Last fall, my girlfriend and I sat down to have a street food dinner in Bangkok. It was a tiny street stall with only a handful of plastic chairs and tables, so seating was cramped. Soon another foreigner came and sat down across from us and began to eat silently.


A few minutes pass and the foreigner sitting with us takes note of my girlfriend’s accent. He asks in Portuguese, “Você é brasileira?” (Are you Brazilian?) She says yes, and the three of us then initiate a conversation in Portuguese.

The guy was obviously from Rio de Janeiro. You could hear it in how he pronounced his s’s and his frequent use of the word “cara” (the Brazilian equivalent for the word “dude” in the US or “mate” in the UK). He had the mulatto skin, the big afro and the easy smile. Yep, clearly from Rio.

That’s why, after a few minutes, it caught my girlfriend and I by surprise when we finally asked him where he was from.

“Oh, I’m from Pennsylvania,” he replied in a bland American accent.
“Wait, but then your parents are Brazilian?” my girlfriend asked.
“No, I’m half Nigerian and half German-American,” he said.
“So, then you’ve obviously lived in Brazil for a long time.”
“Oh no, not recently. I lived there for maybe seven months.”

My girlfriend was dumbfounded. Not only was he fluent, but his accent was perfect, he knew all the slang, he referenced Brazilian pop culture.

His name was Idahosa (ee-DOWSE-uh) and his thing was languages. But instead of memorizing vocabulary and grammar, he used his training as a musician to mimic the sound patterns of a language. Once he got the sounds down, he then figured out the meaning of the words afterward. It was backwards, but apparently it worked. He was fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese. He could freestyle rap in eight different languages. He had just started his own business and was traveling the world teaching his methods. He was barely 25 years old.

A couple nights later, as I chatted with Idahosa over beers. It was clear he had a unique perspective not only on languages, but on life in general. He spoke of language in terms of changing one’s identity rather than simply memorization and performance. He spoke of vocabulary in terms of the social relationships it generated rather than the actual literal meaning. As someone who has studied a few languages, I was fascinated.

It was that night I invited him to write something up for me one day. Six months later he took me up on the offer, this article is the result. Below are the four principles he’s found most important for “accelerating” his life and the skills within it, including but not limited to language-learning.

So without further ado, take it away Idahosa…


The Wake Up Call

It’s 7 o’clock in the morning when three armed men kick down my friend’s apartment door and scream in Portuguese: “Where the fuck is baldy?!”

I should be alarmed, but I’m more bemused than anything else. My friend is a surfer with hair down to his shoulders, and after three months under the hot Rio de Janeiro sun, my afro has more ‘volume’ to it than ever before. Indeed – where the fuck is baldy?

My bemusement lasts no more than a second, however, because as soon as someone presses a pistol against your chest, your mind reverts to the most primal thought: “I don’t want to die.”

Rewind two days earlier: I’m blubbering like a baby on Flamengo beach, hot tears cascading off my face into the sand. My bank has just informed me that someone has wiped my checking account clean and I’ll need to return to the US immediately to resolve the issue in person. I’ve fallen in love with this city, and things were finally starting to come together for me here. Now it’s all over just like that?

Fast-forward two months: A flash of light blinds me as I perform on stage in Rio’s city center. I blink a few times to restore my sight, then look up to see thousands of Brazilians singing and dancing in a scene that can only be described with the words “pura alegria” (pure joy).

Four years ago I spent the most intense seven months of my life in Brazil. Looking back, it’s no surprise that I ended up becoming fluent in Portuguese as quickly as I did. This wasn’t your typical language class; these were “high-velocity” experiences that demanded all of my focus and creativity, and they ended up inspiring both my approach to language-learning and my approach to life in general.

I have always been able to pick up languages much quicker than anyone else I knew. But it wasn’t until after Brazil that I began to ask myself why. It turns out my experiences there were a perfect reflection of what I do differently than everybody else:

  1. I keep my identity flexible.
  2. I physically surround myself with the people I want to mimic.
  3. I maximize the quantity, quality and variety of my human interactions.
  4. I embrace uncertainty.

I refer to these practices as “engines” because it was when I fueled these engines that I moved fastest along the path of fluency.

As I thought about these principles in the context of my Brazil experience, something else occurred to me: these aren’t just the four engines of accelerated-language acquisition, these are also the four engines of accelerated life-acquisition.

In other words, it was the times when I kept an open mind about who I was, surrounded myself with people who inspired me, forged new relationships, and jumped into things with zero knowledge of how they would turn out that I evolved the fastest.

