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"I don't want to change your life," I wrote to her via Facebook Messenger. And that was true...because what I wanted was for her to change her own life. My role was only to act as catalyst...
Stop, let me rewind.
Then I moved to Turkey (because my wife made me).
Why Turkey? To live across the street from the Aegean Sea, of course, while paying only $400 a month for a 3 bedroom, 2 bath apartment.
Yet within a few months, Turkey had an attempted coup, and the whole country went on emergency lockdown and you can't even buy beer after 10pm. These things didn't phase my daily life of drinking coffee at the marina and staring out the window at an empty Aegean beach instead of finishing whatever paperback I was attempting to read.
Still, my mind was distracted.
It worried me, the coup and also the elevated level of terrorism threats and other political tensions. What was in store for the country which I'd come to appreciate, this beautiful secret with fair weather, hospitable people, and grilled meats which are a carnivore's dream?
My mind wandered, and when I wasn't gazing at the sea I found myself gazing at the attractive cafe employee. I didn't stare because of her looks but because she was...I don't know--vibrant, like a walking portrait by Van Gogh (not of Van Gogh)!
Most other humans hold no interest for me (I'm semi-antisocial) but this was a person I wanted to get to know better, even if only as a friend (since I was neither single nor "age-appropriate" in any case. I believe that, despite what Harry said in When Harry Met Sally, a man can be friends with a woman. It just takes more focus...).
And actually, we were becoming friends, though her English was around Pre-intermediate level and my Turkish worse than Basic. But we could understand each other, and there were obvious qualities about her that reminded me of myself, and I soon felt an urge to do something to help her.
That's the part where Fight Club came in...
Yes, I was surrounded by out of luck young people in this tourist town-gone-dry thanks to the myriad assaults on country's image. This cafe worker was but one person who was working a job which had nothing to do with their actual college degree (hers was hospitality management).
But what could I do to help anyone? Hmmm... I drank my coffee and wondered as I picked up my paperback of Fight Club...
Meet Raymond K. Hessel
There was the answer, in Chapter 20.
Rather than quoting the book, let me share the above video excerpt from the film adaptation. There are slight differences, but not enough to matter for this story.
Or, if you choose not to watch... Raymond K. Hessel worked at a convenience store and one day a stranger came and held a gun to Raymond's head and asked him what he'd wanted to be. Raymond answered, but made excuses about why he wasn't that thing. So our "protagonist" in Fight Club gave him a choice.
Raymond could either become the thing he wanted to be, or die on the spot.
In the movie, this act is done by the character of Tyler Durden; in the book, it's done by a non-named narrator. Doesn't matter. What matters is, what was the motive? Why'd they want to disrupt someone's life like that?
What difference would altering the future of one person make in the grand scheme of things?
But it mattered. It did matter. It mattered in the book, in the film, and...as I looked at my new friend who reminded me of me if I were a young Turkish college student...I wondered what she wanted to be. Because it mattered to me suddenly.
It mattered a lot!
This young woman (I don't say "girl" because I'm a big feminist and believe women are women, and girls are children, and Büşra Bayram (since it's time you learned her name) is no child.
What Büşra is, or rather was, was a young college student working roughly 250 hours a month, 10 hour days, 6 days a week, for about $440.
Typical for this nation; no one can say they aren't hard working citizens, but that's a hard life and there's virtually no way to break free from the cycle once you get stuck in it, since you never have time to do anything else.
Like Büşra, you're either at work or you're sleeping. Or taking a college course that has nothing to do with your actual career...
I know young people have to work their way up in lives. I did that, too. But at least where I'm from there are opportunities for advancement, and there was enough free time after work to do other things, to blaze your own trail if you wan't to be a self-starter. America is the Land of Opportunity. But many places in the world don't have such luxuries. If you start out on the wrong path in most places, you get stuck on it...no matter what your dreams may be. If you didn't have a silver spoon in your mouth from birth, you never would. People like Büşra Bayram tend to get locked into their social status early on and it's hard to escape.
But she was someone whom I felt was being wasted, someone who was finishing college and not taking money from her family to do it, but instead working to cover her own living expenses; someone who read classic literature; who was infatuated with Sherlock Holmes and Game of Thrones and other Western pop culture; someone from a Syrian border town who spoke four languages and had been heavily influenced by a story about a "Little Black Fish" as a child, a tale of a fish who escaped its pond in order to explore the world...despite the stern warnings of everyone around it.
So yes, I thought Büşra's potential was being wasted, and perhaps it wasn't my place to think that, but I'm not the type for "knowing my place." That's one reason I had to leave the workforce early.
