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Education Lifestyle Productivity

Opponent Processing

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (German Philosopher)

This is an idea I’ve had a hard time researching. Despite my best efforts, I can’t find any “official” research on this phenomenon, but I find it to be worth sharing. After all, just because something hasn’t been peer-reviewed and studied by a university doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but that also depends on who you ask.

I’m convinced opponent processing is real in a similar way that Jung was convinced that archetypes are real. There is no scientific evidence that says it is so, but there are many correlations. There is some science that points to opponent processing, but the correlation is not causation.

I say all this just to say verification isn’t always needed.

Sometimes things are what we see.

Take this post, as all my others, with a grain of salt. I am just a man bounded by my myopia, limited experience, and perceptions. But I do believe this is something worth paying attention to.

Essentially, opponent processing is the idea that things become more precise when working against an opposing force.

We can see this pattern in many different places; literature, television, drama, economics, business, medicine, sports, and so many other places.

I believe that this is true partly because we are dynamic creatures that exist in relation to everything around us. Being able to relate to something helps us regulate ourselves and keeps us sane. It’s no surprise that struggling up against what we relate to makes us stronger.

Signs & Correlations

I like the idea of opponent processing because it gives inherent low-level meaning to all forms of struggle and struggle is all around us.

Everything is a struggle and everything is struggling.

But why?

That’s a big question and I’ll never know the answer but I can speculate. Perhaps it’s because they’re better for it in the end; it makes them better.

Sometimes I think that’s my naive optimism, and other times I think not.

We can see signs of opponent processing through examining different parts of life and observing what becomes more precise as a result of the opposing forces.

Humanities

Drama. Literature. Myths. Religious stories. Built into all of them is opponent processing. A struggle, tension, is born and we have to see it through. We see the hero become a better version of themselves after triumphing over their antagonist. This is almost always because they learned some kind of lesson about how to be or act in the face of danger or temptation.


“Life is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting, but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no narrow illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of the night; we wake up to it, forever and ever; and we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.”

Henry James (Theory of Fiction: Hendry James)

We see it in every story we hear. Stories grip us because there’s tension and we have to stick around until we get a release. That’s drama, a series of tension and release. And after those exchanges, the characters learn and grow.

I’ve been taking some screenwriting classes and I was so shocked to discover that characters are simply just their methods of dealing with the obstacles to their intentions. Characters are developed from how they deal with their obstacles.

Character is developed from how we deal with opposition.

We can see the same kind of drama played out in less dramatic ways too. In normal everyday life, people are working up against opposing forces. Sometimes we admire these people, and sometimes we don’t. I assert that the people we admire earn our admiration through becoming better as a result of opponent processing. In other words, we admire people who struggled up against something and came out the other side better and stronger.

Yerkes-Dodson Law

I talk about this idea in my post How to Conquer Test and Performance Anxiety. The Yerkes-Dodson law of arousal points to the idea of opponent processing but doesn’t explicitly prove it’s existence.

Yerkes–Dodson, in a nutshell, asserts that we need a certain amount of stress to work at our best. Too little and we aren’t aroused enough. Too much and we breakdown. But if we get just the right amount, then we’re off to the races.

This fits well with opponent processing, if more precise is considered favorable then a little bit of stress will make things better.

Economically

We can even see opponent processing play out economically. In a free market, competition between businesses keeps prices regulated and enhances quality. Each business forces the other to become better and more refined for the consumer and the community.

One could argue that the competition is doing harm to the businesses, but I would say that they’re just put in a position to grow in a way that they didn’t expect. The business, when dealing with competitors, has to create and innovate ways to deal with the opposing force.

Romantically

We can see this play out in romantic relationships too. In a romantic relationship, each person makes the other better through a struggle of wills. If the relationship is healthy, it resembles a wrestling match where one is constantly contending with the other.

But why would we want to be dealing with our partner like this?

The same reason for everything else, it makes us better people. Providing small amounts of adversarial energy in a relationship helps both people grow.

Let me put it like this, the average person has a fair amount of flaws. Their ways of looking at the world and their methods of decision making can only take them so far and will reach eventual limits. But let’s say this person pairs up with someone else who is also flawed, but they are flawed in different areas. Let’s say they’re even flawed in complementary areas! The man is impatient and the woman is too agreeable. The woman teaches the man to be patient and the man teaches the woman to be assertive.

