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Education Lifestyle Productivity

The Fundamentals of Networking

“If there is any one secret to success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

Henry Ford (1863-1947)

Before I get into this, I just want to mention that there’s so much information on networking out there and I could write volumes of books on this topic, but this post will just be a few of the things I keep in mind when I’m networking.

What is networking?

Our network is who we are connected to and networking is building access to connect with people. Some people say success is about knowing the right people (and while that is true) it’s also about being accepted and liked by the right people.

Everyone’s heard the saying “you are the sum of the 5 people you hang around with the most” and for a lot of people this is not a reassuring statement. If we want to get to a different place, be a different kind of person, be someone who lives their life by design, then we need to be able to grow our network.

There are a ton of books out there on networking, but one that is worth mentioning is the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I highly recommend reading this book if you want solid and practical knowledge of networking. When I first read it I thought it was terribly self-explanatory, but reading the book is worthwhile because the “obviously simple” claims he made are backed up by science and research. Plus, it really is beneficial to write down seemingly obvious things, most of the world’s greatest wisdom is cultivated through people writing down what is obvious.

The TL;DR is don’t be a jerk, but I’ll go over a few of those ideas in this post and the next.

When we’re networking, it’s easy to feel nervous or intimidated, especially if we want to level up our network. It’s tough to put ourselves out there in hopes of being accepted. It’s scary to approach people with more money, education, and power than us, but that’s when I find it useful to keep The Cosmic Perspective in mind. I originally heard about this idea from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Masterclass on scientific thinking and communication, but I’ve also heard about it from reading about astronauts too. The idea is that we are made of the same elements as the giant planets and stars.

We are special, not because we are unique, but because we are the same.

Some astronauts say that when they see Earth from space for the first time, they have a realization that they belong in this universe just as much as the planets, the sun, and everything else that’s here. That is the cosmic perspective — seeing ourselves as beings that belong here, just like all the other beings in the cosmos. Seeing things from this perspective can give us the confidence to talk to anyone on this planet because they are just like us. The things that intimidate us are illusions and likely a result of thinking too small.

We belong here just as much as the planets and stars do, and in that realization, we can find confidence and peace in ourselves.

Attitude: How You Play The Game

“It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it matters how you play the game.”

Jordan Peterson (1962 – )

Let’s say we’re part of a soccer team and we have to play a game against another team. Let’s say that you’re way better than your other teammates and you could single-handedly beat the other team without much help. If we were playing just one game of soccer, that would be a winning strategy.

But if we’re playing a tournament of games, then we’ll have to change how we play. We’ll probably want to pass the ball and make sure that our team members are focused because we’ll need them to move on in the tournament. We’ll want to act in a way that ensures our teammates like us and have our backs.

How we play games changes if we have to play a tournament of games.

Our life is like the ultimate tournament of tournaments of games and the best way to play games of this nature is to play to win the tournament, not the game. The idea is to play so you can continue to advance, and sometimes that may look like losing a game, but other times it usually means acting fair and kind.

Networking is the game of games. You want to play in a way that gets you invited to play more. The most successful kids are not the ones who win every game, but are the ones who are invited to play the most games.

We’ve all heard the phrase winning isn’t everything, but when it comes to networking, it is. We just need to redefine what winning is for networking purposes. In networking, the person who is most invited to “play” wins. Play in the adult world can mean a plethora of different things ranging from, but not limited to, business, romance, platonic, or political relationships.

When I’m making new connections, I try to give value and demonstrate appreciation. People love useful people and love being appreciated even more! But I do this more importantly because it can trigger reciprocity. If I’m useful and appreciative of them, then they will want to be of me.

It’s all about getting to be invited to play more.

Getting the last word in, proving a point, or satiating a selfish desire is never worth not being invited to play.

Act in a way that makes people want to connect with you more. I’ve found that being compassionate, considerate, and competent will usually get you through the door. However, there is something else to keep in mind.

Playing Fair is a Biological Phenomenon

Part of being invited to play often is playing fair when we are invited to play. There are a few reasons for this — so people will enjoy playing with us, but also so they know that we’re a predictable playmate. People love predictable, especially when we’re thinking about the future.

But what is playing fair?

In order to answer this question, we have to look to Jaak Panksepp and his revolutionary experiment regarding fair play in rats.

Panksepp set up an experiment where he had two rats to play with each other, one rat was about 10% bigger than the other rat. Naturally, as we see with children, the bigger rat wins time and time again.

But here’s where it gets interesting, when the rats want to play again the smaller rat has to ask the big rat for permission to play. If the bigger rat says yes, then they play again. But if the smaller rat loses more than 66% of the time (roughly), then it won’t want to play anymore. The fascinating part is the bigger rat knows this and will let the smaller rat win enough to keep it in the game.

This weird little experiment shows that there is a biological basis for playing fair. It’s not like the rats told each other their feelings. This experiment demonstrates that there are neurons that specifically track if we’re playing a fair game.

People are the same way, sometimes they need to win. They need to feel like they’re playing a game they can win. This is how we “play fair” with networking – sometimes you let the smaller rat win, whatever it takes to get invited to play again. Even if that means losing every once in a while.

The networking game is more of a series of games, and as we know, when we’re thinking of multiple iterations in the future, our strategy has to change. If we were only playing games once, then lying and cheating would probably be the best winning strategy. But when we have to win a series, we have to keep in mind that we have to be a good sport and that might mean losing this game for the sake of the connection. With this, I don’t mean obviously throw the game. We have to be a formidable opponent otherwise it’s no fun.

Networking is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a war, not a battle. Look towards the long term and act accordingly.

Reputation

We can’t talk about networking without talking about reputation. Reputation is different things to different people, but I believe that understanding multiple perspectives of reputation will give us comprehensive enough knowledge to integrate this idea properly into our behavior.

I’ll start with a modern and fairly simple explanation for reputation from renowned and successful real estate investor, Brandon Turner. In the world of real estate investing, the strength of your network is directly proportional to success.