Anyways, I felt bad--even guilty--about sitting around the cafe each day doing nothing while she and everyone around me was hustling.
So I decided to make a decision. But let me rewind...again.
Meet Me (Matt Cates)!
Before I'd retired I'd done two things to tide me over...I'd completed a creative writing degree and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (from University of Cambridge, via International Training Institute in Istanbul).
I sort of used the writing degree to earn extra income as a freelancer. But I wasn't using the teaching cert because I didn't have any private students to tutor, and didn't want a full-time gig at a local school where I could hope to earn peanuts. I didn't need peanuts, I am not a big spender and besides my pension was in dollars and the dollar-lira exchange rate was very favorable for me.
So I made a decision. Because I believe that if you want something, you must do something!
I would get off my ass and try to teach English, and write about my endeavor. And I'd do it for free. No, not for free. I'd "reverse work," as I call it--I'd pay someone to let me practice on them, like an experiment. I'd give someone a scholarship to be my private, full-time English student, and I'd blog about the results.
And miraculously, Büşra Bayram said yes.
Because I think, like me, she must be a little "mad." I knew only a little about her: she was from the easternmost part of Turkey; she'd moved all the way to the west to finish college and work in the tourism industry; she was studying Hospitality Management at the time; she'd left her job at one of the upper-end resorts to work at the local marina.
But she had a very independent streak in her, and I felt she had the ideal combination of qualities to be my partner in the experiment. I guess she saw the same qualities in me, because when I presented her with a scholarship contract for six months, she agreed to the terms...
A little more biographical data on our candidate:
Büşra Bayram is a graduate of Adnan Menderes tourism college, majoring in Hospitality Management.
She has a wide breadth of expertise with the Turkish tourism industry, luxury resort guest relations and administration, and with Turkey’s largest high-end chocolate and coffee franchise.
A language fanatic, Büşra can speak not only Turkish but also Arabic, French, and of course English! Her hobbies include reading classic literature, learning the violin, and obsessing over Game of Thrones and Sherlock! Ms. Bayram is also a talented online article researcher on Upwork.com, freelance voice-over artist, social media manager, and part-time ESL blogger. Oh, she’s also the public face of Mad English Lab!
Meet Mad English Lab
Let me rewind just a little...a few months earlier I'd actually formed a Limited Liability Corporation to cover my writing projects, such as they were...
Through it I figured I could legally offer one Ms. Büşra Bayram a scholarship, versus me just giving her the money each month. Giving cash to a stranger without at least some kind of paper agreement seemed a little awkward, and besides I wanted us both to have some legal coverage because I did not want it to 1) look like I was offering her a job, since technically I couldn't; 2) look like anything shady.
But I felt that, if done correctly, we could pull it off. We could be friends and partners in a joint endeavor to try something completely different...
Thus we came up with Mad English Lab!
Essentially I just wanted to give a name to our project, which we agreed would run for at least six months, and perhaps longer if things went well. But what exactly were we going to do for six months?
Here's how I put it on our website:
MEL is a project designed by Matt Cates and Büşra Bayram. It’s made to do many things:
Take an English language learner and experiment with fun and engaging techniques to help them explore the fastest, most effective ways to improve their proficiency level…then share the tale and the course of study!
Do the above, while also learning new applicable skills such as creating a website, building a YouTube channel, freelance writing (in our case, for foreign currencies which we can exchange), becoming an ESL tutor…and blog about our failures and successes!
Hold conversation practice while discussing real-world issues about social issues, human rights, philosophy, the nature of society, money, work, etc., and other concepts which expand our awareness of the world and each other…then post the results of our dialogues!
Explore opportunities to find and obtain money in the form of grants and scholarships for travel abroad, as opposed to “work and travel” programs you have to pay for upfront…then tell our readers what we’ve learned!
Share our experiences seeking to obtain passports and visas for travel abroad, including tips on what worked and what did not!
Share real-life stories and tips about those trips, for fellow explorers!
Mad English Lab is not a static program; it grows and evolves each day...
So that's the basics of the program; and here's the timeline breakdown...
The MEL Goal Timeline
So, in essence, Mad English Lab is a one-of-a-kind program designed to empower one person at a time to break from their previous timeline and begin a brand new, and hopefully better, one!
It’s made to last for six months, with a chance to expand beyond that time frame if it is successful. But how do we define success?
In order to know if we're successful, we need to know what our objectives are. That is why each month we agree on what we'll try to focus on for the month...