A healthy romantic relationship is two imperfect people coming together to make each other a little more functional so when they have to raise a child, the child doesn’t have to deal with just the flaws of one parent. The parents act as a proxy for the child to interact with the world and when two people come together the child gets access to a more refined, more precise, version of that proxy.

This is all because of opponent processing. Our relationships need to be a struggle, but like all other forms of opponent processing, too much struggle will break. I think I heard somewhere that the optimal number of positive experiences to have in a relationship is 7/10, where the other 3/10 are negative experiences. That 30% of the time our partner is not going to let us get away with our nonsense and it is up to us to grow.

People love to think the perfect relationship is all rainbows and candy, but the best ones have a little bit of conflict.

Personal Experience

Personally, I find this to be true in my own life. I perform better, my nervous system feels more activated, when I’m working up against something. The most frequent observation I made that supports the idea of opponent processing, is when I’m exercising. I literally feel weaker before I start a workout, but once I introduce a little struggle, I immediately get stronger. It’s like part of me activates once the stress some on.

Additionally, I think opponent processing can go deeper than just physically moving with more precision. It can provide access to more precise ways of acting and thinking. The struggles in my life have made me better. Everything I encounter shapes and molds me in a small way that’s up to my discretion. My studies, work, relationships, responsibilities, duties, hobbies, and passions have all imposed a sort of force that I’ve had to struggle with. And in the struggle, I came out better.

My struggle as a Black man in America has shaped me in a similar way. It’s a significant reason why I was such a high performer in school and why I work so well as a tutor now. The added struggle of having to work harder to get the same reward made things more challenging, but that made me a stronger person. Today, I’m a better problem solver, thinker, and learner than I would be if I wasn’t Black.

We are Anti-Fragile

If I was in charge of the fortunes and misfortunes of my life, I would not have given me what I’ve been through. I would have thought it was too big of a burden and it would break me. The stress would be too much, the unfairness would weigh me down, and I would crumble underneath it all.

But I didn’t. And many other people overcome much more than they believe every day. What people are able to accomplish and endure never ceases to amaze me. Actually, I believe it’s part of the human condition to rise above seemingly impossible conditions.

Why didn’t I break? Why haven’t I broke? How are people overcoming the impossible every day?

American social psychologist and professor, Dr. Jonathan Haidt, talks a bit about this in his book, The Coddling of the American Mind. He points out that American’s are seeing record levels of hospitalizations due to poor mental health and that is, in part, due to the idea that we treat children like they’re made of glass and the world will break them.

He suggests that if we want to build stronger children, then we need to approach child-rearing from the position that they are anti-fragile.

Dr. Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote an entire book on anti-fragility and defines it as “Things That Gain from Disorder.” We can think of stress as a representation of disorder in our lives. In fact, we get stressed because we find ourselves in the presence of disorder, what is unknown. Haidt asserts that children are antifragile up to a point.

Things that are fragile get weaker when they’re exposed to stress.

Things that are anti-fragile get stronger when they’re exposed to stress.

This falls in line with what Yerkes and Dodson were saying too. When we’re stressed, we can lean into it.

When we want to improve, we just need an opponent.

Words of Warning

We get better through struggle, but the struggle has to match our abilities or we shut down. There was a study done that proved our brains have a limited capacity to deal with opponents and if we push them too far, then the nervous system will shut down and may experience damage.

I’ve said this a few times, but it’s worth emphasizing. Putting on too much stress will not make us better. We aren’t completely invincible. There is a difference between stress that helps us grow and stress that hurts us and it can be tough to tell the difference, especially at first. When I’m dealing with this, I try to ask myself:

“What can I actually do to make this better?”

“What is in my control?”

If I come up with an answer, I focus on that. If I can’t, then the stress is too much and I’ll try to get rid of it ASAP.

A Sweeter Victory

There is something to struggling that reaps a greater reward. Earning something is so much better than just getting it.

Someone told me once that working for something is so much better than buying it. I didn’t understand that for a long time, but I get it now, and as backward as that sounds, it’s true.

Our beds feel so much better when we go out and have a long day. Also, staying in bed all day actually feels pretty shitty. It’s much better to strain ourselves, then allow time for recovery.

