Why I suck at writing, hate reading and have never been able to pick up languages… and how I proved myself wrong.
I’m sitting in my dimly-lit third grade classroom. My mom and I are facing my English teacher, sitting in hard, vibrantly-colored, plastic chairs. My teacher was your typical sweet southern grandma, until she opened her mouth and shared her opinions.
“I know I’m not supposed to say it,” she said anyway, from her wrinkled, fuzz-covered lips, “but if I were you I’d go home and give him a good spanking.”
I don’t know if my mom nodded, ignored it, or what came after, other than the feeling of betrayal from my teacher, mom, and the educational system. I wasn’t a bad kid or bully, and never lobbed spitballs in class. This was Mrs. Manard’s solution to my “C” level performance.
Looking back, I tried things required to excel in school but, try as I might, I couldn’t do them the way I was supposed to. I disliked the slow pace of English class and reading large books that seemed irrelevant to my life. I already knew how to read, write, and speak. Knowing the rules to why one should never end a sentence with a preposition felt unimportant.
My foreign language class wasn’t much different. Aside from having a much nicer teacher, I didn’t do well memorizing all the rules. There was no satisfaction in the months of repetition required to eventually say “your cow is fat.”
I liked music, philosophy, painting, architecture, and sports. And finding ways to make money. None of these books, lectures, or classes helped move those interests forward.
Ironically, I loved learning. I was glued to PBS television programs. I loved understanding how things worked and chasing the”why” of our physical reality. I gravitated toward disciplines showing success and failure quickly and clearly. There was instant feedback and noticeable improvements from practice.
A few years later I discovered coding. Again I found a connection to the instant feedback from trial and error. A program would spit back whether you were right or wrong upon compilation. You knew instantly. Even if you had to tear your hair out to find a solution, there was satisfaction in knowing a discrete solution was hidden within the impartial logic of a computer.
So, I had my answers in my late teens:
I suck at english, and was unable to learn languages.
I wore it on my sleeve for decades.
Some stories, like mine above, become obsolete in adulthood, but never get a makeover.
Being a “bad speller,” “bad at math,” or “not being witty” are a few examples of stories you may have calcified during childhood. They are either told to us, beat into us, or remnants of unwanted consequences we had to endure.
These stories are as relevant to us now as a favorite toy or blanky. They are anchors that swaddle us in chains, leaving us comfortably limited. We see these features as foregone conclusions, but, somehow, we are unable to remember when these features formed or when we last questioned them.
Maybe it’s time to update our stories.
My childhood story above is part of my history. It made me who I am today. But, it’s based on old experiences and, therefore, likely outdated.
It’s time to create new ones that are more relevant to my current situation, environment, social circles, and interests. It’s not about changing who I am, but ensuring I am not limited to who I once thought I was.
Recognizing this immediately changed my perspective. I went from reasserting my shortcomings out of habit, to searching ways to reexamine them.
When asked “do you speak any other languages?” I caught myself responding with a canned “I am good with learning software languages, but have never been able to grasp foreign ones”. Sometimes I’d add comic relief with “I like computers more than humans anyway.” The first time I used that response was in high school. High school! How have I coasted on that response for so long? Hidden, very literally, under my nose.
With my revelation I began looking for language apps. If one didn’t suit me I tried another. I found groups at work that were studying languages. (Turns out a lot.) I Googled hacks to learn languages quickly. I found platforms that connect users to native speakers around the world so they could learn for pennies on the dollar. I kept what I liked and threw out what didn’t work for me.
Just over a year later, I’m speaking French and Spanish at an Intermediate level. Like a veil being lifted around me, I love recognizing the lyrics of foreign songs, working to keep up with rapid exchanges of dialogue in foreign flicks and eavesdropping on tourists to unravel their quickly articulated stories at my local coffee shop.