Engine #1: Keep your Identity Flexible

The way we sound plays a major role in how we self-identify. Imagine if you were forced to speak like Borat or Speedy Gonzales for an entire week. It wouldn’t be hard from a physical standpoint, but from a psychological standpoint it would be extremely challenging. You would feel as if you were presenting yourself to the world as a completely different person.

Communicating fluently in a different language requires us to change the way we sound, which in turn, forces us to alter the way we see ourselves.

Many language learners sabotage their chances of ever becoming fluent by refusing to make the effort to “sound like the locals.” Just think back on your high school Spanish days when everyone spoke with a thick gringo accent to avoid being judged by their peers.

Maintaining a rigid self-identity will not only prevent you from learning a second language, it will also prevent you from growing as a person.

We often act as if our personalities were set in stone. This causes us to impose false limitations on ourselves: “I can’t do x because…

  • I’m not that good with people.”
  • I lack the discipline.”
  • I’m not adventurous enough.”
  • I suck at math/music/sports/art.”
  • I don’t have that sort of drive.”

 

To change yourself, you must change how you see yourself.

Engine #2: Surround yourself with the people you want to mimic

This engine is an obvious one for language-learning: you learn a language faster when immersed in an environment where it is spoken all the time. It’s application to life, however, is not as obvious.

A radical transformation of character won’t likely be achieved just by ‘believing’; we only change how we see ourselves when our circumstances force us to.

Silhouettes of business group talking in corridor of office building

One of the best lessons I’ve ever learned is to find out who’s already doing what you want to do in life, then find a way to live, eat, and work with those people for an extended period of time.

I made what was perhaps the best decision of my life in 2011 when I decided to buy a ticket to Cali, Colombia to spend 5 months living with my friend, Fabien.

Fabien was the only guy I had ever met who was living the sort of life that I wanted. I never quite understood what he did; all I knew was that whenever I logged onto Facebook I would see a photo of him in some new corner of the globe working on some cool new project.

I knew he had his own location-independent business. And apparently it was doing well enough for him to travel so frequently and do all the interesting things he was doing. So when he told me he was going to Colombia that fall, I knew I had to seize the opportunity to learn from him in person.

During our time together in Colombia, Fabien and I more or less followed the same daily routine. We’d wake up at around 8AM to work on our respective projects, then at noon we’d head down to our favorite lunch spot to grab the $3 “almuerzo ejecutivo”, complete with free juice refills and extra side of fried plantain.

During lunch, I would interrogate him on how his businesses functioned and how he arrived at the point that he was in his life. We’d usually eat and chat for about an hour, then he would go to the gym to workout while I grinded away at my business at a nearby cafe.

Within a few months, I had launched my business and got my first customers. I attribute much of that quick success to Fabien’s help.

Theoretically, I could have accomplished the exact same work I did in the cafes of Cali from the cafes of Washington, DC, or even from my parents’ basement in Pennsylvania. But just as it’s improbable for the language learner to achieve fluency outside of the immersion environment, I probably would not have had that first business breakthrough had I not switched up my physical surroundings and spent time with someone I could mimic.

Engine #3: Maximize the quantity, quality and variety of your human interactions

To reach fluency in a language, you need to use it in a lot of different contexts. And you won’t learn just by talking to waiters and random strangers in the street; you need to build real relationships with people.

This means you will have to socialize with people you would never otherwise socialize with. This can be problematic for most people, since most people only socialize with the same people they grew up with, went to school with or work with.

Network of people

Image credit: Marc Smith

There is only so much value you can derive from your accidental social network, which is why you must learn to expand your deliberate social network. Travel is often the easiest way to force yourself into these new interactions in the context of language, but you can theoretically choose to socialize with new people any time, anywhere.

When I arrive in a city where I don’t know anyone, I have no choice but to proactively meet as many people as I can (quantity) and really open myself to these people in order to forge meaningful friendships (quality). And since I’m often operating in an entirely different culture and linguistic context, I also have to appreciate perspectives and belief systems different from my own (variety).

Why is it so important for me to work for these things? Because opportunities and growth come through people.

  • I can always trace the genesis of a major breakthrough in my life to a single person.
  • It was Fabien from Cali who motivated me to get my business off the ground.
  • It was Erik Paquet from Rio de Janeiro who taught me how to fly internationally for virtually free back when I couldn’t afford normal airfares.
  • It was Pano from Medellin who introduced me to my current tech partner Ched back when I didn’t know any developers.
  • It was my ex-girlfriend from Montreal who opened my eyes to just how selfish I could be and inspired me to be a more sensitive and considerate person.
  • It was Mark Manson from Bangkok who resonated with my story and allowed me to share it with you.

