Why Are Third-Rate Ideas Better Than First-Rate Ideas?

“Quick and dirty wins the race.
Perfection is the enemy of done.
Good enough is really effin’ good.”
Andrea Scher

“When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time…to get there.”
The Syrian

Here’s the trick to making deep, long-term, self-directed language-learning work.

Don’t do ten good things.

Do one good thing. One day. At a time.

And not even a very good thing. Just a good enough thing. Just barely good enough.

“The hunter who chases two rabbits catches neither”. Well, think about the hunter who chases ten. Fast ones. That’s what you’re doing when you try to do good things. All he ends up is tired, self-loathing and with a stitch. 1

What you want to do is catch slow rabbits. Spice them well if you have to.

But you’re like: “But I should be catching fast ones!”
Why? Speed is relative anyway. Look, you’re not catching any ones at the rate you’re going. You’re Elmer Fudd and you’ve got one-itis for Bugs Bunny, and that’s really bad because Bugs is too darn quick. And now you’re rabbitless.

Catch slow rabbits.

It all comes down to ideas. A lot of people have ideas. Good ideas. All the time. The problem is we usually don’t let our idea-generation machines — our brains — run their course. We usually latch onto the first idea that pops up (“take a Japanese class!”) and cling onto it for dear life, come heck or high water. And then we call that “persistence”, and when it inevitably turns out to be an unsustainable idea, we hate ourselves and say we lack genetic talent.

So, one way of getting to your third-rate idea is to skip through your first few ideas.

The thing is that most people’s first idea is that it’s really difficult. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good idea; it’s a respectable idea; it’s a first-rate idea; it’s a good idea 2. And that’s precisely why it’s so bad. You’re not fast enough for that rabbit. Type out your MCDs by hand? That’s a first-rate idea. You’re a good person for thinking that. You are the teacher’s pet. We love you. You’re the girl the who writes and posts hand-written thank-you notes to everyone she meets within 20 minutes of saying goodbye. You win.

But you lose because that crap is unsustainable. 

Go further down the list. Go down until you get to something you feel guilty about doing because it’s too easy. It’s third-rate; it’s lazy; it’s everything that’s wrong with the world today and the “the present generation”. 3 It’s using digital dictionaries and pre-typed, pre-translated text. It’s looping the same few dozen podcasts because you like them and nothing else is that interesting and you can’t be bothered to go find anything else right now.

So don’t go with the best idea. Don’t go with the first idea. Get lazier. Go deeper down the idea chain. Easier. Lazier. Simpler. Less equipment. Less gear. Less effort. Less energy. Less stuff. Fewer people. Fewer resources. Go with that weird, easy one that doesn’t seem like it shouldn’t work or count because it’s too weird and too easy and too simple.

When you think about it, the entire AJATT “method” itself is one big third-rate idea. Because the first-rate thing to do would be to move to Japan and live with a Japanese family, eating, sleeping and drinking Japanese until nature worked its magic. It would be learning Spanish by living on a vineyard in the countryside with nothing but…Spanish. But you may or may not have that option open for two years. One the other hand, you certainly have an iPod, a smartphone, a something; you certainly have headphones. Eeeenh?

To get terribly domestic again for a moment, the first-rate thing to do would be to wash your dishes. That would be the best thing. Wash, dry and store. But that rabbit’s too fast. All those rabbits are too fast. The third-rate thing is to get your dishes to the sink. Just get them there.

It would take two lifetimes and more amphetamines than anyone could safely consume, to accomplish your first-rate ideas. That’s how energy-intensive they are. You can’t do them. So don’t. Don’t even try. Go down till you get to something easy. Ideas are free, so you might as well use the ones that pay you back.

You cannot carry out your first-rate ideas. In all likelihood, not even a robot could (which says something about the state of both your ideas and robotics). And even if you could carry them out, you couldn’t sustain them. You would burn out to a perfect little crisp like you have so many times before. Your sense of righteousness is writing cheques that your physical energy cannot and will not cash 4. How do I know? I know because I’ve personally been you; I’ve seen you and I’ve lived with people like you. If you could carry out your ideas, you’d be carrying them out; you wouldn’t be talking about them; you wouldn’t be worrying about them; you wouldn’t even be thinking about them — you’d be carrying them out because that’s how easy and effortless they’d be.

And the only things that are that easy and that effortless are third-rate ideas. Third-string ideas. Third-stringers. The ones that come after the “good” ones. The ones that come after the teacher’s-pet “correct” answer from the textbook. The ones that are so easy to do that you still feel bad afterwards — because they leave you feeling light and free and guilty when you’re so used to feeling heavy and tired ;) .

It’s the power of the suboptimal.

By way of ending on a concrete note, here are a few examples of first-rate ideas you need to stop having:

  • Typing out SRS cards by hand
    • It’s all about the copy and paste, mate
  • Perfectly/uniformly formatting SRS cards
    • I hear there are some deck chairs on the Titanic that still need straightening…
  • Finishing things you start because you started them
    • Are you a lemming? Do you have to go over the cliff because that’s the direction you were going in? Let’s leave aside whether real-life lemmings actually do that or not; I’m talking about the Game Gear game ones :D
  • Learning things to prove things to other people
    • Why? Let them live in doubt! Why do you have to change the beliefs of people who don’t want their beliefs changed? Are you so anxious that pigs should wear the fine jewelry you’ve got on offer? Would not good-looking women who are into jewelry suffice? What is so good about your truth that the whole world must know and understand today or else?
    • Even cults pick their marks. The smart ones go for the slow rabbits.
  • Intentionally studying for more than 2 minutes at a time
    • It’s all about the short sprints, mate
    • It’s fine if it naturally extends out, but geez, don’t force it…don’t plan on it. Concentration is a limited resource like that.
  • Doing superlatives (best, fastest, most effective, most efficient)
    • Ease in. Shave rather than cut. Cryptic, I know.



  1. If he were smart about it, he’d set rabbit traps, but this post isn’t about cruel ways of making animals die, so…we’ll leave the metaphor at that :P
  2. Yeah, I said it twice
  3. It’s sending your Mum a birthday text instead of a handwritten card — oh no, you don’t love your mother any more because you communicate with her using new and easier media; kill yourself now! It’s using a calculator to do arithmetic.
  4. Who even uses cheques?! No, but seriously, you won’t waste money and you’ll try not to waste time, but you’ll waste energy? Really?

  2 comments for “Why Are Third-Rate Ideas Better Than First-Rate Ideas?

  1. Nino Ramos
    June 12, 2014 at 19:09

    This is exactly how I felt during my kanji phase. At first I thought it would be a great idea to create my own Kanji deck but I realized how tedious that is. So instead I downloaded a pre-made RTK deck. Then during the middle of the phase, I was beginning to get sick of making up my stories. so for most of the remaining kanji to be learned I decided to use RevTek site to finish the process quicker by using someones story. But nevertheless I got RTK through anyways. Haha

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