I then had to ask, is my line “I suck at English” or “I hate writing”, true? To answer that as an adult, I watched YouTube tips on writing, wrote blog posts every day for a year (as short or as bad as they were). I began to read all the books I wanted, sometimes a few at a time, many of which were required readings in school I had then skipped from “lack of interest”. Some, I never finished. I got a writing coach, and found tools and apps that served me better. I fell in love with the power, beauty and style of writing. I enjoyed the escape of binge reading classic fiction, then absorbing the lessons from a litany of non-fiction titles, and then reading nothing for months at a time. I took breaks not defeats. It was gradeless and fulfilling.
I may never have disliked any subject, be it Foreign Languages or English, but rather loved learning at my own pace and following my own interests. Worst of all, I let the construct of success and failure chisel its rules into me and never thought to question outcomes and decisions of a child.
Let’s let our old stories end, and make room for a new, liberating, reality.
You too can redefine your reality
I had to catch myself repeating old facts to myself and others, and then process whether it is an old fact I wish were different. That’s your clue. Then, allow myself to reset and re-create that truth from scratch.
- Catch yourself. When you hear yourself assertively self-deprecating what you’re capable of, replace it with “I haven’t taken time to be good at it.”
- Step back and see if you can pinpoint when you formed that opinion. Who were you then? Is it possible you’ve evolved in other ways since then? Do you view the issues that blocked you then still present now?
- Cut out something you do each week that doesn’t serve you. Do you spend hours on a phone or TV? Maybe cooking everyday is a burden, art or by one meal out it all you need. Can you trade a day, hour, or activity to investigate this question? Maybe block your work calendar for 30 mins, one day a week, or add an activity to your wake-up or sleep ritual. Maybe you mow the lawn one fewer time a month, and it grows just a bit longer. These are some of the thousands of trade-offs you can make to open yourself up to new possibilities. Personally I deleted all my social apps, and replaced them with Duolingo.
- Chose one thing from the list in #1 and start researching ways to engage with it for a few minutes gained in #2
Give it 6 months and see if your story changes.
– Dan Brown
In my journey from being “a writer hater to a writer lover”, finding the Nebo app was a defining moment. Of all the apps I tried, only Nebo could recognize my chicken scratch, retain my handwritten texts for review, and allow me an edit the original text before converting it to type.
Nebo beautifully melds the written form, digital tech, and typography. Its edit-gestures feel incredibly natural, the digital ink flows like your favorite pen, and the final product is compatible with the modern world. I’ve gained in all mediums and compromised in none.
It’s rare to find an app drives you to create opportunities to find excuses to use it. Especially when the app exists to enhance the mind, not rot it.
Chicken scratch interpreter
I’m amazed at how well the interpreter is, able to convert my god awful handwriting to text. It seems to combine A.I. OCR handwriting with grammar to assume a nearest approximation of what I’m trying to write. Whatever the methodology, the results far better than apple’s built-in note taking app.
Inline Editing in ink or between typed notes
In the event the interpreter fails, the editing features makes correcting easy and fun. For example, handwritten text is retained until you double tap it to convert to type.This allows you to review your writing before conversion. You can also preview the converted text in a banner scrolling horizontally above.
Wish List & Nits
Sometimes inspiration strikes right as I’m getting to bed. I reach for my iPad, open Nebo, and BAMB! An intensely white screen blinds me as my eyes try to adjust.
More Heading sizes
Simply put, H1 looks like H2, and I can’t bold text on Its own line without it becoming a heading. So, new H3?
Clearer New Line & Erase Interpreters
I like the natural feel of gestures. However, I find my self trying to gesture a new line over and over to no avail. I think the app can be smarter. Why not assume one new line is available, infinitely until converted. So, when I hit the end of a line I don’t need to gesture in the first place.
Where the hatred started
Writing has never been easy for me. It isn’t for a lack of wanting, and my early school years weren’t nurturing.
Since I can remember, I yearned for the ability to get all my thoughts, observations and theories onto paper. My hands just couldn’t keep up. When I took a shot at writing quickly, the results were illegible. When I took the time to write cleanly, the thoughts would slip through my fingers.
I couldn’t strike a balance and wasn’t willing to push through the torture of building skill through the slow, methodical, practice of writing and rewriting my ABCs. I neither had the penmanship nor the patience. And, with that, I could only assume writing wasn’t my thing.
