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The Jungian Shadow & Integration

“The sad truth is that man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites – day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail over the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been, and always will be.”

Carl Jung (Approaching the Unconscious)

The Gestalt Reality

The incredibly intelligent and renown Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, urged that people strive for wholeness rather than perfection. The path to wholeness is through integrating the sides of ourselves which are rejected, ignored, and avoided. When we combine the sides of ourselves which are responsible for creation with the sides which are capable of destruction, we create something bigger than the sum of those parts.

I talk a little bit about the uglier sides of ourselves in my post The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2). Harnessing the power of and willingly confronting these less than perfect sides of ourselves gives us the ability to deal with chaos when it comes. These ugly sides of ourselves are what Jung referred to as the shadow side.

This shadow side within ourselves that are rejected, ignored, and avoided are usually deemed “bad” or “immoral” by the rest of society. This widespread belief comes from people being constantly ridiculed by friends and family if they were to express these traits. We may live in an illusion of harmony, but this harmony is at the expense of our psychological integrity.

“And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.”

Jordan B. Peterson (12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos)

When we’re children, we’re afraid of monsters and wished they didn’t exist. As we get older, we see that the monsters are real and aren’t going anywhere. This knowledge makes us cynical. We believe the world must be an evil, unforgiving, and cold place to have monsters everywhere. However, we can learn to contend with the monsters if we learn how to be at one with ourselves.

The shadow sides contain a monster capable of immense destruction. If we ignore and repress this monster, it will come out in ways we don’t intend. If we let it go completely, we create heinous suffering and destroy the good around us. We must learn to wrestle with the monster within, integrate it into our personality, and use it when necessary. When we combine all these sides of ourselves, we become more than just the combination of all those sides. We become something much stronger and more formidable.

I talk more about this in the context of children who always try to be good in this post. Good children tend to repress their own thoughts and feelings in order to please other people. This repression creates a world of problems for them in the adult world as well as their personal psyche.

Wrestling with the Shadow – Big thanks to Academy of Ideas

Getting a hold of this side of ourselves is a difficult task. In order to grapple with our shadow, we first have to see it in ourselves. When we first look for the shadow we will find ourselves in a moral dilemma.

It’s hard to see the parts of ourselves which conflict with society and our loved ones. We discover the alarming amounts of hypocrisy, complacency, and fear which our moral scaffoldings and state are founded on.

Integrating the shadow is not trying to become “evil“, but it is detaching ourselves from the evil within us, so we can be free to find the parts of ourselves lost in the shadow. This creates an undeniable authenticity that others can intuitively pick up on.

True freedom, and a healthy relationship with ourselves, starts with questioning the codes of socialization and morality that we’ve been indoctrinated into. Questioning codes of conduct does not make us deviant, but strengthens compliance of codes if an answer can be found. Refusing to question codes risks propagating conduct which breed pathology.

Whenever I’m working with students, I notice that many of the students let their guard down and let go of their resistance to learning when they understand why they must sacrifice. Senselessness is painful for anyone at any age. Understanding why we need to sacrifice gives our pain meaning which can pull us through any challenge.

“If it can be destroyed by truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.”

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Pretending that we don’t have a shadow is a futile. Dichotomy of this nature is built right into the structures of reality. Refer to the quote at the beginning of this blog post again.

We have sides to our existence which we don’t like, but denying them only makes them stronger. Pretending they don’t exists brings them out more than we’d like, and it ways that we won’t even notice.

“By not being aware of having a shadow, you declare a part of your personality to be non-existent. Then it enters the kingdom of the non-existent, which swells up and takes on enormous proportions…If you get rid of qualities you don’t like by denying them, you become more and more unaware of what you are, you declare yourself more and more non-existent, and your devils will grow fatter and fatter.”

Carl Jung (Dream Analysis: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-1930)

The Shadow of Aggression

We can see this in children who exhibit aggression at an early age. Aggression is a part of human nature and there is nothing inherently wrong with it, although to modern people, it has a rough connotation. Aggression is simply an assertive pursuit in one’s desires. Sometimes this can be violent and terrible, but most of the time it isn’t.

When an infant is crying for food, they are being aggressive. When we ask someone if we could use their restroom, we are being aggressive. Aggression can appear in countless ways.

As a result, many children who are aggressive at an early age (which is almost all of them) are met with disapproval and punishment. As they get older, they learn to repress that side of themselves. They seek to avoid conflict and not push their own agenda.

The aggression moves into the shadow and transforms into anger, rage, and hate.

