Aug 292010

Students often fall into a “survival” mindset and that can cause a lot of procrastination. Thinking that, “if I can just get through this, things’ll get better”. I talk to students all the time who don’t like what they’re doing in school. They’re not enjoying school or enjoying the process of getting a degree, they’re just trying to get a degree and “make it through” before their “real life” starts.

Here’s the problem, that last year or two is a long time. Too long to just “grit my teeth and get through it”. After I failed my first year and took some time off, I was contemplating how many courses to take. I considered trying to “get through it” by taking more than a 100% course load. But I realized that even doing that, it would still take me three years. That’s a long time to be working that much and I would just burn myself out.

My way out of this dilemma is to take fewer courses. I take a 60% course load every year. That, for me, is a sustainable amount. By sustainable I mean I could do this for many years to come. It’s not too little school and it’s not too much school. It’s just right for me. I don’t get burned out or resentful about the neverending march of assignments and readings, but I have enough courses to keep my stimulated. I enjoy my courses a lot more than if I was taking 100% course load, and I get way better grades.

I decided I wouldn’t wait till the end of my degree for my “real life” to start. I enjoy myself a lot. I spend lots of time with friends and have lots of fun. Since my plan after university is to start businesses, I asked myself why I had to wait and I’ve already started. School is not something to “get through” hopefully with a piece of paper on the other side, it’s an intellectual exploration and development. My “real life” is now and school is one equal and important (but not too important) part of it.

The survival mindset creates a lot of procrastination, cause you come to see every assignment as an obstacle to you “getting through it” hopefully with as little pain as possible.

This post was inspired by Cal Newport’s Open Letter to students on the Danger of Seeing School as a Trial to Survive. He didn’t elaborate what a survival mindset was so I thought I would.

Edit: Consider this – while I’m in university, I have way more time flexibility than I will ever again till I retire, I can live more cheaply than I likely ever will and am thus more flexible than ever, I have some of the smartest friends I ever will–indeed some of them are the smartest folks in Canada, I have access to some of the smartest minds in the world in the form of my profs (esp. at University of Toronto which is a top-30 institution in the world), I am more carefree than I ever will be in my life until retirement, I have the fewest obligations I ever will till retirement, I am more intellectually challenged than I may ever be in my life, and I’m growing more than I ever might in my life by virtue of being at this stage in my life. This is truly the best times of your life, and it may well be downhill from here. So, ENJOY IT!

Ask yourself these questions: your profs are ok with you showing up ten minutes late but can you do that in a job? Most people’s friends end up being the people they work with, which may not be the smartest people around, will you really have much smarter friends than you do now? Will you have as much access to leaders in your field as you do now in terms of profs and researchers? How long before you get a kid, a mortgage and an ever-growing list of obligations and can’t enjoy life as much anymore? Will you really be as intellectually stimulated as you are now? Will you be challenged to grow as much as you are now?

University isn’t something to get through, it’s something to enjoy to the fullest. I like to think of it as “intellectual exploration”. Wander around the campus, wander around the courses and take courses which seem interesting to you without regard to which program they’re for. After a while of exploring topics that seem interesting to you, you’ll hit on one topic that you’re so gripped by that it’ll sustain your interest for years. For me it was psychology. You’d be surprised where this approach leads. It’s more uncertain than treating university as job education and getting a “safe” degree, but it’s a lot more fun and interesting. Plus you can always go back to get a “safe” degree. Though ten years out of school, there’s no difference in wages between people who got “useless” degrees like philosophy or english and people who got “safe” degrees like commerce. The only difference is in people with professional designations like engineering or accounting.

Aug 262010

A friend of mine once said something profound about the nature of personal development and transformation. I was talking to her about wanting to stop procrastinating and she said, “if I stopped procrastinating I wouldn’t be me”.

Let that sink for a moment. She hit the nail right in the head about personal development. One of the key things we have to do to change is to be willing to let go of those parts of us which do not serve us any longer. It’s one of the reasons I believe that true change only happens when you’ve hit rock bottom and have become utterly frustrated. That’s when you have nothing else to lose and you’re willing to let go of something you consider to be a part of yourself. We have a tendency to try to protect our own sense of identities, even if those identities are hurting us. Sometimes letting go of that part of ourselves, or even our whole self is violent and we have to step up and kill that part of ourselves. In stories, this is often represented by the hero character having to fight an evil version of themself (as in Scott Pilgrim fighting Nega-Scott) or a part of themself often conjured up to fight them, such as a monster from their own dreams. By killing those parts of yourself, you become stronger.

You can see this mythically and in stories, where the hero often loses the first confrontation against the villain and runs away. He learns and is reborn and wins the second round soundly. A perfect example of this is the Matrix. Neo becomes the One AFTER being shot and dying. Trinity then spells out his transformation as she stands over his dead body by saying, “I’m not afraid any more”. Pretty classic resurrection story, based on the Gnostic Bible, and thus the story of Jesus, who also, if you’ll remember, was killed and reborn.

Mythically, further, the snake tends to represent change and death and rebirth, by being able to shed its skin and become a “new” snake, in a way. You may have to do the same and shed your skin and become a new version of yourself. Sometimes the people around you aren’t comfortable killing their idea of your old self and exchanging it for your new one and that’s a part of life. People change.

There’s a few ways out of this for those of us who do not want to change only when things get truly horrible. The first is to change what you identify with as yourself. Are you the same person as you were ten years ago? How about when you were ten years old? How about when you were five? When you were just born? Physically speaking there’s almost nothing that’s the same as when you were that young. Mentally either. Personality-wise, there were significant differences. So what ties you to that child, and makes you think you’re the same person? A name? It can be argued that it is a narrative. It is a story that you tell yourself that starts with, “I was born” and “here I am”. We make up stories in order to make sense of everything around us (including us) and these stories are often incorrect. But we cling to these stories like a drowning man to a life-saving device.

Steve Pavlina/Ekhart Tolle/Buddhism makes the point that you should identify not with the things you consider you identity (your memories, personality, past, future, body, emotions, thoughts, etc.) but with the consciousness on which all of these things play out. The awareness of awareness that you develop in mindfulness practice.

Another related way is to reduce clinging attachment, a la Buddhism, again. Try mindfulness meditation and notice how you cling to things, unwilling to let go because of fear.