Categories
Education

How to Conquer Test and Performance Anxiety

“I’m just not a good test taker.”

Liars (all around the world)

Why Anxiety?

Test and performance anxiety can be completely debilitating. Anxiety in general can destroy the best of us, but it can be overcome. First, we have to understand why we get anxiety in the first place.

Our brains have a threat detection system that’s constantly examining our surroundings. I talk a little bit about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1). When it notices something that could be a potential threat, now or in the future, it immediately tries to solve that problem. Our minds are constantly preparing for the worst-case scenario.

Needless to say, this process is stressful and if overdone could lead to anxiety. When our brains don’t know what to prepare for, this is exactly what happens. If the brain detects a potential threat but doesn’t know how to prepare for it, then it will try to prepare for everything.

Like literally everything.

Our minds will want to prepare us for a panther attack from the tress, and the next economic crash, and embarrassing moments, and food shortages, and life beyond school, and…and…and…you get the idea.

We are anxious because we’re trying to solve every possible problem at the same time, which is impossible. Our minds work hard to find solutions and when it can’t, it works even harder. At this point, our bodies will use their stress responses which have physiological effects. Our bloodstreams get flooded with cortisol and adrenalin, which is super useful in the short term, but terrible crippling over the medium to long term. This is why anxiety can be so taxing on the body.

These stress response systems aren’t entirely terrible. After all, they are fantastic indicators for potential threats now and in the future which is awesome because we can use that to our advantage. In the context of education, this means we can use our anxiety to determine if we have sufficiently prepared ourselves. This is a slippery slope and takes practice to identify how much anxiety is enough, but it’s a powerful skill once it’s been honed. The biggest difference between unnecessary anxiety and beneficial anxiety lies in our habits.

How much have we actually prepared for the threats in front of us?

How many hours have we put in to earn the calm?

Coping with Anxiety

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

In terms of education and test-taking, anxiety can arise from not knowing what to prepare for. A big part of conquering anxiety is understanding why we get it, then taking the steps to solve the threats in front of us.

When riddled with anxiety, many people become paralyzed. Often it can seem like it’s impossible to move when anxiety has taken over. Not surprising considering that freezing is the first step of the stress response. I talk more about this and how to overcome it in The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2). Part of getting through that paralysis is defining what it is we are anxious about.

Remember, our minds are constantly working to solve problems, and if the problem is not clear than our mind spins out and anxiety takes over. Conquering anxiety equals defining anxiety. We have to take the time to discover what it is that we are actually anxious about. I recommend writing it down and using Tim Ferriss’ Fear Setting Exercise. Once we discover what the worse case is, we can work on making that specific situation better, or if we can’t, then we can work to cap the downside – make sure the losses aren’t too extreme and/or irrecoverable.

“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

Defining what needs to get done and what needs to be understood is incredibly powerful. I’ve noticed that whenever I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed it’s because the tasks I need to complete aren’t crystal clear. When my goals are as clearly stated as actions that I need to take in the real world, the anxiety melts away.

For this reason, I’m a huge advocate of checklists. They are a fantastic tool for taking the huge ideas we have up in the sky and bringing them down to Earth in bite-sized actionable steps. I recommend reading The Checklist Manifesto. Dr. Atul Gawande beautifully outlines the power of checklists, how to make good checklists, and how to get everything done right. I’ll definitely be writing something on that book later down the line. His insight on checklists in unparalleled and incredibly powerful.

Get things articulated in small and simple tasks.

Another fantastic way of coping with anxiety is to shorten our timelines. When stress is high, focus on small increments of time. The higher the stress, the smaller the increment. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen in a year, or a month, or a week, or a day, or an hour. Focus on what’s right in front of you, even if that means tuning out everything and focusing on just getting through the next few seconds.

I’ve noticed that when I’m extremely stressed out, it helps to just focus on the next 3 seconds. I get through my rough patches 3 seconds at a time. When I’m less stressed, I’m in a more visionary state and I’m able to create and execute plans over weeks or (when I’m really on) months.

Focusing on the seconds or focusing on the months, time will pass either way. Adjusting our timeframes is a powerful way of maintaining control especially when we’re wrestling with something like anxiety.

I also talk more about anxiety and their relationship to education in my posts Strategies for Better Studying Part 2 and Part 3.