“[Reputation] is built through character (doing what you say you’re going to do), experience (showing proof of what you’ve done), knowledge (do you know what you’re doing?), and even who you are associating with (you can borrow other’s credibility if they are part of your deal. Someone might not trust you yet, but maybe you can bring in a more-established partner who would have their trust?).”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Investing in Real Estate with No (and Low) Money Down)

Turner’s take on reputation is aligned with what most modern people associate reputation with and is worth knowing. These four aspects (character, experience, knowledge, & associates) are what are going to be judged when we’re out interacting with people. Intentionality in each of these areas will inevitably upgrade our network.

Another perspective that’s worth knowing is Arthur Schopenhauer’s. His take on reputation is fresh and carries a warning about what a reputation can do to our personal experience of life.

“By a peculiar weakness of human nature, people generally think too much about the opinion which others form of them; although the slightest reflection will show that this opinion, whatever it may be, is not in itself essential to happiness. Therefore it is hard to understand why everybody feels so very pleased when he sees that other people have a good opinion of him, or say anything flattering to his vanity.”

Arthur Schopenhauer (The Wisdom of Life)

He regards carrying weight in the opinion of others as a weakness and proposes that what goes on in other people’s heads, or a demonstration of their thoughts, is not essential to our happiness.

“Therefore it is advisable, from our point of view, to set limits to this weakness, and duly to consider and rightly to estimate the relative value of advantages, and thus temper, as far as possible, this great susceptibility to other people’s opinion, whether the opinion be one flattering to our vanity, or whether it causes us pain; for in either case it is the same feeling which is touched. Otherwise, a man is the slave of what other people are pleased to think,—and how little it requires to disconcert or soothe the mind that is greedy of praise”

Arthur Schopenhauer (The Wisdom of Life)

Artie says we should see what happens in other people’s minds with indifference, a stoic perspective which I can get behind. Especially because if we don’t, then we become a slave to other people’s poorly informed opinions.

“to lay great value upon what other people say is to pay them too much honor.”

Arthur Schopenhauer (The Wisdom of Life)

Artie is known as the Great Pessimist, but I have to agree with this too. What other people think is usually of very little value to us. Obviously, there are exceptions, but these opinions should never rob us of the ability to act or think independently.

But now this poses the question: if we don’t place value in what other people think, then how are we supposed to network effectively?

“Let me remark that people in the highest positions in life, with all their brilliance, pomp, display, magnificence and general show, may well say:—Our happiness lies entirely outside us; for it exists only in the heads of others.”

Arthur Schopenhauer (The Wisdom of Life)

When it comes to networking, reputation can bring you the highest positions in life, but it can come at a cost of our peace of mind.

Build a reputation, but don’t identify with it.

It’s a tricky balance, but one that needs to be gotten right otherwise we may lose our sense of self in the nonsense of others.

The last thing I want to mention about reputation is that the last impression means the most.

“The last impression is the lasting impression.”

Chris Voss (Teaches The Art of Negotiation)

I got this from Chriss Voss. It’s not about how they feel about us at first, it’s mostly about what we leave them with. Leave them feeling good and happy if possible.

Don’t worry about starting off on the wrong foot, just make sure we finish on the right foot.

Reputations are something that we are continuously building. Every day we make choices that influence our reputations, even choices of omission impact our reputations. But we also need to keep in mind that reputations are for other people and not for us. Our relationship with ourselves is different from our relationship with other people.

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Education Lifestyle

A Year(ish) of Writing

“It is we ourselves who must answer the questions that life asks of us, and to these questions, we can respond only by being responsible for our existence.”

Viktor Frankl on the Meaning of Life

Early July last year I decided to commit to publishing a blog post every Tuesday. Back then I would have never imagined that I would write a blog, let alone stick with it for over a year, but I was inspired by Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work and how Ramit Sethi turned a blog into a multi-million dollar business. To me, writing a blog seemed to be something worth doing even if nothing came of it.

“A blog is the ideal machine for turning flow into stock: One little blog post is nothing on its own, but publish a thousand blog posts over a decade, and it turns into your life’s work.”

Austin Kleon (Show Your Work)

So every week I would try to write about a topic that I would want to flesh out in one of my future projects, but if I couldn’t meet the deadline then I would release a personal post instead. I didn’t need to fact check or research my own thoughts on things, so they were much easier to produce than the other posts.

At first, I felt that sharing my personal thoughts was indulgent, lazy, and narcissistic, but looking back those have become my favorite to read. It’s fun to get to know a previous version of myself, especially one that I’m willing to make public. Reading journals, songs, poems, and other personal works is cool, but there’s something different about reading my own public writing – it’s like I’m getting to experience what I’m like through other people’s eyes.

When I first started posting personal posts, I felt that I was polluting my work, especially since I would post them just to keep a deadline and I failed to complete another post on time. Looking back now, I can see that it’s not pollution, but evidence of my evolution. This week I was slightly on track to writing another post that would advance my projects, but I felt a pull to write a more personal post instead. (I also felt the pressure of knowing that the next two days I would be working overtime & I’m not feeling up to that right now).

I wanted to give myself an opportunity to step back and reflect on what developing my writing has done for me. I’ve conquered a personal mountain, but not just that, I’ve transformed myself in the process and taken my achievements further than I expected it to go. I owe it to myself to take a moment and marvel at my hard work and sacrifice.

What Writing Has Done For Me

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)

Blogging has completely changed my relationship with doing difficult things and doing them consistently. This switch has given me the reasoning that catapulted my recent physical fitness revolution. I would think things like “If I could blog for a year, then I could definitely do a workout today” or “doing these workouts are easier than writing” and it would be enough for me to get going. Now I’m in (almost) the best shape I’ve ever been in my entire life and it really is because of writing this blog. We see ourselves do things and make conclusions about who we are based on those observations.

I used to hate writing, so much so that I majored in engineering partly to get as far away as possible from essays and reading. I used to see myself as a “math & science” guy so I didn’t need to know how to write papers and read boring documents. (How shortsighted was I?) I was still holding on to that identity when I first started writing. The language I used was mathematical, but I supposed that was just the language I was able to express myself with.

