you imagine tagging those end to end to end to end in a video (that would make a pretty cool “lowlight reel”)?!

More than five thousand failures. I’ve been wrong more times than there are stars in the sky visible to the naked eye [someone please check this]. I’m just saying: that’s a lot of fails. And if we (royal “we”) were to start counting from 2004, it would be about 100,000 reps with a similar 90-95% retention rate — that means something on the order of ten thousand failures. That’s ten thousand times I couldn’t correctly read or understand a sentence or phrase in Japanese: I am a failure.

And yet, I am very comfortable with both written and spoken Japanese. I can read, write, understand or say whatever I want or need to. I just got done doing all my taxes without a hitch. Clearly, this scale of failure helped. You’ll forgive the focus on SRSing, it’s just that it’s something that’s easy to measure and therefore compare quantitatively.

Errybody Awesome Is a Failure

Robbins goes on to discuss the number of times Walter Elias Disney was rejected by banks when he wanted funding for some goofy idea about a studio making full-length cartoons, and the number of times Sylvester Stallone was rejected when peddling the script for some kind of adult-oriented movie involving interracial pairings of sweaty, half-naked men touching each other with leather gloves in front of excited crowds of people. Most people would have given up.

Of course, it goes beyond Hollywood…I have friends who won’t go ice-skating with me because they’re afraid of falling. They have fallen 0 times. 0 failures. They have never failed at skating. But they also can’t skate…at all. In fact, I imagine the best skaters have also fallen the most times.

Arguably, a lot of our fear of failure most likely stems from how schools punish it. Schools promote avoidance of failure. This is a recipe for mediocrity. No meaningful success seems to come without hearty doses of failure. Failure needs to be celebrated. It needs to be sought actively. Failure is what needs to be for dinner.

I love blaming everything on school. But then, most of us did spent the greater part of our waking lives from toddlerhood to early adulthood either in school or in preparation to go to school or travelling to and from school or doing homework for school; schools have plenty to answer for; they can’t bait with compulsory attendance and then switch to learner-parent responsibility forever; they can’t keep waiting until someone gets killed and then feign shock at the “discovery” that they’re a breeding ground for violence. I mean, am I the only one who thinks that school shootings are actually surprisingly rare? Off topic. Anyway…

So how can you start failing? I think the thing is simply to find something you can crank at. Find or build a mechanism that allows you to fail a lot. Perhaps three figures minimum, possibly and preferably 4, 5, 6, maybe even 7+. Chances are, this mechanism will also allow you to succeed — in fact, it’s more or less guaranteed to bring you success…eventually.

You’re Not A Surgeon, So Don’t Strike Surgically

In life, whether it’s learning a language, building a blog, doing research, applying for jobs (if that’s your thing), trying to get good at shooting basketballs or even doing whatever it is people do to get into…romantic entanglements, many people — especially beginners — go for the surgical strike, because they’re so afraid of screwing up. There’s just one flaw with the surgical strike plan: only a surgeon can do surgery — only a highly trained expert with a matured skillset can even hope for a decent result on such paltry time resources. How do you get a matured skillset? By failing.

Generally, it would seem that only someone who’s missed tons of shots gets to hit consistently. Also, at the risk of adding too many parenthetic asides, actual surgeons of the medical persuasion obviously deal in situations where, how you say in the simple English, failure is not cheap. Then again, I did see something once about robotic “practice patients” for medical students, so clearly there are efforts being made to make failure cheaper for them, implying that they are also, in essence, trying to fail into success.

As a beginner, trying to go for that surgical strike is akin to giving a newborn baby an NES controller and saying: “you have 15 minutes to beat Mario…or else you will never amount to anything, you lachrymatory ball of fat!”. It’s as if beginners were a novice sniper trying to hit a single target using their first and only bullet; that’s how most people right now tend to operate. But that’s only a viable option if you’re statistically a really good shot, which, almost by definition, a beginner is not [no statistics to go off of].

Middle School, AKA Gattaca Lite

Unfortunately, failure to recognize the value of failure happens in sports all the time: too many people judge and are judged based on their first performance — how many egos have been crushed (not mine, but…people I know) because of using such a ridiculously small and downward-skewed sample? How many doors have been closed to figurative newborn babies? How many Michael Jordans get cut from high school teams?

In middle school, I can remember how in both P.E. classes and inter-school sports teams, the time, attention and resources were disproportionately concentrated on boys and girls who were hitting puberty at 11, and the rest of you kids with your slow-growing bodies could just bugger off, even though our parents were all paying the same tuition (the sports was not a business — no TV revenue or scholarships like NCAA, not even an effect on enrollment).

Now, why this middle school business still bugs me more than 10 years after the fact, is because the deafeningly loud silent lesson it taught was that effort didn’t matter and there was no such thing as meaningful development and improvement over time; only genetic predisposition mattered; only being 11 years old and having facial hair mattered. It was Gattaca Lite.

At some level, I can understand the school coaches’ problem — they needed to make a winning team as quickly as possible…but, again, that’s not really doing school any more, if only because nothing profound is being learned; that’s more of a professional/club thing where the focus is on execution.

As a compromise, a dual sports system might work, with a “we’re gonna use you now” short-term competition-centered section for freakishly large children, and a “build your skills now for the future” long-term training-centered section for children who like sports but aren’t yet big enough to be “useful”. Kind of a “separate but equal”…waitaminute!!