Yerkes-Dodson Law

Performance vs. Arousal Hebbian Yerkes-Dodson Curve

The Yerkes-Dodson Law is a relationship between nervous system arousal and performance developed by American psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson. The law states that arousal in the nervous system (stress) can actually help with performance, but only up to a certain point. In high amounts, arousal could be detrimental to performance (as most people with test anxiety know too well). This knowledge is powerful because it suggests that we actually need some level of stress to perform at our best. Most people’s natural reaction to test anxiety is to try to get rid of all of it, but we actually want to hold on to some of that stress. Yerkes-Dodson also suggests that if we’re not stimulated enough then our performance will suffer as well.

The graphic above shows the Hebbian Yerkes-Dodson Curve which is a simplified version of the original curve. It leaves our hyperarousal effect on simple tasks and the differentiation between difficult and simple tasks. There are a ton of interesting findings related to performance and stress that developed as a result of this work. For example, intellectually demanding tasks may require lower levels of arousal for concentration whereas tasks demanding persistence may require higher levels of arousal for motivation. Because of this, different tasks may have different Yerkes-Dodson curves but the Hebbian version is a solid average of most tasks.

Understanding the Yerkes-Dodson curve is crucial for managing stress and anxiety specifically to enhance or maintain a certain level of performance. We don’t want to completely avoid stress altogether, we just want to manage it enough to prevent performance impairment.

Stress Management

“Stress is a result of a lack of structure.”

Touré Roberts (1972 – )

When managing stress, we want to keep good stress (eustress) and let go of bad stress (distress). Here are a couple of methods that I use to help with stress management:

Entering the Sleep-like Brain States. Meditation, driving long distances, running, breathing, showering, and cleaning are a few of the things I do to get my mind in a sleep-like state. Taking time to unplug and step back from working on whatever I’m working on helps decrease my nervous system arousal. Most of the time, our brains are doing “duration, path, outcome” operations. It’s obsessed with how long something will take, the path we will take to get there, and what will happen once it’s all over. These are most of the operations we do in our day-to-day lives, but it’s taxing on the brain. Entering the sleep-like states replenishes our ability to continue using the “duration, path outcome” operations.

Define the stressor. Similar to anxiety, half of the battle is clearly understanding what it is that is stressing you out. I try to get this out in my journaling or other reflective writing. Honestly, sometimes I’ll just write what’s stressing me out in my notes app just so I have something to externalize my thoughts onto. This helps because once something is clearly defined, we can take the steps necessary to solve the problem.

Eating healthy and regularly. Studies have shown that eating breakfast regularly helps with mood stabilization. It’s also much more difficult to perform when our blood glucose levels are low. Doing difficult and stressful tasks requires a higher cognitive load. The higher demand for our mental faculty calls for higher physical demands on nutrition. It’s much easier to get stressed when we’re hungry. We can eliminate any extra stress but keeping our bodies happy and healthy.

On that note, avoiding stimulants. Caffeine is a big one. Caffeine and other uppers hype up the activity in the central nervous system, they literally chemically increase our arousal. All of our emotional states, like stress, are related to biochemical ratios in our bodies. Everyone’s body is a little different, and I urge everyone to pay attention to how each of the things they ingest makes them feel. We can control a surprising amount of our emotions from controlling what we take in. I personally try to keep off stimulating chemicals when I’m highly stressed. However, I do use caffeine on occasion if I don’t have the energy levels required to perform my best. Basically, I recommend generally avoiding stimulants but if you really want to try to only use them if your arousal levels are lower than the sweet spot.

This last method I wouldn’t try unless you need to really calm down. Six deep breaths trigger a parasympathetic response. If we can manage to get 6 deep breaths in, when the exhale is longer than the inhale, then our bodies take that as a signal to relax and starts to turn on our parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our brain the relaxes us. This is a physical way of lowering nervous system arousal.

Be aware that we do need some stress in order to perform at our best, so don’t just try to find ways to eliminate stress. It’s all about finding balance.

Confidence and Anxiety

Confidence has a significant relationship with anxiety. If we don’t believe that we can overcome a challenge, it’s really easy for us to shut down. We won’t prepare for the dangers to come and our minds will make us more and more uneasy as the danger gets closer. Confidence gives us a fighting chance to overcome anxiety. Without confidence, anxiety will win every time.

