Sucking at Japanese

I have never been willing to suffer through sucking at things: either I was naturally talented at something, or I didn’t do it. Growing up, this bullshit attitude was possible thanks to being blessed with more than my fair share of talents. However, due to laziness and an anxiety disorder, I developed too few of those talents into skills.

For example: as a child I had a natural affinity and talent for goalkeeping, both in soccer and street hockey. Unfortunately, my first foray into organized sports was with a coach who was more interested in winning and yelling than educating. One season of that was more than enough to permanently associate team sports with terror, embarrassment, and misery. (Actually, in hindsight, I’m pretty sure I hit the nail squarely on the head with that one, so maybe Coach did me a favor in the long run.) Since my parents were not the types to insist I do anything I not want to, that was the end of that.

Even so, I continued to play sports in a pick-up capacity, and particularly enjoyed goalkeeping. That is, until later elementary school when the training of those in team sports outstripped my natural talent. Once I started to suck, my laziness engaged and I quit rather than strive to keep up. This same basic trend played out in most areas of my life. The skills I did develop came out of pursuing mental escape from education and educators: doodling led to drawing and reading to writing. Then in grade ten I discovered marijuana. The predictable results of that are for another essay.

Be all that as it may, I managed to get all the way through university without ever having to learn how to study properly. Careful course selection and nightmarish cramming sessions got me through the worst of it. Being an intelligent and talented bullshit artist is well more than enough when your only goal is scraping by in a liberal arts degree. Until recently, I never had to work hard at getting results in something I wasn’t good at. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked hard at developing the skills I have, but they are things I had a talent for to begin with, which I enjoy doing for their own sake.

But the party has come to an end. I am at a stage in life where I must learn to speak Japanese; to do otherwise would be completely ignorant, in every sense of the word. Unfortunately, language learning is a special kind of hell for me. Whatever the opposite of talent is, that’s what I have. Nothing sticks. And here I am with the study skills and habits of a cocker spaniel. Not that I’m complaining; the reasons for having to learn the language are all really great. So buckle up, Sunshine, it is time for your medicine.

It’s been an interesting and humbling journey. In forcing myself to study, I was pushed into a kind of regression back to the horrors of childhood. The first step is infantile rage. “I don’t wanna!” Then there’s the fall back to unproductive time wasting. The appearance of study always got Dad and Teacher of my back before. The problem is, I’m not studying to quiet an authority figure or get a minimal grade here; I need tangible results. Then comes the embarrassment and shame. “I put in X hours of study, and Y is the result of my efforts? I suck.” Every interaction at a store’s till feels like a quiz in front of the class.

This leads to the inevitable comparisons. “So and So learned this shit the first time she heard it. I have to drill it fifty times over three weeks and my retention is still under twenty percent. I suck.”

I began to feel like Sisyphus Junior: but instead of a rock up a hill, I get vocab flashcards. And Sisyphean plodding was how I approached study for a long while. The same resigned stubbornness that got me through many an underpaid double shift.

Then, slowly, things began to change. Or, rather, I began to change. Our brains and our minds are not blocks of stone; they are clay. It may take a long time and a lot of work to change our form, but we can do it. I suck because I never engaged in the work that leads to not sucking. Bit by bit, day by day, card by card, I suck a little less.

Yes, there are people with talent who will always outperform me, no matter how hard I work. But I aint one of them, and complaining about that is futile at best. Comparisons are odious, especially when we force them on ourselves. Nothing productive comes of it.

The lesson here is that when you find you are getting your ass kicked by something (or someone), do your best to ask: is this because it sucks or because I suck? Working hard at sucking less, little by little, is never going to be fun, but it carries its rewards into all other aspects of life. So keep your shoulder into it and focus on the work. Given that, the results will take care of themselves.

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