When we do difficult things and overcome them, we see ourselves as stronger than we thought and that is a great feeling. Those are some of the feelings we live for.

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow.”

Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809)

There are many ways we can use this knowledge to make ourselves better. We can lean into the stress a little because it will make us stronger. We can use this knowledge to elevate our positions in society, make us more effective and a positive influence. Providing a healthy amount of oppositional force will grow every one.

It could be as a tutor! The tutor plays the role of the opponent during the tutoring session in order to create more precision with their student, but responsibly. That’s what I do with my students constantly. I like to just ask questions that force them to think a little deeper, especially when they come to overly simplistic conclusions.

We can also do it as a boyfriend, or husband, or friend, or business partner, whoever. We can make ourselves, our loved ones, and our associates better by allowing each other to make each other better, by playing the role of the adversary, the opponent.

Categories
Education Productivity

Optimizing Environments for Studying and Other Things

“There are nearly endless opportunities to improve each day and finding them largely boils down to being curious. People who are better, in the end, are usually curious in the beginning.” 

James Clear (Author of Atomic Habits)

“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.”

William A. Foster (United States Marine & Medal of Honor Recipient)

A huge part of being socialized is being able to regulate our emotions and there are tons of ways to do this. Exercise, diet, meditation, vices, art, work, etc. But the most effective way to regulate our emotions is to regulate our environment.

The best way to not be stressed is to stay away from stressful places.

The Best Study Environments

If you’ve read my other posts on studying, I frequently emphasize learning principles to design systems that work best for ourselves. One of the fundamental principles for creating the best study environments is known as State-dependent Learning. This is the idea that people can more easily recall information if their physical or mental state is the same as their time of encoding.

This suggests that our physical and mental states are influenced by our environment. For example, when students are in a classroom they may be feeling more alert and aware than at home which influences how they encode and recall.

When I was younger, I noticed that I was much better at math inside my math class than at home or anywhere else. In class, I was sharp as a tack but the second I was anywhere else, it took me more than twice as long to answer the same questions. I didn’t understand it then, but now I know that it was because I learned the material in that classroom, everything about the classroom became subconsciously associated with the material. When I took in all the stimuli from the classroom (i.e. decorations of the class or the arrangement of the chairs) I was able to fire the specific neural pathways faster because of all the cues affecting my internal state. I could still fire the same neural pathway at home, it just took a little more energy and time because I didn’t have all the external cues from the classroom (where I encoded the information) influencing my internal states or acting as anchors for recognition.

Implement Cues

When we’re getting started it’s nice to have a cue that lets us know when it’s time to get to work. Cues are the 1st stage of the habit cycle and are crucial in creating (or destroying) habits.

When I was in high school, I had a small study lamp that would click whenever I turned it on. Since I had so many days where I sat at that desk and did my homework, I created a subconscious connection between the click of the lamp and getting to work. It’s like once the lamp clicked, so did my mind and I was ready to study.

The click of the lamp was my cue to get started.

Now, the cue doesn’t have to be a click of a lamp. It can be anything really, as long as we associate it with studying or getting to work.

In college, I had a study playlist that would get me into full flow once it got going. After college, I created new playlists with different kinds of music. (Today, the Hamilton instrumentals have been keeping me on track). However, cues can be more than auditory. It’s also lighting and position, the decorations in the room, smells., or tastes.

Any and all of our senses can be used to create cues that trigger our habit cycles.

Simulate the Test Enviornment

This is one of the most fundamental principles for creating a study environment. There have been studies that show studying in an environment similar to test helps with remembering. This is, in part, because of the cues and state-dependent learning. While we’re learning, the signals from the room are subconsciously connected to the concepts, and seeing those signals may help trigger the neural pathway we want. This is partly why I suggest that silence is better than music while studying because we usually take tests when it’s silent.

Simulating the test environment gets more important as we get closer to the exam date. Now, I want to emphasize that it’s still possible to study in a completely different environment and perform well on an exam. It would require more effort and active recall, but it still works. Studying in a similar environment as the test simply makes things easier to recall later.

Routines

Location and time matter. Learning in the same place makes it easier to encode and retain information. Recalling that information would be even easier if we tried to remember it in the same place that we learned it.

This is partly why I performed so well in high school. I had a rigid schedule where I learned the same subjects every day at the same time in the same place. I noticed that students had a hard time retaining information during distance learning and part of that was because many of the students took it upon themselves to do their work “whenever they felt like it.”

