Reading Ancient Greek: A Case Study
This year I set myself the task of reading all 24 books of Homer’s massive epic poem The Odyssey in Ancient Greek. This has been on my bucket list for a long time, and I’m glad to finally be doing it.
I’m now 20 books in, with four more to go — well on the way to completing what I set out to do. And I have full confidence that I will finish on time, because I’ve aligned myself with the principles of growth deadlines.
To recap, growth deadlines:
- Make you better than you were before
- Involve doing difficult things
- Are based on sound knowledge and experience
- Are flexible and resilient enough to withstand chaos
Let’s see how those points apply in this case.
1) I enjoy classical languages, and long sustained reading will give a major boost to my ability to read and understand Ancient Greek. So doing this will definitely make me better than I was before.
2) It’s not an easy task: I only finished my first Greek textbook last December, and this is my very first attempt to make it through a long-form Greek text on my own with only a dictionary to help me. So this task is a challenge for me.
3) Fortunately, by the time I started I also had enough experience to know my Greek reading speed, and so I could accurately estimate how long this task would take. I knew I would be able to finish by early October if I consistently read at the comfortable pace of 40 lines a day. So this meant that my goal of reading all 12,110 lines of the Odyssey in one year was realistic.
4) I set December 31 as my deadline to give myself sufficient room to manoeuvre. Any target that demands significant daily effort is almost definitely doomed to failure, unless you truly have nothing else going on in your life. But I am a busy man juggling many goals at once. It therefore made sense to add 2.5 extra months as a buffer.
The result: this year has had its fair share of ups and downs, but I am still very much on track to my goal and reading much more fluently than I could before.
That’s the power of growth deadlines.
But I Don’t Have Any Experience!
A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath your feet.
— Tao Te Ching, 64 (my translation).
You need to have gained relevant experience before you can set growth deadlines.
But what if you’re embarking on something new, something you’ve never tried before? How do you set deadlines then?
The answer is that you don’t.
If you’re breaking new ground, this is your time to explore; enjoy the journey instead of worrying about what you’ll eventually accomplish. Just have fun. Learn. Learning is growth.
Take as much time as you need, and keep practising.
The Art of Learning
That said, there is a right way to learn. In a nutshell:
Do the most difficult thing you can, as often as you can, with full focus and concentration. Track your progress and log the amount of time spent on task.
That’s all. You should consistently be trying to find ways to make your daily practice as challenging as possible, unless you’re already working at maximum difficulty. If you are, you won’t even need to try to focus: the task will force you to focus since it’ll be impossible to do otherwise.
If something is too hard for you, you’ll know: the text will cease to make sense, the weight will refuse to be lifted, your body will simply not move fast enough. When this happens, take the difficulty level down a notch. What you attempt should be difficult, but not impossible.
Then trust the process. Track your progress and make consistent focused effort the measure of your success. Don’t rush. Don’t force things. This is the quiet path to growth.
If you proceed at the end as at the beginning, you won’t fail, says the Tao Te Ching. Be systematic and steady, and you will find success.
That said, there remains one very important consideration: energy. More on this in Part 3.