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Key to Korean #8: Challenge yourself, or be doomed to sleep through life like Rip Van Winkle


The greatest danger for most of us lies in not setting our aim to high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.
— Michelangelo

The best decisions I ever made were those that challenged me at some level. The greatest successes I ever achieved were those that overcame challenges. In contrast, some of the greatest frustrations I ever endured were those brought on by laziness and normality.

When I just let life happen, I under-achieve and slip into a rut of “wake-up, go to work, come home, watch TV, spend my money, go to sleep.” It’ll be like Rip Van Winkle who, through trying to avoid challenges in his own life, ends up sleeping through 20 years of it! Why do you think so many people have “midlife crises”? It’s because they just “slept” through the last 20 years of their lives and have finally woken up to the fact that they haven’t (yet) done anything significant with their lives.

The midlife crisis is actually a Challenge to their own “low mark” that they’ve set for themselves. After sleeping through “normal” for 20 years, they want to wake up, and rediscover the world and perhaps make something significant of their lives. Unfortunately, however, most people who wake up to midlife crises like Rip Van Winkle, also then end their lives like Rip Van Winkle. After the initial shake-up, they eventually settle back down into some sort of “normal” and fall back asleep for the remainder of their lives.

Don’t be like Rip. Challenge yourself.

Do you want to be like Rip Van Winkle? Of course not! Who would? Then don’t lazily allow yourself to set marks that are too low and easily achievable. You need a Challenge!

A lot of expats come to Korea with goals in mind:

  1. See the world (travel)
  2. Pay off student loan debt
  3. Make enough money to have some fun

Most expats don’t come to Korea with Challenges in mind:

  1. Learn Korean (conversational)
  2. See the world (through Korean eyes)
  3. Invest your money and your time in your future (20 years from now will look a lot different than today, will you?)

Achieving the “low mark”

I came to Korea 7 years ago. I’ve traveled much of the country (but there’s still much more to see). I paid off my original undergraduate debt in 2.5 years ($20,000). But then, I took another student loan debt to pay for my graduate degree ($40,000, online). I spent virtually all the money I made on “fun” stuff: beer, clubs, books (that I’ve never read), video game systems, movies and entertainment, concerts, and so on.

I could say that I’m pretty happy with my life in Korea, with what I’ve done, seen, learned, and the fun I’ve had. I’d be pretty OK to go home tomorrow. I really feel like I “know” Korea, like I’ve “been there, done that, got the T-shirt.” But, you know what? I felt that same way after just 2 years in Korea. I’d pretty much done it all.

So where have the last 5 years gone? Into Normalville. My life now consists of: “wake-up, teach English, come home, speak English, stay home (I have a 2-year-old), watch English movies, read English books, write English blog posts, go to sleep, dream in English, wake-up, greet my wife in English…” You get the picture.

Setting the “high mark”

For me, it started with money

For the first 4 years of my life in Korea, I was fiscally irresponsible. My money came and went and I knew neither where it went nor when. I had a lot of fun. I bought a lot of cool stuff. And then, we had a baby. My wife stopped working for a while, and Rip Van Winkle got a wake-up call.

After struggling with money (I had felt rich just a year earlier) for about a year, we discovered Dave Ramsey and his principles to manage money, especially when it’s little. We’ve since set a “high mark” for ourselves to pay off my graduate student loan in just 3-4 years, save money for big purchases (patience is HARD), and only spend cash (using an envelope system). That is a Challenge, but it keeps us alert, and with our “eyes on the prize” – debt-freedom.

Let’s take it a step further with Korean

I’ve lived in Korea for 7 years. Most people (in America) seem to think that’s sufficient time to learn the language. Apparently, it isn’t. I’m still not much better in Korean than I was after the first 2 years. Why not? My Korean is stuck in Normalville. (Actually, it seems to have totally missed the bus to Normalville. It seems lost somewhere between Start and Go.) Korean isn’t (well, hasn’t been – until the start of this blog) a part of my daily life.

It’s funny really. My body is in Korea. Everyday when I walk outside, I step into Korea. Everyday, I ingest Korean food. Everyday, I see Korean people and hear their language spoken, in music, on TV. I get phone calls in Korean. I come home to a Korean wife. I play with my Korean-American son. I am totally immersed in Korean. And yet, I’m not. My body is in Korea; my mind is not. Everyday when I walk outside, I step into my English-teacher-world where I get paid to NOT learn Korean.

See, if my friends back home understood this story, then they could see why living in Korea doesn’t automatically help you learn Korean. In fact, as an expat living in Korea, you’re kind of predisposed to NOT learn Korean. Some people, in fact, actively encourage you to NOT learn Korean (“no Korean in the classroom”). The truth is, most people expect you to NOT speak Korean. I mean, nobody else does. And even when you try to speak Korean (in shops or restaurants), people look at you and speak English (even if English is your second language).

That’s what makes this next part Challenging.

Go from Korean Language Zero to Korean Language Hero in just 30-Days


For just 30 days, make Korean part of your daily life. You’d be amazed at what you can pick up with a little Focus and Determination.

Beginning in a follow-up article this Friday, and continuing for the next 30 days (until July 20), we will post a Daily Korean Speaking Challenge including tips, hints, motivation, useful phrases, and social hashtags (to #share your #progress). Join our mailing list below or subscribe to the blog for every update.

The Challenges won’t be easy – especially because you’ll be actively pushing against the expectations in yourself and others – but at the end of 30 Days, you will have achieved a level of Korean that would “make yo’ Momma proud” (and at least give you something to show off when you go home).


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3 thoughts

  1. The first thing I need to learn how to say in Korean is something along the lines of:

    “I’m dreadfully sorry for my awful Korean, but you see, I’m a beginner Korean learner and I’ve taken up a challenge to speak only Korean for 30 Days – so as much as I’d like I cannot speak to you in English right now. I’m really sorry for the inconvenience and frustration that this may cause in our communications and relations, but please bear with me. Please have some patience with me and help me with the correct words to say if I am struggling. Thank you so much! … now could you please repeat what you just said to me but a little slower? it was something like an-yong-haaa-sey-youo?”

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