They did kind of try something like that by having multiple teams per age group, but the resource distribution was insulting; remember: everyone was paying the same overpriced tuition and the sports teams neither made money nor contributed to name-brand recognition…yet somehow the “lower” teams were invariably put on The Fields That The Groundskeeper Forgot, using equipment that had been oh-so-delicately aged to perfection by the finely tuned athletic machines of the Higher Teams. Where’s Linkin Park and a razor blade when you need them…

Cheap and Quick

Anyway, in less violent/jocky terms, letting go of the surgical-strike philosophy means: don’t try to write a magnum opus if you can’t even write an opus yet. Don’t try to write a novel if you can’t even write a short story yet. Don’t try to run a marathon when you can’t even run around the block yet (whoops…got jocky again).

It doesn’t take too much perceptiveness to see that the key with failing this much is you need to make it cheap. Time-cheap, money-cheap, effort-cheap and emotion-cheap. So each round needs to be short, not cost a lot, not take too much energy, and not be too crushing to the old dignity 1. Maybe this cheapness is another reason why small, short, winnable gamesare so good: A short game can be played many times → many failures → lots of success

According to the man himself in The Mindscape of Alan Moore, Moore, the best comics writer in the English language before me (why are you making that face?! wot iz that face?) — started out writing 4-page comic stories. Said he:

“I learned my craft doing very short stories, 3 or 4 pages each, which is an excellent way to learn writing of any sort.”

Even Moore-sensei’s early stories were likely unbefitting what we’ve come to expect of the Alan Moore legend. Knowing what we now know it would probably be easy to see or trick ourselves into seeing, the Moore mojo unfolding, but if we were to look at them “blind”, my gut tells me we’d be somewhat rather unimpressed.

Anyway, my point is, he had something he could crank. He had something he could fail at over and over and over again. He had a mechanism he could grind himself on until he got to razor-sharp perfection. He practiced with 4-page stories but matured into a graphic novelist just as you practice with phrases, sentences and pages as you gradually grow into a fully-fledged reader of your L2.

Mojo is made rather than born. I remember one time, I was at a gaijin friend’s house, arranging Internet service for him over the phone in Japanese, and then I hung up, and he and his roommates, having heard the entire exchange, decided that I had a “talent” for the language. And, frankly, I think I do, too; in fact, if you ignore minor details like how I once turned my entire life into a Japanese camp and spent all my disposable income on Japanese materials and severed any human relationship that significantly conflicted with doing Japanese and ate cake with chopsticks and slept with headphones on just-to-make-sure, then…yes…it was pure talent.

Case In Point: Why Spam Works

Not a positive example, but this massive failure business, by the way, is why spam works. Spam has found a mechanism that allows it to fail on a massive scale, this mechanism is called: “email is fast and free, motherlovers”, and what a wonderful mechanism it is. Can you imagine the indignity of paying for email? Forget them apples.

Now, most people aren’t going to buy into those…how can we be delicate about this…”organ enhancement” medications they sell in spam, even if I, I mean, my friend, needed them, which he doesn’t, but IF he did, he wouldn’t buy them. But someone somewhere always does. When you send out, what, a million emails a day — 365 million emails a year, son — you’re bound to get someone to bite, as long as the probability isn’t 0 (and in life, the probability is almost never 0 or 1), then you are guaranteed that you’ll get someone to buy your spam product even if I, I mean, my friend, were just buying those pills as a joke and didn’t really need them and was just testing the system.

For our theoretical spammer, even if 99.99% of these 365 million theoretical emails fail, that’s still 365,000 theoretical customers in the bag. That’s 365,000 people willing to pay ca$h money for the pills they need to (theoretically) bliss her out with their weapon of mass expulsion.

All this talk about massive failure = success…is exciting when we’re talking about it here in the squeaky-clean, theoretical Lalaland we can create for ourselves in the brief window of time where we’re reading and writing a post, but back in the real world, when you actually fail you don’t necessarily feel so good; we’re not trained to be excited by that sort of thing. And perhaps it’s for the best that we aren’t — what a bitter, Greek-tragedy-on-steroids irony it would be to instantly dislike or fail to recognize the success you had worked for.

My personal solution is to largely ignore the immediate failure-point at hand, and get excited about the overall process-function [of failing massively]; that’s how I stay excited and keep going. Individual failure-points are easy to feel bad about; as soon as they pass, ignore them. Let go of them and focus on the next round. You don’t think MS are still having crying fits and sleepless nights over “Microsoft Bob“, do you?

…Laughing fits, maybe.

There Are Exceptions

Having said all that, AntiMoon’s advice to “shut up before you hurt yourself” (which morphed into my advice to “shut up until it comes out correct and naturally by itself”) still holds. Personal developmenty advice of the kind that is the subject of this post can seem to run into contradictions because it’s so broadly applicable that nobody bothers to provide more rigid domain definition; suffice it to say that significant exceptions and counter-examples of virtually every principle exist; they may be rare, but they do exist; try not to go emo when you run into one. Think of these ideas as one of many tools in your toolbox; they work really well in some cases and not so well in others.

In Closing

Anyway, enough talk! 問答無用! Time for you and I both to hurry up and get failing. And when people tell you to stop it because it won’t work and you’re crazy, as they probably will, you can think of Thomas Watson’s words:

[Dude.] A [homie] flattened by an opponent can get up again. A [homie] flattened by conformity stays down for good.