Today I pride myself on my ability to speak my mind and explain myself. I have a broader vocabulary that allows me to express my thoughts more clearly and accurately. I used to believe I was well-spoken and articulate, but I see now that I’m not. Human beings are capable of having thoughts so complex that they transcend their linguistic abilities and I’ve been using writing as a means to access the ability to communicate these complicated thoughts. Now I know enough to know that I will never consider myself as well-spoken or articulate as I’d like to be or as I’d need to be. The complexity of our thoughts has no upper limit and as my linguistic skills improve, so will my capacity for thinking.

My writing used to be short and choppy. It’s no surprise though because I didn’t have access to the language I needed to properly express myself. I also didn’t realize how much communication I assumed would translate when I started writing. When we’re writing we have to spell out every little thing, I needed to stop assuming the reader would “just get what I mean.” Now, I’ve branched out – my thoughts and writings are more thorough than bef0re. For a long time, I had to try hard to lengthen my responses to things, but now I find that I have to try harder to keep things short.

This blog has helped me form my thoughts together. Writing is truly the most sophisticated form of thinking. Now that I’m better at writing, I’m a better thinker and a better communicator. I say um and other filler words less often. People have complimented me on my way with words, even though I know I could be way more articulate, blogging has made me more linguistically adept than the average person and gives me an edge in the everyday conversation.

Since I knew that writing often will improve my thinking, I originally used my blog as a stepping stone for me to refine my ideas to build an effective and lucrative online course, but over the past year and some change, it’s evolved into so much more. It still carries the original purpose of refining my thoughts for my future courses, curriculums, and books, but it’s also become a place for me to share my personal thoughts, transform my identity, and draw confidence.

My blog has given me access to unbelievable opportunities beyond my wildest dreams. It’s been the cornerstone for my internet entrepreneur adventures – which has shown me that as long as we’re alive in the 21st century, we can create any life we want for ourselves. I can be lil ol’ Chris from Temecula and do all the things my heart desires. I’ve been able to become a music producer, and actually earn money from it! I haven’t been able to create a livable wage yet, but that’s in my crosshairs. It’s been a dream of mine to put Music Producer on my tax forms and this year I can finally do it.

But it doesn’t stop there – I want this blog to be the bedrock for my work as I move into the educational field as an up and coming expert in learning and education. So far, things are going according to plan.

This blog has given me the confidence to talk about myself as an expert, which has given me an opportunity to get my works in schools across the United States. Writing this blog has changed how I see myself consequently changing my role in the community. Because I write about the topics I write about, other people see me as a more reliable and knowledgeable tutor than the average which means people will be more likely to listen to my opinion. However, even if they don’t see my work, I have my thoughts straight and I can exude the presence of an expert.

My blog has shown me that anyone can be a writer – shit, if I could be a writer, then anyone can be anything. Seriously. That’s how I’ve been combating my imposter syndrome when it comes up. I think to myself – “I literally became someone who writes a blog. Chemical engineering-math wiz-book hating-Chris learned how to write consistently. So I can do _______.” Honestly, I think everyone should commit to something that they believe is the complete opposite of who they think they are, the growth has been beyond my wildest dreams.

It’s also given me, or should I say, taken from me the ability to pretend like I don’t know better. All of the topics that I’ve written about have forced me to grapple with the fact that I know how to deal with a lot of the things I’m struggling with, which forces me to actually deal with it. Writing these ideas down forces me to know them, and we can’t unknow things. For example, I was never able to stick to things consistently but after writing my Relationship with Myself posts, I “discovered” more than enough reasons to stick to things rather than give up. When I stick to something I know myself as someone who sticks to things and does what they set out to do. When I give up, I know myself as someone who gives up when things get hard. Additionally writing about things like discipline, time management, integrity, identity, habits, and all the rest of it really forces me to operate at the top of my game.

Blogging has given me a beautiful opportunity to live a richer life. It has given me a chance to realize the question “What is the meaning of life?” isn’t the right question to ask. It assumes that life has something to give you, but that’s not a productive way of thinking. I realized the right way to look at it was that life is asking me “What is the meaning of me?” and, because of blogging, I can answer that question more accurately than I was able to before. All the writing and reading I’ve done gives me a wider arsenal to answer that question with more. And from what I understand, the better we can create the meaning of our lives, the richer our lives become. This has probably been the most valuable bit of growth I’ve experienced from writing this blog. Now, I feel as if my life doesn’t seem to have limits and it’s because I’m able to see the marvel that a human is.

Human beings can do anything. Human beings can be anything. The experience of life is always bigger than we think.

Commit to something for a year. Commit to something that isn’t you. Stick to it. Be amazed by your abilities.

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Education Productivity

Algorithms for Every Class (Part 2)

“Learning is not the accumulation of scraps of knowledge. It is a growth, where every act of knowledge develops the learner, thus making him capable of constituting ever more and more complex objectivities—and the object growth in complexity parallels the subjective growth in capacity.”

Husserl (as interpreted by Quentin Lauer)

Last week, I posted Algorithms for Every Class (Part 1), which was a collection of tips and tricks that would be helpful in all, if not most, classes. This is the 2nd part of that post.

Take what you love, leave what you don’t. Hope this is useful!

On Getting Stuck

We’ve all been there and this will happen inevitably. We’re working on something, then we reach a part that we don’t understand. This is great because that means we’re at the edge of our competence and we have an opportunity to learn something. Now, what separates the excellent students from mediocre students is what they choose to do when they get stuck. Here are a few methods that can unstick us while being constructive.

The first piece of advice I want to give is probably the most overstated and corny advice for getting stuck but it’s a cliche for a reason: Apply the 15-minute rule to try to figure it out on your own. Before asking anyone for help, try to figure out the answer for 15 minutes. This increases retention and creates a healthy relationship with ourselves. Document everything you do during that 15 minutes to give yourself something to present to the professor or teacher if the problem can’t be solved. They will be able to figure out where you went wrong or what you are missing more effectively. This saves you and your professor time and you will be able to understand the information better because that 15 minutes would have given a context for all of the new information to fit into.

This advice is so cheesy, but when we keep in mind The Relationship with Ourselves and our Identity, the implications that come with giving ourselves that extra 15 minutes are so significant. How we do anything is how we do everything, and it’s critical for us to observe ourselves solving problems that we don’t understand. If we back down and ask for help immediately after encountering a solution, we are creating a relationship with ourselves which proves that we back down when challenged and need help when things get hard. If we use that extra 15 minutes, we create a relationship with ourselves as someone who rises up to the challenge and tries. We can get much further if we know ourselves as someone who tries.

