We’ve got a cleaning lady from Poland who has been coming to our house every Tuesday for pretty much a decade.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember her English having gotten any better in the past 10 years. From day 1 until now, day 3,650, her English doesn’t seem to have improved.
Now how is that possible?
She lives in an English speaking country, she interacts with the people she works for on a daily basis (depending on the hour), and she has children going to school, so she must have some sort of teacher / parent / playdate interaction.
Does she possess the “adult flaw” and, almost by default, suck at learning languages?
Or does she just have a brain not properly equipped to pick up languages?
Or are the circumstances working against her?
In my life I’ve met both children and adults (surprise!) that pick up languages pretty quickly.
And I don’t think they are anything special, or have a gift, or are rapid learners or whatever other bullshit you want to inoculate your mind with.
Half of their learning equation is that they are special learners. The other half is that they have unique circumstances, not abilities.
The answer to the first part is that they are (should I reveal this secret for free or write an ebook?) mindful learners.
I’ve written a whole assload about this before in a three part series, about accelerated learning and picking up any skill 2x as fast in half in the time. The first part is about deliberate practice, the second part is about avoiding automation and the third part about being a badass via mastering intent.
Learning, in fact, is not what we’re gonna talk about here. This is about the weird circumstances that contribute to our success or failure, and the sometimes unpredictable ways in which we reach those circumstances and they influence our life.
Seeds N Stuff
Okay, so you’ve got an acorn. It becomes an oak tree, right? Guaranteed. There is no other possibility, because that is the genetic makeup of the seed.
And the fact that it’s an oak will determine how big it grows, the leaf shape, the water preferences, and the hardiness of the tree.
And now you. What if certain facets of your life are planting seeds without your knowing?
What if something time-sensitive like puberty changes your entire life course?
What if the natural tendency for you to do something, or not do something, ultimately paves the way for your future?
And what if you have no idea that this is all occurring in the background of your life?
I think you’ll see, soon enough, that the strangest things influence our life path and we are totally unaware of them.
Who woulda thunk?
Some fun examples:
Jimmy the ADD Kid
Jimmy has a little bit more energy than other kids. So his mommy takes him to get tested at the doctor. “Yep, he has ADD. Your kid is going to need some more work and attention and a longer time to take tests. And maybe drugs to help treat it.”
So his mommy relays a censored version of this to her son. Jimmy learns that he’s special, and thus starts acting special. He dumbs himself down because the expectation of himself has been lowered.
Plus his mommy doesn’t expect much from him, so she enrolls him in classes that reinforce his self-image as “slow” and needing extra help.
Nora the Cleaning Lady
Nora the cleaning lady comes from Russia and works 6 days a week cleaning houses. Half of her work day is in empty houses while the clients are at work, so she got into the habit of singing in her head and talking to herself, to help the time pass.
Sometimes when the clients are home she still is zoned off in her own little world. People wonder why her English hasn’t improved in 10 years, so they subtlety sneak into another room while she works to avoid awkward conversation.
Johnny, the Nerd
Johnny was always smaller than the other kids. He was shorter, scrawnier, and underweight for his age.
As a result, he shied away from sports because he was afraid of constantly getting hurt all the time by the much bigger kids.
He started getting into video games because he found solace in the fact that they were a safe place where he could have some fun and could develop skills that didn’t rely on his small size.
He eventually ended up spending so much time on the computer that he got pretty good at what he did, and ended up studying computer science in college.
These three stories seem like pretty nebulous, unrelated ad-libs that a nine year old could come up with.
The Butterfly Effect
But going back to the cleaning lady (the real one, that visits my house weekly), people have the strangest life paths determined by factors that are impossible to see proactively.
They can only be determined through hindsight as a “possible” contributor to where the person is now.
It’s like Steve Jobs said in his commencement speech – you can’t see how the pieces connect looking forward, only by looking back and saying “Aha!”
There’s a butterfly effect going on – a minuscule change in the initial circumstances produces this unreasonably large and varied result.
This is my largest argument against people who say to “never do things just for the sake of doing them.”
Don’t go travel just for the sake of travel. Don’t move across the world to study with Shamans in Peru. Or drink tea in Japan. Or study kung fu in China.
People tell you they aren’t useful.
But the truth is not that they aren’t useful. The truth is that the pieces connect in other ways you can’t see yet, and that experiencing things “just for shits and giggles” is one of the best things you can do for your future possibilities.
What about your cleaning lady?
So what does all this have to do with a cleaning lady?
There are a multitude of circumstances that have programmed her to be the way she is. We are, whether or not you like it, programmed by life.
We are machines in one sense.
But the same reason why she seemingly hasn’t improved her English is the same reason why one kid may become a track star, and another will become a computer nerd.
The circumstances, ultimately, are myriad, varied, and unusual. The seeds are so many that it’s impossible to hone in on the atypical ones and cull them.
So the next time you try to figure out why someone can or can’t do something, or why someone is successful or another is just plain strange.. just say to yourself:
And don’t try to understand them. Because they are just programs, like you and me.