Skritter CEO Jake Gill on experimenting and ‘showing up’
Skritter CEO Jake Gill (高健) shows up with passion and dedication in all areas of his life, whether that is at work leading the world’s number one character writing application, or creating graffiti style character art in his spare time.
During the pandemic he has returned to a regular routine of Chinese study, taking part in language-learning challenges on Instagram and sharing vibrant digital artwork depicting Chinese characters.
We spoke to Jake to find out more about his Mandarin learning background. Read on to see what you can learn from the mindset and approach of a lifelong learner who is embedded in the world of Chinese characters and Mandarin learning apps.
Jake will be giving a guest lecture on 9 June: Learning, Teaching and Making Chinese Characters Stick
Skills and career journey
Jake holds a degree in Global Communications from UW-Milwaukee, studied abroad in Taiwan and Mainland China, and completed Master’s coursework at National Taiwan Normal University for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language. He has taught Chinese at summer camps, weekend schools, and at university before joining Skritter full-time as Director of Daily Operations, eventually becoming CEO.
You don’t know where life will take you
You may be surprised to hear that Jake “felt like a linguistic failure” at high school, where he struggled with German conjugations and concluded that he couldn’t do languages.
It took an extended trip to Indonesia, where he “had a blast” learning some Indonesian and communicating with locals, to put that fear and dread behind him. Jake was keen to continue having experiences like this and enrolled on a Chinese course at university.
At this point a lot of the technology we take for granted today didn’t exist. Jake didn’t have a smartphone and couldn’t have imagined that one day he would run an app company! However, while he didn’t know where the path would lead, he was dedicated to building his knowledge.
Jake focused on Computer Assisted Language Learning in his Teaching Chinese MA. Sharing resources and technology recommendations with students for them to use outside class became Jake’s ‘thing’, and he documented his experimentation on a blog, ilearnmandarin.blogspot.com.
When a classmate who worked at Skritter told Jake about a writing opportunity, it was his blog and that connection that helped him get his foot in the door at the company.
Go all in
I’m a pretty all-in kind of person.
This is not the only time that following his passion and curiosity has eventually led Jake to an earning opportunity – but his focus has always been on trying things to see what happens, rather than thinking about the outcome. ‘Going in deep’, whether in art or in his career, has often been implicitly rewarding.
A lot of people say if you want to do something and make it into a career show up every single day for two years. If you do that, genuinely, you’re going to learn something along the way and people will recognise that.
Connect the dots
Jake points out that, generally speaking, your language skills are not going to be the main reason you are hired – so you have to consider what else you are bringing to the table. Bundling up your Mandarin skills with something else can create a different and valuable combination.
I care about details and particulars, and that made me a pretty good app tester.
For example, while his language skills helped, it was his attention to detail and interest in experimentation that made Jake a natural app tester.
His advice is to try to connect the dots and find your own unique path through the world.
He brings this approach to his artwork too. Lots of people draw spaceships (Jake is a keen sci-fi fan) but there are fewer people creating art with Chinese characters. Jake identified this form of ‘edutainment’ as something he could offer that was different, and embarked upon a challenge to do a character a day from the HSK 1 vocabulary list.
The goal was to make the characters attractive and accessible, so learners would think: “Wait, not only is this kind of cool, but I also know these words!”
Tools and mindset
“For me the success has come from showing up often, being willing to experiment, bringing my passion and not really holding anything back.”
I love to experiment with things… I love to try it out, see what happens, see what sticks, see what doesn’t, reflect after a period of time.
Jake notes that “you have to be a little fearless” in language-learning, and this is a useful attribute in other areas too. He has taken risks in his studies and career, trying things he thinks will work and sometimes finding that they don’t. The important thing is to learn from mistakes.
Diving headfirst into technology and following his interest in computer assisted learning has taken Jake right from the days before smart phones, when he bought a first generation iPod and discovered the joy of listening to Chinese on the bus, right through to being CEO of an app company.
Make the most of online communities and challenges
Social media makes it easier than ever to experiment and share your results.