Let me add that professors and teachers will give us the answers we’re looking for, but only if we can explain to them what we don’t know. When we’re stuck it’s usually a lack of specificity. Try to find out exactly what you do not know. You can use the Feynman Technique to figure out what this is. The points that are difficult to explain are the points that we don’t understand. Those little details can usually be turned into questions that can be brought to the professor or teacher.

Articulation to the highest accuracy will give us a deeper understanding of the subject and will help our instructor help us. A proper question should take less than 2 seconds to answer. The answer itself may take longer than 2 seconds to explain, but the professor or teacher should be able to answer it quickly. If you find that your instructor is having a hard time knowing the answer to the question, chances are the question you asked them isn’t specific enough and could have probably been more specific.

Additionally, we need to always ask questions if we have them. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve known (myself included) who did not ask a question during class and we’re completely screwed later. I’ve also many so much money off people (through tutoring) just because they don’t want to ask their questions in class. A majority of the time a question that a student asks me in our tutoring session could have been answered by the teacher or professor if the student were more engaged in their class. People tend to ask questions too late – ask them right when you get them or the soonest possible moment.

On top of that, everyone has always heard the “someone else may have your question” phrase. You don’t need to ask questions for the sake of others, but you should oo it because risking the embarassment is worth getting the knowledge. Not knowing what to do feels a lot worse than looking dumb to your classmates, trust me.

Some Ways to Lighten the Workload

We can’t really decrease how much work we have to do, but there is a lot we can do to prevent unnecessary work from accumulating.

Get to know your classmates. They might actually be cool people. Plus you can ask them for notes, explanations, assignments, favors. There are so many studies that show students learn more effectively from their peers. Connections and relationships are why the human race has moved it’s way to the top of the food chain and the foundation for all of our significant accomplishments as a species. When you connect with people, they will move mountains for you.

As much as I’d love to say everyone is worth connecting with, some people require a certain skill set to connect with in order to prevent a detrimental outcome. As a student, our primary goal is to learn as much as we can from the course and get good grades. This is more easily done by identifying people of interest. This group includes, but is not limited to, the professor/teacher, the TA, and other friendly high-performing students.

Frontload the work. Either way, we have to pay, and it’s way better to pay upfront than paying installments or paying later. Everyone knows how great review sessions are, imagine if every class was a review session and the actual review session was a 2nd review session, this is active recall and spaced repetition at the highest level. Frontloading give us more time to work on passion projects and gives us some slack when the laziness starts to kick in at the end of the term.

Types of Tests & How to Prepare for Each

Not all exams are created equal and preparation for each depends on what kind of exam we’re taking.

Multiple Choice (MC) – most of us are familiar with these tests, especially in the United States. We’re simply given an array of answers and we have to select the correct choice. Since many standardized tests are MC, we’ll be using strategies for conquering these kinds of tests often.

I say the best way to prepare for these tests is to do practice problems that ask questions in a similar style as the exam we will be taking. This not only helps with active recall but also gets us used to how the questions will be asked. Since MC tests give us multiple options with one of them being correct, recognition plays a bigger role than usual. Now if we study while implementing active recall and spaced repetition, we will be training our recognition skills but with higher retention rates.

If you don’t have access to practice problems, look over the concepts that are going to be covered on the exam, and identify the main ideas of each. Once those main ideas are identified, we can turn those into practice questions. The questions can look something like “What is this main idea?”, “How can this idea not work?”, “What changes can be made to affect this idea?”, “Are there any special scenarios to keep in mind with this idea?”.

Case-Based/ Problem Solving – these types of exams are slightly more involved. Usually, we will be presented a case or a problem and we will either have to come up with a solution or proper course of action. These are usually presented in the form of a scenario. I had a bunch of these exams when I was studying engineering, and again in EMT school.

The best way to prepare for these exams is to practice each scenario that we are going to encounter. I imagine them in my mind. Visualization helped a lot for me. For example, if I had a patient with a heart attack, I would run through the situation in my mind as if I were actually there. I would write down each of the steps I would do to see if they are correct or if I’m missing something.

Essay-Based – these are similar to the case-based exams in that we need to provide a well thought out answer, but we need to communicate it in writing.

Sometimes professors will provide a series of possible prompts, and if that’s the case then create outlines for each prompt and be prepared to write any and all of them.

If the professor doesn’t give a selection of questions, then we can prepare by creating possible prompts for ourselves and creating outlines for those, but while paying particular attention to the kinds of arguments we can make and the relevant research and references used. Having a list of evidence or references to make and knowing how to use them in other contexts is an excellent way of preparing for essay-based exams.

These kinds of exams take significant amounts of preparation, so don’t underestimate the time needed to prepare for these.

Verbal/Oral Exams – most common in language classes. In these tests, we have to communicate or present something to our examiner.

Working in pairs would best for these types of exams. Taking turns leading the conversation will give you both a chance to practice pronunciation and answers. If you don’t have access to another person, you can record yourself and take notes on the necessary improvements. Remember, these tests are mostly subjective and we are examed through our examiner’s perspective so it’s imperative that we practice what we look and sound like objectively, hence the recording. It’s much harder to improve an accent or answer when we have to think about what it sounded like, it’s much easier to see it.

Open-Book/Take-Home Exams – these are the most popular during COVID-19 times. Almost every exam my students take are open book and at home. Honestly, open-book tests seem like a good deal but usually have harder questions and stricter time frames. This is to prevent students from just looking up every answer. Know what the restrictions are before you start the test!! Additionally, examiners are expecting students to look up answers so be mindful of answers that don’t sound like you and your knowledge.

And as a side note for all exams:

Find ways to collect the correct information. Being in the golden age of information, this is more relevant now than it has ever been. There is a lot of information that can throw us off course, and if we’re referencing inaccurate sources then our work will suffer.