If the child had learned to use their aggression when appropriate, rather than ignore it altogether, they could use their aggression to move themselves and their community forward in a meaningful way. The child could have recognized the aggression within themselves, integrated it so they can use it by their own volition, and released it when they needed to be aggressive. They would have an easier time in the adult world and more control over their internal states.

Aggression is necessary in adult life and people who cannot utilize it will be damned to a life of mediocrity and people pleasing. People who won’t recognize the aggression within themselves will always be the stepping stone and not the one who steps on the stone. This way of living will drive them mad, mostly because they’re aware of their powerlessness, and the adult who has not integrated their aggression will uncontrollably release their shadow in a fit of unregulated emotions.

“This longing to commit a madness stays with us throughout our lives. Who has not, when standing with someone by an abyss or high up on a tower, had a sudden impulse to push the other over? And how is it that we hurt those we love although we know that remorse will follow? Our whole being is nothing but a fight against the dark forces within ourselves. To live is to war with trolls in the heart and soul. To write is to sit in judgement on oneself”

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)

Common Signs of Shadow Release

Lack of shadow integration leads to uncontrolled actions where the shadow releases itself in ways that we can barely recognize. It’s so easy to be blind to our shadow and how it shows itself. However, in Robert Greene’s fantastic book, The Laws of Human Nature, which is on My Must-Read Book List, he lays out common signs of shadow release and personas which the shadow displays itself through. We can use his guidelines to recognize the shadow within ourselves.

Contradictory Behavior

Repression can leads to a disconnect between our thoughts and actions. We think and want one thing, but act differently. Eventually, we will lapse in our performance and start to act how we truly think resulting in contradictory behavior.

This can also be seen in the people who preach high morality, but secretly and deliberately wrongs others. Another example can be found in extremely animus and typically tough men. They seem so strong and stoic on the outside, but really they yearn for sensitivity and security.

People carefully construct their images, sometimes without consulting all sides of themselves. These constructions are simply exoskeletons which people use to keep their uglier sides in the dark.

Emotional Outbursts

This is when the shadow simply can’t handle the repression any longer and must be released. They might say something cruel or expression their deeply embarrassing emotions. Either way, the person will claim that some external circumstance has brought out something different than them. Typically, the shadow is more honest than who we think we are.

Passionate Denial

Intense denials are typically expressions of what the shadow truly desires. Now, I’m not saying that everything that everyone denies is secretly desired. According to Freud, people understand the uncomfortable parts of their unconscious mind through denial in their unconscious mind. In other words, we understand the ugly parts of our unconscious through denying them. It’s easy to see this in men who claim they “have never cried” or “don’t feel any emotion.”

We can deny things, but passionate denial may be a form of acceptance.

“Accidental” Behavior

This is the one I think is the funniest. We see people engaging in destructive behavior and the reason for their conduct is simply an “accident”. Someone will drink too much alcohol and say inappropriate things. “It’s not me talking, it’s the alcohol.” They will say defending their insolence, but it’s their shadow. The truth is that person has never been more honest. Typically, alcohol inebriates our cerebral cortex which is our emotional brake pedal, so to speak. If that loses its power, it gives an opportunity for our amygdala to act as wild as possible.

We love to look for a great excuse to let our shadow go and what’s better than an accident?

This isn’t just with alcohol, people use all kinds of accidents as an excuse to indulge in their dark sides. When we stop accepting these explanations as excuses, we can see the shadow clearly.

Over-Idealization

People have a need to believe in something bigger than them. Conventional religion works for some people, but in this day and age, I’ve seen more and more people create their own belief systems. No matter the system, people will always put an ideal at the top, a clear example of right and wrong, a goal to strive for.

This can be in the form of a god, or in a personally relevant example, a motorcycle club (I’m rewatching Sons of Anarchy at the moment). People need an ideal to strive towards or we are left in true chaos.

Nothing is inherently wrong with this, but over-dealization can leave people a fantastic excuse to release their shadow. When we over-idealize something it’s easy to ignore all the imperfections and believe that any action that does not benefit the ideal is wrong. Once this happens, we will commit every sin in the book in the name of our god.

This is where the phrase “the ends don’t justify the means” is really useful. Over-idealization is saying the ends do justify the means and we will achieve the end by any means necessary.

We are constantly looking for ways to release our shadow, if we don’t do it consciously, we will convince ourselves that we are doing it for the right reasons.

