The company that teaches more people languages than any school

Nina Gordon
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October 6, 2019

Louis von Ahn, Duolingo’s founder, is smart. Like really smart. Accolades he’s won include: Discover’s “50 Best Brains in Science”, Popular Science’s “Brilliant 10” and Silicon.com’s “50 Most Influential People in Technology”.

Before Duolingo he created CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA and the ESP Game. The latter was licensed to Google and is used to improve the accuracy of Google Image Search.

Von Ahn created Duolingo to solve two problems in the language learning industry. Traditional courses were too expensive and mainly focused on teaching English speakers other languages. As of 16 September 2019, Duolingo’s biggest cohort was 27,700,000 Spanish speakers learning English.

Originally, Duolingo taught it’s users a foreign language while having them translate simple phrases in documents — essentially crowdsourcing free web translation. The web translation service doesn’t exist anymore, but it did score two major clients: Buzzfeed and CNN. But remember, von Ahn’s mission was to make language learning more accessible NOT to translate.

Duolingo was chosen by Apple as the iPhone App of the Year in 2013, but was developed by two people who had never used an iPhone before. David Klionsky, the engineer, had a Windows phone and had never developed for iOS. Tyler Murphy, the designer, had a flip phone.

Duolingo enjoyed a 2018 revenue of $40 million and a valuation of $700 million making money from advertising and some paid services. A model that works because of the size of their audience/user base. They created a fun, free and effective model that provided a solution to the shortfalls of the traditional ways of learning a language.

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So why do so few of us have creative breaks?

Because almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Including you.

Charles Darwin took long walks around London. Kurt Vonnegut made listening to jazz a daily priority. Fiona Apple disappeared for 6 years after the release of her third album.

So why do so few of us have creative breaks?
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I ask because I can often be found agonising over the "more". If only I posted on Instagram more, I'll think in the bath. I'd have more followers if I pitched to more publications. I need to post 2 more times a week, minimum. I could go on...

Between you and me, I've got frustrated with myself for browsing Facebook or watching too much TV more times than I can remember.

And I'm not alone. So many of us are terrified of taking a break, creatively speaking. We won't let a moment pass without listening to a podcast, consuming an article or sharing something.

The cognitive load is real, y'all.

But like Vitamin D, sleep and good food, it's not only ok to take a break, it's essential.

Living a successful life is also about knowing when not to work. For your best output, you need to focus on your input, too.

The world won't end if you disappear from the internet for a week or so. Your creativity won't suddenly stop. Your time is now, but your time was also then and it will be again.

Your dreams don't have an expiration date.

Many of us confuse being "busy" with being constructive. But you can only do your best work by taking breaks.

And science backs it up, too. The brain requires substantial downtime to do its most innovative thinking. The ideas you have while driving or in the shower aren't coincidental. They're a result of you taking a step back, whether you're aware of it or not.

Here's a challenge for you

Let yourself take a wonderful and indulgent break. Several breaks. Hell, get downright bored.

Put airplane mode on for a while. Sit down. Lie down. Be still. Do nothing. Observe. Listen to your mind. Let it do what it does without judging it.

Wallow in it. Don't be afraid of it. Push it as far as you can.

When you leave your laptop behind, something always happens. A new idea or a fresh perspective appears.

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"A spark of inspiration needs an empty cave."

Take proper breaks, often. Completely clear your mind. Your next best idea depends on it.

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