How to Increase Confidence

The tricky part about confidence is that we need to prove to ourselves that we have confidence before we can start having it. I talk a little bit about this in my post, The Relationship with Ourselves.

Rather than trying to talk ourselves into acting confident, we need to show ourselves that we are capable and get some wins under our belt. There are a few ways to do this. One of my favorite recommendations is to go out and learn something. Literally anything. Find a skill that has always seemed interesting and learn about it. Practice it. Invest in it. Confidence is a side-effect of watching yourself kick ass at something. People who are good at things are confident. People who seem confident, but aren’t competent are just arrogant. If you take shortcuts, you’ll know and you won’t exude genuine confidence. Building a relationship with ourselves and knowing ourselves as someone who is authentically confident is difficult and takes time, but it’s totally worth it.

Focus on building an identity and creating solid habits. Those are perfect ways of developing confidence within ourselves because when cultivating identity and habits, we’re already making constant little wins.

Last Thoughts on Anxiety

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

“There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!”

Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

Two different men from vastly different times and they’re saying the same thing. It’s not worth it to worry. Any suffering we are to bear will be experienced when we experience it. If the practices in this most don’t help, try to find ways to not participate in the madness of anticipating pain. Sometimes I drive myself crazy worrying about the future, but other times I can catch myself and remember that I’m only hurting myself by thinking that way.

Not all of our thoughts are true. Not all of our thoughts are useful.

I also recommend reading Stoic philosophy to learn how to operate in times of high stress and anxiety. Letters from a Stoic and On the Shortness of Life by Seneca are fantastic pieces of work and are both on my Must-Read Book List.

“Life is suffering.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Suffering, pain, death, and misfortune are all a part of life. Rejecting these parts makes things harder than they already are. If we learn to embrace hardships and learn to love our fate, amor fati, then maybe we will be relieved of a little pain.

In life, we perform. We are always performing. If people depend on us, we need to perform. Learning how to thrive when it is our time to shine is a skill that translates beautifully in any field. I consider performing to be a powerful meta-skill worth taking on.

During my freshman year of college, my friend and I performed at open mics twice a week and it really helped with my performance anxiety. The first time I went up on stage, my voice was shaky and played all of our songs super fast because subconsciously I wanted to get off the stage as fast as possible. But by the end of the first semester, the stage felt like my natural habitat and was a place for me to thrive and shine.

We get better at anything with deliberate practice and time. Performance and test-taking are just other skills to develop. Focus on developing yourself and giving your all. Know exactly what you need to conquer and be mindful of your stress levels and management techniques. Everyone can be a great test-taker, it just takes a little work.

Categories
Education

The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 2)

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

John Milton (1608 – 1674)

The Mind

The mind what makes us feel alive and aware. It gives us the faculty of consciousness and the ability to think. The mind provides us with judgement, perception, language and memory. People all throughout time have dedicated their entire lives to trying to understand the mind but there is no shortage of things we don’t understand. Some of the people that studied the mind in depth include but are not limited to: Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Peterson, and many, many more. The mind is a strange place that we know very little about, but we can use what little we do know to our advantage. For some, the mind is the enemy. Perhaps it’s the most formidable enemy we’ll ever meet, but learning a few things about our minds can turn it into our most valuable ally.

I’ll do a brief run through a few of the topics that are integral to understanding the mind. Each of these topics is extremely dense and you can spend your entire life learning about just one aspect, but knowing just a little bit can make a dramatic difference in our lifestyle.

Mental Faculties

Thought

Wikipedia puts it best when it comes to summarizing what thinking is – “Thinking is sometimes described as a “higher” cognitive function and the analysis of thinking processes is a part of cognitive psychology. It is also deeply connected with our capacity to make and use tools; to understand cause and effect; to recognize patterns of significance; to comprehend and disclose unique contexts of experience or activity; and to respond to the world in a meaningful way.”

There are many theories to how the mind works. One of my favorites are diffuse thinking vs. focused thinking:

Focused thinking is what we traditionally think of when we hear the word thinking. It’s effortful, deliberate, and concentrated. It’s what we use when we’re consciously trying to solve a problem. Focused thinking eliminates distractions and gets the job done through sheer will power. This type of thinking is made possible through the contributions made by the prefrontal cortex. Focused thinking is optimal when you have high energy and the solution to the problem is right outside your zone of proximal development.