Month 1: Ideas, Goals, Plans, Reality
For our first month, we decided to allow plenty of time to "break the ice," and focus on getting to know each other, getting comfortable around one another so we could build up trust. It takes a huge leap of faith to quit your job and start spending four hours a day with a stranger, but she did that. As for me, well it took a leap of faith to start shelling out money to a stranger, and to dedicate my days to trying to help them in whatever way I could.
So we both took those leaps. You see, in my opinion, most people ‘talk’ and ‘complain,’ but don’t DO anything about it! But we decided to go for it.
You have to start doing more than talking if you want to make a change.
Here’s my concept on how to start. It has worked in my life, so I incorporated it into the MEL "core concepts."
Generate IDEAS about what you’d like to accomplish. It doesn’t matter how crazy the ideas are, just brainstorm and write it all down
Start deciding which ideas can be turned into a reality, and then begin to set GOALS based on the ideas who choose
Once you have your long-term, broad goals selected, pick one and make a solid, step-by-step PLAN to reach that goal
After you have followed your plan, you will either succeed or fail to reach your goal. If you failed, don’t worry; keep trying! You can overcome your obstacles if you keep making plans to get over, under, through, or around them. And when you do succeed, you will have shaped your own REALITY!
Month 2: Experiments in Freelancing
For the second month, I decided we needed to earn a little extra income for Büşra! We were relaxed around each other enough that it was time to enter Phase 2...exploring the idea of working as a freelancer!
So I introduced her to Upwork.com, and she helped me research articles that I finished writing, and we shared the earnings. She also completed a market research project for a client in the Philippines as well as helped me brainstorm slogans for a chocolate company.
Apart from the time we spent working together studying English each day, or working on freelance projects, she's also required to 2 hours a day, 7 days a week of self study. She's free to choose her own course of study, but a few ideas to get started included:
- Every day work on your Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking skills
- Keep a journal of your self-study time
- Write 500 words about your story, every day
- Read English for 1 hour a day! Make a list of words you don’t know, for your journal. Look up every word you don’t know, then ask me about them the next day
- Listen to English YouTube videos (stories) for 30 minutes! Write a paragraph about what you heard and understood. Do this at least 3 times a week.
- Pick one old post from Mad English Lab (I forward popular posts from other ESL pages to our in-works MEL page); study it for 20 minutes, then share it and explain your thoughts about it on our Facebook site
More self-study ideas are below...
Month 3: Building the Website, Facebook Page, and YouTube Channel
The third month was designed to introduce her to the behind-the-scenes of website creation (via Wordpress), YouTube video making and monetization, social media management on Facebook and Instagram, and advertisement/blog post ads and headers creation (via us taking lots of photos of her, and shopping them via Canva.com or Lunapic.com.
My idea was only to show her how the three things can tie together to potentially produce a little extra bit of passive income if done correctly. And even if we don't make anything, and least she's getting exposed to new concepts, things many of us in the West take for granted how to do.
We're still in this third month and things are chugging along slowly but surely...
Who's the Boss? The Mad English Lab Teamwork Philosophy
For me, it was vital that Büşra understood how important her role in Mad English Lab was. It may've been my initial concept, but the whole project was based upon her needs, so in order for her to internalize that and really take "ownership," I told her (repeatedly) that we were, and are, 50/50 partners.
There's no "boss," because she doesn't work for me, I don't work for her.
We are a creative team, with me as the financial backer until we can, in theory, enter into a money-making phase and earn enough to be self-sustaining. Certainly, there was never much intention of being a profit-making machine, at least not for my concern, but if we can reach a point where she makes enough to cover her living expenses, then the scholarship phase can end and either we can continue to work together or, should it be necessary, she can continue on her own as a self-supporting entrepreneur.
Really, that's always been the end goal. And so far she is doing great!
English Self-Study Ideas
Some sample self-study ideas, for those who are really serious about learning English and who are willing to do a mini-immersion every day:
- Recommend either 3 hours a day, 5 days a week of self-study...OR, better option is at least 2 hours a day, 7 days a week!
- Write a poem in English; every day, add more to the poem and use words you do not know (use a dictionary to find new words). It does not have to be 'realistic,' make up anything you want! The crazier, the better...
- Make a list of every place you want to visit, then write why you want to go there. Make it good!
- Decide a short American TV show to watch on Netflix; I recommend a comedy. Listen for new words, make a list of words or expressions you do not understand...then look up the meanings.
- Make sure you know all the 1000 Most Common English Words...
- Find and Like English learning Facebook pages, and actually study the posts (you can start with Mad English Lab).
- Go to the library and get some easy reader English books (but not too easy; it's better if you do not know all of the words, maybe 80% or so). Try The Little Prince. Record yourself (only audio) reading them!
