Discipline Week: Hindsight

To be honest, I’ve been rather dreading writing this post. The biggest failure of Discipline Week was my lack of blogging, and while there were many successes, the fact that I haven’t blogged in around three months has been weighing on me. Sometimes I feel like the segments of our lives have a theme. If you could put years of your life in a folder, you might label these years after something you learned to do, and these months after someone you were dating, and this week after one idea that completely changed your way of thinking. This semester’s theme has definitely been “Motivation” or, as a friend of mine might call it, “Learning to School.”

In learning how to school, I have learned not only about motivation, but also about priorities, forgiveness, and ardor. I use the word ardor in reference to a quote I read a while ago: “Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor, and attended to with diligence.” – Abigail Adams. When I copied this quote and taped it above my desk early in the semester, I knew it was significant, but it took me a while to learn exactly how it was significant. To me, seeking learning with ardor means that you have to use whatever means are at your disposal to complete your work. If that means staying up late, or asking a friend how to do a problem, or even skipping class, then so be it. It’s not enough to simply be at school, you have to fight for the knowledge you want.

Prioritizing is sometimes part of fighting for knowledge. I have skipped many a Linear Algebra assignment this semester, but I’ve done all but two of my assignments in every other class. In two of my classes, the assignments are worth 10% to 12.5% of my grade, and in another class, I know that I’ll get very far behind if I don’t do the assignments. Given a limited time – for whatever reason – I have to choose which assignment to do based on which is more important.

I’ve also learned to forgive myself. I can’t expect myself to study as diligently as some of my peers – at least not at the moment. After a while, I shut down, and I’m not able to continue studying. Once in a while, I’ll realize that I just can’t study, and I’ll put everything down and watch TV. And I’ve learned to tell myself that that’s ok sometimes.

Scheduling is also important. I’ve realized that most of the time I’ll plan to work on something “later” and not really allocate any time for it. Then “later” arrives, and the assignment is already past due. I have to give myself a time and a place in which to study: at home, at my table, with a pot of tea, at 4:30pm. Now I stack up my day in my mind, like a stack of dishes that need to be done. Sometimes I realize I won’t have time for all of them, and I re-prioritize.

Finally, one of the most important things: I’ve gotten rid of my “smart complex.” I read an article a while ago about how children who are told they are “smart” tend to give up more easily on intellectual challenges, and I realized that describes me to a tee. It sounds like an excuse or a an attempt at diagnosing an imaginary affliction, but I think it’s a useful tool for analyzing myself. If your parents told you all your life that you were stupid, chances are you would start to believe them after a while, and you would relegate yourself to a life of intellectual boredom. So what happens when your parents constantly tell you that you’re smart?

I think you start to believe it in just the same way. You do well in school, because maybe you are smart, until you reach a point where smart doesn’t cut it anymore; now you have to do real work, and you’ve never had to do that before. That’s when the identity crisis hits. You start looking for a way to reconcile the idea that you’re “smart” and the fact that you’re performing poorly in school. “Maybe I’m not cut out for this,” you think to yourself, “maybe I’m in the wrong program,” “I’m not enjoying this, so maybe this isn’t my subject.” When grades don’t agree with your vision of the world, you start comparing yourself to other people, trying to see where you stand on the intellectual spectrum. But it’s all in vein, because intellect doesn’t matter here: work is what matters, and you’ll get nowhere until you realize that.

The trick is to realize that you cannot afford yourself the luxury of being smart. Smart does not exist in this scenario, for all intents and purposes, and the sooner you can force yourself to realize that, the sooner you can start working on the real problem: how to do the work. Pushing “smart” out of your mind will help you succeed.

It took me a few days to stop comparing myself to other people, and to stop thinking about how my performance reflected on my intellect. For a while I was even annoyed with some of my friends who I perceived to be “smarter” than I, because I was the smart kid once. Soon, I realized that they merely have more self-discipline than I do. This problem is by no means fixed, and I’m still getting a feel for how to deal with it. But I am dealing with it.

For those who would like to read more about what I have called the “smart complex,” here is the article: http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/


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