Projection

“Projection is of the the commonest psychic phenomena…everything that is unconscious in ourselves we discover in our neighbor, and we treat him accordingly.”

Carl Jung (Archaic Man)

Ever heard the phrase “game recognize game”? This is the same idea. We have to have it in us to see it in other people. However, we love to tell ourselves that only other people have these disgusting traits and not us.

This is the most common way people deal with their shadow because it offers an opportunity for release every day. Whenever we see someone with unfavorable qualities, we can condemn them. Judge them unfairly and satisfy ourselves with justification that we are not like them.

I had a student whose parent was completely convinced that Hispanic students were the reason why California’s math scores are so low. He told me that it’s such a shame that Hispanic students don’t care about education and just want to get by. He explained to me, with great detail, about how he believes they are going to be the downfall of his beloved country. What he didn’t realize was his children, and himself, are the real perpetrators. Not because what he believes is racist and ignorant, but because his own children and himself don’t care about education and do everything they can just to get by. I worked with two of his kids and him long enough to know that they have those common attitudes, but I didn’t wrong him for it. I know that he was using projection as a form of shadow release.

What we hate in other people, we usually hate in ourselves.

Personas of the Unintegrated Shadow

Another way to recognize the shadow within ourselves is by paying attention to the personas which the shadow uses to show itself.

The Tough Guy

We all know the guy who’s too tough for life. These characters express hyper masculine roughness to signal that they’re the alpha dog. This guy likes to brag about all the women he’s slept with, fights he’s won, or deals he’s negotiated. This doesn’t just apply to men, this persona can be adopted by women who’ve accessed deep levels of their animus.

It’s easy to be intimidated by these types but they are like The Repressed Good Child. Unable to accept their sensitive and emotionally vulnerable sides, they only allow themselves to be “strong.”

Without acceptance of emotional vulnerability, The Tough Guy is susceptible to losing control when met with something that challenges or upsets them. We can recognize The Tough Guy within ourselves and learn to accept emotional vulnerability. We can also recognize it in others so we can be mindful of stirring insecurities or understand potential over reactions.

The Tough Guy pretends to be tough because really he is sensitive.

The Saint

These types are the shining examples of who we ought to be. They emanate goodness and purity as well as have seemingly endless compassion for the dispossessed. If malevolence and deceit surround them, they stand uncorrupted and above it all.

However, as we know if these sides of ourselves are not intentionally developed then they are masquerades for the opposite. The Saint has a secret thirst for power, attention, and all things sensual. The Saint acts as a pillar of benevolence, but once in power the shadow takes over and turns the progressive merciful angel into an intolerant punishing monster.

The Saint desires sex, money, and attention even though we may expect to believe otherwise. The Saint typically has a low tolerance for temptation and will use their power inappropriately if given the slightest opportunity. These types seem like incredible people to the public, but their family would testify otherwise.

We can seperate the true saints from the fakes through observing their actions and particular characteristics of their lives. How much do they enjoy power when they have it? How many goomahs do they have? Do they have a flavor of self-absorption that underlies their behavior?

Keeping a safe distance from these Shadow Saints is the best way to handle them. They’re after power and nothing else. Don’t be fooled by their show.

The Passive-Aggressive Charmer

These characters are difficult to deal with because they are so damn nice. When you first meet, they’re accommodating and smile a lot. They seem like a giant ball of positive energy and are surprisingly helpful too! Everything is fantastic until we see some action that seems so out of character – they explode on someone, talk shit behind your back, or sabotage you in some way.

These types probably learned at a young age that their innate aggression is bad. Maybe they had slightly more aggressive tendencies than other kids and had difficulty controlling them. Over time, they push that aggression deeper and deeper down into the depths of the shadow. They project auras of kindness and accomodation, but with a hint of aggression. They hate playing this role and will seek to break character whenever they’re tired or stressed.

Extreme niceness is not natural behavior and people with excessive accomodating behavior are likely trying to cover up the opposite.

The Frantic

Frantics can be pretty intense people. They are firm in their beliefs, speak with vigor, don’t compromise, clean often, and emit confidence. People love to flock to them because they are so compelling and reliable.

As we know, if someone is trying to hard to project an image then they must be unconsciously compensating for the opposite trait that lurks within them. Frantics are secretly terrified that they aren’t enough. Maybe from an early age they learned to doubt their self-worth. They don’t believe in themselves, so they project an image of conviction and stability to prevent other people from discovering who they truly are.