Oh yeah — I would love to read your suggestions for little games to fail at, or links to similar discussions, so please feel free to share them.

Series Navigation<< What It Takes to Be Great 4: CapablancaYou can have do or be ANYthing, but you can’t have do or be EVERYthing >>


  1. On the dignity bit, you may just have to let go of your pride; this has always been very hard for me to do, but if the goal is worth reaching, then in some cases it might be worth eating humble pie for; my pride is usually set to off when it comes to languages — I try to mentally revert to the state of a toddler, where curiosity supersedes pride

  87 comments for “Aim to Fail

  1. catch
    April 2, 2009 at 22:09

    I’m always pleasantly surprised by how much your motivational articles consistently address my shortcomings, why they should be changed, and how I should change them. Either you’re doing a good job of hitting a lot of universal issues or I just happen to have a bad case of all of the problems you try to address.

  2. nacest
    April 2, 2009 at 23:04

    This morning I chatted a lot with a Japanese friend, and now I was slightly worrying about the crazy amount of mistakes I made when talking… so yeah, basically the same as the above poster, catch :P

    On a side note, I don’t think that what you (Khatz) said contradicts the “shut up until it comes out correct and naturally by itself” philosophy. To reap the benefit of failing, one has to at least be aware of the failure. Making mistakes in L2 output without being corrected feels like not failing at all!

  3. April 3, 2009 at 00:08

    Sometime ago I used to play Go (囲碁). They used to say “if you want to start learning how to play Go, lose your first 100 games as soon as possible”.

  4. April 3, 2009 at 00:08

    You know, I’ve been waiting for a new article for you since the last non-memo update and this one really delivered. I’ve actually really really been on this kick myself. I’m only the kanji phase right now (around 940), but in the time I’ve been studying the kanji, and thus using an SRS, I’ve come to realize that failure is *not* a bad thing. It’s the kanji I’ve failed the most that I don’t think I’ll ever ever ever be able to forget.

    I don’t want to rant, but I’m so glad you posted this. I study with and a lot of people in the forums post panicked topics saying, “AH! Help! I don’t think I’m going to be able to remember kanji A and B because they’re too similar!”, and I just wish I could assure them completely that… well, that’s okay. You may be having trouble now… but craft your stories… review… fail them if you don’t remember them… and study them… and review again, rinse & repeat, and you *will* learn those kanji.

    Really appreciate your posts. They’re hilarious and inspirational. You’re really an inspiration to me when it comes to learning languages, which is something I’m very passionate about. So, thanks.

  5. Ed
    April 3, 2009 at 02:01

    Like Seth said, the kanji that I fail on will be the ones that I change the story for, really fix it in my head so I will never forget it. I worry that the ones I remember will be gone from my memory in a couple of weeks time :/

  6. joe
    April 3, 2009 at 02:05

    this is probably one of the most motivating posts I’ve read on this site, time to go fail some more

  7. KMarkP
    April 3, 2009 at 02:06


    You know this Japanese proverb? One of my favorites:


    Thanks for the motivational post.

  8. Erick Garcia
    April 3, 2009 at 02:39

    That was awesome. 咱們不需要認為失敗是壞的。 I always use to tell my ESL students in Sichuan this. It was one concept that is so necessary for language learning.

    I’m gonna do more Anki!!

  9. Grophrane
    April 3, 2009 at 05:01

    The very essence is so simple. If there were no challenges, humanity wouldn’t have evolved. Now actively create challenges that are too hard for you initially e.g failures, and you will naturally evolve beyond your own ability in what can be called a spiral of pwnage. Then just make another game following the previous principles and the spiral continues.


  10. Terence
    April 3, 2009 at 05:59

    This reminded me of the comparison between China and America for the Olympics.

    Here in America everything is based around “Genetics” “being born with an ability”, and this translates into how America prepares for the Olympics. In America, teams search for adults with “genetic advantages”. Our athlete’s get up, practice for a few hours a day, then go on about their business(Sorry if I’m over simplifying all the work they put in…).

    Now look at a country like China. China seems to win at everything they compete in, and its obvious why. From what I’ve seen, in China, scouts go from school to school looking for child with the proper body type, then these kids as young as 5 are given up by their parents and live permanently at a Olympic Training Facility. They train every day from age 5 until 19, just for the Olympics. They have a special diet planned just for keeping their body in perfect condition. The life these kids live is the Sports equivalent to “All Japanese All the Time”!

    China doesn’t win so much because they have a Genetic advantage. Its because they’ve taken advantage of what Khatz was talking about, training long term for a big goal! If you look at it, America can somewhat be compared to “Some Japanese Some of the Time’ers” because our athletes aren’t devoting their life to there sport in the way China is…(once again, sorry to for not giving enough credit to American athletes, I’m sure Michael Phelps was doing a lot of laps in the pool when he wasn’t busy smoking weed *cough cough*)

    Great post….Sorry for not addressing the main topic as well hahaha

  11. Amelia
    April 3, 2009 at 06:44

    Totally on target. I’m a TA at a US university, and I keep trying to instill this in my students. So what if this paper sucked? Here’s what to improve on–go!