This frustration as a child turned into a hatred toward writing, and that hatred turned into avoidance.
I slogged through school and found creative ways around my poor penmanship. It’s not like I didn’t love other art forms, but putting pen to paper felt dull, overly academic, and unimportant. I didn’t see how writing could have the same beauty and value as a Picasso, or express the emotions of a Rachmaninov.
In an adolescent, cool-guy way, I would take a sort of pride in “not being a writer.” Or, I’d say, “I’m good at other things — how about you write it up?” It was easier to do than admit I was bad at it. The way most children respond when they try to justify a lack of skill in some area.
That became my story. And it was left unedited for decades.
Along the way, with the advent of the computer, I thought I was saved. I was one of the lucky ones where writing by hand became obsolete in my lifetime. Good riddance. I could finally leave handwriting in the rearview.
Once I was out of school and gaining balance in the real world, I took another crack at writing. Now that writing by hand was no longer a blocker, and spelling and grammar was managed by machines, maybe I could become a writer after all.
Confronting what I now realize are years of excuses, I decided writing would no longer be a weakness in my armament of tools. It was time to revise my story. Since then, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do.
Okay, let’s try that again
In my 20s, when I started my first company, I realized the power of the written word. In order to communicate a vision at scale, one must codify their thoughts so others may follow. In order to improve, I started a blog and set out to post daily for a year. While I evolved considerably from my first post to my last, I still had a long way to go.
Years later, after hitting a plateau and going on hiatus, I decided to hire a writing coach. She swore by the power of “morning pages” laid out in the book “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. In it, the author believes one must return to the written form to connect with one’s inner artist. My new teacher passed on that requirement to me, and with it, I had come full circle. In order to learn to be a writer, I had to once again slog through my pitiful excuse of penmanship.
What surprised me about this go around was, for the first time, this teacher told me she didn’t care about how my writing looked or what it said. To her, none of that was important. She just wanted me to use my hand to write — anything. As long as paper and pencil were involved, she’d be happy.
It was — freeing.
It shut down the overly critical side of my brain, further imprisoned by early schooling.
I had a second wind.
I began to write in my notepad, about nothing, for five minutes a day. Through aches in my fingers, and in spite of all my ideas vanishing right as I picked up my pencil, I followed the prescription. I planted notebooks, pencils and sharpeners around the house, so nothing could get in the way when the compulsion to write struck. At times, when I had nothing to say, I would scribble some variation of, “I am writing this even though I can’t think of anything so that I don’t stop writing until my time is up.”
After a few weeks, I could see a connection forming between my hand and my mind. Where thoughts used to swirl around in my head and go nowhere, now they had an exit route. I developed a pavlovian reaction to search for paper when the marble in my head began to rattle. And, unlike the brevity of notes I took on my phone or computer, I found my handwritten entries getting longer at each session.
The potential was certainly there, but I still had one issue to overcome: I couldn’t read any of it.
Tech to the rescue
I’m a gadget guy. And, I’ve used my affinity toward doodads as a mental hack, tricking my mind to focus on important things I need to do that I have no interest in doing otherwise. Sure, I could vacuum and begrudgingly roll over the carpets while wishing I was doing anything else, but I prefer to get a Roomba, configure it, and whistle while it works.
“Hold on!” I thought one night, staring at my pad and pencil, mustering the strength to start yet another writing session. “Can this trick help solve my aversion to writing? If a pencil and paper is a painful reprise to teenage angst, modernizing my workbench with A.I. apps that digitize hand-written text via an iPad and Apple Pencil is a different beast entirely.”
I can get behind this.
I scoured the app store for apps that could recognize my chicken scratch, while providing the right amount of tech-nerdiness to put a spoonful of sugar into my writing regiment.
I knew I found “the one” with Nebo.
The app perfectly merged modern digital tech with old-school writing and I found myself looking forward to engaging with the experience. I went from being forced to do “morning pages” each day, to feeling like I couldn’t stop journaling, writing or editing my work. What started as a few sentences a day has now blossomed into pages. In fact, this very text is being tapped out on my iPad using my Apple Pencil while laying in bed at 11:14PM with my wife asleep beside me, and I am having trouble stopping.