On the other hand, diffuse thinking is less straightforward. Diffuse thinking is the kind of thinking that’s running in the background making connections without you consciously noticing. Diffuse thinking occurs when we’re doing mundane tasks or whenever our brain has the ability to “wonder off.” Unlike focused thinking, diffuse thinking occurs in all parts of the brain. The freedom the brian has to make random connections allows for more creative solutions to come about. Diffuse thinking is optimal for when you are presented with a problem that may need a creative solution that you can’t immediately see. Benjamin Franklin used to induce diffuse thinking with his special napping technique whenever he came across a problem that he didn’t know how to solve.

Daniel Kahneman wrote about another thinking dichotomy in his best selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In this book, he discusses the brain working in two gears but he calls them System 1 and System 2. It’s similar to focused thinking vs. diffuse thinking but with some nuances. The main idea is to use System 1 to get the easy things done, but to slow down and use System 2 when necessary. Many people tend to mix these up and make important decisions quickly resulting in many unnecessary problems. I recommend checking his book out!

Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
Memory

Memory refers to our ability to keep and retrieve information. The study of memory has been a meeting point of several different academic disciplines such as neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and biology. There are many different kinds of memory. I laid out working memory vs. long term memory in my last post, but there are a few others that are worth mentioning.

Long Term Memory

It’s an umbrella term and splits into two different kinds of long term memory – Declarative and Implicit Memory.

Declarative (Explicit) Memory is the conscious and intentional storage of facts, events, and concepts. This is the memory that’s consolidated during stage 3 of the sleep cycle. Declarative memory can also split into two types:

Episodic memory refers to our autobiographical memory of specific events. It’s basically our collection of how we remember our life events.

Semantic memory refers to our memory of words, concepts, numbers, or other general worldly knowledge that we may need to survive. This type of memory is dependent on culture and experience.

Implicit Memory is the unconscious and unintentional learning that affects our thoughts and behaviors. Implicit memory is the reason why priming is a popular marketing method advertisers use to sell their products.

Procedural Memory is the best example of implicit memory at work. Procedural memory is responsible for knowing how to do things and it’s consolidated during the REM stage in the sleep cycle. This part of our memory picks up on the motor skills necessary to make every day life easier. This is how we learn how to talk, walk, ride a bike, play an instrument, etc.

Memory Tree (2019)

Retrieval

Part of what we consider to be our memory is our ability to access the information stored in our brains. The two main methods of retrieval are recall and recognition.

Recall

Recall refers to our ability to retrieve information from our long term memory with little or no cues.

Recognition

Recognition refers to our ability to retrieve information from our long term memory because of specific cues.

Imagination

“Scientists must have a vivid intuitive imagination, for new ideas are not generated by deduction, but by an artistically creative imagination.”

Max Planck (1858 – 1947)

Scientists aren’t the only people who must have imagination, it’s necessary for everyone.

The imagination has been described as a subjective process that the mind uses to perceives the world and the activity of creating new situations, concepts, images, or any other qualia. Even when setting aside the make-believe games that children need to play, people use their imagination all the time. Whenever we think of possible future scenarios, see things from other people’s perspectives, or get lost in a daydream we are using our imagination. Imagination is crucial for problem solving, especially under restricted conditions, so there are many practical reasons to develop our imagination. I say imagination is the fuel for creativity, and our creativity is what separates us from animals. We should lean into our imaginative thoughts. Everything we have around us was first imagined in someone’s mind. Everything.

Developing our imagination is key to solving all of our world’s biggest problems. Climate change will be solved through imagination. The social and political conflicts around the world will end through new solutions that have not been implemented (or maybe even thought of) yet. Imagination solves problems. Imagination creates life.

Assimilation & Accommodation

Assimilation, according to Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, is using an existing schemata to make sense of a new situation. It’s the first step in learning something new! Whenever we encounter something new, we first try to relate the novel stimuli to something we already know in hopes of understanding it well enough to deal with it. For example, whenever I’m teaching my students how to solve algebraic inequalities, I show them how it’s similar to solving regular algebraic equations.

Accommodation is what we use when we don’t have the necessary schemas to perceive the new information. If the new information still doesn’t make sense even after applying our pre-existing schemas, then we modify existing schemas or create new ones to accommodate for that new information. This is how we learn new things. We build new knowledge on top of the knowledge we had before when we encounter new circumstances.

