How to Become a Zen Valedictorian: Decreasing Your Stress Without Decreasing Your AmbitionApril 18th, 2008 · 82 comments
The Zen Valedictorian Decoded
Last week, I introduced the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. This concept captures the general approach to student life that I’ve been promoting on this blog. The big idea is to find a way to become less overloaded and less stressed without becoming less impressive. I believe that a student should be able to have an engaging, fun college experience, and still get into a top graduate program or professional school, and have the ability to choose between outstanding job opportunities. I lived this dream. I’ve met dozens of other students who have as well. In this article, I explain how you can achieve it too.
As with the Straight-A Method — which provides a structure for all of my study advice — here I will describe a general framework for the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. This framework can be realized with any number of specific strategies. Specifically, there are three main principles: underschedule, innovate, and focus. If you can satisfy all three — however you do it — you can achieve the Zen Valedictorian lifestyle.
PRINCIPLE #1: Underschedule
The Zen Valedictorian has more free time than he has activities or classes to fill it. He does not stuff his schedule to capacity. Instead, he purposefully underschedules. Rare are the days in which the Zen Valedictorian is working for most of his waking hours. More common are relaxing nights and last-minute adventures.
The goal of this principle is to leave room in student life for relaxation and participation in activities that generate happiness. It rejects the degenerate belief that if you’re not working every free minute than you’re somehow failing as a student. It also provides the flexibility needed to pursue the random interesting opportunities that often lead to big positive results.
To satisfy this principle requires two strategies:
- Simplification: Have one major. Balance easy courses with hard courses during a given semester. Slash and burn your extracurricular commitments to the bare minimum.
- Efficiency: Improve your study and productivity skills. Live the pillars of the Straight-A Method. The better these skills, the easier it will be to underschedule.
Previous posts that will help you understand and satisfy Principle #1:
- The Radical Simplicity Manifesto
- The Laundry-List Fallacy
- The Straight-A Method
- The Danger of Pseudo-Work
- The Auto-Pilot Schedule
- Fixed-Schedule Productivity
PRINCIPLE #2: Innovate
The Zen Valedictorian strives to be interesting not widely accomplished. The psychology of impressiveness reveals that people are more impressed by someone who makes them ask “how did he do that?” than someone who has a sizable laundry list of standard activities. Achieving the former, fortunately, requires less time — and significantly less stress — than achieving the latter. The Zen Valedictorian takes advantage of this reality by constantly looking to push his involvements into the rarefied territory of interestingness.
The goal of this principle is to stand out from the crowd by means other than simply outworking your peers.
To satisfy this principle keep looking for low-hanging fruit. That is, identify interesting, unexpected directions toward which you can push your involvements. Take the normal course of action for someone in your situation then pump up its ambition by 50%. Next ask: if I had to make this happen, what would it really require? More often than not, you’ll realize that what once seemed hopelessly ambitious is, in reality, possible if you’re somewhat clever and, more importantly, actually follow-through. Keep completing. Keep pumping up your ambition and finding ways to get somewhere more lofty. The interestingness will rise sharply with each new push.
Previous posts that will help you understand and satisfy Principle #2:
- Action is Overrated
- The Law of Complementary Attraction
- The Steve Martin Method
- The Grand Project
- The Information Theory of Success
PRINCIPLE #3: Focus
The Zen Valedictorian is a specialist. He focuses on a small number of areas and works consistently over time to become outstanding in them. He realizes that the relationship between reward and skill level is not linear, but, instead, exponential. A corollary of this truth: being excellent at one thing can yield significantly more rewards than being good at many. Even though the former requires much less time than the latter.
The goal of this principle is to maximize the rewards and interesting opportunities afforded while minimizing both the time investment and the schedule footprint; i.e., total number of unique activities: a metric that strongly predicts stress. The world rewards experts. It is indifferent to generalists. And it could care less how hard you worked.
To satisfy this principle the Zen Valedictorian will, by default, make his academic major an area of focus. He chooses a subject that intensely interests him (not the subject that seems most practical). Because he believes in underscheduling, he has the time need to put serious thought into his class assignments. He soon becomes a department star, which opens up a wealth of exclusive opportunities and rewards hidden from most students.
He will also typically chooses a single extracurricular activity in which to become excellent. By the time he graduates, a Zen Valedictorian should be well-known on campus for his focus-area skill.
Previous posts that will help you understand and satisfy principle #3:
- The Einstein Principle
- A Rap Star and a Rhodes Scholar Walk into a Bar
- Productivity is Overrated
- Would Lincoln Have Become President if he had E-mail?
- The Project Purge
Pulling It All Together
The Zen Valedictorian Framework derives from a careful understanding of two important questions:
- What generates stress?
- What makes someone impressive?
It notes that the answers to the two questions are different. It takes advantage of these differences to make possible the dream of a low-stress impressive student lifestyle.
Specifically, it notes that stress comes from having too many obligations pulling at your time. The principle of underscheduling prevents this situation from occurring.
Impressiveness, on the other hand, comes from doing things very well in a way that defies expectation. The principles of innovation and focus generate these accomplishments. The principle of underscheduling indirectly helps the effort by keeping you low-stressed and providing the time needed to chase down relevant random opportunities as they arise.
We have a lot more ground to cover. Each of the three principles provides a rich area of exploration. Over the coming months we will dive into these ideas and improve our understanding of how to satisfy them and the types of strategies that might work. Also expect more case studies of real students who are living the Zen Valedictorian lifestyle.
My goal here is nothing less than to dramatically remake your vision of a successful college career. This transformation is not trivial. But I assure you it will be worth it.
As always, I look forward to your feedback and interaction.