In most classes, this comes in the form of the textbook. But if you’re like me and couldn’t afford textbooks, there are so many other ways of collecting the right information. There are answer keys and moments in the lecture when the professors have practice questions up with the correct answer. It’s crucial to work on the right stuff. I can’t tell you how many tests I’ve screwed up because I was working on the wrong stuff.

KPIs for Academics

KPI stands for Key Performance Indicators and these are the things that tell us how we’re doing in a class, I talk a little about KPIs in my post Analyzing & Improving Systems. Our job as a student is to identify out KPIs and move our attention and energy to those portions.

Some classes can get overwhelming, especially when we’ve fallen behind, but we can get through that by staying focused on the KPIs.

In most classes, the most important KPI will be our grades, but that usually isn’t specific enough to help. I recommend paying attention to:

  • The make-up of what goes into our grade – exams, homework assignments, projects, presentations, etc.
  • The weight of each of those parts – are homework assignments 10% of our grade or 40% of our grade?

Additionally, I recommend finding out if there are any exam scores that will be dropped or replaced. Each class will require us to focus on a different aspect in the class to get the grade. For example, if a class puts 100% weight in the exams and 0% in homework, then it would be wise to put 100% of our time and energy into performing well on the exams as opposed to our homework assignemnts. Now, working on the homework may help us do better on the exam, but our primary goal will be to do well on the exam.

Know which metrics to focus on.

The All-Important Syllabus

The syllabus is where we get all the information we need when it comes to scheduling our terms and identifying KPIs. The syllabus, if written well, will tell us all the assignments to expect over the term as well as their due dates, points, and weight. A good syllabus will also include the professor’s contact information and office hours.

This is where the professor will lay out their policies for their class and where we’ll learn how they feel about late work, make-up assignments, homework, etc. A lot of questions that we have about a class can be answered with the syllabus.

Analyze The Resistance

“If you tyrannize people bad enough, then they will be willing to hurt themselves to hurt you. People are often willing to take a hit if it means reclaiming justice.”

Jordan Peterson (1962 – )

For students, keep this in mind when you are making choices with assignments. Hurting ourselves to get back at a teacher is one of the least productive things we can do – it only hurts us and won’t hurt the teacher at all. I’ve had so many students not turn in work as a fuck you to the teacher, and all that came from it was that they had to retake the classes (sometimes with the same teacher). Self-destruction in the name of justice is not worth it.

When therapists have patients who miss sessions, even if the patient says they have more important priorities, it’s the therapist’s job to analyze the resistance and find out why the patient doesn’t want to go to the sessions. Educators need to approach their students in the same way. I’ve seen way too many students made out to be wrong or bad because they have resistance to their assignments. If the educators took the time to analyze why this student doesn’t want to work, then they could make adjustments so the assignments have less friction.

For example, I’ve had a fair bit of students (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) who did not want to do their work because they didn’t respect their teachers nor see them as capable of teaching important topics. These students aren’t naturally defiant but have found reasons to not respect their teachers because of how the instructors carry themselves and approach the class. The students are aware that they need to learn things, but they (like any other rational human being) will only listen to people they respect and admire and I believe that it is upon the instructor to be that kind of person. Whenever I’m working with my students, I make it known that I care about the quality of what and how we are learning things – the information has to be accurate, and when we’re learning it must be interesting and engaging. This takes a lot of the resistance away, but I believe the most effective method I use to minimize resistance is carrying myself as someone who is competent enough to match my students at any level of intellectual stimulation or communication. This always wins over their respect.

I can see my students feel verified and understood when I try to discover why they are not doing something rather than just punishing them or making them wrong, which helps build meaningful connections. Meaningful connections are the easiest way to get students to work. If these students connect with us, they will move mountains on the basis of our recommendation.

A lot of students love to say “fuck it” but never ask themselves why they feel that way. Not only is this a powerful life skill that can help us understand ourselves, it can also remove barriers that prevent us from performing at our highest capacity. Noticing when we want to give up and analyzing why can take us through any challenge.

Categories
Education Productivity

Algorithms for Every Class (Part 1)

“If you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn’t plan your mission properly.”

Colonel David Hackworth (Former United States Army Colonel & Military Journalist)

Most of the educational content on my blog is pretty specific and I wanted to try something a little different.

This post is going to be a bunch of seemingly disjointed advice, but they are connected through the idea that they work for all kinds of classes.

Beware the Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge is something I like to keep in mind when it comes to understanding our educators and ourselves. The Curse of Knowledge is the idea that — once we know something, it’s extremely difficult for us to imagine what it’s like not to know it.

This is why a lot of educators can skip over simple concepts when teaching complicated subjects. It’s easy to assume that our understanding is the same as everyone else’s, if fact that most people’s default way of communicating. Someone who’s blinded by the Curse of Knowledge would probably think something like “This made sense to me, so it must make sense to them.”

People around us don’t know what we know and we can’t assume they do. If we find ourselves in a position to teach, then we have to make a conscious effort not to “burn down the schoolhouse” after we learn something.

Everyone Has Something to Teach

We will never go far by pre-judging people – try to learn from everyone we can. A few years ago, I adopted the idea that everyone has something to teach me and because of that I’ve made more meaningful connections and learned so many fascinating things.

Self-education is a big value of mine and it’s something that I want my students to be able to effectively participate in. The key to self-education is being open to lessons from all around us and that starts by seeing everyone as a potential source of knowledge and wisdom.

Yes, sometimes people waste my time and don’t have something to teach me, but when they do it’s incredibly delightful.

Scheduling is Most Crucial at the Beginning

I’ve written a fair bit about time management and scheduling and I highly recommend checking those posts out here, but there are a few things about scheduling that I want to mention.

Take the time to make schedules for every class. Know when and where the exams are and any significant due dates. When I was in college, I even created a separate calendar for my professor’s office hours so I could easily find out when I could see them. It’s so worth it to have easy access to all the exams and due dates as well as office hours. It makes things so much easier later and we’ll have a lot fewer surprises to deal with.

Syllabus week is a perfect time for creating these schedules and getting situated. Most students treat syllabus week and an extra vacation week but take the 2-3 hours to calibrate yourself and your calendar. Future you will thank you so much when things start getting stressful.