You don’t even need to build a blog anymore – just log into your account and participate, with a hashtag, and boom you’re instantly connected, and that’s so amazing, especially right now.
The #studygram community on Instagram is a way to instantly connect with other learners around the world. Jake has been participating in challenges, most of which come from Hacking Chinese, “one of the best free resources on the internet talking about learning how to learn and about Chinese.”
These challenges are focused and organised, providing resources and articles about the chosen skills and bringing learners together around a commitment to improve that skill over a short period of time. Jake originally joined in for a Skritter-sponsored challenge, and enjoyed being instantly part of a community of people cheering each other on.
Social media is an amazingly incredible platform for connection if you choose to use it that way.
However, even in positive online communities it is important to keep your own goals in mind. As an ‘all-in kind of person’, Jake has to find the sweet spot where sharing content and recommendations from his own studies is fun, and not a source of pressure that eats into too much his study time.
Jake is well-practised at ‘showing up’. We’ve already mentioned his early blog, 150-day HSK character art challenge and commitment to being active in the studygram community. When he was getting back into drawing, one of his first steps was to take a 30-day drawing course online.
Consistent daily progress is invaluable for language-learning, and Jake would argue that this is not only because it gets results:
If you show up every single day at the end not only do you learn something, but you get gratification of doing something for an extended period of time, building healthy habits.
Incorporate your interests
As someone with varied interests including cars, sci-fi, art, and technology, Jake has learned to weave them all into his language-learning.
For example, his interest in Chinese characters built upon an existing fascination with signage and typography. As a visual learner he embraced characters as a unique and interesting (if time-consuming) challenge. You can see how these different influences combine in his graffiti-inspired character artwork.
A blog post from back in 2013 includes some musings on this theme:
There should be no reason why you cannot strive toward using your second language to fulfil your own interests and needs. If you like cooking, for example, than what is stopping you from taking cooking classes in your target language, or picking up a cook book in your target language? Interested in music? What is to stop you from writing songs, or taking music lessons in your target language? Interested in sports? Go do that in your target language. Interested in just about anything, than go and try to find a way to do that, or learn more about it in your target language.
It is clear from Jake’s story that your experience of language-learning in school doesn’t define you as a language-learner.
Celebrate small milestones along the way
Riding the wave of enthusiasm that he got from his experience with Indonesian, Jake dabbled in Chinese before starting his university class. From listening to podcasts like ChinesePod over the summer he was able to walk into his first lesson and introduce himself in Chinese – his first genuine output in the language.
The teacher’s reaction was so affirming and encouraging that Jake still remembers this as a huge moment in his Mandarin learning journey. It was all he needed to set him off in pursuit of more moments of connection in the language.
It’s all about connection
Jake could now see that it was community and connection that had been lacking in high school:
The one critical piece I was missing was communal engagement, speaking, practicing, making this a part of my everyday life.
Jake has embraced connection with others as an integral part of his Chinese learning. As soon as he was even slightly more advanced than someone else he would help them out if he could, sharing tips and resources that had worked for him and doing tutoring. He also found community online, talking to people on forums and reading blogs to learn from others who were sharing what mistakes to avoid, or recommend tools to try.
And after all this effort, it all comes back to why you are learning the language in the first place. Whether it’s for your job or a hobby, learning new things make it possible to connect with other people in new and deeper ways. Jake recalls a night last year when he was outside stargazing and some Chinese people came out with their telescope. Jake asked, in Mandarin, how to say comet and it built immediate rapport.
Those little moments, those connections, that’s really what does it for me… it’s being human.
- See Jake’s artwork and follow his studies on his Gaojianmedia and Gaojian_studygram Instagram accounts.
- Find out more about Hacking Chinese Challenges.
- Browse Jake’s early blog posts at ilearnmandarin.blogspot.com.
- Read more Mandarin Aspirations stories on our blog.
- Find out more about our Chinese courses.
- Watch this Skritter video for more tips on study success from Jake (in Chinese!):