“I learned to speak merely by speaking”

​Perpetual improvement, getting better every single day. This is what allows an individual to reach unimaginable heights.  

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, written by James Weldon Johnson in 1912, contains a short section that highlights three keys to building this process into your life.

Conversation, fundamentals and working questions. 

The text itself is not an autobiography, but rather a piece of fiction blended with episodes from Johnson’s own experience. 

After the central character arrives in Paris, he lays out how he went on to learn French. The Ex-Coloured Man’s first step?

​“I used to get three or four of the young women who frequented the place at a table and buy beer and cigarettes for them. In return I received my lesson. I got more than my money’s worth, for they actually compelled me to speak the language. This, together with reading the papers every day, enabled me within a few months to express myself fairly well, and, before I left Paris, to have more than an ordinary command of French.”

​The shrewdest move you can make at the beginning is to observe the people who possess what you want to have, who are where you want to be and can do what you aspire to do. Study them.

This used to be harder to do. In the past you were limited to the expertise available in your locale. But now you can learn from the best in the world no matter where you are.

The next step is to build a relationship with them. To interact with them. Very often, for the price of a coffee, or lunch, or by going to a conference, you can learn from individuals who are smarter and more experienced than you.

“Of course, every person who goes to Paris could not dare to learn French in this manner, but I can think of no easier or quicker way of doing it.”

It’s easy to recognise the validity of this method. It’s much harder to act on it. It requires you to swallow your pride, accept the level of your ability and work your ass off to improve.

​“For French, (I) devised what was, so far as I knew, an original system of study. I compiled a list which I termed “Three hundred necessary words.” These I thoroughly committed to memory… I studied these words over and over, much as children of a couple generations ago studied the alphabet.”

​In most cases, there’s a select group of ideas or concepts that have a disproportionate influence in the entire discipline. Find them. Learn them. Use them. 

“I also practised a set of phrases like the following: “How!” “What did you say?” “What does the word ——— mean?” “I understand all you say except ———.” “Please repeat.” “What do you call ———?” “How do you say ———?” These I called my working sentences.”

​Good questions. That’s all the “working sentences” are. The core essence behind them is that every time you use them, the response you makes you better. 

Some examples: “How does ________ compare to my current knowledge?” “Is ______ the most effective way to do it?” “Is ________ essential to know, or is it superfluous?” “If I accept _______ to be true, how does it alter my current actions and attitude?”

Better questions means better answers which mean a better you. 

​“In an astonishingly short time I reached the point where the language taught itself – where I learned to speak merely by speaking.”

​The process of continual deconstruction and reformation of your understanding is the driving force behind success. And these three elements—conversation with those who are better than you, a mastery of fundamental topics, asking better questions—allow you to accelerate the speed at which you develop.