While I’m a huge proponent of people creating their own schedules, without a routine our brain will have a more difficult time filing that information away.

Let me give an example: if we learn math in the morning at our kitchen table, then we will subconsciously associate the kitchen with that specific math concept. Now, let’s say we learn the next topic at the kitchen table again. Our brain will create a little folder in our minds where we associate learning math at the kitchen table and it will be a litter easier next time to learn math there. But let’s say we decide to do our math assignments in the evening in the living room. We’ll notice that we’re still able to do the lesson, but there will be slight resistance. Our brain will have a harder time recalling the math concepts when we’re in a different location or at a different time. This may not seem like much, but over time we’ll have to put in significantly more energy just to keep it all straight.

Music

So here’s the deal with music and studying. Studying in silence is better for two main reasons:

1) We can dedicate more of our cognitive load to the course material

2) We are simulating the test environment by studying in silence. In almost every exam I’ve taken, it was silent so it helps to have silence associated with the concepts, at least in preparation for the test.

But if I have to be honest, I love studying and working to music.

Music is a huge part of my life and it brings me so much pleasure.

Yes, there is a slight productivity hit from studying to music but I think it’s worth it if it makes the experience a little more enjoyable. I’m all about prioritizing my experience of the process over productivity.

If I’m constantly excited and enjoy the process, then I’m naturally going to be working more often.

So I want to get into which music is best for studying. Typically songs with lyrics tend to distract our minds. Even if we aren’t trying to pay attention to the lyrics, our minds will be subconsciously trying to decode the messages in the songs which takes up a significant amount of cognitive load. So studying while listening to music without lyrics or instrumentals is the best of both worlds.

Additionally, songs with more rhythmic qualities tend to be more distracting than songs with less. So I recommend listening to songs with relatively little drum instrumentation. Unfortunately, this means one of my favorite genres, hip hop, isn’t ideal for studying. I tend to work and study to classical or movie scores.

Listening to music also helps mask feelings of effort, our brains release dopamine when we listen to music which helps with our reward systems. Music has also been proven to have an analgesic effect, so it literally hurts less to study with music on.

Lighting

The best lighting for studying is a well-lit room where everything is easy to see. Low or dim light makes it difficult to see and it also signals to our brain that it’s time to go to bed. In low lighting, we’re extremely susceptible to slipping into stage 1 of sleep. Our brain emits alpha waves and lowers our levels of mental arousal. This prevents us from focusing or paying attention as well as we could.

If lighting the entire room isn’t feasible, I recommend having a study lamp that at least illuminates the workspace. Not only for the lighting but having something that’s associated with just studying helps with creating habit-forming cues.

Desks

Sitting or standing, it doesn’t matter which team you’re on. Naturally, we don’t want to sit for long periods of time, but we also don’t want to study for long periods of time either.

I’ve seen a lot of conflicting stuff when it comes to sitting vs. standing desks, but I recommend splitting up studying into modified Pamadoros and getting up and walking around, changing up the environment a little bit during the breaks. I don’t think the issue lies in which desk we have, but in doing things for long periods of time when we’re designed to switch things up every once in a while.

The desk needs to have adequate space to work. It also should be inviting and functional. When I finish my work, I try to clean up my workspace so it’s nice and clean which encourages me to get to work the next time. When my space is cluttered (which is when I’m in the middle of projects), I’m less likely to work again. I call cleaning my workspace after I finish resetting to zero. I try to do it whenever I can because it helps me hit the ground running the next time.

Libraries vs. Coffee Shops

Which is better for studying? This depends on a few different things:

1) Our goals and where we are in relation to it.

Let’s say we’re learning something new, the deadlines are pretty far away, and we have a study group that wants to meet at a coffee shop. Sure! This would probably work. But let’s say we’re not really strong on the material and the test is coming up in a few days, then we should probably spend some time in the library alone running through active recall drills. For me personally, I used libraries to learn new information and coffee shops to review old information. Where we are and where we want to go play a huge role in how we choose or design our environments.

2) Our internal states.

Renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Huberman, says our brains are constantly determining if our internal states are aligned with our external surroundings. We can think of the library as quiet and still while the coffee shops are busy and loud. If our internal state is still and quiet, then studying at a library may be our best bet. If we’re feeling a little more stimulated and anxious, maybe studying at a coffee shop would be better for us because we will have that matching of the internal and external.

