Apr 242009

Cal Newport over at Study Hacks just wrote a good entry on what to do if your dream major turns out to be a nightmare. One of his helpful observations was:

Observation #2: I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but college is hard.

A new major is like a new boyfriend. At first, it’s all excitement and possibility. Then you find out his feet stink. For a major, this metaphorical foot odor comes in the form of decreasing novelty and increasing amounts of hard work. It’s like a one-two punch to your motivation: at the same time that subject loses its freshness (because you’ve been studying it for a while) it ramps up the intensity of the work it demands (because upper level courses are harder than intro courses). This shift is unavoidable. Don’t mistake it for a shift in your fundamental feelings toward the subject.

The key thing to remember is that nobody loves a subject during the process of mastering it. Have you ever seen Rocky 4, where Stallone has to retreat to the mountains of Russia to prepare to fight Drago? He drags carts, and rolls boulders up a hill, and, in one of the most subtlety-crafted moments in cinematic history, he does inverted sit-ups in a barn while Pauly hits him in the stomach with a stick.

This sucked for Rocky. But it doesn’t mean that he didn’t respect the art of boxing or the dedication required for mastery. It’s just that the process of mastery itself is not consistently pleasant. This is probably the first time anyone in the history of education has ever said this, but your junior and senior year of college are a little bit like Rocky 4.

That’s partially why doing something you are actually interested in or enjoy is so important: you’re actually driven to master it. You may not consciously set that goal, but your actions such as reading about your subject matter on your own time are the actions of someone mastering a goal.

I added my observations to that post here:

“I wanted to add onto your comment about majors being hard. Though I doubt many of your readers feel this way, there are some people who believe majors should be easy. (Some people life should just be easy…but then it’d be so boring!)

To them I say, The sooner you let go of the expectation that it SHOULD be easy, the sooner you’ll do a lot better and stop procrastinating. If you’re always holding the expectation that there has to be an easy way, then you won’t wanna get started and your work will seem as it is being inflicted on you. If not by your parents, then perhaps by your prof or even by yourself. You will suffer from deep procrastination and the difference between what your belief of how the world is and how the world actually is will crush you.

I like to think of it a bit like this: your major and college SHOULD be hard. I’d rather live in a society where the rewards of higher pay, greater prestige, etc go to the hard working, rather than some arbitrary thing such as who your parents were or your body. I mean, those things have value, but I’d rather live in our society which has about a 0.6 correlation between intelligent (IQ), hardworking (trait conscientiousness) and creative (trait openness to new experiences) and success. I definitely don’t want to live in a society that arbitrarily and randomly hands out success.”

So, my advice? If you believe life should be easy or some aspect of it should be easy and you’re just not getting anywhere in that life area, give up that belief. Some aspects of life can become easy and you can make life much easier, sure, but making something easier isn’t necessarily an easy process. My experience is that most things that are worthwhile aren’t easy, but they’re often worth it! In fact, I try to strive to find things that aren’t easy (but not too difficult) because that’s where the most personal growth is. Of course, you may have just picked something that’s too difficult for you right now, so perhaps you can scale things back so you’re still improving and learning something without getting crushed.

Ironically, despite the initial discomfort of hard work, it’s a lot of fun! You can learn to love working hard, as long as you know that YOU chose it, that you WANT it and it’s for a greater purpose.

Sep 282008

A central claim of many personal development works is that if you want to achieve a goal, think how people who already have that goal, believe what those people believe and take actions like people who already have that goal and you will achieve that goal. However, many times it’s not as easy to do as it is to say because you tend to have your own thoughts and beliefs about a given subject or goal that can prevent you from learning the new ones.

Actions, of course, repeated are habits. Find out what the sort of people who have achieved your goal make habits of doing and try to imitate them. There are, however, also habits of thought. Some people habitually think of negative things happening to them and it can just as hard or even harder to break that habit.

