Motivation and habits when learning a skill – Part 1/2


Statue at Samgwangsa temple in Busan, Korea
Statue at Samgwangsa temple in Busan, Korea

Of course motivation is not permanent. But then, neither is bathing; but it is something you should do on a regular basis.
― Zig Ziglar

In my previous blog post, I wrote at length about ways to fight procrastination, and to get stuff done. The natural follow-up, then, is to talk about motivation.

What separates truly high achievers from the rest of the pack? Daniel Coyle’s answer—author of The Talent Code, a book that talks about how “talent” is not innate, but rather grown—is that they are those people with a higher level of commitment—call it passion—born out of our deepest unconscious desires and triggered by certain primal cues. Understanding how these signals work can help you ignite passion and catalyze skill development.

Motivation, is, to put it simply, the single most important aspect in learning just about any skills. Without motivation (read: interest), learning a skill such as a foreign language is next to impossible. Do you remember learning French or Spanish in middle or high school? High school is not the most motivating environment there is, and for most people who have studied a foreign language there for 2 to 4 years or more, upon graduation they get around to successfully saying “hello”, “how are you”, and “my name is” in the foreign language in question. Not the most impressive achievement.

So how can you become more motivated? How can you get inspired? How can you turn something that you thought was once dull and boring, into something that lights a fire of passion inside of you? And how can you keep yourself motivated once you’re on the right path and not give up halfway through? We’ll first have a look at ignition: what can ignite a desire to learn a particular thing, and what are the reasons you might want to learn something. On Part 2, we’ll follow up with the importance of developing habits, and we’ll end on a discussion concerning the type of goals that you can set for yourself, and how to draw up a curriculum.


J. Pierpont Morgan, a famous American financier, banker and philanthropist at the turn of the 20th century, observed, in one of his analytical interludes, that a person usually has two reasons for doing a thing: one that sounds good, and a real one. Whatever the nice-sounding reason you’re telling your amigos when asked the question “why did you start learning such-and-such foreign language?”, you need to be keenly aware of the real reason you’re learning it, and that real reason should preferably be a good one. I understand that a “good reason” is a very subjective notion, but people who start learning Chinese because it “sounds cool” or because it would “impress people” are usually the first ones to give up.

Usually, making money is a reason/goal good enough to keep you motivated for long periods of time, but enjoyment is what I’ve found to be the most reliable—hence the motto for this blog: language learning is a journey, not a destination. I would encourage you to think of learning as such: enjoy the journey, enjoy the actual process of learning, and don’t just keep your eyes on the end result. Doing so would be very demotivating, because you can always remind yourself of how far you are from your “goals”, or “destination”.

Good ideas to motivate you to learn a foreign language, for example, would be to plan a trip abroad in a couple of months, or in a year or two. Or it could be a plan to study in a university abroad, where the language of instruction is not your mother tongue. You could also learn a foreign language to meet new people, such as by joining the local clubs/communities of native speakers of the language you’re learning (check out Craigslist), or to increase your prospects of getting a (new) job, or to simply enjoy learning about a different culture and way of viewing the world.

Whatever your true reason to learn something is, make it better than “it sounds cool”. Lastly, motivation can be gained by looking at successful people. TED Talks are a great way to get inspired, and you can find TED Talks on a wide array of subject, from being productive to being a weekday vegetarian. YouTube has also a very active polyglot community, and feeling part of a community and being inspired by successful learners of a skill can really boost your motivation.

This is the end of part 1 for this post on motivation and habits. In part 2, we’ll examine how to develop habits to automate our learning process, and to leverage growth-based goals and develop a curriculum.

By Lingholic

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