Discover how we feel and go to the place that matches that.

For some, knowing how we are feeling can be a difficult thing. Mindfulness practices are great for developing the skills and abilities to identify what we’re feeling. Making the best choices for ourselves always starts with knowing what we want and need.

Study Groups vs. Studying Alone

I’ve written a post on Group Studying vs. Solo Studying that goes over the 80/20 on that subject, but bottom line is that each has its advantages and it depends on what we want to accomplish. I recommend studying alone if you are learning the material for the first time or if you’re still shaking on most of the main ideas. Groups can be powerful for reviewing content that we are already familiar with or learning how to approach 1 or 2 main ideas.

Know what’s needed and plan accordingly.

More On Environments

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius (Emperor of Rome, Stoic Philosopher, & Author of Meditations)

Environmental influence is nontrivial and determines our constraints, but it also goes deeper than what’s physically around us. Our environment has physical, social, and mental components.

Our physical environmental influence consists of all the tangible aspects around us. This includes, but is not limited to, the location, lighting, desk, and music. Changing our physical environment is probably the easiest to change compared to mental and social environments. Spending some time cleaning or reorganizing will usually do the trick.

Our social environments are created by the people involved in our pursuits. The people may be in our physical space or not, they could be involved with the project from afar, or they could even be consumers. The thing to keep in mind is that the social influences of our environment come from our relationships with those people. Tending to the relationships, or adjusting our perception of the relationships is our key to optimizing our social environment.

Our mental environmental influences consist of all the nontangibles and other things floating around in our heads. If we can remember that our environment isn’t just what is around us, but also what is goes on in our minds, then it’s a little easier to determine what is part of our mental environment. Optimizing our mental space is a little more difficult than our physical space. In order to do this, we have to adopt new philosophies and perspectives. I highly recommend Stoic philosophy for this. However, the most influential factor of our mental environment is our perception of the physical space. Our perceptions are within our control and with some practice, we can shift our perceptions so they create an environment better suited for our pursuits.

Our environments influence us and determine our constraints, to an extent, but our perceptions could transform an otherwise destructive environment into something supportive.

“When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better group of harmony if you keep on going back to it.”

Marcus Aurelius (Emperor of Rome, Stoic Philosopher, & Author of Meditations)

The key to controlling our environment is finding the strength to accept that our interpretation of our environment is just one of many and to actively seek a framework that transforms the challenges of today into what makes us phenomenal.

There are infinite ways to perceive something and if we’re in a position where our environment seems to be crushing us, then our only way out is to look for other ways to see the situation.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910)

Our environments are a combination of what’s going outside of us, but also inside as well. As long as we know ourselves and what we want to accomplish, we have the power to transform our environments into beautiful places, or at least less miserable places.

Categories
Lifestyle Productivity

A Few Networking Techniques

“The richest people in the world look for and build networks, everyone else looks for work. Marinate on that for a minute.”

Robert Kiyosaki (Author)

Part of great networking is getting people to like us. We determine who we like based on how we feel about them. How we feel about people is determined by our amygdala, the emotional part of our brain. The techniques I’m going to discuss in this post are designed with the human amygdala in mind. They’re proven to lower threat responses as well as raise feelings of safety. In my last post, The Fundamentals of Networking, I discussed some of the principles and attitudes that I use when going about expanding my network. This post will have more actionable and applicable knowledge in terms of networking effectively. This post is more tactics, last post was more strategy. If you’ve read my posts on studying, then you know that I believe if we know the principles then the tactics don’t matter too much. However, having the knowledge of some go-to tactics along with the knowledge of the principles sets us up nicely to be a high performer.

Networking properly is all about being able to influence the experience that others have of us. There are so many ways to go about this, but I’m just covering a few here.

Influencing the Experience

“Use what language you will, you can never say anything but what you are.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

We can only intentionally influence what we understand. So we can’t “trick” people into believing that we’re a certain kind of person that we’re not, we can only “trick” them into seeing more of ourselves. If we learn more about things we don’t know, or if we develop ourselves in a diverse fashion, we can influence people’s opinions on a deeper and broader level.

There are a few things we can control once we understand them. We can start with body language.