    Of course, they have ridiculously fragile egos. I did, too, til I saw Yo Yo Ma on the Colbert Report. Stephen asked him why he’s always collaborating. 马友友 said that when other people are generous and share what they know with him, what is theirs becomes his. Aha, I thought. Learning is not humble–it’s predatory. Since then I learn like I’m hunting–I stalk criticism until it jumps out the bushes. So, if someone points out a mistake, or I spend 10 minutes trying to figure out a character, fantastic. I’m one step closer to my goal. It’s pleasantly creepy. :)

    Incidentally, writing short stories is not the same skill as writing novels (in fact, short stories are usually harder than novels). So rather than not trying to write a magnum opus until you’ve written a short story, you should instead try not to write a magnum opus until you’ve written a sucky opus. For more on this, I recommend Stephen King’s _On Writing_ and also _The Road to Dune_, which highlights Frank Herbert’s awful awful beginnings (before coming The Master).

  12. Scuba
    April 3, 2009 at 07:08

    Thank you for another wonderfully motivational post.

    You requested examples of games that are easy to fail at…

    One of my favorites is

    You can post L2 diaries and native speakers will correct your blog entries. (oh yeah and it’s free!)

    So I end up failing a lot, every time I post… but the people are so friendly and helpful that I’m happy to see corrections. (It’s cool every once in a while when I get a sentence completely correct too!)

    Anywho, I think best of all is that it is an excellent source of sentences because it’s exactly what you want to say but corrected by a native speaker!

    Thanks again Khatz!

  13. ジャズ
    April 3, 2009 at 07:19

    Omg you make so much sense its unbelievable .

  14. Gav
    April 3, 2009 at 08:23

    Good post, the Lord of the rings references were cracking me up.

    Failing games. Well, I can give you an example from the world of Judo (柔道). In judo the aim is to throw someone to the ground with force, to choke them or armlock them until they are forced to submit, or they go unconscious/have something break. Naturally most people want to be so good at this that they can do it to 5 or 6 忍者 at a time. The way to get good is to fail. A huge portion of Judo training is built around the knowledge that you will at some point fail. Ukemi, practicing falling is taught so we know how to safely fail (fall). Ukemi is practiced EVERY class.

    In free fighting (randori) a refusal to fail will often stunt progress. When you attack with a throw there is the possibility that you will be countered and thrown yourself. Some people are afraid of this, because they don’t know how to fall well, or perhaps because they have an ego and don’t want to admit someone best them (black belt syndrome). These people stop getting better. When I practice sometimes I will make a mini commitment to myself “In the next minute you are going to try and throw 5 times, if you get thrown so be it”. This way I have made sure I have given myself 5 opportunities to try and get better which ironically has made me vulnerable to 5 moments of failure.

    There is another parallel with ne-waza. When you are fighting on the ground there is the temptation to stick with what you know or play defensively. Losing in ne-waza is a huge ego blow, because it is admitting that right then that person could of killed you/broken your elbow. Some people go so far to avoid this that they start thinking that not being submitted by someone is the same as winning!? Which is just a messed up perspective. When you start trying techniques you are not familiar with or focus on your weak points you will get dominated by people who are playing by there strengths. However, if you can find the fortitude to stick with it, over time your weaknesses will become strengths.

    Lose in the dojo to win in competition (or the streets of rage)!

  15. Jonathan
    April 3, 2009 at 08:50

    That’s weird, the kanji 敗 (“failure”) came up in my SRS reps just before I read this post. :|

  16. Harry
    April 3, 2009 at 09:00

    As Seth said waaay above. The random Kanji, I can’t seem to recall sometimes, I now know better then ever. Why? I fail, yet I keep coming back, and after a little while, without even noticing it, I can recall it within a second.
    Very nice Post my friend, please keep them coming!


  17. beneficii
    April 3, 2009 at 14:40


    Well, we don’t want bad habits–that is why we wait to produce output. Think of making a basketball shot–you’re supposed to shoot the ball a certain way with your hands. If you shoot the wrong way too much too long, it’ll become a bad habit that’ll be difficult to knock. This is different from forgetting a character reading, because there is no habit of forgetting–that you forget serves as a reminder, an incentive, to remember. With the basketball shooting, you receive the correction and you can work on it.

    Why, then, can’t we do the same for language output? The reason is, Whereas, with a sport, there is a small, well-defined set of techniques to learn and they can be learned, practiced, and mastered one by one. The use of one technique is not usually dependent on knowledge of the others, so you can train yourself each one independently, which is how coaches usually do it (and they do it effectively). Whereas, with a langauge, there is a large, poorly-defined set of techniques (such as intonation, pronunciation of consonants and vowels, and timing, not too mention the orthography and body language) to learn and the use of a technique also requires you to follow through with others. Even speaking a simple sentence, a translation of “How are you?” you must use several techniques simultaneously and correctly to speak like a native, and again if you speak a certain way too long it will become ingrained as a bad habit.

    –THE MAIN POINT (please read)–

    So if you practice such a sentence to be understandable, you are likely still missing the timing, intonation, and body language techniques; in a class, the teacher can’t focus on EVERYTHING you’re doing wrong, and can only correct for a few things otherwise there is too much to remember at the offset. Sure you might say, but they’ll get around to correcting the other stuff too–[i]your only problem though is that you’ll already have been producing output the wrong way for quite a while before the teacher can get around to it all, because by producing output you already have to simultaneously use several techniques, even if some of them you don’t do too well at[/i]. That’s why you should listen and wait till you can produce the output correctly.