Identity

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”

James Clear

Our identity is how we see ourselves and how we know who we are. Over the course of our lives we create this person based on our interpretations of our life events or our goals we set for ourselves. This is arguably the MOST powerful force that motivates us. Our habits and choices are based off what kind of person we see ourselves as.

What makes our identity such a powerful force?

Identity Defense is how we preserve who we think we are. This results in rejecting actions that don’t match with who we think we are and continuing actions that match who we think we are. We love being right and hate being wrong, and nothing is worse than being wrong about who we think we are. The kind of person that we see ourselves to be is the one thing that we like to think we know for sure. This is powerful in creating new habits and explains why starting new habits could be difficult. New habits may not be seen as something that would match up with our current view of ourselves so in order to be right about who we are, we reject the idea of doing those actions.

If we see ourselves as athletes, then we are more likely to do what athletes do.

If we see ourselves as musicians, then we are more likely to do what musicians do.

If we see ourselves as great students, then we are more likely to do what great students do.

If we see ourselves already as the people we desire to be, then taking on the new actions won’t feel so strange. Be the new person, everything else will follow.

The Self

Our identity is very much aligned with how we know ourselves. When we say I know myself, what does that actually mean? We have multiple ideas of our self and these ideas play into how we form our identity.

All of the multidimensional ways we describe ourselves is known as our Self-Concept. It transcends time and applies to our past, present, and future self. We have infinitely many ways in which we describe ourselves, but it’ll just cover a few of them here –

Let’s start with our Actual Self. This is who we are in reality; it includes all of our strengths, weaknesses, and how we know ourselves to act in the world. It’s tough to get an accurate read on who we are objectively, but with serious reflection and the right team of people around us we can find our actual limits and use that knowledge to our advantage.

The Ideal Self is the person who we strive to be. This is can be seen as analogous to Freud’s Superego. This is the version of ourselves that judges us when we make a mistake and praises us when we act in alignment with it. This is the self that most people identify with the most. It’s easy to mix up the actual self with the ideal self.

The Ought Self is the person who other people want us to be. Sometimes the person we think we should we is the person that other people think we should be. We should recognize when this is the case and act in accordance with our own commitment to our Ideal Self. I’m not saying we should never let other people influence how we act, I’m suggesting that it’s extremely beneficial to recognize the affect other people have on our sense of self and decide if it’s worth internalizing.

Our Self-Esteem is our evaluation of ourselves in relationship to our ideal self. The closer our actual self is to our ideal self, the higher our self-esteem. The further our actual self is to our ideal self, the lower our-self esteem. The best way to raise your self-esteem is to clearly define what your ideal self is and do actions that coincide with the your ideal self.

Self-esteem is not the same as Self-Efficacy, which is how capable we think we are at a given skill or situation.

Our self-efficacy is what drives the idea that we have to learn a certain way (like visual or auditory) or that we are only skilled in certain subjects (“I am a math person” or “I am an English person”). That isn’t true. Our self-efficacy can be improved and with those improvements comes a higher rate of learning in all domains of life, higher self confidence, and exciting opportunities!

We can improve our self-efficacy in three steps:

  1. Making & accomplishing small attainable goals
  2. Recognizing those small accomplishments as significant and the preferred method of progress, as opposed to working hard for one large accomplishment
  3. Slowly increasing difficulty over time

If we don’t take care of our self-efficacy, it’ll be difficult to try new things and eventually one could slide into the realm of Learned Helplessness. This is one of the lowest forms of diminished self-efficacy. It comes about from being in consistently hopeless scenarios. Sometimes there are things we can’t do, and if we find ourselves in those situations enough then we’ll learn that there isn’t anything we can do anywhere.

Learned helplessness is serious, but can be avoided. Recovering from learned helplessness requires a shift in identity, recognizing our cognitive biases (specifically the negative ones we hold about ourselves), setting them aside, and focusing on raising our self-efficacy.

One noteworthy mention is Carl Jung’s definition of The Self. I reference this in my other post The Power of Failure. Jung believed that the Self was developed through individuation, which is the integration of your personality. The Self is the representation of the unification of our conscious and unconscious. It’s my understanding that the primary means of individuation is through circumambulation, which is also mentioned in The Power of Failure.

There are many ways to define ourselves, so no one way is objectively true. But one thing is certain, understanding how we see ourselves is crucial to improving and getting out of our own way.