What’s interesting about all these people is that none of them are part of my accidental social network of childhood friends and school buddies; they are part of a deliberate social network that I cultivated while maximizing the quality, quantity and variety of my human interactions.

Engine #4: Embrace Uncertainty and failure

Before graduating from university, I set my mind on going to Rio de Janeiro despite knowing zero Portuguese and zero Brazilians. Everyone thought I was crazy, but for whatever reason I felt a strong compulsion to go. So I bought a plane ticket and decided to let things unfold on their own.

I’d be lying if I told you that the uncertainty of it all didn’t make me nervous, but if my experience in Brazil has taught me anything, it’s that uncertainty and failure provide the greatest opportunity for growth.

It turned out that the three disgruntled men who busted down my friend’s apartment door were plain-clothes police officers executing a drug bust on the wrong apartment (712A, 721A, honest mistake, right?). After they rifled through my friend’s collection of anime DVDs and failed to find any trans-American-drug-trafficking-texts in my cell phone, the mix-up became pretty clear to everyone in the room. Eventually the police officers called off the search, promised to reimburse the cost of fixing the door, then shuffled down the hallway to the correct apartment where the process repeated:

*BOOM* “WHERE THE FUCK IS BALDY?!”

Given the legal complications of the police raiding the wrong apartment, I couldn’t stay at my friends place any longer. With my bank account empty and my friend’s apartment police raided, I was effectively homeless. That night, I slept on the beach under a palm tree.

This was one of the worst days of my life, but it also turned out to be one of the best days of my life.

With nowhere to go and no money to spend, I ended up wandering around the city all day trying to make friends with random people. It started with two capoeiristas who, upon seeing that I was in a bad place, took me under their wing and started teaching me how to play various Brazilian instruments and rhythms. Then, later that evening, they took me to a street party where I sang, danced and met with even more interesting characters.

Me performing with the percussion group in Rio.
Me performing with the percussion group in Rio.

It was through these random connections that I came to be involved with the Samba Percussion Ensemble that I performed with in on stage in front of thousands two months later. It was also through these connections that I met a few wealthy Brazilian executives willing to pay good money for English tutoring — clients I never would have gotten otherwise.

After talking it out with my bank, I was able to process my fraud claim without returning to the US, but I had to wait two weeks for the money to return to my account. So the money I made through English tutoring is what ended up saving me those two weeks that I couldn’t access my savings.

As stressful as it was to get robbed, evicted and held up at gunpoint, these events were ultimately what triggered the sequence of events that led to what was perhaps the biggest breakthrough of my life.

I still remember the moment I had my epiphany for The Mimic Method. I was on a public bus on my way home from drum practice, tapping out a rhythm I just learned on the seat in front of me, when all of a sudden a thought entered my head – you can train a person’s mouth to produce the sounds of a foreign language the same way you train his hands to play a musical instrument.

I knew that good pronunciation was the key to fluency, but there was never a cohesive method for language-learners to build the motor skills needed for good pronunciation. The Music education world, however, had dozens of effective methods for building motor skills — I just had to adapt them to the language-learning context.

Holy shit. This could be big.

Soon as I got off the bus, I sprinted home and started feverishly transcribing foreign language phrases and song lyrics in a modified musical notation I was inventing on the spot. Once I had what I needed, I ripped the notes out of my notepad and rushed back out to the streets to find people to test the technique on. Within the hour, I had dozens of Brazilians chanting English songs with a near-perfect accent using the same technique that thousands of students around the world are using to with The Mimic Method today.

Conclusion

For me, the most compelling parallel between language and life is that they are both skills with infinite room for improvement. At no point will I be able to write the words “Portuguese” or “Mandarin” or “Life” on my to-do lists and tick off the checkboxes next to them.

Even with my native language of English, I can still sense improvement year over year. I get better at articulating ideas with every article I write, better at weaving together rhymes and punchlines with every freestyle I rap, and better at empathizing with others with every heart-to-heart conversation I have.

Similarly, I get better at life with every meaningful experience I have. This is why I strive for maximum acceleration in my life.

During my seven months in Brazil, I grew faster than I had at any other period prior. But back then, I was fueling the four engines of life-acquisition by accident.

As soon as I became aware of which behaviors and circumstances were driving my personal development, I started taking a bit more control over the wheel and pressing down on the gas with a bit more intent.

Now, the four engines have become a central decision-making framework for everything I do, from deciding what business projects to take on to which relationships to pursue.

As a result, I’m moving faster than ever before and living experiences even more intense and meaningful than my Brazilian ones. And I only plan on going faster…