Young speaks four languages competently enough to debate politics and philosophy. He once had a thorough discussion on the Tibet question with a Buddhist in Chinese. He also blew through MIT’s curriculum in just 12 months. So, you know. He’s onto something big.
Listening to his interview, I learned a ton about education, growth, and how to get the most out of interacting with others. So I thought I’d do a quick run down of the best principles I picked up from Scott Young.
Learning What College Has to Offer Without Going to College
Young didn’t get a degree from MIT, but he did learn a lot about how the bureaucratic hoops of college can slow learning down. Think about it: When you were in college, you had to take a bunch of general education classes. Then you had to take prerequisite courses to get to the good stuff. Finally, in your junior and senior years (or maybe even as late as grad school), they finally let you get to the good stuff. Why not just jump right to it?
In some cases, such as the hard sciences, math and engineering, you need those prereqs to even understand what’s going on. Still, does college provide the most efficient way of learning the skills you actually want to learn? Not at all, according to Young. So he came up with a method for running through the goalposts faster without short-changing himself.
“What I was doing wasn’t a perfect replica of what MIT students do,” says Young. He didn’t have professors to bounce ideas off of. He didn’t have clinics to interact with other students. But he was able to follow and absorb the MIT curriculum all the same, and in a fraction of the time. In doing so, he was able to cut through the idea of college education as absolutely necessary for personal and professional growth.
Which is a great lifehack and an even deeper lesson: Before attending a formal program of study, always ask yourself what you can learn on your own. You can save a lot of time and money, and discover that you might just be an excellent teacher for yourself.
Language Immersion Can Lead to Isolation
Learning these shortcuts helped Young with his next project: learning languages.
But what are the best ways to learn a foreign language? Many think immersion is the gold standard. In fact, Jordan seemed partial to that method, having absorbed a crazy number of languages just by living in different countries and constantly adapting to a new culture. Young, however, thinks immersion can lead to isolation.
“Living in another country is very good, but I have met tons of people forced into immersion,” he explains. Sometimes after living in China for a decade, for example, these same people can’t parse a single sentence in Mandarin. That’s because they bit off too much language too soon. “I wouldn’t even worry too much about needing to speak with natives at the beginning.”
Rather than learning by means of adapting to a new culture, Young suggests people walk before they run. Learn a little French, say, then head out to a restaurant and use what you can. People aren’t going to turn on you for trying to learn their language. Even if they start speaking to you in English — which is common for English speakers in other countries — they’re probably just trying to make you feel more comfortable. In fact, most people see your attempts at learning their language as respect for their culture. “The idea that the world is full of rude people who are going to spit at you because you try and speak their language is just not true at all.”
Once Young realized this simple fact, something else began to click for him. Adapting to a new culture, whether it’s at a workplace or in an airport terminal halfway around the world, would be a lot easier if he made the initial effort.
“A lot of people told me ‘don’t go to China, they’re hostile to Westerners,’” he says. He found that the exact opposite was true. People were interested in who he was. They respected him and wanted to know more about him. “That lesson applies all over the world. It applies in your own country.”
A lot of this comes down to making the first move. “You have to put the olive branch out, especially if they’re from a group that doesn’t resonate with you.” That can be difficult to do, especially if you don’t fully understand the group in question. Still, like your mom used to say, it’s the thought that counts. People will recognize you making that effort, even when — especially when — it’s not an easy effort for you to make. Something as simple as trying to use the local language can be that olive branch. “When you’re trying to learn someone’s language you’re showing respect for where they come from.”
Cultural Differences Are Cultural Adaptations
Young’s travels also made him think about how different cultures are formed. Every culture, he reminds us, evolves in a certain way for a specific reason.
Take, for example, the prevalence of big, scary-looking dogs in Brazil. When Young traveled there, he noticed that just about everyone had a huge, aggressive dog, even though there didn’t seem to be fundamental personality differences in Brazilian culture. So he started asking himself what function that would serve in a culture. The answer, of course, was that there was a lot of crime in Brazil, so that it makes sense to have a dog for protection. What seemed like a strange cultural difference was actually serving a logical local purpose.
So when you think about adapting to a new culture or subculture, it’s worth spending some time asking yourself why a certain culture has its beliefs, behaviors and values. What function do they serve? How did they come into being? Answering these questions is your basic homework. It’s going to shed light on how you approach the culture in question. Young reminds us that people aren’t different on a basic level. They’re just people with different habits from your own.
But Young also believes that this is somewhat harder to do when it’s closer to home. For example, what if I told you that you could go live with a Chinese family for a couple weeks, doing as they do, living as they live? You’d think of it as an exciting cultural experience. Now think about heading down to the South and living with an Evangelical family for the same time period. Young urges people to begin by trying to understand cultures that are closer to home, precisely because it can be more difficult and foreign than understanding ones abroad.
Break One Cultural Code, Start Breaking Them All
Cultures and languages are closely related. Both are codes that exist for in-group members to communicate with one another. At the same time, they draw attention to out-group members. But while languages are formalized, cultures are more fluid. This can paradoxically make them more and less difficult to assimilate into. But, like languages, cracking the code of one culture can make cracking the code of the next one easier. The third time will be even easier still. It’s a habit worth cultivating.
Ultimately, the person with highly adapted social skills can get along in the Amish backcountry as well as they can in Silicon Valley — an incredibly useful tool for any man. A lot of times it just comes down to being interested in the people you meet and willing to show respect for what they have to offer. Your hack is finding the thing that fascinates you about a culture and showing a genuine, respectful interest in it. And the same applies in your home country. Remember this the next time you move to a new city or start a new job or show up at your new girlfriend’s place to meet her friends: People respond when other people are authentically interested in them, within and across cultures.
For men looking for a new beginning in their life, this process of appreciating others can be very powerful. Maybe you just started a new job or want to get in good with a new group of friends. Perhaps you’d like to develop a support network in your new town. It’s not always easy, but the onus is on you to bridge those gaps, to show that you’re willing to make the effort to connect with other people.
It puts you in a vulnerable position, for sure. But Young believes, as I do, that there’s a real power in vulnerability. He gives us the tools to harness that vulnerability, and use it to our advantage across our lives, all over the world.
Interested in learning more about communication, the best ways to learn a foreign language, and the finer points of adapting to a new culture? Come check out the episode, and leave us your thoughts on learning, culture and language below!