Body Language

There have been numerous studies on communication and they’ve found that most human communication is nonverbal, about 93% of it in fact. 7% is focused on the actual words, which in my opinion, is the hardest part so that works out nicely.

Most of these nonverbal communication happens with our body language. For a large portion of human history, our survival depended on our abilities to be able to quickly pick up on what others are feeling. When we were hunted like the prey animal we are, we had to find ways to communicate faster and more efficiently than talking. It’s easier and quicker to know that something is dangerous by looking at someone’s face rather than waiting for them to tell us. We’ve evolved to pick up on, even the slightest, adjustments because we’ve needed it to survive for so long. This is why body language is such a huge portion of our communication.

Much of our body language is dictated by our amygdala. This is the emotional part of our brain and this part of our brain is almost too honest. If we can understand the language that our bodies use to express what’s going on in our emotional brain, then we can influence the experience that others have of us fairly easily. It’s so much easier to adjust your posture to communicate a message than say the perfect combination of words. As we know, most of the time people don’t react to what we say, but how we say it anyway.

I recommend checking out the book What Every Body is Saying by ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro. He talks about all the different things we do with our bodies and what they mean. A few of the ideas that I use almost every day are these:

  • Our feet are the most honest part of our body. The direction they are pointing can give us an insight into what the person is genuinely feeling. For example, if someone wants to leave a conversation but they are being polite their feet will be pointing towards a way out or away from us. There are some exceptions, but this is typically the case. This knowledge helps us see what people really feel as well as control our bodies for the messages they could be giving off.
  • Paying attention to pacifying behaviors – these are motions that people do to calm themselves down when they’re feeling anxious. This could be taping a leg, playing with their hair, fidgeting extra, and many other things. Notice when people are trying to calm themselves down and we can do what we can to help them out.
  • When people are nervous or feel powerless their body will take up less physical space and move quickly. They will do things to make themselves feel smaller. A primitive attempt at hiding from a predator. On the other hand, people who are feeling confident and powerful will take up more space and move slower.
  • People love seeing the palms of our hands. Showing our palms lets people subconsciously know that we’re not hiding anything and our intentions are pure. Conversely, hiding our hands makes people feel nervous and conceals our intentions.

There are so many other body language behaviors that we do and Navarro does a fantastic job in explaining each of these behaviors in his book. He even includes pictures to really drive the point home. One thing I have to mention about body language is that these movements have to be taken into consideration with the person’s baseline state. Maybe someone has a habit where they love to tap their leg and it doesn’t mean that they’re feeling anxious. We have to get a baseline when we first meet people before we start trying to interpret their body language. It’s much easier to understand people we know well than strangers off the street. Everyone is a little different and we have to keep that in mind or we’ll end up making some terrible assumptions.

Compassion & Verification

Once we understand what people are feeling, then we can use our compassion to guide our actions that verify their feelings. People need to be heard in the hearts and minds of others and providing this for people is invaluable and highly effective with connecting.

There have been numerous studies that have found that children who don’t receive compassion and verification develop much slower than children who do. They also have a tougher time creating and sustaining relationships. They develop hormonal imbalances and behavioral issues as well. While the developmental problems aren’t the same if an adult doesn’t receive compassion and verification, the need is still there. People seek compassion and verification constantly and use it as a way of staying sane. We use other people as a gauge to determine if what we see and think is “real.”

Because of this, I’m constantly giving people affirmations and letting them know that they are heard, understood, and empathized with (if appropriate). All it takes is saying “It seems like…” or “It sounds like…” in response to whatever they are saying.

Repeating what other people mean to say in conversations keeps everyone on the same page, is great for preventing arguments from spiraling out of control, and most importantly ensures that people feel heard and understood.

Great Conversations

Most, but not all, networking happens in conversation. In my post, The Significance of Speech, I talk about how humans live at least half of their existence in the world of conversation. Understanding how to navigate this world is, not only crucial to networking, it’s crucial to living a life by design.

If we’re meeting someone for the first time and we aren’t familiar with them we’re most likely going to have to deal with small talk. I used to hate small talk, and I still kind of do, but it’s part of the game and it can be used to our benefit if we can do it intentionally.

Let’s get into why we even use small talk in the first place — it’s a way to gauge other people’s social skills, like a dance. When we’re in the small talk moment with someone, we’re testing to see if this person meshes with our interpretation of the world and they with us.