Additionally, the brain is more receptive to changes in schedules and habits at the beginning of every semester. So syllabus week is the time to get adjusted to the changes. Make this tiny sacrifice and the semester will be at least 10x easier, I know this from experience.

Follow the path less travelled.

Playing Teacher’s Pet

This has a bad connotation, but if we want letters of recommendation, potential job hookups after college, or mentorships it’s in our best interest to have a few strategies for being buddy-buddy with our professors. This section is more applicable for college students.

Introduce yourself to the teacher/professor, take time to get to know them, and allow them to get to know you. Do this early on in the term, but don’t just walk up, say hi, and expect them to carry the conversation. We need to take responsibility for our presence and give them something to go off of. Maybe mention a question or a genuine compliment.

Speak up. Teachers like students who are actually people. Being another person floating around in their class is a perfect plan for being forgotten. I know this because I’ve taught many classes. This will also be important for getting letters of rec. Most of the time, letters of recommendation are on statements of character, and character is built through action. Teachers and professors can only speak on who we are and that is created from what we do.

Sit in the 2nd row. Sitting in the back is too secluded and sitting in the front draws too much attention. Let’s be honest, no one likes a try-hard. Plus, the teacher would be more inclined to call on us. Sitting in the second row is conducive to paying more attention, but gives us a little more anonymity.

Get to class early and sit in the same place. Studies show that this helps with retention, plus the professor will notice who cares enough to show up early.

Two Efficiency Tips

Here are two tips that I used to manage the student-work-life balance.

Chunking – breaking big tasks into smaller tasks. This is fantastic whenever I feel overwhelmed. I used this a ton when I was doing my senior design project for my bachelor’s degree. I had to design and project costs and profits for a liquid natural gas plant. The project took the entire semester and I only got through it because of chunking.

Batching – this involves doing similar types of activities at the same time. For example, I don’t wash my clothes every time I use them. I wait until I have a critical mass, then I wash it all at once. I do this to manage my youtube channel and tutoring sessions especially. I also try to batch tutoring sessions – knock out as many of them as I can in a short amount of time rather than scattering them all throughout the week.

Combat Procrastination

Procrastination is a huge topic, but I wanted to include a few tips to help with it. I have a few posts I’ve written that cover topics surrounding procrastination, but I haven’t written a focused post about combating procrastination yet. Here’s a list of the posts that, when read together, could give us an effective arsenal for combating procrastination:

The Myth of Motivation

Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2)

Our Proclivity for Comfort

The Art of Practice

Obviously, no one’s life is going to change off a quote or a few tips, but this could be a starting point.

Pre-screen/pre-read lectures to set up purpose for each class. I used to think that when teachers and professors stated “Objectives” for each lesson was bureaucratic bullshit, but in fact it’s rooted in an idea fundamental to human existence – we are purpose driven creatures. When we do something imbued with purpose, the chatter in our minds falls away, excuses disappear, and obstacles are inconsequential. Pre-reading/pre-screening exposes us to things we don’t know which naturally brings up questions in our minds like “what is that?”, “why did that happen?”, or “what does that phrase mean?” It doesn’t have to take long either, we just need to know what to keep an eye out for when the lesson actually begins.

Just start. It’s much harder to get started than to keep going. Friction is one of the biggest contributors to procrastination and if you’re familiar with physics you know that static friction is usually higher than kinetic friction. Make it a goal to just get started and let momentum take us. It’s surprising how far we can go.

For essays, just write 50 words. In the same vein as the last tip, just getting the first 50 words down is a solid goal. Once we’ve gotten over the activation energy, other sources of motivation can take the reins. Usually when I’m having a hard time writing, I just tell myself to write for 10 minutes or just write 50 words and believe it or not, sometimes I actually forget that original goal and my new source of motivation becomes finish my thought or capturing an idea.

For math problems, just do the first 3 steps. Just like essays, just doing the first few steps can get us going, but the desire to finish what we started can take over fairly easily. When my students have a hard time with complex math problems (problems that take 5-10 steps), I usually just ask them to focus in on the step in front of them. Taking things piece by piece is a great way to get started and make serious progress. Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of small incremental improvements. Which leads me into my next tip. –

Break it down and do the easiest thing – it’s surprising how far incremental progress and momentum can take us. When we’re up against complex tasks, it’s easy to put them off simply because we don’t know where to start or because it seems too big. Breaking them down makes them manageable and conquerable.

Extra Credit

Honestly, I stole this idea from Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide, but the rationale is hard to argue with. Always look for extra credit, always do extra credit. Extra credit boosts your grade way more than normal assignments do. If you don’t believe me, review adding fractions – extra credit only adds to your numerator and not to the denominator.

For example, if I had a class where my grade was 70/100 (70% a C-) and I turned in an assignment for full credit that was worth 30/30 points my grade would be 100/130, which is roughly a 77% still a C. But let’s say that assignment was extra credit (just an additional 30 points) and not part of the graded course work, then our grade would be 100/100, an A+. Regular assignments add to the numerator and denominator, while extra credit just adds to the numerator, which means extra credit is inherently more valuable than regular assignments when it comes to our grades.

Doing extra credit is a better use of our time than doing regular assignments, unless the assignment is heavily weighted.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

Creating Systems

“Systematize everything, and find peace”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Rental Property Investing)

Why create systems?

Having goals is a fantastic way to be productive and build a life by design, but the most productive results come from having systems. When we have a goal, there are a series of choices we have to make. Usually, goals are things we haven’t done before, so all the choices we’re going to have to make require a lot of attention and energy. Even if the goals have been accomplished before, having to deal with the challenges that arise time and time again can be exhausting.

Systematizing everything makes these processes a lot easier, especially if there are goals that need to be completed regularly. Creating systems gives us the opportunity to make fewer choices and the freedom to do other things. Despite what many people think, our energy is like our time, limited and nonrenewable. The return on saving energy is virtually infinite. Systems allow us to be more productive as well, in terms of quantity AND quality.

Systems also make processes easier when we have to do them. Having a reliable proven strategy for conquering whatever scenario in front of us cuts the effort down tremendously. It’s much easier to just “start the process” than to try really hard just to discover that it wasn’t going to work anyway.