Whether one considers me a writer or not is unimportant, for I have fallen in love with writing, and with it my story has finally been rewritten.
Over the years, I’ve tried a number of ways to plow through the never ending suggestions of books that I “need to read”. I’ve kept lists in paper notebooks, Facebook books, Goodreads, my iOS Notepad, and even as a Reminders list. The list keeps getting longer. I buy books I don’t end up liking or reading, or just forget to place one in the barrel next time a get some free time to read.
Recently I discovered a way to automatically manage my list and get the book in my hands in almost any format or device — for free! Here’s how:
First, download the Libby app.
Libby is an app by Overdrive that helps make checking out books from the library easy. No, don’t worry, it’s not a way to checkout paper books. Libby is focused on helping you download audiobooks and digital books and allows you to push them to your Kindle, iBooks or whatever works for you.
Now, before you disregard the power of your local library (the institution your tax dollars pay for) let’s flip the script. Libby allows you to grab books you’re interested in.
So, think of how it plays out: You hear about a book that “you need to read.” You search for it on your Libby app, and you place a hold on it. Yes, there is a wait list for your book, and popular ones often have longer wait lists. But, guess what? You don’t care!
This is your reading list!
When books are available, they pop onto you phone or Kindle. If you don’t have time to read it, just put it back into the hold lists for the next go around. If you want to read a few chapters and put it away, that works too. The hold queue isn’t just some arbitrary list you keep that is disconnected from the act of reading — they are one and the same.
I have been doing this for the past year and love the fact that I don’t need to feel bad about falling behind on my reading. I know I’ll just read the next book that becomes available, and not think twice about my queue.
It took a while to get to “reading zen”, so I thought I’d share it. Hope it works for you too!
About a year ago my father had a stroke. After 70 years of work as a salesman, 6 days-a-week for 12 hours-a-day, this deficiency forced him into retirement. Hoping to get back to work, he received speech therapy but never fully recovered.
Now in retirement, his typical quiet demeanor at home has kept him from exercising his neural network to reroute his audio connections. He is not tech savvy, so my attempts to get him using games on Luminosity have been unsuccessful.
This Thanksgiving, during my visit to my parents house, I decided to see how he would fair with a Google Home. So far it has been great! Even practicing the wake word “Hey, Google” was a challenge at first, but he is improving dramatically.
Excited, I went through all the games I could find. I quickly realized just how unintuitive and disorganized the App side of Google Home still is. Some apps worked, and some didn’t. Either an app was “Not Found” or “Not Responding” when I tried to activate it. Sometimes an app would unexpectedly quit mid use. Even more frustrating were the multiple steps needed to try the above search for a working app over and over again after hitting a dead end. For example:
Me: “Hey Google” (Google Lights up)
Me: “Talk to X Game” (Wait)
Google: “Sorry, I could not find X Game” (wait for light to go off)
….Start over with another game name”
Navigation through the voice-UI was frustrating as well, and for my Dad it was impossible. To work around the issue, I went through all the games I could find online, and wrote down the ones that worked from the ones that did not. Then, I wrote our an old-school paper cheat-sheet that listed each game and its commands.
“Hey Google, – Let’s play a game”
“Hey Google, – Play 1-2-3 game”
What made it more complicated was that some trigger words required the user to say “Play” while others required the words “Talk to”. There is no reasoning I could find as to why there was a differences. What I realized is that these nuances were terrible difficult to retain for my non-tech savvy Dad. So, listing them out distinctly, on paper, and placing the paper next to the Google Home Device, was the best way I could provide the info to him.
One thing my Dad has retained since coming to the US is his keen memory of the US Presidents. I imagine he studied american history proudly and tirelessly when he moved here and sought his citizenship. Unfortunately, the Presidents Quiz, which I found listed in Google Home’s marketplace, and one I was sure he would like, was one of the games that was “Not Responding”.
