How the student who refused to speak Spanish taught me the language of success.

Bro, I think we've had enough of your Spanish here.

In order to succeed you must fail, so that you know what not to do the next time. Anthony J. D’Angelo.

Let’s say you’re trying to learn the Argentinian tango or trying to get your book published.

Imagine trying to become a world-famous Chef like Julia Childs. Or even Julie Powell for that matter, who spent everyday of a full year cooking up one of Julia Childs’s recipes.

Or pretend you’re on the run from the authorities and need to spend a few months in the Central Americas, let’s say Nicaragua for now, and are trying to learn Spanish.

How do you do something you’ve never done before and excel?

How do you get good at something? What’s the language for success?

As you know, I’m in the spiritually buzzing city of Granada, Nicaragua, learning Spanish.  I took 4 years of high school Spanish but like my French, oh, I’ve never learnt or spoken a word of French in my life!), my Spanish had become rusty. When I snuck into Nicaragua this past month, however, I’ve only spoken Spanish at home, at school, church, and to people on the street.

In fact, here I am with the Spanish school director (who refuses to publicly acknowledge I’m a student of the school):

Don't ever tell anyone you studied here.

The student who wouldn’t speak Spanish.

At Spanish school, I met a fellow-student who had visited Nicaragua several times now but she still didn’t speak Spanish much.  She’s understood everything people were saying to her but usually did not respond. I probed her a little bit trying to inquire why she didn’t want to speak the language.

She said that she didn’t want to look bad by speaking it wrong. She wanted to speak it perfectly, so would continue to think about each word and sentence and perfect conjugation before saying what she wanted to say.

I, on the other hand, was told by my Spanish teacher on the first day of class that I speak Spanish like a ‘directionless bird’ – without any reference to tenses, time or proper conjugation. I’m not trying to brag in any way here about my bird-like ability to speak Spanish but I have and continue to reach a level of proficiency that I can get my basic point across (no matter how bad it comes out) and carry on a conversation.

That’s when I realized the successful ingredient to speaking Spanish or being successful in anything in life.

1. The language to success is learnt by failure.

Instead of hiding from the language or something new, the best way to master it is to attack it. You have to jump in there and get your hands dirty (if cooking), your feet dirty (if playing soccer) or your mouth dirty when speaking Spanish (You know what I mean!).

You must persist in pursuing a new skill or habit you desire to master, and be prepared to do it wrongly, incorrectly and so bad that you’ll be laughed at!

2. Cuddle with AND embrace failure. And no I’m not suggesting you go to bed with that loser ex of yours:) Not only is it a good idea to fail and fail often but also FAIL BIG. Because the more you fail, the more you’re learning. Most people don’t like the idea of failing because they look bad or feel embarrassed. But the flip side of never failing is never learning and never growing.

If you’re trying to learn a new course, a new language, mastering becoming a ninja, trying to become a yoga instructor, then go out and fail. It’s the same way when we were learning to ride a bike or mastered our handwriting as kids. We didn’t just come out on the first time and excel at it. We continued to mess up, look bad, feel horrible, had our parents yell at our incompetence before we figured it out and mastered it.

3. Treat your failures as your building blocks to success. When you do fail and do fail big, treat those failures as the vault of your future success.

People think the more you fail, the more of a loser you are. What if instead, the more you fail means that the more you know how not to fail in the future. And if you fail a lot now then you can’t help but being successful at the skill you desire to master, the habit you desire to have or the business you desire to build.

So, I’m not going to tell you to go out and pursue success. No, my friend, I’ve learnt that the language to success is failing big and often. Falling flat on your face is a good thing.

My Spanish teachers hate me and are trying to ban me from coming back to the school because I speak the language horribly but I’m speaking it everyday, conversing with people and getting better.

The other day, I told the woman who tried to sell me a wallet that I wanted a $10 cordoba ($.50 US) discount because I didn’t want a plastic bag for the wallet. No, she didn’t give me a discount and no I didn’t buy the wallet but we both conversed without the dialogue turning too violent or her ripping me off.

Go on now – go FAIL at something. Keep failing your way to success.

Do you agree about failing being the recipe for success? Do you love to fail or do you embrace failing like a shark in an aquarium?

P.S. Can you do me a favor and share this article with the patrons at the pub you’re reading this post at? Or via social media, if easier. Cheers!

19 Comments

    1. Thanks Wendy, as hard as we don’t want to fail and as difficult as it is to face failures, it’s the only way to grow, learn and get somewhere!

  1. So true. When I lived in Thailand, I took lessons to understand the basic structure of the language, but I was speaking Thai every day. Talk about failing! When you are speaking a tonal language and the same syllable (with different tones) can mean either “beautiful” or “a curse on your mother’s grave” (or something to that effect), then you have to be willing to give it a try and hope that your idiotic smile will get you through the rough patches. I found that a willingness to laugh with others at your mistakes goes a long way.

    Conversely, when my daughter joined our family after growing up in China (she was 15), I vowed to learn Chinese since she was going to have to learn English. I audited two years of college level Chinese, and studied all the time, but didn’t really learn to speak it at all because I didn’t try.

    Okay, one more example and then I’ll stop! Nothing like seeing a 60 year old granny out there jumping around yelling and kicking in a taekwondo class to prove the point of this article!!

    1. thanks for sharing your experiences with Thai Galen. That was funny – the difference between beautiful and what’s a curse:) Laughing makes all the difference – even moreso when the people who you speak the language to laugh at you hahahaha

      And regarding Chinese – seems like the most difficult language ever so I completely understand. I think at least attending the class was trying:) not sure if you had a chance to speak it outside or not, or even speak the language with your daughter?