The Rigid Rationalist

These types tend to reject all the irrational tendencies humans have. The things that interest people aren’t always in line with pure reason. People love their myths, superstitions, woowoo explainations, and the supernatural. Being rational is exhausting and the majority of the biggest decisions made in our lives are rarely based in reason. Reason is still bound by our general myopia and can only extend as far as we know.

Repressing our irrational tendencies pushes them deeper into the shadow, allowing the irrationality to brew in the darkness. Once all irrationality is seemingly dealt with, the rigid rationalist only has room for science and analytics. Disregarding all other forms of thinking, these types will worship at the altar of science and take communion in the scientific method. If they are confronted with an argument, they will present their rational ideals with a heavy hand and maybe even a hint of anger. Their irrational tendencies lines the edges of their rational arguments making them seem almost more primitive than the archaic people who came before them.

True rationality is stoic and sober. It questions itself and does not fall in love with it’s own creations. It does not seek publicity, but truth.

The Snob

Snobs are the people who feel like they need to be better than everyone else. In Adlerian terms, they must assert their superiority over the masses. They have extremely refined tastes and knowledge in music, art, fine dining, or anything reffered to as “Classic“. They do what they can to stand out, so they’ll have unique tattoos and play into the “alternative” scene. They usually have extraordinary backgrounds too because every damn thing about them just seems so much better than the average.

We can imagine their lives being free of the mundane, but the reality is the boring and vapid as well as the exciting and lively. The Snob projects an image of extraordinary flair because they are more sensitive about their banality than the average person. The Snob secretly desires to be boring and ordinary, but carefully builds a shell of specialized knowledge and extraordinary aesthetics.

The Extreme Entrepreneur

These types seem like they have a slew of positive traits, especially for entrepreneurial work. They pay serious attention to detail and have incredibly high standards. They’ll usually do the work themselves because they want the work to be done “correctly.”

While these traits do brings a certain level of success, they create a cancer deep inside. The Extreme Entrepreneur tends to have a difficult time listening to people and rarely takes advice. They pride themselves of their limited understanding of self-reliance and usually mistrust others who don’t share their high standards.

This increased desire for self-reliance will push our desire to rely on others down into the shadow. When the shadow shows itself it’s usually in the form of medical or financial ruin. Suddenly, the independent business owner becomes dependent on doctors and financial advisors. These types never want to admit their desire for dependency. So in order to release themselves from this prison, they subconsciously a drawn to creating enough chaos to force them into dependency. These types tend to be successful in early life, but later tend to cause a lot of collateral damage.

“There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

If we don’t accept these sides of ourselves, they will come out and make themselves known in a much uglier way. The best way to deal with the shadow is not to ignore it, but to integrate it into our personalities.

Integrating the Shadow

Shadow integration can be completed in just 4 difficult steps:

  1. 1. Identify Our Own Shadow – the most difficult step in the process because we like to reject, ignore, and avoid this side of ourselves.
  2. The best way to see it is to pay attention to if we are acting out The Common Signs of Shadow Release.
  3. We can also pay attention to any one-sided traits in ourselves and assume that the opposite trait is buried deep within us. They usually are.
  4. Sometimes we say we hate certain kinds of behavior or people because we reject those qualities in ourselves.
  5. An example could be when someone is saying “I hate when people are late,” they are really covering up for their secret proclivity to be late themselves.
  6. Or “I hate when people cause drama” is covering up for a secret desire to surround themselves with drama.

Sensitivity to certain remarks is another fantastic indicator of shadowed areas of ourselves.

There are tons of ways to examine ourselves, the key is not to judge what we find but to accept it. It is part of us. It’s not evil.

2. Embrace Our Shadow – When we see our shadow for the first time it will be uncomfortable and the natural reaction will be to repress it.

Embracing our shadow and making it a goal to integrate it, rather than repress it, will help us give off a more authentic presentation. Seeking to integrate the shadow will make it easier to embrace it.

3. Explore Our Shadow – The shadow has depths further than our imagination. When exploring these depths we will find our darkest (even criminalistic) desires and animalistic impulses. It will be shocking, but we will have tapped into new power. The world’s greatest art dives deep into these depths and shows them to us, that is why we are so enamored by them.

4. Consciously Release Our Shadow – releasing our shadow is like an exorcism of sorts, we release the demons and enhance our presence as human beings. Releasing the shadow frees us from the jail of endless social codes. It’s more expensive to be nice and differential than consciously showing our shadow – the niceness is good at first but if gone without shadow integration, niceness becomes timidity, lack of confidence, and indecision.