Focusing on systems, not goals, is the key to long-lasting, reliable, and fruitful results.

In order to focus on systems, we first have to understand what they are and how they work. I wrote two posts on systems so far: Gall’s Law & System Components and Analyzing & Improving Systems. I highly recommended checking those out, I go over the fundamental information about systems and how they work. This post synthesizes some of the information discussed in those two posts and emphasizes the concepts that will make creating systems much easier.

When we understand how systems work and how to create our own, then we can engineer our own systems to fit our unique needs perfectly.

Marks of an Effective System

Human beings need purpose and intentionality in order to have fulfilled lives and content with existentialism. I talk a little bit about that in this post. We need something to aim at and a system is no different.

What is the purpose of a system & how we do know if it’s working well?

According to author of The Personal MBA, Josh Kaufman, an effective system does the following:

  • Fulfills its functionality
  • Has great infrastructure
  • Ready connectivity with other systems
  • Versitile
  • Adaptable
  • Reliable
  • Produces benefits which far exceed the initial investment

Keep in a mind, all of these criteria don’t need to be met to have a functional system. A system can work without all of these, however, these are all qualities that a great system can build towards.

How to Create Systems

“If you want to build a system that works, the best approach is to build a simple system that meets the Environment’s current selection tests first, then improve it over time. Over time, you’ll build a complex system that works.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

Keep Gall’s Law in mind when you first start – work on creating a simple system, then add complexity over time. Don’t try to make a system that does too much at once right off the bat.

Creating a complex system immediately will result in failure.

When it comes to building a system from scratch, just try to figure out how to get the task done in the first place. Once we’ve completed the task, we developed a neural pathway that knows exactly how to get that task done. Every single time we work on that task in the future it gets easier and easier. (Exactly like Active Recall.) Once we’ve gotten to this point, it will be much easier to create a system because we will know the steps intimately. Creating a system will speed that process up even more!

Once we know how to get the task done, we need to identify the key components of the system and improve each step of the process so it becomes more efficient and effective. Just make one change at a time. Creating a good system takes time and patience, like building habits.

Systems are almost never correct right off the bat. It takes a few tests to get all the details right and have a system that runs smoothly. All systems start off terribly, but all the best ones improve over time and the only way to objectively improve a system is through experimentation.

Fans of history can probably name a few times human beings have tried to create something but had to revamp the system because they found out it wasn’t working too well. I remember working with a student on history work and I was stunned to discover that this process is the exact process that the American government evolved from. Today, the American government is a massively complex system with multiple branches and precedence for almost every conceivable situation but it did not start off that way. It started off with just the Articles of Confederation, and that system didn’t even have an executive or judicial branch. Then it grew with the Virginia Plan, then the Constitution, then the Bill of Rights, and finally with the amendments we have today. The point is that this extremely complex system didn’t start off how it is today, it grew over centuries through experimentation.

Humans never get anything right the first try.

When I was a noob at creating systems, I thought that I needed to know each step of the process and it had to work perfectly before I even started, but that prevented me from even starting in the first place. There’s no way to know every single step and account for every single variable without testing a system.

All, if not most, problems can be handled with systems. If there isn’t a system for it, then we can create one. We just have to go into the process expecting the system to fail and be willing to make adjustments or we won’t have any systems at all.

Guiding Questions

If you’ve read some of my Importance of Questions post, then you know that I believe questions hold the key to everything we want in life. They can allow us access to other people’s minds as well as guide our thinking to solve problems that we haven’t seen before.

Here are some questions that could be useful when creating systems:

  • How do I make this process easier next time?
  • How can I make this process more reliable next time?
  • How can I prevent ____ from happening again?
  • In a perfect world, how would I want to deal with this situation?
  • How can I make _____ happen again?
  • What is the end result? What am I producing?
  • What are we starting with? What do I need to get this going?

Tips for a Great Checklist

Systems can take many different forms. One of the most simple forms, checklists, have also been proven to be one of the most effective. I talk a little about checklists in my post Analyzing & Improving Systems and in that post, I mention how checklists are fantastic for creating processes that haven’t been articulated yet. Checklists are my go-to method for ordering the chaos and are fantastic simple systems to build upon later.

In Dr. Atul Gawande’s fantastic book, The Checklist Manifesto, Gawande lays out the proof that checklists are more reliable than the instincts of even the highest trained professionals. Pilots, especially when confronted with an emergency, are more than willing to turn to their checklists.

The first tip for making a great checklist is to have normal and non-normal checklists. Normal checklists are for normal everyday situations, things that come up often. Pilots have normal checklists for things like take-off and landing. Non-normal checklists are less often used but are for emergencies or other scenarios that wouldn’t occur on a regular basis. Pilots have more non-normal checklists than normal checklists. They have checklists for all conceivable emergency situations.

There are two types of checklists: do-confirm and read-do. Do-confirm lists are when team members perform their jobs first, then pause and run the checklist to make sure that everything was done correctly. Read-do lists are when people do the tasks as they read them on the list. Do-confirm lists act more like a double-check while read-do lists are more like a recipe. Know which type of checklist you are creating and when to use it.

Great checklists are specific and precise. If a checklist is too vague and inaccurate is becomes hard to use and impractical.

They also need to be short and to the point, if a checklist is too long it becomes another hurdle. Try to keep the length of the list within the bounds of our working memory, 7+2 items (5-9). They can be longer, but keep in mind that if checklists take longer than 60-90 seconds then people start shortcutting and they become more hassle than they’re worth. Focus on the critical few.

They also have to be easy to use in the most difficult situations, keeping it short and sweet helps a lot with this.

Contrary to popular belief, a great checklist should not spell everything out. They just simply provide a reminder of the crucial steps. Operators of the checklist should be trained and know what they are doing. The checklist is just an aid, not an instruction manual.

Checklists must, above all, be practical.

Checklists cannot solve problems for us, they simply help us manage complex processes and clarify priorities. They are not comprehensive guides, just reminders of the critical steps. If we include every little step, then the checklist just adds friction to the system. Checklists are designed to remove friction and add ease and clarity to a scenario.

