The First World Problem is Choice, Or: Which Language Should I Learn?

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series The First World Problem is Choice

im-learning-thaiLook closely at any of the problems people bring you (or you bring yourself) and you’ll see that at the core, what you’re stuck not between a rock and a hard place, but between a sofa and a beanbag.

If you can read this, you are a member of the global elite: you have electricity, running water, literacy in a socio-economically powerful dialect and all that that entails. And so basically all your problems are first world problems.

Which, as my friend CJ likes to say, doesn’t make them any less vexing, but definitely does make them not worth sweating about.

Which language should I learn first? What activity should I do first? Should I keep this SRS card, or toss it? Zounds, iTunes isn’t syncing my songs properly!

Listen to yourself.

This kind of horrible indecision wears you down, and leads to stupidity like spending half an hour choosing what to eat at restaurant. Just pick anything that sounds good and pick something else next time. There will be a next time.

That’s how I like to think of it right now. Maybe it’ll work for you, maybe it won’t. I dunno. But here’s how I roll: Assume you will get to do it all. Assume you will get to learn it all, taste it all. Just assume. Assume you have infinite time and resources but that this moment, this time window, this timebox, is finite. There is only one luxury you cannot afford: the luxury of worry and indecision.

Now you’re no longer choosing what to do or even when to do. All you need choose is what to do first. I would add that it’s important to not try to make the best choice here. Pick that low-hanging fruit. Narrow it down. Make the easy choice. The choice that feels good, that feels “you”; you’ll know which choice is the easy choice because you’ll feel guilty for it. 1

Most of us are socialized to extend morality into places where it doesn’t belong and thus feel guilty about otherwise neutral things just because we like them. So if you feel guilty, you’re probably on the right track. If it makes you feel any better, it only seems easy to you because it’s your thing: “easy”, like “delicious”, is relative. So go for it already. Go for easy.

So you’re no longer choosing or even scheduling per se. You are merely sequencing. There’s no guilt because you’re never rejecting a choice, merely re-sequencing it.

Don’t choose what to do. Just choose what to do first. Just choose a little something something for here and now. Later, you can and will get to make more choices, new choices, even better choices. Assume you’ll get to do it all, because, at the rate your life’s going, you basically will.

Back in the (“AJATT Hardcore”) day, I never felt deprived of English because I wasn’t. I was just doing Japanese now. English would still be there; English-speaking friends would still be there, and I could come back to them any time. Life is surprisingly long — in a good way — there’s time enough to do what you want if you just pick what you want (for that time) and do that…run with that…for a while…see where it takes you; you will get to pick again.

I think there’s this sense that each decision you make somehow decides things for eternity and that simply isn’t the case. Outside of the most dramatically ridiculous examples that too much movie- and TV-watching would have you imagine, each choice you make only lasts forever if you keep making it forever. Each choice turns out to have a limited window of effectiveness (like the range of a bullet) and so you get a near-infinite number of chances to do it over.

All those dramatically awesome examples of people turning their lives around are just a manifestation of this phenomenon: the fact that choices actually have quite a short effective range; you do not have to be in for a pound just because you’re in for a penny — you get a bunch of pennies and with each one you get to choose.

Admittedly, most people either don’t consciously exercise their power of choice (they let inertia and the environment choose for them — i.e. they choose to repeat previous choices), or simply choose worry and fretting and indecision. But that certainly doesn’t mean they have no choices: wasted time only exists because there is enough time to waste; wasted opportunities only exist because there are so many opportunities.

Don’t make the best choice. Make a doable decision now knowing what you know now, using what you have now. There will be no regrets. Regret is just information you didn’t have at the time. Using that information against yourself is just you being a jerkwad to yourself. You know what you know now; you have what you have now. Take that and run with it.

Series NavigationIndecision Just Means Any Will Do: The Problem is Choice >>


  1. If you’re ever stuck between two languages, pick the less “useful” one: it’s the one you really want to learn.

  18 comments for “The First World Problem is Choice, Or: Which Language Should I Learn?