    I think I finally understand and I hope others can come to understand as well.

  18. beneficii
    April 3, 2009 at 14:43

    Then again, you can also try practicing output techniques in isolation, like listening to something you like to hear in Japanese and practicing humming the intonations used by the Japanese speaker. That’s probably good.

  19. April 4, 2009 at 02:00

    Great post!!!!

    I made a commitment for the next few months to seek out things that make me look foolish (i.e. activities in which I would “fail”). I told anyone who would listen that that was my goal and began to attempt things that fit the bill (singing in public, starting a blog, writing a book).

    You’d be surprised how freeing it is to make failure your stated goal. It totally flips our fears on their head so that when things aren’t going well, rather than feeling self-conscious you think, “I’m failing? Oh excellent! That was the whole point.”

    The other funny part is that you don’t fail as often as you’d think. Often you need that goal of failure to be willing to take risks you wouldn’t otherwise take.

    Has anyone else tried this? What sorts of results did you get?

  20. Mikoto
    April 4, 2009 at 05:01

    You know, I do my rtk stuff through koohie too, Seth, and just like him I’ve notice everyone freaking out about “failure” rates, or not being able to review constantly to be “perfect” and this and that and I just wanna take a book and slap them upside the head. I thought about writing a brief guide on just exactly how srs should be used with rtk’s method, however, I got to thinking I’d just be wasting my time lol. Here you go posting a great post about failure too, I love it! we think alike, even though it goes against the entire educational experience.

    People don’t seem to realize the difference of “learning over time from exposure” and “learning for perfection now”. Because of that, they tend to throw the towel in early saying srs’s aren’t for them when its a matter of using the device incorrectly. I had a hard time adjusting to the srs method because I’m an extreme perfectionist that has a lot of pride. But surprisingly, learning to cope and learn using srs has actually helped me relax more in life and throw my pride away and I’m sure as heck learning a lot faster and retaining more! hahah, okay… i’ll stop now, good luck everyone, thanks again for all your great work Ka-san

  21. Will
    April 4, 2009 at 06:37

    We have a post card on our frige that says “the man that makes no mistakes makes nothing at all.” So im going to go and fail to understand some japanese tv.

  22. Shea
    April 4, 2009 at 09:54

    Perfect motivation for not just language learning, but anything. Bravo yet again.

    I’ll admit I’ve cheated on SRS for whatever reason….but in reality I’m just cheating myself. If I fail, that gives me more of a chance to actually LEARN it…I needed a little reminder of why I was doing SRS.

  23. 誰かさん
    April 5, 2009 at 00:20


    I’m afraid I have to roundly disagree with everything you’ve just said.

    Firstly American olympic athletes do nearly nothing but train for their olympic sport, all day, every day, usually from a very young age. Michael Phelps is in the news a lot, you should google his training schedule. Also, not only do American athletes train just as hard as everyone else they train with what is often the best equipment and funding available, that gives them an impressive competitive edge.

    Secondly, I fail to see the difference in favouring athletes with a “genetic advantage” and scouting athletes with the “proper body type”.

    Then finally, while I’ll admit the Chinese athletes put an incredible effort into their training, so does everyone else, what accounts for the great Chinese success in the last olympics is that they were the host nation. The host country does not have to qualify for events, this gives them more chances at the gold because they have a zero percent likelihood of being knocked off in the qualifying rounds.

  24. マッチョッチョー
    April 5, 2009 at 07:50

    Khatz, this isn’t related to this post but…….

    A friend of mine told me that there is a very big difference between written standard cantonese and what’s actually spoken. Do you differentiate between the two in your SRS items?

  25. April 5, 2009 at 08:11

    I have found this a very good resource for hearing Japanese, lots of situational variations in the shows. I suggest the j-tv category given there usually isn’t a plot arch in the shows, so you can get some entertainment by them. Turn of the English subs if the show has them, most of them do not have them though.
    ガキの使いやあらへんで!!” is a good starting show.

    Check you local laws before downloading any of the shows

  26. April 5, 2009 at 08:12

    Woops forgot the site url >:(

  27. Zac
    April 5, 2009 at 08:12

    Thanks for this… it amazes me how you can keep coming up with these motivating posts. Just want to thank you for this and all your other posts.

  28. April 6, 2009 at 18:51

    “ダウンタウンのガキの使いやあらへんで!!” I watched a few episodes. Some of them are funny, others miss the mark. Matsumoto makes the show for me, Hamada has his moments, those other two guys whose names I can’t remember might as well not be there.

  29. Nick_dm
    April 6, 2009 at 21:22

    @ マッチョッチョー

    Based on an example in “Chinese Project Notes 10″ (, it looks like he might be using colloquial Cantonese with the standard written Chinese provided in the translation field.

    E.g. Question: “你去邊?” / Answer: “你去哪裡?” (i.e. “Where are you going?”)

  30. April 7, 2009 at 00:15

    Finally finished RTK today!
    It took me way longer than I thought (started officially Nov. 10th, clocking in at about four months, three weeks), but now its done! Whee! Now i can take a break! no, wait, i mean, now i can keep starting… on something else!