When creating a checklist, I highly recommend clearly defining a point WHEN the checklist will be used.

Like all systems, checklists have to be battle-tested in real life. Experiment with the checklist and pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. The first drafts never stick and revising is always required.

A Few Systematic Principles

A few principles that I’ve noticed systems follow. It’s helpful to keep these in the back of our minds when planning and executing systems.

The Matthew Effect

“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

Gospel of Matthew (25:29 Revised Standard Version)

I talk about this in my post The Myth of Motivation, when I talk about aiming for success spirals.

The Matthew Effect is pretty simple — success breeds success and failure breeds failure. The best part is that this relationship is not linearly, it’s exponential. If we do something like writing a book and some people like it, then we’re more likely to write another book which makes it more likely that more people are willing to like it.

We can see spirals like this is so many things. If we get an A on an exam, it’s easier for us to get an A on the next exam. We know the concepts and are more likely to sacrifice because our sacrifice led to a positive outcome last time. Likewise, if we fail an exam, it’s easier for us to fail the next one. We don’t know the concepts, so we’d have to learn those ones on top of the new stuff. The previous failure adds friction to the next challenge. Our actions compound on each other and it can stack up quickly. This is definitely one of the reasons for the massive wealth inequality in the modern world. It’s much easier to make money when you’re already making money.

When building a system, try to keep in mind that the actions of the system will affect the actions of the system later. The Matthew Effect also provides a fantastic foundation for another systemic phenomenon, the Pareto Principle.

Pareto Principle (The 80/20 Rule)

The Pareto Principle definitely needs it’s own post because it’s such a pervasive idea and we can dive into it for hours. Famous entrepreneur and investor, Richard Koch was able to write 4 books on the topic! 4 books!! While the principle itself isn’t complex nor long, Koch focused more on applying the principle to every aspect of our lives. I’ll go more into that later.

While there is a lot to say about the Pareto Principle and its accommodations, it can be summed up relatively quickly:

80% of the output of any system is from 20% of the input.

This principle can apply to all domains of human creation. This shouldn’t be a surprise though. For most of us who have worked on a group project, we know that most of the work ends up getting done by a small portion of the group. This also happens in companies too – 80% of the work is done by 20% of the employees.

There are many names given to this idea because it shows up in so many places. The Pareto Principle is also known as the 80/20 Rule or the Square Root Rule: being that 50% of the work is done by the square root of the number of employees. The numbers aren’t perfect, but the idea is the same:

The majority of the results come from a critical minority of effort.

This principle is game-changing when it comes to creating systems. Knowing that the majority of the results comes from a critical few, we can focus our energy on optimizing for those critical few inputs rather than wasting energy on processes or steps that yield a lower rate of return.

I talk a bit about how the Pareto Principle came to be in my post Analyzing & Improving Systems.

Vilfredo Pareto, the 19th-century economist and sociologist, discovered an interesting pattern when analyzing data regarding land ownership and wealth distribution. He discovered that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. Pareto didn’t just find this pattern in wealth and land distribution, he also saw it in his garden. 20% of his pea pods produced 80% of peas.

We can see this in book sales and album sales too, pretty much any domain of creative production. 80% of the book sales are from 20% of the authors. 80% of music streams are from 20% of the artists.

Richard Koch also noticed a similar pattern when studying for his final exams at Oxford. At Oxford, the students are graded by their performance on a final exam which is a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. Richard determined that in order to prepare for every possible question they could ask him he would have to memorize somewhere around 550 essays. Obviously, this wasn’t reasonable so Richard found another way around it. He analyzed all the past exams and discovered that every exam asked questions on similar topics. 20% of the topics accounted for 80% of the questions. Upon realizing this, Richard figured that all he had to do was prepare for 20% of the topics. This significantly cut down the work he needed to do to prepare for the exam.

Spoiler Alert: he did great on the test.

The best part about the Pareto Principle is that it can apply to all systems, in business and our personal lives. We can a Pareto analysis of our own lives, as well as any systems that we’d like to optimize.

I love doing the 80/20 analysis of everything. I’m constantly trying to figure out what I really need to do. Trimming the fat automatically maximizes our time and effort. It’s much easier to just focus on what is important than trying to find ways to do everything better.

It can apply to happiness – What 20% of things give me 80% of my happiness?

It can also be applied in reverse – What 20% of things are giving me 80% of my unhappiness?

It can be applied to anxiety, relationship satisfaction, costs, food, anything our hearts desire.

This principle helps us optimize.

Whenever I’m creating a system I try to keep in mind that principles are more valuable than knowledge. If we can understand the principles behind something, then we have the ability to predict and manipulate the system across many different scenarios.

Richard Koch likes to ask people:

“What would happen if we spend all of our time on the critical aspects?”

Parkinson’s Law

I first talked about Parkinson’s Law in my post 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling because I first learned it as a scheduling principle but now I see how it can be applied in a broader sense.

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted for it.

So if we have a week to get a project done, it will take us a week. If we have a day to get a project done, then it will take a day. Parkinson’s Law helps explain how people are able to finish massive projects the day before it’s due or how an unmotivated student finds the strength within them to get something turned in. It’s not that we aren’t capable of doing the work, it’s that we know we still have time and we’ll use all of it if we can.

What I do to try to account for this is give myself less time than I think I need to complete a task or I set finite deadlines to work on a project. Either way, they both prevent me from spending extra unnecessary time on something.

There’s something about having our backs up against the wall that makes us perform. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s definitely there and we can use it to our advantage if we want.

However, Parkinson’s Law is more than just a cool scheduling hack. It can also apply to budgets and other resources too.

Parkinson’s Law applied to budgets – spending expands to fit the budget allotted for it.

Now, the spending doesn’t have to expand to fit the budget but it usually will.

The resources we allocate for something determines the fundamental perspective of our approach.

If we are pressed for time or if we don’t have a lot of money, then we’ll be on the lookout for creative ways to solve problems that could otherwise we solved with time or money.

Parkinson’s Law really just highlights another quality of human nature which is that humans are creatures of necessity and we will always try to solve problems with the least amount of effort possible. Keeping this in mind when building systems is extremely valuable and perhaps we can go further with what we already have.