      Glad you’re taking taekwando. I did when I was younger. I know what it’s like to fail often in martial arts:) But failing is winning, right?

  2. I absolutely hate failure, as most perfectionists do; we can’t cope with it. But since I didn’t have a choice, I’ve had to figure out how to re-build a life from the wreckage of falling on my face. Still, given a choice, that is NOT the way I’d like to learn!

    1. hey Bri – although I suggest we go out and fail, I don’t think we can actually do that:) We have to go out there and try to accomplish things and end up failing in the process which is never enjoyable. I know it’s not the way you like to learn (or any of us really) but the fact that you’ve rebuilt your life from a very low point means that you can come back in any situation, doesn’t it? The more you build up from failures and from the bigger failures, I think the more success comes your way:) after? What do you think?

  3. Very relevant for me, this learning a language malarkey. I took French at school but like most students, did not learn anything that is practical to use in the real world (surprisingly, not many people ask how many brothers and sisters you have….).

    It’s all about having the balls to make a few mistakes, isn’t it? It’s taken me a while to build up the courage as who wants to be laughed at? Nobody actually laughs at you though – the fact that you try and speak their native tongue is endeering and they want to help.

    Bonne chance cheri….

    1. I should have used you as an example as well Razwana and gotten all your personal examples. I mean forget learning the language and improving for fun – you’re do or dying in French. You’ve got to figure out a way to speak it to around town, do business and even at your work, I imagine? Maybe you can write that post, huh? for your blog soon:) about your experiences with French.

      Exactly, no one laughs at you when you make mistakes – everyone is so grateful that we’re trying and want us to succeed and speak better. Fail more – succeed more. Thanks for your comments.

      1. It’s a nightmare in France – especially when they look at you like you are a complete idiot! (and I end up feeling like one). I had a visit to make to the doctor this morning as part of health checks for work – you can imagine the fun and games I had there! I decided to take my French/English dictionary with me and my phrasebook.

        The problem is not saying what you want to say – it’s understanding the responses you receive! What have you experienced in this regard?

        1. hi Razwana – yeah, I know what you mean. My problem has never been communicating. I do it badly but I get my point across. But you’re talking about comprehension which has also been my challenge. When people speak slower and try to enunciate their words and speak directly to me, I have a much better chance of understanding. Otherwise, I have no idea what’s going on if I eavesdrop into a conversation. I think the only tip I could offer is practice speaking with people:) The more we talk, the more we hear what others are saying and the more we improve our conversational abilities!

          I think it’s a challenge (nightmare as you say:) you’ll soon overcome and having French language abilities is a lifetime asset and skill!

  4. Why oh why don’t they teach stuff like this in schools? There, “fail” has only one meaning. I love all your ingredients to success but especially #3 Failures as building-blocks for success. If we could just remember that when we fail 😮
    Lori

    1. Thanks Lori, it’s hard to think of it that way when we’re going through the experience of failure but soon after if we could reflect and learn form it, it’s a big win.

      And absolutely, they make us feel like a failure in school when we do fail instead of taking failure and trying to help inspire, motivate and turn things around.

  5. I like to think I use my failures to help with future successes. If we dwell on them, they will only turn into more failures. I love this post. You are truly speaking the truth.

    1. Hey Meg, yes, we got to just think about them, reflect, learn the lessons and improve our lives because of the failures. We don’t have to worry about failing – it will come our way but we can take a failing experience and change it to a very positive one where we can learn and grow from it. Appreciate the encouragement:)

  6. “Go on now – go FAIL at something. Keep failing your way to success.”

    Aah, Vishnu. This post should be read at every graduation ceremony at every school in the world.

    I’ve never met an ultra successful person who didn’t share stories of unbelievably devastating, embarrassing (to him/her) failures. Super athletes. Entrepreneurs. Authors. Teachers. Artists. Musicians. Always have stories of failures.

    This post reminds me of my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quote of all time: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short time and time again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself a worthy cause; who if he wins knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

    There’s nothing more beautiful than a bold soul, warmed by failures, even if it takes a long time to see successes and even if those success never come.

    High five, V. This one is extra great.

    1. Thanks as always for your encouragement and support Jody. It’s great having your own 1-person cheer-leading squad. yeah, I think the message that says go out and fail is often missed at graduation or advice by anyone – everyone talks about success. Success doesn’t happen overnight. The more you fail, the more you succeed:) I think watching the Olympics now is going to give us brilliant stories of failures and how these athletes overcame them to succeed like they are today.

      Thanks for sharing your quote too which is now one of my favorites! I think the best part of blogging for me is learning from my fellow bloggers and getting great tips, quotes and advice from them (like that quote!!)

  7. Vishnu,

    Wonderful!!

    I’m reminded of a time when I was 13 and on an exchange program in Colombia. I had been doing all of the understanding of Spanish coming in but speaking back in English. One day I was at my host’s home alone, answered the phone, and answered in what I thought was perfectly understandable Spanish. After a moment of confusion the person at the other end said,”Oh! You must be the American girl!” and gave up 🙂 Oh well, at least I tried!

    1. thanks Julie – hilarious story! I love how you understood the part that – oh, you must be the American girl and hung up. NOw, did they happen to say that in Spanish? If so, kudos on understanding them:) Must have been an adventure of a lifetime having been in Colombia.

  8. Hey Vishnu,

    I’m with Bri on this one about the perfectionist thingamajig. I have been slowly killing the perfectionist part of me and he is dying slowly, but he keeps some of the ‘fear of failure’ alive. You are right though, our failures can be our biggest learning experiences.

    “Why do we fall down, Sir?”
    “So we can learn to pick ourselves up”
    (Alfred – The Legend: Batman Begins)

    Great post.

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