Success in Language Learning, or Why Passion is Overrated and Goals Are For Losers


Success language learning passion goals

Scott Adams, best-selling author and creator or the world-famous Dilbert comic strip, holds that passion is overrated and that goals are, quite literally, for losers.

“That’s literally true most of the time,” he says of goal oriented people in his latest book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. “For example,” he adds, “if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.”

In the realm of language learning, it might mean something like what cartoonist Malachi Ray Rempen has depicted in this popular Itchy Feet comic episode:

Itchy Feet Comic - Mount Fluency

In other words, if you’re constantly eyeing “Mount Fluency” as you proceed the long climb that is foreign language acquisition, you may very well increase your odds of giving up before even reaching conversation ridge, or so the argument goes.

“And what about passion?”, you may ask. Almost every successful language learner will at one time or another, when asked about the “secret” to their success, respond that passion is the key ingredient to the secret sauce. Passion is sexy and, as Adams would add, it feels very democratic and accessible. “It is the people’s talent, available to all.”

And yet, uncommon as the following example may be, people such as polyglot Benny Lewis, who runs one of the most successful language learning blogs on the internet and who’s learned 12 languages over the past 10+ years, claims that passion is not part of his toolbox. In fact, he admittedly doesn’t even like learning languages.

Besides, what about passionate language learners who don’t get to be interviewed simply because they haven’t been that successful, after all? You know, those who got halfway to conversation ridge and who decided to climb back down to the base camp — perhaps because they felt they just didn’t have what it took to make it to the top? It seems fair to assume that there are a lot of those people too; in fact probably a much larger number than the ones making headlines for their foreign language speaking prowess.

So is passion indeed overrated, and are goals for losers? And why should you care as a language learner?

To answer this question, let us begin at a different place, in the realm of psychology and at the thrilling edge of scientific discoveries that explain why habits exist and how they can be changed.

Developing the Right Routine: The Power of Habits

Habits shape our lives far more than we realize. They can cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense and, of course, success in language learning. From ancient Greeks to the labs of MIT, the conclusion is strikingly similar: we are governed by habits, whether we like it or not.

The great ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle once said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” And he happens to be backed by modern academia: one paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits. In fact, habits are so important that the World Bank, the world’s largest development institution whose goal is to eradicate poverty on a global scale, has dedicated the latest issue of its most important and influential annual report on human decision making (“Mind, Society, and Behavior”), one of three principles of which is “automatic thinking”.

“Psychologists have long distinguished two kinds of processes that people use when thinking,” the report goes. “Those that are fast, automatic, effortless, and associative; and those that are slow, deliberative, effortful, serial, and reflective”. As you’ll have probably guessed, the former speaks to automatic thinking, or what we more commonly refer to as habits.

The report further emphasizes the following:

“In reality, the automatic system influences most of our judgments and decisions, often in powerful and even decisive ways. Most people, most of the time, are not aware of many of the influences on their decisions. People who engage in automatic thinking can make what they themselves believe to be large and systematic mistakes; that is, people can look back on the choices they made while engaging in automatic thinking and wish that they had decided otherwise.”

Scott Adams adds that if you believe people use reason for important decisions in life, “you will go through life feeling confused and frustrated that others seem to have bad reasoning skills”. “The reality”, he highlights, “is that reason is just one of the drivers of our decisions, and often the smallest one”.

So over the years you may have, say, developed a habit of turning on the TV as soon as you come back from work or school. While last year you may have committed yourself to start learning French in earnest for the New Year (or, say, set the goal of “becoming fluent” in the language), you may now look back at what’s happened over the past several months and realize just how far you’ve fallen off the mark. You wish you had decided otherwise and made better choices, but you didn’t. Sounds familiar? Of course it does, because it happens to almost every one of us.

So what’s the problem? Did you lack passion? Possibly. Did you fail to develop sustainable habits? Most certainly. And the solution? Let’s dive right into it.