If we want to expand our network, we need to be able to show people that we’re worth engaging with relatively quickly.

A couple of tips I love to use when making small talk are these, I got them from ex-FBI terrorist negotiator, Chris Voss. If there’s anyone that can understand navigating a conversation, it’s this guy.

  • Ask Calibrated Questions – asking what or how questions. Questions that start with the words “how” or “what”. They make people feel needed and they are more likely to cooperate when they feel like they have to provide information. Asking why questions (Why did you do this? Why did you do that?) makes people feel defensive, so avoid using them if possible.
  • Mirror Them – just say the last three words of whatever they’re saying, if appropriate. This will bate them into talking more.

I didn’t think these small techniques would work, but they do. They work because they were designed with the amygdala in mind. We are attempting to communicate with the emotional part of the brain directly because people have less control over it. If we can get to the amygdala, everything else will follow.

Once we’ve proven ourselves, we have to keep the show going. Here are a few ways to never run out of things to say:

  • Ask Open-Ended Questions – if we hit the right topic we can get someone going off for hours. This is optimal because people love sharing with others and providing a space for people to do that is invaluable.
  • Make a Complimentary Cold Read – this is another great place to use “It seems like….” or “It looks like…”
  • Bring up something that this situation reminds you of – this is a great way to spark something up when we have those moments of awkward silence.
  • Put it on them – flip the script and let them be the one’s to talk, I love mirroring to do this

In conversations, be sure to let people know your goals and intentions if they like you they’ll tap their network to give you opportunities. People love connecting and sharing intentions gives people an opportunity to connect in different ways. Remember networking is also about connecting ideas or opportunities to people, not just people to people.

This is exactly how referral businesses work. Bob hires Joe to do a job. Joe does amazing and Bob remembers this later and mentions to her friend Sarah who also needs Jow’s services. Since Bob knows that Joe is trying to get more business, they are subconsciously looking for opportunities if they come up. Connecting people with opportunities. If we can build up a group of people who know who we are, then we start to develop a reputation.

Another fantastic great way to keep a conversation going is to become genuinely interested in others. Everyone is interesting if we ask the right questions. Genuinely wanting to discover someone, learning how and why they do certain things will develop natural curiosity.

I’ve always been fascinated by people’s stories, or at least their interpretation of their lives and how it’s impacted their thinking and decision making. Asking the next question is always easy when I’m coming from that place. It also gives me access to deeper connections with people because I ask questions that people don’t typically get asked. Although small talk has its place, I try to stay away from it and use genuine curiosity is my vehicle of choice.

Be Mindful of Criticism

“Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.”

Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People)

I stole this idea from Carnegie’s book, but it’s also self-evident if you’ve had close relationships and something that I’m mindful of when talking to people, especially my students. People are already criticizing themselves. Criticizing them turns them off and damages our reputation with them. I find having compassion for others is a great way to hold your tongue. If I feel the urge to criticize someone, I try to keep in mind that they are doing exactly what I would do if I was in their situation. I try not to critique unless it’s warranted. People, more often than not, try to do the best they can with what they have at their disposal.

When networking we have to keep in mind that we’re dealing with emotional creatures, not logical ones. Paying attention to people’s feelings is a sure-fire way to connect. Being seen and heard in the hearts and minds of others is as necessary to us as food and water. When we pay attention to other’s emotions, then we’re able to see and hear them in our hearts and minds, which inevitably comes with a bit of compassion.

Now, I don’t want to say that all criticism is dangerous for networking. Sometimes it’s welcomed, even necessary. If someone is obviously having trouble, a gentle critique that helps a situation is likely to bring someone close to you. Solving other people’s problems is like a fast track to connection, especially if they don’t end up feeling like a fool.

Criticisms are only valid when a solution is offered in its place.

Any idiot can tear down a building. No one has ever erected a statue for a critic.

Empathy & Narcissism

The deepest principle of Human Nature is the craving to be appreciated.

William James (1842 – 1910)

We all naturally have empathy but when we’re not using it to connect and understand other people, it fuels our narcissism. However, honing in on that empathy gives us a serious edge, especially in networking.