Dramaturgy (Front Stage Self vs. Back Stage Self)

Front Stage Self

This is the self which we present to other people. The self we put out to fit the social norms.

Back Stage Self

This is the self that we are when we are not around other people. This self is the one that really runs the show. Most of the actions that define our lives and self-concept are driven by the back stage self.

Collapsing these two as much as possible will make success in any domain easier. We don’t have to completely merge them together, but an honest life keeps us confident and directly affects our self esteem and efficacy. Training the back stage self to be well polished and pristine like our front stage self will allow us to accomplish what we need to accomplish to reach our goals.

Cognitive Load

I like to think of cognitive load as our brain’s biological RAM or our mental gas tank. In the morning (if we’re well rested) we start off with our full processing capacity, but as the day goes on every little task and decision chips away at our cognitive load until we go to sleep. Not all activities require the same amount of cognitive processing. Multitasking or activities that require intense concentration use up our cognitive load the most. This is why I do the most difficult tasks first – just getting my lazy ass to do it is going to take tons of cognitive load, so to speak. I won’t have the physiological brain power necessary to do the difficult tasks well if I save them for the end of the day.

Maximize bandwidth by reducing cognitive load.

Scientifically Proven Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load

  • Apply Occam’s razor to everything
  • Minimize the number of decisions you make per day
  • Remove needless words
  • Do the most difficult tasks first
  • Collaborate
  • Use cognitive aids (e.g. checklists, calendars, notifications)

Top-down Processing vs. Bottom-up Processing

Examine the following sentence – Rocky loves to rock on his rcoking chair to rock music.

Noticing that the c and the o in rocking chair are reversed is a form of bottom-up processing, seeing each letter and concluding that it is supposed to say rocking. But knowing that rcoking and rocking are similar for all intents and purposes is a form of top-down processing because you have noticed that the word is rocking then noticing later that the letters are switched.

Top-down Processing

Our ability to perceive something and apply what we already know and expect to perceive details that match with our conclusions.

Bottom-up Processing

Our ability to perceive a collection of details as they come and conclude what something is as a result of those details.

How does it relate to studying?

When studying, we want to use bottom-up processing to fight against our top-down processing tendencies. It’s easy to review a topic and think we know all the small details because we are familiar with hearing the name of the chapter or section, but in reality, we need to practice our concepts from the small details up and practice working through everything to really make sure that we know our information.

To study through bottom-up processing, doing practice problems or answering free response questions will help identify any gaps in your knowledge when it comes to the concepts you are responsible for learning. This type of studying is also know as Active Recall.

How do both processes work for us and against us?

When studying, it’s easy to fall into the trap of top-down processing. If we study simply by looking over our notes or reading quick sections over the chapter, we’ll be at a loss when the test comes and that will have a negative impact on our grades.

However, this doesn’t mean that top-down processing doesn’t have it’s uses. Sometimes top-down can be great for trying to learn something new. Applying top-down processing to a new concept can help you try to see the bigger picture then fill in the smaller details later. This is something I like to call Knowledge Frames. Building knowledge frames is perfect for frontloading, or previewing new information in advanced in order to focus on reviewing rather accommodation or assimilation. When I was in EMT school, I used knowledge frames to learn the blood flow through the heart in less than 10 minutes!

Bottom-up processing is great for reviewing content and can prevent us from deluding ourselves from thinking that we understand something when we actually don’t. I have had plenty of experience using bottom-up processing while studying and taking tests I was grossly underprepared for.

That being said, bottom-up processing isn’t so great for learning new material. Using bottom-up can create an illusion of new concepts seeming more difficult than they actually are. Purely memorizing individual facts or ideas about a new concept without trying to find how they all fit together will make any class 10x harder than it should be.

Both have their place and being aware of their existence can give us more firepower when dealing with a new class of information. Experiment with both and find your own methods that can maximize your results.


We interact with the world on many different levels. When a snake lunges towards us, we jump back before we consciously realize that the snake is attacking us. Our bodies are interpreting the world at one level and our minds interpret the world on another. Understanding our minds, is understanding part of how we interact with the world around us which will help us in anything we pursue. This is why I consider understanding our brain and mind important and treat it as a metaskill and I highly recommend diving into the fields of psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, and literature if you’re interested in doing so.

Despite this blog post and the much larger body of work other people much smarter than me have put together, there is no shortage of things we don’t understand about the mind.