At first I was disappointed, but then realized this was the perfect opportunity to try and build a Home App! I set out to create a US Presidents Quiz on Google Home for my Dad. 🙂
There are many ways to build a Google Home app. The two I explored were DialogFlow (https://console.dialogflow.com – formerly app.ai) and the “Actions” console (https://console.actions.google.com/u/0/). Dialog Flow had a great UI that made it seems like it would be simple to set up an interaction, but the concept of Intents, Events, Entities, Training Phrases and Responses was complex. What fed into what, and where I was suppose to handle requests from users and deliver responses did not come easily.
Google Actions is amazingly simple and perfect for those looking to build a game or quiz. WhileDialogFlow has many samples (https://developers.google.com/actions/samples/github) and plenty of docs, I decided Actions made the most sense, and I would leave DioalogFlow for another project; by using Actions, I could spin up an entire game in a single night. Interested in creating your own? Just follow this extremly simpley one-pager: https://developers.google.com/actions/templates/trivia. No code required!
The more labor intensive part of this project was listing out the hundreds of questions, correct answers, and purposefully wrong answers for multiple choice, I needed to seed the game.
You can check it our yourself, by saying:
“Hey Google, Talk to US Presidents Quiz”
Or by opening it in the directory here.
Here is a print out for commands if you have a similar situation.
Troy Hunt did a great write up on the subject. You can check it our here.
In short, there are millions of bad or compromised passwords added to the Breech List. To safely ensure your user’s password is on that list:
- Create a SHA1 version of the password on the client/browser/JS
- Take the first 5 chars of that SHA1
- Check those characters against the Breeched DB
`https://api.pwnedpasswords.com/range/[SHA1 5 char range]`
- That API return hundreds of close SHA1 matches
- Then check last list against the remaining 5+ characters
- If it exists, it is probably a bad password
- Tip: You can use the hit count to determine just how bad it is
Ever heard of Wim Wof? If not, take a minute to Google him. What you’ll find will garner a few reactions. First, amazement as you watch videos of him climbing K1 or Everest in just his skivvies. Maybe, a feeling of disbelief when the Dutchman characterizes his extraordinary feats as simply an act of “mind-over-matter”.
What really perked my ears, however, was the Vice episode I came across that reported how science has been able to not only prove his ability to “focus and breathe” his way into recovery from an injection of a viral disease, but also an ability to teach his others how to harness the same powers. By being repeatable and very much teachable, I thought, “Hey, maybe this Iceman guy and process is legit.”
While watching the Vice episode, I caught a short glimpse of Wim teaching the correspondent a breathing lesson that is supposed to trigger an adrenaline response that will keep them warm when they take a swim in the frigid Amsterdam waters. I caught, “breath deeply longer than you breathe out.”
That stuck with me.
I wouldn’t call myself a runner. At my peak running condition a few years back, I ran a 5K once or twice. I haven’t run much since, and, lately, when I’ve gone for a jog, I’d clocked myself around a 10″ mile. It isn’t an easy run either.
Shortly after I saw the Vice episode on Wim Wof, I went for a jog with my buddy Vishal. He is a far better runner than I, running marathons in the past. He always dusts me on the last leg of our jogs, proving just how much he holds back in the beginning. For some reason, the thought of Wim’s breathing method and how it spikes one’s adrenaline came to mind.
I started to breathe in deep – hold – and breathe out quickly; repeat. A minute later, Vishal began to slow down.
Soon I realized that he wasn’t slowing down at all, but, in fact, I was speeding up. It was happening effortless to boot. My lungs felt like they were stretching beyond comfort, but I wasn’t out of breath. My legs didn’t feel like they were moving any faster – I felt like I was gliding. It was a wonderful feeling. By the time I stopped, Vishal was a block or so behind and he said it was odd. That seemed to start pulling away in front but that I didn’t look like I was even trying hard.
I explained the story of the Iceman and the breathing I used and a week later, he told me that he used the same technique and he went from a 9min mile, to a 7min mile in a matter of a couple days.
Again, just like the Vice episode I saw, the process is repeatable, teachable and the results are amazing. The Iceman now runneth.
I’m not sure whether it is simply a question of focus spawned my my focus on breathing, or if I am in fact manipulating my physiology through a control of my adrenaline, like the Iceman claims to do. But One thing is for sure, I have found a new way to run and I am loving it!