“Unfortunately there is no doubt about the fact that man is, as a whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Strategies for Better Studying (Part 1)

“All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we much think them over again honestly, until they take root in our personal experience.”

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

In light of my last post, Active Recall and Spaced Repetition, I want to go over different study methods that can be used with those principles in mind. Proven study methods used in conjunction with active recall and spaced repetition is the winning formula for any student looking to get better grades with less work and stress. It doesn’t matter which method you use, as long as the principles are being practiced. Pick the a strategy, combine it with another, modify it so it can fit your needs. I want my students to have an arsenal of methods to so they can design their own perfectly personalized study system. Over the next 4 weeks, I’m going to explore some of the most popular study methods that we can use to chop up, modify, and customize.

The Pomodoro Technique and its Modification

You may or may not be familiar with the word Pomodoro, but it’s Italian for tomato. I’ve been watching an absurd amount of The Sopranos lately, so I figured it would be appropriate to start with the Italian themed strategy. Now, I know what you’re thinking..

What do tomatoes have to do with studying?

Absolutely nothing. Pomodoro was the name of the tomato shaped timer that Francesco Cirillo used when he developed this technique!

Feast Your Eyes

The Pomodoro technique can be executed in 7 fairly simple steps:

  1. Clearly articulating what task needs to be done
  2. Setting a pomodoro timer (or any timer) to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task without interruption for the 25 minutes
  4. Take a break for 3-5 minutes
  5. Repeat Steps 2 through 4 at least 4 times
  6. Take a longer 15-30 minute break
  7. Repeat as many times as needed

Each work interval of 25 minutes is commonly known as a Pomodoro. Do 4-5 pomodoros then take a long break. I use this method all the time just to get started! For me, starting something is usually the hardest part. My brain doesn’t like the idea of sitting down and working on something for hours, but when I practice the pomodoro technique, it’s much easier to get the ball rolling if I think I’m only going to be working on this for 25 minutes.

Using the Pomodoro Technique is a really great strategy and you will get tons of work done if it’s executed properly, but I find that I get my best work done when I’ve been working on something for hours uninterrupted and the Pomodoro Technique inherently comes with interruptions. So what I do is modify the technique to fit my own personal needs. If I’m feeling like it, I’ll use this technique the way it was designed but more often than not I just use it as a catalyst to begin my work flow.

In all honesty, I have an incredibly difficult time sitting down and writing for hours or producing for hours but over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at negotiating with myself to get things done. One of the deals I make with myself constantly is just do 1 pomodoro then you can play video games. Sometimes I work the 25 minutes and go play my video games, but most of the time I ride the momentum that I build during that first pomodoro and get shit done. When I make this deal with myself, I end up being more focused too. Getting my work done is important to me, so knowing that I only have this limited time to get it done helps me stay focused. There’s something about having a short time line that gets us out of our own way. The best part of that discovery is being able to trick our minds into getting out of its own way.

The pomodoro technique is effective because it works under the assumption that we get our best work done within the first 25 or so minutes of beginning. It’s easy to come to this conclusion, if we examine our productivity as a function of attention span. I view my attention span as a period of time which I can voluntarily focus on something without suffering or wanting to do something else. There are certain days and conditions that contribute to a longer attention span, but on average my attention span is about an hour. There are been times when I really developed myself in this domain and I got it up to 3 hours but there have also been times in my life when I let it drop to 10 minutes. There’s no shame or ought when it comes to attention span, but I think it is something we should take into account when we are designing systems to optimize our learning capacity. Rather than define a pomodoro as 25 minutes, I define a pomodoro as equal to my attention span at the time. It’s useless to sit down and stare at your paper if the only purpose is to wait out a pomodoro session. Adjust the length of each session and you have a game plan that works best for you, but that leave us with the question:

How do we know how long our attention span is?

So there are ways to determine an attention span, but what I find best is to just start a timer whenever you start a project and whenever you feel the desire to seek out different stimulation or take a break stop the timer. I spent a day and timed my attention span (and because I’m a total math nerd) I averaged it out and defined that as my pomodoro. Nowadays, my pomodoros last about an hour, but on days when I’m not feeling up to it I make them as low as 10 minutes. This is a great technique to bang out loads of work and overcome that high activation energy required to get started.