Categories
Education Productivity

The Valley of Disappointment

“We often expect progress to be linear. At the very least, we hope it will come quickly. In reality, the results of our efforts are often delayed. It is not until months or years later that we realize the true value of the previous work we have done. This can result in a “valley of disappointment” where people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work without experiencing any results. However, this work was not wasted. It was simply being stored. It is not until much later that the full value of previous efforts is revealed.”

James Clear

The Expectancy Curve

In James Clear’s fantastic book Atomic Habits, he explains the idea of the expectancy curve. I think it’s a great tool to overcome imposter syndrome or any other form of the attack. The expectancy curve helps us keep going by giving us a frame to understand our insufficiencies.

Whenever we learn something new, we expect our progress to follow a straight line but in reality our progress is more parabolic. This results in a period of time when we are performing at a lower level than we’re expecting. This time period is called The Valley of Disappointment and it’s duration depends on the skill and how much deliberate practice we choose to put in.

When we feel like we’re underperforming, it’s easy to feel like we aren’t “meant” to do that new thing but all we need to do is stick with our newfound skill until we reach the critical point. The critical point is where the level of our skill matches our expectations. When we reach the critical point we stop suffering from imposter syndrome, feel more confident in our abilities, and (most importantly) keep developing our skills.

Most people stop cultivating their skills when they’re in the valley of disappointment but the ones who make it to the critical point can start to reap the benefits of their faith, consistency, and hard work.

I’ve seen this play out in a number of skills but I found this especially true in music production, hurdling, and cooking.

It can take weeks, months, or even years to get to the critical point. When I first took up music production, I was told that I would have to practice producing for 5 years before I would be able to compose, mix, and master a song from start to finish.

This was me kind of understanding The Expectancy Curve and The Valley of Disappointment years before I could articulate it. The idea of The Valley of Disappointment and taking 5 years before I could complete a song gave me a longer time frame for proficiency. This longer time frame is what made it easier for me to cut myself some slack. That freedom to make mistakes helped me grow. I always thought that made me a little insane but [Kobe Bryant] talks about having the freedom to make mistakes and how that leads to accelerated growth too.

This isn’t to say that The Valley of Disappointment isn’t a tough place to be. It’s easy to think all the work we’re putting in is futile and insane but it isn’t. The work we put in while we’re in the valley is exactly what gives us the ability to move out of it and enjoy the fruits of our labor later on. Deliberate practice is never wasted effort. Our efforts compound over time and this is especially true with skill development.

It’s difficult to move past The Valley of Disappointment but I do think as we learn more we find peace in our insufficiencies. The more I learned about music production, the more I realized that the experienced producers who said music production had a 5 year valley of disappointment were right. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. (Which totally applies to everything btw)

“Be not afraid of going slowly; be afraid only of standing still.” 

Chinese proverb

The whole idea is to stick with things for a while. Ask people in the field how long it took them to feel comfortable and confident in their position. I remember an ER doc saying it took him 10 years before he felt like he reach his critical point. Proficiency take time.

I find that knowing The Valley of Disappointment exists helps me get through it. The upset is temporary and I know I’m right around the corner from being a badass.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

The 20 Hour Rule and Metaskills



“The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.” 

Robert Greene (1959 – )

A lot of people I talk to are familiar with the 10,000 hour rule – it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated and deliberate practice to obtain mastery of a given skill, but not as many of us are familiar with the 20 hour rule.

According the Josh Kaufman’s The First 20 Hours, it only takes 20 hours of dedicated and deliberate practice to learn a new skill. We don’t need 10,000 to learn something new and learning a new skill doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. 20 hours is all it takes.

Success in any field is simply learning a specific combination of skills. This means that success anywhere is just a few sets of 20 hour intervals. We can fast track our way to stellar performance by deconstructing the things we want to do into their individual skills.

The combination of all of our skills will be our arsenal to solve problems that we encounter through life. Our skills are what we sell to employers and what we implement to impact in the world.

Metaskills

Success is great, but that’s not the best part. Some of the skills you learn in one place can count towards the success in another. I refer to these skills as metaskills. This means that once you learn one thing, learning other things consequently becomes easier.