Habit Loops, or How to Change Any Habits

The Power of Habit - Habit LoopIn The Power of Habit, Pulitzer Prize–winning business reporter Charles Duhigg takes us to the thrilling edge of scientific discoveries that explain why habits exist and how they can be changed. Scientists say habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. “Left to its own devices,” Duhigg indicates, “the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.”

So are we the slaves of our own habits, and are they the masters of our destiny? Well, not so fast. Think about it for a moment: if you took a human from a remote, landlocked community where no one has ever heard of a thing called swimming, and you threw him in the ocean, it’s likely that he would panic and drown. Swimming isn’t entirely natural to humans, and neither is playing the guitar, driving a car, or surfing for that matter. We need to learn those things. The good news is that developing healthy habits, or getting rid of not-so-good ones, is also something that can be learned. It just happens that the science behind this whole process was unknown to us until a team of brainy MIT researchers began pondering about that problem in the early 1990s.

Indeed, MIT researchers discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts: first, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental, or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Let’s take a simple example to concretize this concept further. When you show up at the office, you happen to start craving a muffin and a coffee in the early afternoon at more or less the same time, every day. That’s your cue. Your routine is to show up at the cafeteria with a colleague and buy your coffee and muffin. The reward is that you get to socialize with your co-worker and relax. If we were to picture this particular habit loop, it would look something like this:

Habit Loop - Going to the cafeteria

As Duhigg mentions, the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth. “When a habit emerges,” he continues, “the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”

To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your own habit loop(s) — this is crucial. Once you have diagnosed a particular behavior’s habit loop, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines. For example, there are good chances that you have a tendency to compulsively check your social media feed. This is your routine. Your cue is likely to be boredom, or simply the fact that you have your smartphone handy (it is your job to identify the exact cue that has led you to develop this habit; oftentimes it’s not self-evident). The reward is brief entertainment, or at least a brief respite from boredom. But here’s the cool thing: by “hacking” your social media feed through a few simple steps, you can actually leverage your bad habit to your advantage to learn a foreign language. It doesn’t take a lot of effort or willpower, and over the long-run it’ll bring some real results.

Another example is in regard to language courses: while registering for one can be tremendously helpful in acquiring a foreign language (especially for those of us out there lacking a bit in self-discipline), most language students have the bad habit of failing to make their target language truly part of their lives. As soon as they exit the classroom door they revert back to their daily routine of doing everything they usually do in their target language, including things such as watching TV, reading the news, and talking with friends. By not making use of the knowledge acquired in the classroom and incorporating it into their personal lives, language students waste a golden opportunity to leverage their routine to their advantage, allowing for the acquisition of a foreign language at a much faster pace.

Finally, you should note that besides the importance of identifying the components of your habits, Duhigg mentions the “Golden Rule” of habit change: if you keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. It’s as simple as that. But scientists have found that for habits to permanently change, people must believe that change is feasible. For the rest, though, you’ll have to get yourself a copy of Duhigg’s book; it might just happen to be the best couple of bucks you’ll ever get to spend this year.

System-Versus-Goals Model, or Why Goals Are For Losers

By now I may have somewhat convinced you that, after all, habits do matter. And perhaps more importantly, you may have realized that–if we are to believe MIT researchers, that is–habits can be changed and there’s a science behind the whole process.

But we also all sort of know instinctively that passion and ruthless goal setting is what drives all of this, whether it’s a habit loop or an unfettering drive to reach the distant, ambitious goal of “becoming fluent” in a given foreign language. In fact,  you’ve probably been bombarded with popular sayings such as “set goals if you want to accomplish anything substantial in life” or a variation thereof. Plus, every time you’ve seen interviews of mind-blowingly successful individuals, you’ve likely noticed a tendency for them to drop the word “passion” every now and then.

So we need to be passionate and goal oriented, and success will come chasing us like a mad dog after its tail.