  31. Buddy Jones
    April 8, 2009 at 04:03

    カツさんはきっとJosh Waitzkinの「The Art of Learning」と言う本が好きだろう。「Investment in Loss」という章もある。

  32. frauleingunderson
    April 8, 2009 at 05:13

    @ TheOtaku
    There’s good 罰 (batsu)-game torrents on d-addicts. Search for Batsu. It is mostly (my favorite) 笑ってはいけない。

  33. April 8, 2009 at 07:11

    If I was watching them for the content I suppose those games would be one of my favs. I watch pretty much all of the shows on j-tv, when I am not doing reps or home work.

  34. Graham Bouvier
    April 9, 2009 at 01:42

    One of the games I like to fail at is Karaoke in Japanese. I go to my local Karaoke bar as often as possible and get up and embarrass myself in Japanese. It’s short, and it’s easy to fail, but with a few failures, it’s easy to start succeeding.
    I saw this now, but it’s still difficult for me to get up and try a song I don’t know very well… guess this is my starting point.

  35. V
    April 10, 2009 at 02:48

    “More than five thousand failures. I’ve been wrong more times than there are stars in the sky visible to the naked eye [someone please check this].” – Khatzumoto

    I checked it! I found that in cities you may be lucky to see more than 20 stars due to light pollution, while in perfect conditions one could see as many as 2000 stars with the naked eye. However, if you consider all stars visible from all points on Earth, they would add up to some 6000 so you’re pretty close with that statement.


  36. Jayme
    April 12, 2009 at 00:02

    Sir, your articles are most invigorating. In fact I went and played a game of Go straight after reading your article. Bless you.

    But then after the game I remembered that there are people who have played thousands of games of Go after getting stuck at a certain level and can never seem to improve. The same for Poker, writing, baseball, cooking, Japanese, you name it. Just failing doesn’t help you improve, you have to put in serious effort. Even if you put in the effort, not everyone can reach their goals. Like say if your goal is to be the best, or just better than another individual, or 90% of individuals. I don’t have the stones to accuse everyone who’s stuck that they aren’t trying hard enough.

    It were a tricky curve ball you threw, citing the best as also being the best failures. Babe Ruth may have struck out twice as many times as he hit home runs, but other batters could have easily struck out way more times than him if their coach has been masochistic enough to put them up at bat.

    I’m afraid I must disagree with you, failing does not lead to success.

    I totally agree though that today’s attitude towards failure that is purported by society and enforced in our schools is an unfortunate vestigial mindset that was far more useful when we had to fight lions and bears for our bananas.

    • May 12, 2011 at 05:07

      Well, I agree in that failure does not lead to success; it’s just that failure is a completely unavoidable part of the process of growing and eventually succeeding. Also, from each failure a lesson can be learned, and that kind insight helps us to not fail or commit related mistakes again. Failure IS part of the process, and what I understand from Khatz’s message is to just embrace the darn thing and not let it depress us or stop us.

      You don’t become “the best” at something because you failed a lot; you become the best because you TRIED THE MOST!(it’s just that most of those tries happened to be failures :D)

  37. Chuck F
    April 16, 2009 at 19:15

    Speak of failure, lots of questions for the community here.
    something I’ve found to be a problem with my SRSING is that, I’m utterly fine with the sentences in my srs, the sentence pops back the meaning of the word into my memory, but if I saw the word in an context outside of my SRSIng most of the time I won’t remember it

    Another thing I’ve found is that, I can’t produce any of my sentences! This has to be something wrong with my head, ,but I literally have 4000+ sentences, being doing this for more then 8 months, and maybe can randomly produce a hundred or so of them(and I live in Japan!). Do you attempt to get words into your mind before you srs them? I have an incredibly hard time just remembering vocab.

    I wasn’t able to even produce any of them at all will until I dumbed most of my reps down to just be a verb and a noun.
    I had to even add in reverse production cards to even be able to get to that level(and I found if I didn’t test myself on production I don’t really remember the vocab, I just kinda remember the outline/what the sentence means and speed read through my 400 reps a day. ) I would kill to have even a 85% success rate on my production cards.

    Really I’m at my wits end here, I’m doing everything I’m suppose to be doing, no English except for my job. The only thing I can think of doing differently is reading outloud, but when I do that I never seem to actually be able to grasp the meaning of the sentence

    Khatzusmoto – I’ll probably be paying for your consulting soon, so no need to reply yet, but just seeing if the community has any ideas first.

  38. Maya
    April 20, 2009 at 11:57

    Any fellow Beatles fans here?

    If you like the Beatles and are learning Japanese, I think you’ll really like this:

    have fun :)

  39. April 20, 2009 at 20:37 just wanted to share that as it fitted this article so well.

  40. khatzumoto
    April 20, 2009 at 20:43

    Thanks for the link :D …missed 9000 shots — one realizes that most people haven’t even *taken* 9000 shots.

  41. Nathan D (MisterNES)
    April 26, 2009 at 14:36

    One bright and beautiful Christmas morning in the year of 1988, I opened a very big box. It was my very first video game console: a Nintendo Entertainment System. I wasn’t very good at it. In fact, all my friends and even my own dad could maneuver Mario far better than I could (I couldn’t even get past World 1-2 for several weeks). My dad loved to rub it in my face. He would brag always brag to me about the newest level that he had gotten to, or show me how cool this new enemy he encountered was. However, I don’t think it was his intention to hurt me, and he didn’t. In fact, it gave me all the more motivation to keep on playing, because I wanted to get to those levels.

