i am a barber!

I used to love Sesame Street when I was a kid. There are loads of reasons why – it was one of the few children’s shows that assumed its audience didn’t have brains made of cotton wool; a lot of the sketches are also genuinely funny no matter what age you are, meaning that parents can sit through the show with children (giving them feedback that a TV can’t). Anyway, I was nostalgically watching clips on Youtube when I came across this Ernie and Bert sketch:

The most important line, I think, is this one:

“What do you mean I’m no barber?! I’ve got myself a barber pole, a pair of barber scissors and a barber comb, and I got barber mirror – and so I am a barber!”

This is, of course, analagous to a trap that a lot of people seem to fall into. “I’ve got my gym clothes; I’ve got my gym membership; ergo, I’m getting fitter!” being one of my favourites[1]. Or, “I’ve got all the textbooks on the course; I’ve arranged them nicely on the shelf; I’m learning!”.

It’s not happening.

The “trick” is to do more than just be an owner of these items – to accept that they are merely vehicles to success, that without extensive work on the part of the owner that they are worthless. Just as having a barber’s tools does not automatically make Ernie a competent barber, having a load of study materials/gym clothes/whatever does not mean that you’re going to be automatically successful. I cringe at the number of unused Japanese textbooks cluttering up my room; I thought at the time that it was a useful way to spend money. Daft as this sounds, I was a collector (but importantly, not a user) of Japanese textbooks.

I remember in my first Japanese class (run by the local council), there were several businessmen; only one stayed on until the end. The ones who dropped out really, really wanted to succeed – they’d paid for the class, and the textbooks, and audio tapes – and they started enthusiastically. They dropped out because they couldn’t make time to do any work; they assumed that simply turning up a class each week would magically make them speak Japanese.

Knowledge is interesting, because it’s intangible. You can’t go down to a store and pay for instantly knowing kung fu[2]; for starters, kung fu isn’t just about knowledge, since it requires physical strength and dexterity. If you spent much of your life studying, even if you were completely bankrupted, you’d still retain what you learned; it’s not like a physical possession that can be collected by a repo man. (Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is even more interesting – a lot of people won’t get why you might want to learn things even when you’re not taking an exam or don’t have some other specific goal.[3])

I guess this is just a longwinded way of saying that learning tools are just catalysts for being able to learn – without the reactant of hard work, they’re not useful. It may take a lot of work (and hence time) to succeed, but it’s the only way; if time is a problem, maybe it’s worth looking at how to make the most of what’s available, or even how to make space from other activities.

[1] These are also usually the people who drive half a mile down the road to the gym and back again afterwards, rather than, I dunno, WALKING, RUNNING OR CYCLING?!

[2] And no, it doesn’t matter how many times you watch the Matrix, that kinda knowledge loading just ain’t gonna happen. Not in your lifetime anyway.

[3] Case in point – my boss at work (fluent in French and German, and a language teacher for several years) dismissed my learning Cantonese as a “waste of time” on the grounds that it wouldn’t be useful economically – that I should be spending time on Mandarin or German instead. Except, of course, that my friends don’t speak Mandarin, and neither do my girlfriend’s family. Not to mention Cantonese is a fun language to speak. Gee, I’m really wasting my time, aren’t I?


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