But what if… things didn’t actually work that way? Well, it’s certainly a worthwhile “what if” to ask, wouldn’t you say?

If you remember, Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ argument is that goals are for losers (and a bit more bluntly, that passion is bullshit). Adams defines a “goal” as a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. “Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out”, Adams points out. “And if you achieve your goal”, he adds, “you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure”.

And when it comes to passion, we know that passionate people who fail don’t get a chance to offer their advice to the rest of us. But successful passionate people are writing books and answering interview questions about their secrets for success every day. “Naturally, those successful people want you to believe that success is a product of their awesomeness,” Adams states, “but they also want to retain some humility. You can’t be humble and say, ‘I succeeded because I am far smarter than the average person.’ But you can say your passion was a key to your success, because everyone can be passionate about something or other.”

According to Adams, the alternative to getting trapped into believing that passion and goal setting is all that matters in skills acquisition is to approach learning from a systems perspective. Simply put, a system is something you do on a regular basis and which increases your odds of success or happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal. Adams underlines that being systems oriented allows him to grow more capable every day, no matter the fate of the project he happens to be working on (think language learning in our case).

Do you see the parallel that we can draw between approaching learning from a systems perspective and developing healthy, sustainable habits (the topic of the previous section)? Well, let me spell it out for you: they’re essentially the same thing.

So how can you use this knowledge to your advantage, in real life? Let’s turn to the next section.

Climbing Mt. Fluency, One Step at a Time

Mount-Fluency - Itchy Feet Comic

The great thing about the science behind developing habits and Scott Adams’ insights into the systems-vs-goal model is that all of this can be applied not only to language learning but to any other learning endeavor. But since we’re on the topic of climbing Mt. Fluency, you might be wondering what all of this means to you concretely, i.e. how you can act upon the information you’ve been digesting thus far.

Let’s start with this: rather than setting big, vague goals that you’re highly unlikely to reach–for example, “I will become fluent in French by the end of next year”–try approaching the climbing of Mt. Fluency from a systems perspective. That is, start building sustainable habits that will get you through motivation peaks and troughs.

It comes down to using the Golden Rules of habit to insert a new routine into your daily life, but by keeping the same cue and reward for a particular activity (say, watching TV, using Facebook, snacking on the couch, etc.). In the end, you may not know which path along Mt. Fluency will get you to the top, but by approaching the climb from a systems perspective, you can be sure that you’re seriously increasing your chances of choosing the route that’ll get you to the top sooner or later.

You may think listening to 30 minutes of your favorite language learning audio method every day sounds like a goal. But for our purposes, unlike goals systems have no deadlines, and on any given day you probably can’t tell if they’re moving you in the right direction. In the long run, they add up to something that’s pretty impressive, like the ability to have a conversation with a native speaker on the streets of Paris, or the ability to understand a movie in your target language. While we can argue about semantics, the important thing to take home from what we’ve covered thus far is that you should approach language learning from a habit-building, systems perspective. Thinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has real power. Use that to your advantage.

What Are Your Thoughts?

While you may not be the impassioned but highly successful language learner characterized by Benny Lewis and a few others, you may not either be the type of person who calls to Walmart service centers around the world just to practice their language skills (now that smells like raw passion).

The question is: do habits, or a systems approach to acquiring skills, indeed trump passion? And are you convinced that goals are for losers?

Let us know in the comment section below.

By Lingholic

16 thoughts on “Success in Language Learning, or Why Passion is Overrated and Goals Are For Losers”

  1. Passion is NOT bullshit. If you don’t feel strongly about something, you can’t even develop good habits towards achieving excellence. I learn a language simply because I’m interested in it. Try getting an indifferent student to learn something and observe.