- Do you have friends who speak English? Practice with them. Conversation practice with native speakers is the best, if you can find it for free...
- Make a list of your favorite English songs. Now Google the videos for them, but look for karaoke.
- Try an English listening podcast.
- Read some articles at BBC English.
- Google 'accent tag' and listen to some of the various English accents! My Oklahoma accent tag video is below...
Oklahoma Accent Tag Video
Daily Tricks to Speed Up Your Language Learning
Here's one of our Mad English Lab sample posts!
Do you want to learn a few tricks to speed up your English learning? Of course you do!
There are a million websites, apps, and books which offer tips on accelerating your language learning, but we think we’ve got a few ideas you may not find anywhere else!
Some of these ideas are not directly related to studying English, but instead they help prepare your mind to be more receptive to learning… Let us know your own ideas; you can visit our Facebook Page and share your craziest concepts!
Before we begin, let me say, yes, some of these ideas have been around for a long time, but I want to include them anyhow…just in case you didn’t see before, or you need a gentle reminder about how important they are! Okay, here we go…
Writing in a journal, every day
Write at least 500 words each day, and make sure to include some words you have to look up in a dictionary. No, this isn’t some groundbreaking new idea, but it is so important to increase your English skills that I want to include it in my list.
No, really! You don’t have to sit in a yoga pose, but have a coffee or tea and just sit and do nothing. Let your mind wander and be calm… It will help you not relax, to get your thoughts in order, and to allow your mind to be more receptive to study. You can’t study when you are stressed or distracted.
Easy one, right? We all walk every day. So go put on your walking shoes and get outside, go for a long walk and get some exercise…and some mental clarity! Walking is great for thinking…just make sure to make a note of any great ideas you come up with. You can type them into your phone notepad.
Listen to music
Make a playlist of songs which inspire you to be creative. Of course, try to include as many English songs as possible! This will give you a double impact of not only stirring up your creative juices, but also getting in some listening practice…
Sample Easy Reader Post
We'll do a few "easy reader" posts, for her to practice her writing...but we try to stick with topics of interest to her, and a big one is the BBC series Sherlock! So these will be fairly photo-laden, with just a few sentences for each picture...
Here's a sample:
Submissions to Mad English Lab
We're definitely staying busy trying to do our daily English lessons, write website posts, create post photos, grow the site via social media, create social media ads, try to earn a little side income online from freelancing, etc...
It's not easy, and so we opened the site up for Submissions.
Do you have something you’d like to share on Mad English Lab’s site?
Please feel free to pitch your idea via our Contact page.
I didn't have any specific demographic in mind when we began our Facebook page, but it stands to reason that people who respond the most will be within her age range, not mine, as they are language learners and therefore "students." So we can see the stats show most of our fans are between 18 and 35. There's a larger percentage of men versus women (55% men, 44% women)...but note, based on the few test promotions we did, the posts reached more men yet seem to have converted more women into fans.
What does this data suggest? Hard to say, really. For the ads, I targeted people who like English as a foreign language. But I made sure to include her photo on all of our ads; as I once told her, men love to look at women, and women also love to look at women. Most magazines, no matter what they are about, feature female models. Büşra agreed, saying, "Men are boring."
But--in order to grow, we first must do what works to spread the word. It's not only about English language acquisition, but about marketing. I'm not a professional marketer (I'm not really a professional English teacher, either), but at least for this phase of Mad English Lab, we want to keep testing the waters and see how people respond to the combination of our ESL posts and Büşra Bayram's positivity and infectious smile.
The Little Black Fish
The tale that first inspired our co-founder to depart her small hometown...
Here's the book that helped shape my personal philosophy in many ways. No, I don't advocate the methods of "Tyler Durden," but I do believe in thinking differently, and questioning the status quo. This book will help you do that.
Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent)
A very fun read from a master graphic artist and advertiser! Visuals are vital to selling a message, and George Lois has the perfect combination of standout personality and talent at making striking ads. Even if you care nothing about advertising, this book is entertaining and insightful.
Why Are You Still Working?
My own little ebook I wrote after I retired. It's gotten few reviews, and a couple were one star only. Not something to brag about, but you know what? The fact is, everything in the book is true, and it does indeed tell you how I retired at 44. I'm still retired, still living abroad...and as hopefully shows from this article, still finding creative ways to spend my loads of free time here on the beautiful Aegean Coast.
Does my ebook suck lemons? No, I don't think it does. I think some people just cannot fathom the simplicity of the concepts I espouse, and so decide to close their minds off the to very real possibility that they, too, could do what I'm doing. If they tried. Which they didn't.
Like I say, if you want something, you must DO something.