The Feynman Technique

I’ve mentioned this technique in earlier posts, Active Recall and Note-Taking, and it’s fairly simple. The Feynman Technique is based on the idea that we truly understand something if we can explain it in simple terms. When I first started tutoring, I wasn’t aware of all the different learning and studying theories but I noticed that I was gaining a deep understanding of math quicker and faster than my students. At first I thought it was strictly a function of time. Since I’m doing math more often than them, I’m improving faster than them. But I’ve always felt like there was a bigger reason and it is because I was constantly explaining complex ideas in a simple way. This exercise 1) forces me to find any holes in my knowledge and 2) is an excellent active recall technique. If I’m explaining something that I don’t have a deep understanding of, then I’ll stumble while I try to explain these topics. I’ll take note of that stumble and fill that little knowledge pothole, so next time I run the neural pathway it’ll be smooth.

If you don’t have another person to explain it to, try writing it down in simple terms and reading it after some time has passed. It takes more effort, so it may actually be more effective. Explaining concepts to other people, especially students, gives an opponent processing benefit but writing it out and reading it back to yourself is an excellent test for understanding.

Incorporate Concepts into Everyday Speech

This is one of those things I’m always doing without people knowing. By sliding these new concepts into conversations with people helps with firing the neurons connected to the concepts you’re interested in. I tend to look like a nerd, but I don’t mind because I get my recall in. Additionally, using the information in a creative way helps with retention.

Most people usually don’t see conversations as a creative, but they are! We are creating conversation and humans live in conversation. Our environments are results of our conversations and by injecting our concepts into our speech, we build the concepts right into our fabric of reality. The idea of speech being one of our superpowers is an old one and definitely deserves it’s own time in the sun, but I’ll just leave this tip here. Incorporating our newly found knowledge into our everyday speech is a solid strategy to get those neural pathways fired and help with knowledge retention.

Simulate the Test Environment

For a while many of my students would do fantastic when I’m working with them, but when it comes to taking the test they end up failing! They understood the material fine and whenever I’d ask them what they think happened they tell me that they forget everything when they’re under pressure. This problem drove me crazy for a long time, until I took a deep dive into the human mind to understand.

Our minds are constantly making associations and we perceive the world on so many different levels. I recommend checking out Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lecture series for those interested in diving deep into why that is. Our minds and bodies are navigating space and time constantly fluctuating between order and chaos. The world of what we already understand and the world of what we don’t. When we’re in the world of order, we aren’t anxious and can predict the outcome of our actions. When we’re taking a test, it’s much more comfortable to operate in the world of order. However, taking a test in a classroom is different than taking a test at home.

While it seems like the same thing, the test in a classroom environment is unfamiliar to the parts of ourselves that are adapted to the test in a home environment. The unfamiliarity causes us to activate the parts of us that navigate the world of chaos and that part of us may not be equipped to handle the questions on the test. This is why many students, including myself, don’t perform as well on tests than we do while we’re practicing. The solution to this problem is to simulate the test environment as much as possible while studying. The small associations we make while learning (or studying) the material can act as cues when we are trying to recall the information later. That’s why my students do better when practicing math with me. We usually practice in the same place, so their minds are associating their work with myself as well as the environment around us. Those minor associations make the recall significantly easier!

Back in high school, I noticed that my calculus skills were much better when I was in my math class but I didn’t know why. Today, my math skills are much better when I’m at a student’s home or in the tutoring center. I’m not as math savvy in my personal life.

“No Stakes” Practice

Every since I was a kid, I’ve always liked the idea of practicing something with no serious consequences. (Probably because life tends to be unwavering about consequences.) The opportunity to be a n00b is powerful because it frees us up. It gives us the freedom to make mistakes, and mistakes light the path to mastery. When we’re free to make mistakes, we’re free to learn. I talk more about this is my The Power of Failure post. Not to brag, but I’m constantly told that I make difficult academic subjects easy not because I explain things well, but because I have a relaxed attitude about it. I was so surprised when I first heard this, but after reflecting on it for a while it made complete sense. Once my students understood that nothing bad really happens if they make mistakes, they are more willing to give things a try. In those attempts, mistakes would inevitably be made but they would learn from every single one.

When we try something new, or if we’re trying to improve a skill, we should allow ourselves “No Stakes” practice. Trial runs with nothing at stake tend to carry high yield lessons. I don’t just try this strategy when I’m studying, although it is fantastic for it, I also use it when I draft blog posts and make music. I give myself a “no stakes” pomodoro, so I have a definite time when I can stop making trash but that time is crucial because I edit that trash into most of the creative projects I put out. I freedom to make mistakes is priceless, don’t underestimate the value of “no stakes” practice.