    1. I understand your point, NKT. However, the question is whether passion brings success or whether it’s the opposite. People such as Scott Adams argue that, rather than passion bringing success, becoming successful at something brings passion. After all, there are a lot of people out there who are extremely passionate about doing a certain activity and yet they may not become successful at it. In the end, whether developing solid habits in any particular area requires passion is up for debate. I have no doubts you have developed a habit of brushing your teeth every day, but it does not mean you’re passionate about it. Habits control our lives without us realizing it; the crux of the article is that habits can be change and by approaching habit formation from a systems perspective, it can lead to great results in the mid to long-term. What do you think?

    2. I’ve had plenty of experience with people who are not passionate about a subject but understand that it is required of them in order to achieve something else who have learned that subject very well. There is a big difference between not being passionate (meh) about something and being oppositional (argh! God this is boring, what’s the point?) to it. But I’m quite sure that more than 75% of students who are getting 4.0s at their University are not passionate about the majority of the classes they are taking. In regards to most adult language learners, I think you are right. Most of us are doing this as a hobby and I can’t see the point in putting in so much effort if it’s not something we love. But I’ve also known adults learning English who have learned it well because they had to learn it well to be successful at their jobs. They could not have cared less if it was English or French or whatever. They did it because they needed to and they did it very well. Whats-more, I don’t think a lot of these people would have said they were passionate about their careers either.

    1. Do you think you absolutely need to have a goal, i.e. a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future, in order to achieve success?

    2. The idea that success in all things can be encoded in a simplistic formula like that is absurd. First off it completely fails to take into account the inherent randomness that effects every aspect of human endeavor from the thoughts we think while we shower to what we decide to do on a Saturday night to the friendships we form to car accidents or cancer or to a global economic crisis. Real success is far more about what we choose to do in the face of things that happen to us and those choices are frequently limited by factors out of our control.

  2. I get the systems vs goals thing, and I mostly agree with it (although you must have a destination in mind to avoid meandering meaninglessly; for example, knowing how you want to use a language will help you know what to focus on). I dislike the way Benny Lewis’ quote is used out of context, though. Yes, he says he doesn’t enjoy learning a language. That’s not the passion he’s talking about. He doesn’t learn languages for their own sake. As he often says, he does it because he enjoys communicating with people. That’s where his passion lies, and the part that helps drive one forward. I can’t imagine that I’d put in as much time as I have to learn what I’m learning if I didn’t feel passionate about it. I’m not going to rely on my passion to get me through every day’s practice or lessons. Developing a system makes a difference there. But my passion is what got me to set that up in the first place. Otherwise, why did I start?

    1. Good point, Erik. But a lot of passionate language learner end up giving up nevertheless, don’t they? Does passion alone provide the fuel necessary to go through the peaks and troughs of motivation, among others? While passion can certainly help, in the long run developing solid habits may prove more sustainable.

      And I do not believe Benny’s quotation was used out of context; the bottom line is that he did admit he dislikes learning languages. Of course, nobody learns languages for its own sake; some people learn them to communicate with others, whereas some others learn them to better their career/earnings prospects. Many have a host of other reasons. In the end, though, whether they’re passionate about communicating with people from different backgrounds or making big bucks, it doesn’t change the fact that learning a language may come off as a chore rather than something truly exciting. In the long run, developing sustainable habits can make the whole process easier and enhance one’s chances at making progress without giving up because of a sudden lack of interest or passion.

      1. First, I’m going to say what I should have above, and thank you for bringing this book to my attention. After researching it a little more, I’ve decided to buy and read it. I don’t expect to agree with everything 100%, but I do expect to learn more than a few things from it.

        Second, I’m going to talk out of my ass and say that I don’t think Scott Adams really believes all goals are bad or that all passion is bullshit. I expect he sees more nuance than that in the world but he’s using strong language to break through people’s deeply held misconceptions.

        As an example: I think it would be silly of me to say that I’ll be conversational in Swedish by December, and fluent by next June. If I’ve never learned a language before, how would I know how long it will take? And yet there is advice to make just such goals, and I agree that they are not helpful. However, having goals such as becoming minimally conversational in Spanish because I expect to take regular vacations in Mexico, or becoming highly fluent in Russian so that I can read the classics in their original language, are the kind of helpful goals that will direct my learning plans. Both of those goals are very different from each other and would mean a different approach to how I go about studying those languages.