  1. March 20, 2013 at 03:43

    Kids in sandboxes don’t sit in silence wondering about other sandboxes they might be playing in if they were at a different park; they just grab the tools they have and get busy having fun. Once your immersion environment is operational, you can skip the decisions problem altogether and just act on impulses. The ‘secret’ to maintaining the fun is known by every kid in the world: maintain moment-to-moment presence. Just be there. No more adult meta-thinking (“Should I be in THIS sandbox? Should I be learning French?”), only impulse thinking (“Ooh a comic book and video games and OMG new L2 Breaking Bad episodes yyaayy!”)

    Swim coaches say that you have to slow down to speed up. I say you have to regress to progress.

  2. March 20, 2013 at 10:39

    “If you’re ever stuck between two languages, pick the less “useful” one: it’s the one you really want to learn. ”

    I’ve been struggling trying to choose between Mandarin and Cantonese for the past couple of months. Guess which one I went with. :D (Psst… It’s the one with all the great Stephen Chow movies!)

    • ライトニング
      March 20, 2013 at 14:50

      I like Cantonese a lot. I like the Chinese characters used Cantonese because they are pretty much as pure as it gets in the character using world. I still wish Japanese used pre-world war II Kanji still. Reading pre world war II books are really enjoying because I finally get to see some real traditional kanji. Still better than Mandarin, but Cantonese totally wins when it comes to characters.

      I’m currently with Japanese, but one day I will do ACATT too.

      Jeez, I feel like I’m a wannabe khatz sometimes :P

      • 魔法少女☆かなたん
        March 24, 2013 at 15:44

        Well, you know, you could be getting your Mandarin from Taiwan, where, unlike mainland China and Singapore, traditional characters are still used. Plus, Taiwanese media is awesome.

        • ライトニング
          March 25, 2013 at 07:23

          This is more of just preference, but I don’t really like how Mandarin sounds; I’m totally for Cantonese.

          Didn’t meant offend anybody though! :P

    • アントニー
      March 21, 2013 at 02:51

      Ah yes, I agree. Mandarin just doesn’t have the media that I find enjoyable like Cantonese does. Henceforth, I chose Cantonese so I can watch movies all the time, and have a good time.

    • Cainiao
      April 2, 2013 at 09:32

      Uhh, both?

  3. Carl
    March 20, 2013 at 12:11

    I’m just going to say ditto to the article. Thank you for this.

  4. Livonor
    March 24, 2013 at 19:42

    This makes me remember of the reason that make me learning japanese: absolutely nothing. Back then I didn’t have any interest about japanese culture, language or people, I didn’t even like anime, I just sit on my chair I simply thought “Wouldn’t be cool if I know japanese?” I then I search for “how to learn japanese” on google, found a site made by random black guy, and now you already know the rest of the story ; )

    • ahndoruuu
      March 29, 2013 at 09:36

      Well if this site is one of the first places you ended up after that potentially ruinous Google search, you certainly dodged a rain of bullets. Congratulations.

  5. Dmitry
    March 27, 2013 at 20:43

    Another excellent piece of advice. I remember good old times when discovering how much you actually _can_ do with the right ideas and resouces felt amazing, and it really is. However, doing more and more of these discoveries eventually leads to frustration because resources are constrained but ideas are not. So instead of celebrating every little thing that I can do I often begin to feel anxious about dozens of interesting things that I could be doing instead that I’ve been trying to squeeze into my life for a long time already, but the tradeoffs involved always made it look unacceptable. Fortunately the experience has taught me that sequencing actually works, so instead of worrying about whether I’m doing the right thing I usually can instead just do it and see later how it goes. I’m not _trying_ to do anything, I’m just choosing to do it by allocating the necessary resources and letting the nature and habit to do the rest. And there usually aren’t any wrong choices, really: either what I chose to do works and I can iterate it until it stops working or is no longer needed, or it doesn’t work and then I’ve learned something new and can use this knowledge in making further choices. Now, paradoxically, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything at all and time just flies by, but in actuality lots of desired things happen and I definitely end up getting what I need much more often that I end up just wasting my time.

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