Learning and not flailing

- education

As a freshman in high school, one of my teachers encouraged us to write down what we’d learned at school at the end of everyday. A simple way to practice active recall. Number of times I did this? Zero.

I did pretty well in high school. I was happy to burn the midnight oil and delay gratification. I got into Stanford and a bunch of other top schools. It worked.

College was a different ballgame. I continued to burn the midnight oil. But things didn’t go nearly as well, and I couldn’t understand why. This was incredibly disheartening.

Part of this was just the fact that standards were higher, my classmates were on average more talented and motivated, and I wasn’t the all-star anymore. I actually ended up failing a class (gasp!). I’m not a genius, so there was always going to be a return to Planet Earth. It prompted me to begin a new relationship with identity…one that didn’t look so much for stability in “look how much smarter/higher achieving I am.” This balloon was gonna pop some day. Might as well have happened as young as possible, leaving me the most time to actually grow up.

However. In the years following gradation, I came to discover just how poor my study habits had always been. Cal Newport’s books were the start. And then came the discovery of this quote, which made me cringe in recognition (via :

“Except in a very few [tennis] matches, usually with world-class performers, there is a point in every match (and in some cases it’s right at the beginning) when the loser decides he’s going to lose. And after that, everything he does will be aimed at providing an explanation of why he will have lost. He may throw himself at the ball (so he will be able to say he’s done his best against a superior opponent). He may dispute calls (so he will be able to say he’s been robbed). He may swear at himself and throw his racket (so he can say it was apparent all along he wasn’t in top form). His energies go not into winning but into producing an explanation, an excuse, a justification for losing.”

It seemed now that my furious academic efforts were often just this…wildly throwing myself at the ball so as to excuse the result that might come.

I can’t say for sure, but I bet I could have enjoyed life more and done better in school - and maybe even swung it as a Physics major - if I’d had better habits and systems and processes in place. But hey, coulda woulda shoulda.

Fast forward to 2019. I was interested in business school, so I signed up for a class with Reed Arnold at Manhattan Prep.

Reed and other instructors at Manhattan prep emphasized the importance of redoing problems. If you couldn’t successfully complete a problem you’d previously seen - and do so multiple times - it was a sign you weren’t actually learning much. At the same time, redoing difficult problems until you could get them right several times in a row was, itself, the key to mastering the test. You killed two birds with one stone - spaced repetition and active recall.

I used a dumb google sheet to log new problems I did, take notes and schedule redo’s. I studied a lot. And I got a 720. A pretty good score.

Yet I was still left wondering…my compliance with the redo recommendation was just okay. Part of this was a management overhead problems (scheduling and adhering to redo dates. Amidst other study areas and work/life activities). Part of this was probably just that…it’s scary to redo a problem and possibly confront Could have done even better or similarly with even less effort or more peace of mind?

In pretty much every exam or test you’ll ever take, there is the explicit test - how well you know the material being covered - and an implicit test - did you have the right attitude, the right processes and habits in place? Did you manage yourself correctly and sustainably?

Of course - you can’t actually learn “how to study” in a vacuum. A class dedicated to this would be a waste of time. But how many teachers or professors really enforce or encourage systems and habits within their instruction? How often are students ever really prepared for the implicit test?

We all have the talent that we have. We need to make the most of it. Are you?