We’re all narcissistic on some level, some people further along on the spectrum than others. We needed to be if we wanted to survive infancy, our survival depended on us needing attention from others and those feelings never leave us as we get older. We need a certain level of narcissism to thrive, but it’s important to be able to get a handle on it too.

Human beings are inherently narcissistic but it’s not a bad thing. Narcissism is part of our human nature like how dogs go on walks, people think about themselves. Narcissism has a bad connotation, but it’s in our nature to think highly of ourselves and need admiration.

Seeing narcissism as part of our biological survival tool kit is much healthier than seeing it as a mental illness. Now some people do have a narcissistic personality disorder and that is a mental illness, but narcissism, in general, is a very human quality.

Getting upset at people for being narcissistic is like getting upset at a rock for being hard.

Keeping our narcissism in mind gives us a few advantages in conversation. We can make things all about them, especially in the beginning. This is a great way to get people to like us.

People love to feel important and according to Dr. John Dewey, people’s deepest urge in human nature is “the desire to be important.” If we can make people feel important, they will love us. The easiest way to do this is to give them a compliment, a genuine compliment.

The best compliments are on things that they are working really hard to improve.

For example, I work extremely hard on my blog and providing value to my students. A compliment like “Chris, your writing has absolutely changed how I see education” would mean way more to me than “Chris, I love your style.” Yeah, I put in some effort in my wardrobe, but I put at least 10x that in my writing so I’ll respond to the first compliment more positively and be more likely to believe it to be authentic. We can use our empathy to discover what other people really care to improve.

If we can make people feel sincerely important, then we can make them fall for us. However, what makes people feel important tells us a lot about their character. Be mindful of what kind of people you are complimenting. I recommend connecting with people who have similar values to you. For example, there are people who pretend they are invalid to force sympathy and feel important. If you are someone who values self-reliance and responsibility, it probably isn’t worth the effort to put the moves on this person because they probably won’t add value to your network. Yes, I am saying that some people are not worth connecting with from a networking perspective.

I brought this up earlier, but another great appeal to narcissism is to use the mirroring technique from ex-FBI terrorist negotiator Chris Voss. Just say the last three words of whatever they’re saying if it fits with the situation. This will bate people into diving deeper into the thought their already having while feeling accepted and heard. In his Masterclass, he talked about how he taught a guy the mirroring technique and he used it to get everyone to like him on his cruise ship. Mirroring makes people think we’re more interesting than we actually are.

We’re just showing people what they like, themselves.

Names are the Sweetest Sounds

In Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, he found that across cultures and languages people love to hear their names. No surprise, people are inherently narcissistic. When we hear our names, we feel recognized.

The sweetest word in any language is our own names.

My cousin Brian is one of the sweetest and caring people I know. He often gives his money and attention to those who are less fortunate. He told me about a homeless person who said one of the hardest things about being homeless is never hearing your name. The guy said he felt almost like less of a person because of it. So Brian makes an effort to get to know some homeless people’s names so they can hear it.

Hearing our names is a privilege, but it also makes us really happy.

One thing notable tidbit is that most people, especially in high-performing circles, know that saying names makes people like you so doing it too much or with bad taste could come off like brown-nosing. Be tasteful with your techniques, don’t come off like Andy Bernard from The Office.

Talk In Terms of Their Interests

One of the most impactful ideas I’ve ever read came from the book The Art of Communication by Thich Nhat Hanh. In order to communicate clearly and effectively, we have to meet them at their level of conversation regardless of who they are. It is our job to communicate in a way that others understand. Expecting people to conform to their listening to our preferred way of communicating is a losing strategy and will breed a ton of disappointment.

This is huge when it comes to dealing with my students. If I start using language they don’t easily understand, I’ll lose them and they’re more likely to dig their heels into the ground. People are also more open to new ideas when they can recognize something familiar in them. Whenever I’m talking to my students, I’m constantly looking for points of connection and similarity between what they know and what I am trying to teach them.

Being able to conform to all these different forms of communication makes us a better communicator but also more diverse and interesting to others. As time goes on, I start to see the beauty in those new topics too and they start to become like my interests.


There are a ton of other networking techniques out there. These are just a few to get started, like a jumping-off point. Networking is all about understanding that people are more alike than different and putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.

Networking is all about connecting. Connecting people to people, people to ideas, people to opportunities.

Removing obstacles to that connection and doing what we can to make it easier.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.