        II must say, it feels like you are implying that Benny’s message is purely about passion, and that is far from the truth. He does list it as an essential ingredient, and says that those with passion do better than those without, but he also gives a lot of the same advice you did here, about making learning a part of one’s daily routine. As easy as it is to point at the broad points he makes about passion, he also makes a lot of very specific points about direct techniques that will allow one to develop a system.

        I’m going to repeat myself from above, using your words, because I must not have said it well the first time: I completely agree that “developing sustainable habits can make the whole process easier and enhance one’s chances at making progress.” However, I don’t see this as an either/or thing with goals+passion on one side and sustainable habits on the other. I think all of those pieces can work together, as @joker159:disqus said in a perfectly succinct way above.

  3. I wouldn’t say goals are for losers, as long as they are aligned with your core values and mission. What I do agree is that the process of achieving your goal, which implies in developping new habits, are more important than the outcome.

    1. I agree with you Sergio. The process of achieving one’s goal is definitely more important than the outcome. The problem is when people only focus on their goals but forget about the process!

      1. The comment above summarizes the crux of the issue perfectly. What truly hinders learning is the student’s lack of day-to-day, consistent work.

        We all know that people can hold jobs that don’t interest them, sometimes even with active dislike, and still “succeed” (in this case meaning “to meet or exceed expectations”). They succeed because, for whatever reason, they believe they must. Necessity motivates them.

        However, many language learners do not believe that they actually need to learn their target languages. When faced with the daily committment that a new language requires, what do they have to motivate them?

  4. We often think passion as a key but the truth is, we all language learnes can easily say that we are passionate about learning the language. However when we consider the reality most of us are passionate but not very systematic. We really love studying but do it rarely, mostly in my case. For me, passion is the shiny window of the learning process but at the bottom the one who studies systematically wins. I couldnt agree more to this topic. Thank you.

  5. This was a good read. Something I’ve written on previously is that most people value the least important aspects of language learning the most and only give the most important aspects an occasional thought. IMO, it’s People, Process, Goals, and Material in that order. To really learn a language we need a social group of native or at least fluent speakers who can help us by practicing our language skills with us and providing feedback. Show me a single learner who’s achieved fluency without having formed friendships with native speakers (tutors, language partners, whatever)! These bonds keep learners going when “passion” by itself cannot. What you’ve called systems, I generally call process. Good learning habits trump rigid goals because without them we can’t execute tactically (the process) on the strategy (goal) we’ve chosen. A goal serves really only one purpose: to act as a marker so that we can evaluate our process to ensure it’s efficient and effective. And the least important thing is what most learners focus on the most: materials. A student who has 3 or so native speakers he can talk to and correspond with, has good study habits, and has set a measurable goal will learn a language well even with mediocre learning materials. Obviously we don’t want bad or wrong materials but having “the best” stuff to help you learn is not nearly as important as many people make it out to be. Too many first time learners think, “If I just find the right course or method, this time I’ll get fluent.” But they never practice with natives because they are waiting until they “get better” but they never “get better” because they aren’t talking to natives and have crappy, inefficient learning habits.

  6. Huh. Well , this is certainly interesting. I’ve been searching for something more than “Passion , habit , 99% concentrated power of will.”. I’m a pessimistic person , and it hasn’t hindered me in the slightest. Heck , I’ve learned English by googling stuff I found in games and a few grammar courses. And Fanfiction. A lot of Fanfiction. I’m grateful for this article , since it showed me a new perspective.

  7. I used to be goal orientated – with repeated frustration. I now have a “1hr a day” habit and I’m slpwly progressing, no stress, and daily achievement. Sensible approach. Will I be fluent in Spanish in a year, no idea ! Will I be much better than now – of course

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