Fair warning, this is not a book for those looking to sharpen their thinking skills just to win more arguments. On the contrary, this book helps one recognize that losing may be just as valuable. That thinking well is not a joyful or direct path. Or, that what we believe to be the attributes of an “open mind” is more likely to be just a different form of a “closed mind” validated by a different group. Thinking is all about learning to do the uncomfortable, and if one can understand how thinking works, one may become a better thinker over all. To posit those theories, and many others like it, Alan Jacobs deals with optimism, community, solidarity, truth, social affiliation, kindness and vice by asking how they blend or contradict one another.
I especially love the fact that the book is current, and cites examples from events familiar to global state of consciousness. It helps that the author is as unbiased as a person could be, while still able to make sharp and concise points, and because of that, no other book is as important for any affiliation or creeds to benefit. In our polarized, highly emotional world, it’s refreshing, and necessary. As current as he is, he is no stranger to the history of thinking. From Luther, to T.S. Elliot, to Kannanman his references aren’t always made to simply validate, but to argue against, assert, or deconstruct the art and science around thinking.
It’s easy to assume the social conscience of the world is more worse for ware now than ever before, and the new phenomena of the internet and social media is mostly to blame. Instead of leaning into that assumption, Alan offers some perspective look back to early writers, like a quite T.S. Elliot who said, “The vast accumulations of knowledge—or at least of information—deposited by the nineteenth century have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.” That is surely something as appropriate today as it was 100 years ago.
There are quite a few gems sprinkled throughout the book that can get the wheels churning. Like how Alan challenges his readers to separate a single thought from all the context and emotion laid around it. For example, “A madman is not one has lost reason … a madman is one that has lost everything but reason.“ Indeed, the separation of fact, from emotion, or affiliation, let’s facts get tangled up into a single, lump of subjective “truth”. That affiliation and process of lumping makes it easier for us to turn every “neighbor” into what Alan Jacob’s called the “Repugnant Cultural Other” AKA “RCO”. When more and more people are classified as an RCO based on a discrete piece of truth we decide to focus on, then we fail to allow ourselves to learn, or accept, anything else form them. As Alan puts it, “If that person over there is both ‘other’ and ‘repugnant’, I may never discover that that person and I like the same television program, or like the same books (even if not for the same reasons), or that we both know what it’s like to nurse someone through a long illness. All of which is to say, that I may forget that political, social and religious differences are not the whole of human experience.” That posit is very much a reality with the current collective human psyche. It does in fact feel as though more and more of us are at odds with our neighbors, and we are so with less and less information to guide it.
Of course separation via classifying others as an RCO goes well beyond politics and social media. As both an academic and a christian, Alan adds religion to the ring by noting, “When I hear academica talk about christians I think, ‘that’s not quite right. I don’t think you understand the people you think your disagreeing with’, and when I listen to christians talk about academics I have the precisely the same thought.”
Why do we decide to stick to a bandwagon, against all evidence to steer us away, or care to even search for a deeper truth? Alan quotes Robinson to underline this part of the human condition at play. “It is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.” Alan continues, “Why would people ever think, when thinking deprives them of the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved? If you want to think, then you have to shrink that hypertrophic need for consensus.”
Where academia is concerned, Alan pulls a quote from Jeff Schmidt’s to assert that education is not necessarily an avenue e toward greater thinking either. In “Disciplined Minds” Schmidt says, “Academia and high-racking professions are good at maintaining “ideological discipline”… people who do well … tend to have “assignable curiosity”, which is to say, they are obediently interested in the things they are told to be interested in.”
Though, there are some academic environments that are created to nurture true thinking. Alan tells an anecdote from the Yale Political Union debate club. As he observed at Yale, you are scored not just by wins, but by the number of times you flip your beliefs mid-debate. love how that metric aligns with not the speaker ability to power their will on others, but in the power and flexibility of being a good, open minded, listener.
This is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year and a great supplement to the best selling books Thinking Fast and Slow and Blink. It is well worth the time so, after each chapter, sit back, and push embrace “How to Think” better.