Note: Upon her indictment on federal money laundering charges and her arrest February 8, 2022, Inc. dismissed Heather Morgan as a contributing columnist. As is our practice, we do not unpublish editorial content, and rather have added this note for full transparency.
Have you ever spent years studying something in school only to find out that everything you learned was useless, or even worse yet, completely wrong?
There's nothing more disappointing than realizing that what you were taught in school or a training doesn't actually work in the real world.
After living and working in 6 different countries, and bootstrapping my own startup from nothing to a million dollar business in 2 years, I've realized there's a strategy that can help you learn 10x faster while making sure you don't waste time on learning things that are useless.
You can use these 3 lessons to teach yourself how to rapidly learn anything from scratch:
Lesson #1: Only Learn What You Need to Know Most
I didn't move to post-revolutionary Egypt because I had been studying Arabic in college.
I decided to move to Cairo because I wanted to experience world history in the making, and understand what was driving Egypt's economic development and the challenges it was facing at that time.
In a strange way, I think not studying Arabic in school, like some of my peers had, actually made it easier for me to adapt to life in Cairo.
Getting around in more rural parts of Cairo is nearly impossible if you don't have some Egyptian Arabic (Amiya), but the "textbook" standard dialect of Arabic you learn in college won't help you much either.
So instead of hitting the books, I decided I would learn Egyptian Arabic by trying to talk to cab drivers and local vendors to learn conversational "Amiya."
I would ask them how to say the words for my favorite fruits and vegetables, as well as what different landmarks were called. Whenever we talked, I would also learn new phrases and pleasantries that I'd write down in my notebook to practice later.
If I didn't understand something, I would write it down so I could look up that word in a dictionary or ask one of my Egyptian friends later.
Lesson #2: Build a Solid Foundation Early On
The first thing I did was spend a few days learning the Arabic alphabet online.
Because I wasn't doing Arabic translation for my life or work in Egypt, I didn't need much more than conversational Arabic, but I also didn't want to be illiterate either.
Learning the alphabet helped me read street signs so I could get around, order food off of menus, and most importantly, made it easier for me to use dictionaries and look up words I didn't know.
Once I learned the alphabet, I wrote down a few dozen words and phrases I needed to know to eat, haggle with street vendors, and just get around.
I learned basic greetings, compliments, and phrases for asking directions, as well as telling what I did and didn't like. And these phrases became my foundation for learning grammar that I would actually use.
In the beginning, I had the language skills of a caveman, but about a month later I could order cabs by myself and haggle in the local markets to pay only one-fourth of what other foreigners were charged.
Lesson #3: Making Mistakes Is Better Than Being A Perfectionist Who Never Tries
So how did I learn conversational Egyptian Arabic in one month?
I had many friends when I lived in Cairo who already had much better formal Arabic than I will ever have before they even go to Egypt. However, these friends often hesitated to actually speak Arabic with locals. This is because they were not comfortable with the Egyptian dialect like the textbook Arabic they had been learning in American schools.
Instead of just trying their best to use what they did know, they would often stay silent or try to revert to English to stay in their comfort zone.
I did not have that problem because I generally don't care if people see that I make mistakes. Of course, I would prefer to not make them at all, but I would rather try my best and embarrass myself instead of not trying at all.
And so I would blunder along with my broken Arabic without hesitation, and somehow it worked.
Sure, locals would occasionally laugh or make fun of it, but those became ice-breakers that we could bond over.
Although this horrified and annoyed my expatriate friends, who had been studying Arabic for five years plus, but I quickly became the one designated for ordering food and drinks, calling cabs, and negotiating with landlords or local merchants.
But I had already used this same strategy to quickly acclimate myself to local culture when living and working in South Korea, Turkey, and other countries.
This same approach has also helped me tremendously as an entrepreneur.
As a startup founder or business owner, you have to learn a lot, and fast.
In the last 2 years since I started my company, I have learned more than I did in all of college and grad school. From learning how to become an effective salesperson to how to code a website or app from scratch, I applied these same principles to rapidly learn dozens of crucial skills that have helped me both grow my business and become a much more well-rounded CEO.