I noticed this after I became a proficient musician. Some of the skills I developed to become a musician were also necessary for learning other things, like being a good student, tutor, or EMT. Being a good student also helped me become a better music producer. This is because when I was developing myself as I student, I was developing skills like:

  • self-control
  • time management
  • stress management
  • independent thought habits
  • embracing my uniqueness
  • patience
  • problem solving
  • initiative
  • discipline
  • and many more..

Which can all be used in other areas of life. So as I got became a better student, I became a better everything because. Use The 20 Hour rule to develop your metaskills and see how success in one domain is similar to success in another.

Some people say it gets more difficult to learn things as you get older, but I think thats wrong. If we spend our time learning the metaskills, learning new things actually becomes easier over time.

Some other metaskills I’d recommend focusing on are:

  • writing
  • meditation
  • leadership
  • studying
  • critical listening
  • learning to say no
  • decision making (Click here to understand our decision making process more)
  • quantitative reasoning
  • self-awareness
  • creativity
  • resilience
  • scheduling (Click here for tips on developing scheduling)

I try to make a little time every day to develop my metaskills, even if it’s just 5 minutes. 5 minutes every day for a year is 30 hours. How do conquer the world? One skill at a time.

Categories
Lifestyle Productivity

The Mamba Mentality

“To sum up what Mamba Mentality is, it means to be able to constantly try to be the best version of yourself. That is what the Mentality is -it’s a constant quest to try to better today than you were yesterday.”

Kobe Bryant (1978 – 2020)

The Mamba Mentality is a highly effective way of developing your skills. Kobe Bryant, aka Black Mamba, developed this method after his first season playing basketball. The Mamba Mentality is a tested and proven way to bring you from the bottom of the dog pile to the Greatest of All Time.

A trip through time…

When Kobe Bryant was about 10 or 11 he was in a summer basketball league. During this season, he scored a grand total of 0 points for the ENTIRE season. Naturally, he was crushed and his father told him it doesn’t matter if you score 0 or 60 points I’m going to love you either way. This gave Kobe the confidence the needed to confront failure powerfully but he didn’t want to score 0 points. After that season, he spent his days focused on the fundamentals while his teammates relied on their athleticism. Eventually, practicing of the fundamentals caught him up to his teammates and his athleticism followed shortly after. By the age of 14, Kobe was the best basketball player in the state regardless of age.

This sounds like an incredible accomplishment but Kobe says it’s simple math: If you are playing for 2-3 hours every day and everyone around you is playing 1-2 hours twice a week, who’s going to be better? Skill development is not only a function of time, but time is a necessary ingredient.

There are two main pillars of the mamba mentality:

  • Show up and work every day, no matter what.
  • Rest at the end not in the middle

Incremental Consistent Progress

Putting work in every single day, even just for a few hours, is the edge you need over your competition. The sad fact of the matter is, not everyone will be giving their 100%. So, if you are giving your 100%, then you can’t lose. And part of that effort is showing up every. single. day. no. matter. what. By the time a years rolls around, or even 6 months, the results are noticeably different. I’ve seen this idea represented in Jeff Olson’s The Slight Edge and I’ve tried it for myself.

I apply this pillar of the mamba mentality to my learning. I learn something new every single day no matter what. It brings a child-like bliss into my life and I become a better person every day. After a few years, people have no considered me an expert in things that I would never dare claim expertise in. Apply this everywhere and watch the unimaginable unfold.

Restful rest vs. Stressful Rest

The difference between restful rest and stressful rest lies in the second pillar of the Mamba Mentality. Kobe suggests to rest at the end and not in the middle. This can apply to workouts, homework assignments, projects, whatever goal you have with a definite end. When we forstall resting and push all the way to the end, we train ourselves in endurance and tenacity but we also get to rest much more peacefully. When we rest at the end, we know the work is over and we can enjoy the much deserved breakrestful rest. When we rest in the middle, we have to get over the activation energy required to start again (which sucks) but we also can’t rest as peacefully because we are anticipating the stress to begin again – stressful rest.

I’ve applied this to my workouts and I’ve gotten better results than when I was resting whenever I felt tired. Make no mistake, it’s painful to rest at the end but it’s worth it. I’ve also applied this to cleaning my room, writing, making music, working, and tons of other places.

In this interview Kobe beautifully lays out the foundation of the world renowned, Mamba Mentality.

Starts at 2:11

Show up every damn day and just do it. Don’t stop until you accomplish what you set out to do. Apply these two principles and skill development is a piece of cake.