However, I would just like to focus on beliefs. Many times you can generate a list of “target” beliefs that people who’ve achieved your goal or are how you want to be hold. However, you are not an empty cup that is simply filled, you have your own beliefs, both about the subject at hand and about many other things besides. Your beliefs, knowledge and thought patterns interlace to form a sort of belief net that all new beliefs have to fit into. If you want to change your limiting beliefs, you may want to learn what your current beliefs about this subject are, what they all mean, what your target belief is and what sorts of resistance you can expect. Enough theorizing, let’s have an example:

My goal is to improve my grades. For that goal I’ve started a 30-day trial to study for 15 minutes every day (it’s going rather poorly) to try to take care of the actions required. I also got a bunch of books on improving my grades and read them, to get an idea of habits to adopt but also to absorb the mindset of having better grades. Then I got to work on my current beliefs and notions about schooling and grades.

I had a lot of false ideas about getting high grades in my head, which btw, is 95+%. I had (and I suppose I still do) have anxiety attached to the idea of getting really good grades, because then I’d feel pressured to keep my grades up to that level, a pressure I don’t want to feel externally. I also believed that to get good grades, I’d have to give up all my time to studying, while this is certainly not the case, last term I did quite well (avg of 80%+) spending very little time studying outside class. I also discovered that I was attaching my sense of identity to being right in class, as well as being smart (which was dependent on not making mistakes, partially, and my grades the other part). I also felt that I wasn’t working hard enough to get good grades, ignoring any sort of strategy, and instead just trying to get down at study 30 hours a week or whatever. I did not have a limiting belief that perfect grades or really high grades are impossible, I just believed that there’s a point of diminishing marginal returns, so that the effort required to go from 80% to 90% may be half what is required to gom from 90% to 95%, and I decided I’m just not willing to put in that much time, since I have no particular goals that require me to have a really high grade. I also discovered that I would often overload myself with all the things I wanted to do so that I would study “right” instead of just doing it.

The target beliefs that were guiding all the above were: I want to achieve good grades in a limited amount of time and effort, while balancing the rest of my life, feeling no stress and general happiness. There’s often resistance to the target beliefs, which in this case was skepticism whether the above was even possibly.

So, essentially, I figured out a lot of my current thinking about grades, figured out the target beliefs and goal and compared my current beliefs to them.

As an aside, my relationship with “intelligence” became very important, because sometimes I believed that intelligence is all you need to get good grades, and that my grades were a reflection of my intelligence and other times I believed it’s just doing the work (it’s a combination of the two). Since I was praised for my intelligence as a child (usually when I was right), I came to believe that intelligence cannot change, that if you’re smart enough, you’ll get really good grades, and I felt bad on some level that I’m not a genius like Will in Good Will Hunting. The other belief I was holding was that intelligence means being right, and that you either get a new concept or you don’t; there’s no in between, which prevented me from pushing through my confusion to learn something if I didn’t get it the first time around. I also came to see my intelligence as fixed (it can change) and that my results were solely based on my abilities, and not my effort. Here’s a quotation from the above New York Magazine that describes me perfectly in this regard:

Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

It’s interesting to look back on my life and wonder if being told I was intelligent has affected things. One of the reasons I used to be so particular about spelling things correctly, forming proper sentences and making sure I’ve got my facts straight is because I wanted to convey the impression that I’m smart, and I had this belief that people who don’t do those things aren’t. I wonder if my interest in science was at all directed by the belief that I am intelligent and intelligent people are into science. I can see that belief causing some people to become dogmatic about science. I sometimes see this pattern in others as well, when they try to assert they’re right because, I believe, they don’t want to seem unintelligent.

A lot of this work was done over a long time, as a series of random epiphanies. You can also journal about it, on a computer or just on paper. Well, I hope this helps.

Main Points:

  • Achieving goals involves thinking, believing and acting in a way similar to how people who have achieved that goal or state of being.
  • Beliefs are an important part of goal achievement but often times the target beliefs cause conflicts or cognitive dissonance with your current goals and you have to work through them to get to the target goals.