    And keep on playing I did. My friends kept laughing at me, my kid brother (who always told me it was easy, but never actually played it himself) got bored of watching me, and my mom began to hate the amount of time I was spending on video games, but I never quit.

    I think the reason why was because even though I was constantly falling into pits, getting hit by goombas, or coming into contact with Koopa’s fiery breath, I found myself enjoying the process. I even enjoyed geting angry at the game every time Mario gave that funny pose with his thumbs up and his legs sticking out as he fell off the screen to his “death.” Funny thing was, this “death” kept happening less and less often each time, and at later and later parts of the game. Eventually, I reached the princess (and I must say, Peach looked very ugly in the first game).

    Years later, I learned why my my dad was better than me at Super Mario Bros.: he’d been playing it several months before I had. Apparently, my parents bought the damn thing long before Christmas, and my dad would wait until my brother and I had gone to bed. Then he’d pull the thing out and play it himself. Basically, my dad had more opportunities to fail than I had.

    Later on in life, I ended up with friends who would ask me for advice on how to play, or even ask me to kill a boss for them that they “couldn’t” kill. As if somehow I were some genius. Now I own at Super Mario Brothers (although I still haven’t gotten that “dribbling” technique down; never needed it anyway). I suppose I could be better, but I’ve found other interests besides being a Mario champ. But I think you all get my point here. Because I kept on dying, I eventually ended up with Princess Peach as my hotty.

  42. Chester Tai
    April 28, 2009 at 13:33


    I was also tempted for a while to tackle cantonese, but after reading your posts regarding studying only one language at a time, I thought I should get jpn down pat first. Thanks for all the inspiration!

    - 住在加拿大的臺灣人

    p.s. 中文的學習一切都還好吧?有疑問的話,我會盡力幫忙的!

  43. Rob
    June 6, 2010 at 00:11

    I’d like to thank you for supporting my claim about talent being bogus! Many times I have used the Michael Jordan example myself. It doesn’t matter who’s the best the first day, they’re probably mediocre later on.

    About once a day I get into an argument with someone calling me out on one of my “talents”, that I spent endless hours on while ignoring any discouriging judgments by the very breed that’s eager to celebrate me now (Scrub 4 Life, Motherlover!).

    When it comes to the right mentality on failing I think of it like a gambling-addict: Eventhough the failure rate is extreme compared to language learning, the emotional rush of the few times he/she actually wins something dwarfs all memories of the thousands of failures. And that’s why they keep playing.

    Now I don’t suggest spending too much time judging your own success WHILE you work on learning something, neither positive nor negative, as the process of judgment often competes with the actual topic of your study, by shifting to other parts of your brain (i.e. music, drawing, moves of any kind).

    Just keep going and realize that you get better over time. So make sure to somehow record your current level from time to time.

  44. Elaine
    August 1, 2010 at 17:51

    They’re like battle scars! :D

  45. Dave
    September 4, 2010 at 09:21

    Not failing, but not being afraid to fail, is surely the key, as well as having the resolve to continue in the face of failure. Babe Ruth surely was not afraid to fail, to swing the bat each time with such all or nothing commitment!

    From my own life, I remember spending a few weeks practising with a pair of nunchaku, somewhat informally, but with great fervour. I was shown some basic techniques by someone who had been spinning them for many years, and we were both surprised to find that I surpassed him in a matter of days. Not least of all me, because I was astounded by his ability when I first watched him.

    We determined between us that the reason for this was not that I was more gifted, but simply that I had overcome the fear of hurting myself and he had not. He had injured himself many times over of course, but never actually abandoned the fear of it. On the other, after learning some basics, I had identified this as an issue, and made a conscious decision to get past it – by hitting myself a few times in the head and face! Once I knew how much it would hurt and that I could withstand it, I no longer had any fear of it happening. Then progress came rapidly after that.

    Amusingly, it turned out that it was to be hitting yourself in the hipbone that *really* hurt, and this was not something I had prepared for. Oww! But by this point, I was starting to take some pride in what I had achieved and I barely paused to wince in agony. (Okay, I might have had a little sit down).

    So I guess this means, its a bit stupid to get hung up on getting it wrong when you don’t even know what getting it wrong will really be like. And by the time you mess up, you might already have surpassed your expectations. At this point, you will probably be eager for your next mistake, if only just to measure your development in between.

  46. Megan
    September 13, 2010 at 10:53

    I love your writing style. It’s like you’re helping us remember your advice because you phrase it in awesome, memorable, funny ways. And the advice (at least the parts I remember, which are the ones that are funny and the ones that are useful… wait, is that all of it?) is very sound.

    Someone once told me (er… rather, I told some – alot – of people) something that sounds a lot like your advice, for building general self esteem so that they weren’t afraid of failure so much. I tell people that I’m the center of the known universe and that I’m pretty sure that, were we to discover more universe, I’d still be smack-dab in the center… but that I’m not being arrogant because I only mean it geographically.

    The point being, it’s exaggerated in such a way verbally and (the way I say it) said in such a way as to be very obviously a joke, to save you from really being arrogant. At the same time, it gets you to thinking: while I may not be the center of the known universe, surely I’m am worth something. It’s not exactly a conscious thought. It just sorta creeps in there, like you have tricked yourself into better self esteem by being silly and making people laugh.

    Thought you might like hearing that.

