Korean idioms: chak shim sam il

It’s nearly December and time to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions. This Korean idiom might be useful at this time of year, and unfortunately, it describes me to a tee. Because I suffer from chak-shim-sam-il.

作心三日 작심삼일 chak-shim-sam-il

作(MAKE) 心 (MIND) 三 (THREE) 日 (DAYS) = This expression describes the person who makes up their mind to do something but then gives up very quickly – literally after three days. I am this person. My life looks something like this:

chak sim sam il

There’s a similar expression in Japanese – 三日坊主 mi-ka-bou-zu which literally translates into ‘three days monk’ – it’s a cute image of someone working diligently at first to become a monk but then giving up after three days. Maybe it’s too much effort or they find something else that they ‘really want to do’ instead. Yes, that describes me perfectly.

So what is it that keeps some people totally focussed on one thing? And what is it that stops us others from doing that? I think I get side-tracked by other people. Yes, I think I’ll blame other people :) . I want what they have. I see someone who just ran a marathon and looks in great shape so I start jogging. I see a sign for martial arts classes and sign up immediately.. I go to a Korean knotting jewellery exhibition and decide to join knotting classes. I mean, the list is endless.

But there’s no focus. And then I have too much going on so start quitting things whilst still starting new things. That’s been the pattern for years now.


This is one of the reasons why I find people like my calligraphy teacher so intriguing. Yes, after YET ANOTHER BREAK I have started calligraphy classes again but this time I’m having private lessons. And this time I’m serious… Honestly.

My teacher has been a calligraphy artist and teacher for over 30 years. She first studied with her father when she was young and then went on to do a Master’s degree in Calligraphy before working in the art form full time. I envy the person who is single-minded, working towards one goal their whole life.

After 20 years in Asia I have dallied with calligraphy on and off FOR YEARS having classes with different teachers along the way. But since I am chak-shim-sam-il (or mi-ka bou-zu) – I soon end up quitting or as I prefer to say, ‘taking a break’. But I always come back to calligraphy. Every time I see some beautiful calligraphy on a book cover or at an exhibition I think about starting classes again. And every time I go to an event where guests have to sign their names in a book I’m reminded how terrible my writing is and I think about starting calligraphy classes again.


Calligraphy isn’t popular with young people at all – it’s very slow, takes ages to learn properly, and isn’t considered useful since nobody writes letters by hand anymore. I met one teacher who had changed her teaching style to try to get students more involved.

She was a hangeul calligrapher and I met her at an exhibition and she wrote my name in hangeul beautifully on her business card, explaining that she could only write a person’s name if she could see them in person! I was intrigued, and when she told me that she taught classes I immediately signed up. Obviously.

But the class was not what I had expected.

First she told us that it takes YEARS to become any good at calligraphy – the teacher herself had been practising for over 20 years. So rather than learning any actual writing skills, she wanted us to ‘have fun’ and ‘play around’ with the strokes in an arty way rather than learning hangeul for writing. It was as though she had given up with us before we had even started!


Ironically, even though I am a self confessed sufferer of chak-shim-sam-il I was still insulted 😉 And as an English teacher, I also wondered what my adult English language students would say if I stood in front of the class on the first day and told them that it takes YEARS to become any good at speaking another language so let’s not bother studying properly as you are never going to be any good anyway. Why don’t we just have a bit of fun instead!

Even if the teacher is thinking it, I don’t believe it’s a good idea to say it out loud!

So anyway, we started off practising a few vertical and horizontal strokes before quickly moving on to circles, squares, and zig-zags. The teacher explained as we painted our zig-zags that we could do them to look like mountains and then paint a circle in the middle for the sun.

This is when I started to get worried.

Why were we painting mountains and suns? Not hangeul letters. Then we did circles all over the paper and had to colour them in with crayons. I was getting more uncomfortable now. It took me back to how I felt at primary school when we were in the gym for P.E class and the teacher told us to ‘be a tree’ and ‘sway like a tree’. I wasn’t a tree. I didn’t feel like a tree. I just felt stupid.

Next we were told to write our names three times – once in hangeul, once in Chinese characters (!) and once in English. And as we wrote our names we were supposed to ‘put our personality’ or ‘feelings’ into the writing.

During the class, the teacher explained that she was frustrated with the way calligraphy is usually taught in Korea – students spend years and years simply copying the teacher before getting to the stage where they can be creative and put their own personality and style into their work. So she wanted students to be able to use their creativity. That’s admirable, but in my case she was trying to get me to run before I could walk.

I still need to learn basic skills and so I prefer a more traditional approach to calligraphy classes and even though I am guilty of chak-sim-sam-il I still want to be taken seriously as though there is a chance that I could be good if I worked hard and stuck at it. Perhaps this is just an illusion since the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour (as Dr Phil would say). And if that’s the case it’s very likely that I will give up again. But there is also a chance that this time it will be different.

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