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30-Day Challenge

30-Day Challenge: Day #2 – Change your Reference Level



Read the following notes from Josh Kaufman’s Personal MBA (1st edition, pg. 193-198):

Action comes about if and only if we find a discrepancy between what we are experiencing and what we want to experience.

About Reference Levels

[A Reference Level is] a range of perceptions that indicate the system is “under control.” When a percep­tion is within the system’s Reference Level, nothing happens. When the perception violates the Reference Level by being too high or too low, the system will act to bring the perception back under control.

There are three kinds of Reference Levels: set points, ranges, and errors.

You typically set your own Reference Levels based on your own personal experience, beliefs, or life situation. In our case, for learning Korean, these would look like this:

  1. Set point (a minimum or maximum value): Whatever you deem to be the minimum and maximum acceptable levels of Korean (i.e. minimum = knowing Hangul; maximum = ordering food in a restaurant, etc)
  2. Range (a spread of acceptable values): Your acceptable range is generally between your two set points. Anything outside of your range requires action.
  3. Errors (a set point defined as zero – any non-zero is out of control): Your Comfort Zone is a good example of a zero-based set point. In your Comfort Zone, your stress levels are zero. But if you wander outside your Comfort Zone, stress increases and you automatically start working to bring the situation back under control (go back to your Comfort Zone).

These are useful concepts to understand because:

  • Consciously defining and redefining Reference Levels can help you change your behavior.
  • Here’s a universal truth of human nature: people are generally lazy.
  • Unless a Reference Level is violated, people generally will Conserve Energy by not acting.

In our case, for learning Korean, this means:

  1. If your minimum set point is saying “hello” in Korean, then you’ll have no reason to want to study hangul.
  2. If your maximum set point is ordering food, then you’ll have no reason to study for TOPIK.
  3. If your acceptable range of Korean ability is anything between knowing hangul and taking a taxi, then you’ll look down on those who don’t know hangul and admire those who can do much more than just take a taxi.
  4. And you generally won’t take any action to further study Korean unless you experience an error like realizing that no further progress can be made in a relationship or career without a greater level of Korean. But, so long as progress continues to be made, you stay in your Comfort Zone, and you experience no errors that cause you to say, “Woah, wait, something needs to change,” your natural instinct will be to “Conserve Energy by not [studying].”

So, change your Reference Levels

Whenever a perception violates the system’s Reference Level, action will occur to bring the perception back under control…

Good books, magazines, blogs, documentaries and even competitors are valuable if they violate your expectations about what’s possible. When you discover that other people are actually doing something you previously considered unrealistic or impossible, it changes your Reference Level in a very useful way. All you need to know is that something you want is possible, and you’ll find a way to get it.

My Changing Reference Levels
  • On my first day in Korea, I experienced an error. I didn’t know hangul at all, so couldn’t tell my boss where to meet me to pick me up. That was scary, so I immediately started studying hangul.
  • Afterwards, I set my minimum set point at “being comfortable in Korea.” I took just enough classes in my first year or two in Korea to be able to be comfortable. So then I stopped learning.
  • After getting married and spending the holidays with my wife’s family, I experienced another error. My Comfort Zone was violated by the stress and discomfort I experienced in the middle of a Korean conversation that I couldn’t keep up with. And yet, I didn’t change my acceptable range of Korean ability – so I’ve not studied more for that reason. Rather, I changed my Reference Level for my Comfort Zone – I now expect to be spoken to in Korean and not understand, so that expectation now puts all of those experiences safely within my Comfort Zone. I no longer experience errors, and I don’t need to study more because all my experience is within my acceptable range.

You see how Reference Levels can naturally change? But what if you intentionally changed your reference levels?

Intentionally Change your Reference Levels

Watch the videos below (or short segments of them) and get inspired. Perhaps your current Reference Level for acceptable range of Korean is too low. Perhaps your Reference Level for “how long it takes to get good in another language” is also off. Intentionally reset your Reference Levels to spur yourself into action.

As for me, now, not only have I reset my Reference Level to “Korean fluency is achievable” but also “it’s achievable in a relatively short time frame” and even “multi-lingual fluency is also possible.” (Hmm, I’ve always dreamed of speaking fluent English, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese…)


After redefining some of your Reference Levels about an acceptable range of Korean, or what it means to be successful in Korean, your Challenge today is to:

#2: Speak at least 5 sentences Korean with 5 different people today.

You can document your progress with video, photos, or even just a short story (if you can’t do either of the other two). Some ideas about who to talk with include:

  • Bus or taxi drivers
  • Store owners
  • Your family members
  • Other Korean learners
  • SMS or online chats
  • Skype friends
  • Interact with university students (generally quite friendly – especially if working at their part-time jobs)

Today’s hashtags are:

#k2korean #k2k302


For a little more about the concepts explored today, check out the Personal MBA book website:

For Korean help, remember the W-6 Question words (who, what, where, when, why, how). Here are some more:

1. 어디? (Where?)
  • 어디에 있어요? (Where is it?)
  • 어디 가요? (Where are you going?)
2. 언제? (When?)
  • [박물관] 몇시에 열어요? (What time will [the museum] open?)
  • [기차] 언제 도착해요? (What time will the [train] arrive?)
3. 얼마/몇개? (How much/many?)
  • 그거 얼마예요? (How much is that?)
  • 몇개 있어요? (How many are there?)
4. 왜? (Why?)
  • 왜 그레요? (Why is that?)
  • 왜 안돼요? (Why not?)
5. 누구?/누구 것? (Who?/Whose?)
  • 누구세요? (Who’s there?)
  • 그것은 누구 거예요? (Whose is that?)
6. 어떤?/어떻게? (Which?/How?)
  • 어떤거 좋아요? (Which one do you like?)
  • 어떻게 생각해요? (What do you think? – literally, “How’s your thinking?”)
  • 어떻게 가요? (How can I go there?)
  • 어떻게 해요? (How can I do that?)
7. …있어요?/…이예요? (Is there…?/Is it…?)
  • 여기에 [아이스크림] 있어요? (Is there [ice cream] here?)
  • 이것은 [바지] 예요? (Are these [pants]?)

Do you find it intimidating to talk to people? Change your Reference Level to see it as adventurous instead!

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