  47. Ro
    January 28, 2011 at 12:47

    Babe Ruth: 1,330 strikeouts. Michael Jordan: over 9,000 missed shots. Barry Sanders: 1,114 total yards lost (the NFL’s all-time leader in negative yardage). The lesson? “Greatness courts failure.” -Roy ‘Tin Cup’ McAvoy

  48. Ken
    January 28, 2011 at 15:59

    “More than five thousand failures. I’ve been wrong more times than there are stars in the sky visible to the naked eye [someone please check this]”

    According to Pedia の Wiki (, “To the naked-目 on a clear dark 夜, the total number of 星 visible is about 6,500″. But you wrote this article back in 2009年, so I’m sure you’ve failed that much by 今! :-)

  49. Sam
    July 27, 2011 at 08:22

    your lifestyleis disgusting

  50. ash
    July 30, 2011 at 08:59

    There is a great book on this topic called Failing Forward by John Maxwell.

  51. December 16, 2011 at 13:10

    Of course, before I aimed to fail, and I really did fail >< now i apply your method,success is now what im attaining XD

  52. December 25, 2011 at 14:45

    I’ve failed for 9 months. But that 9 months has led to resilience, improvement, and what not…Failing is cool. Its the prerequisite to success, just like pre-calculus is to calculus

  53. Frank XG
    January 30, 2012 at 11:51

    You know, I thank you for this post, it gives me back the energy I need to keep doing thinks, not only in languages, let’s fail to succeed!! I’m back in the game! >:) 

  54. Sasuke
    July 1, 2012 at 09:41

    Nice read this was. I’m currently getting back to doing the AJATT method again only thing I’m dealing with the moment is not having the RTK book. I guess other places will have to do for the moment.

  55. November 21, 2012 at 17:30

    I’m currently in an excange program abroad and have thus been thrust whole heartedly into a whole world of new languages. This concept of failure is spot on for learning the language over time as well as just adjusting in general to a world of complete difference. The only problem I’m having is in concerns with the AntiMoon concept of input correctly before writing and talking. In an Exchange situation I HAVE to have output every day while still a beginner(or two months this week) of the language! I’m very at odds about this concept as I want to be as perfect as possible at the language, but also want to learn as much as possible. I have already had quite a few instances of learning something and outputting it to find later that it is wrong. Are there any tips or ideas as far as learning for this type of immersion and learning of the language?

  56. Livonor
    July 1, 2013 at 17:49

    This is probabily the second life-changing post that I read on your blog, right now it’s 5 a.m, so I keep it short. In the beginning of 2012 i started a turning course and i sucked, besides getting good grades on the tests, I was the worst student in the practices, they quickly labeled me as the “nerd guy who isn’t good at practical stuff” and putt me on the side, I sucked so hard, never finishing a part without several errors and in the time they set for us, back then I had a very anxious mentality and always feel bad about my situation, I mean, VERY bad, I guess I was depressive. Wasn’t hard for me to realize that the teachers didn’t care to me and the other bad students at all, they just start a new class, focus on the ones who got high grades and did everything right from the start and forget the rest, and that’s how practically every single industrial related job works. I was basically operating machines and tools so failing was very time, effort and (mainly) emotional expensive. In the end of 2012 I was reading your post
    “Ask Dr. Khatz: Sidetracked in Salt Lake” and it totally hit me, I first started learning japanese with RTK in the end of 2011 but quit due to the course, I tried several times with some progress but quickly gave up and started doing other things. But after reading this post a finally saw the truth that was right in front of me all that time, I wasn’t doing a real immersion!, I read all your posts, said to myself “oh that dude is badass” but never tried any of your ideas, after that first life-changing moment got directly to my PC and started to delete EVERY stuff that wasn’t in japanese, Fallout, TF2, call of duty, a lot o movies, comics, games etc.. and then went through youtube and unsubscribe every single channel that wasn’t in japanese, and then change my OS to japanese, while deleting all that stuff I saw all my old life passing thorough my eyes, all the pointless discutions on comments, all the useless time spend with gameplay videos and vlogs, that was a amazing liberating experience. But then a remember of a phrase “habits can’t be changed, they just can be replaced” so I rush to download as much animes, mangas, and subscribe to japanese channels and bookmark japanese sites as I could, cuz I knew I if just delete everything and sit looking at my empty desktop I would just come back to my old life, and it worked, I suddenly feel much more motivated to to my kanji reps, finished RTK and started learning every single word that a came across in the first 3 days and then started to learning bunchs of 60 words from several sources, always changing every time I saw something more interesting (before that I always did the classical mistake to choose a textbook/manga and said to myself that I would got thorough it and learning every new word on it, which feels cool in the beginning but once I become bored I started to force myself to went to it to learn words “because it’s good to me” and end up quitting all the process once the boringness become stronger than my limited willpower).
    Backing to the main topic, now I intend to quit my current “career” and start learning computer programming, cuz I can apply the same principles that I learned from japanese and start failing in free, no-emotional and low-effort way

  57. July 27, 2013 at 12:33

    Watch and watch novelas in your L2 even if you don’t understand a DAMN word-
    Later – months later I find myself going back to the ones I watched before and understand 75% of what they say.
    Nice way to fail

  58. Jim
    October 11, 2014 at 12:45

    This has helped me a lot. I don’t know where I would be if I gave up the first time I failed. Don’t worry! Eventually you’ll get better, and you will understand more and more.

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