May 13th, 2008 · 2 comments
Adventure Studying in Action
At the conclusion of last week’s post about adventure studying, I asked students, who were so inclined, to share photographic evidence of their most adventurous expeditions. I wanted to take a moment to pass along one such story.
The picture on the right (courtesy of cyrus_sj) captures the location of one Study Hacks reader’s favorite adventure studying destination. As she recalls:
Back in my senior year, I was about to have my finals exam in my Chinese class. I was having a lot of trouble studying for that exam; I felt like I needed a break, So I jumped at the chance to take a trip with friends to the nearest waterfall (about four hours away).
This particular falls was three levels high. We climbed up the mountain and crossed a few streams to get to the source. I still remember how every bit of nature we passed seemed so interesting.
Well, I struck a deal with my friends. I’d take care of their stuff under a crude cottage while they’d jump into the water. I got to make them happy, and get through a lot of material at the same time.
The change of scenery was just what I needed to concentrate. The place was so peaceful; I didn’t feel any pressure to cram things in my head since I wasn’t surrounded by panicked students. I ended up getting a perfect grade on that exam.
If you’re enjoying the type of sunny day I am here in Boston (I celebrated the end of a rainy stretch with a long run this afternoon), ask yourself: where could I be studying?
If it’s interesting, send me a photo, I’ll share it with the gang…
May 12th, 2008 · 16 comments
Busy, Busy, Busy…
I have, once again, entered one of those delightful busy periods that threatens to rip all of one’s best laid productivity plans into a pile of once good intentioned but now useless shreds. The reasons fit the standard litany: end of the semester work colliding with a random cluster of grad student-ey administrative work colliding with three trips in four weeks.
We’ve all been here…
The Panic Schedule
Most students follow a similar strategy to cope with this scenario: the panic schedule. The idea is simple: you list out everything that needs to get done during the crazy period and then make some attempt to come up with a schedule that covers the crunch. Sometimes, however, this mega-list approach fails to provide the desired salve to your aching productivity soul. You don’t trust it. You find yourself constantly reviewing what’s coming up and trying to re-convince yourself work will get done. Deadlines collapse into other deadlines. Too much work is squeezed into too tight spaces, and soon your days fall back into chaos.
In this post I want to describe a simple variation to the panic schedule that helps me both plan busy periods and remain calm throughout.
For me, my panic schedules begin and end with the visual. Specifically, the first step I take when faced with a busy period is to print a blank calendar for the month(s) ahead. (I get my blank calendar templates from this web site.)
I then follow, roughly speaking, a process that looks something like this:
- List out all the projects that need to get done during the hard period. Label each with its deadline.
- Add all deadlines plus relevant travel, appointments, and other date-specific obligations to the calendar. (I tend to draw dark boxes around these items to make them pop out.)
- Estimate the number of work days needed for each project.
- Start adding project work days to the calendar. I sometimes invent extra visual flourishes to help distinguish certain important work. This helps me quickly visualize exactly when the most important projects are going to get done. (A necessary stress reliever.)
- Shuffle, edit, and tweak until you feel confident that no one day is unrealistically packed and everything has a place.
- Panic when you realize there is too much and you can’t satisfy (5). At this point start canceling and negotiating. Following the 4D method, you might start getting rid of obligations or re-negotiating different future dates for non-urgent tasks. Then go back to (5).
Case Study: My Visual Panic Schedule
I’ve included at the top of this post a scan of the visual panic schedule fueling my May. Notice the visual improvisation. I have stars around the editing work for my big research paper due next Monday (because not getting this done is a particular source of worry). In some places I added arrows. The big deadlines and travel dates have nice drop-shadows because, as everyone will admit, drop-shadows are awesome. Etc.
The big picture idea here, however, is that I have taken a lot of work that has to get done in a short period of time, and then made the plan to handle it visual. A 10 second glance at the calendar reassures me that everything will get done and that the schedule makes sense. A long list containing the same elements would not provide the same relief. My mind sees a list and thinks: “This looks long, is this really going to happen?” And then it stresses. On the other hand, it sees this calendar and can say: “Oh, I edit today. Good. ” And then it relaxes.
It’s a simple trick to improve a common strategy. And like the best simple tricks, its impact is significant.
May 8th, 2008 · 3 comments
Gone for the Weekend
I’m leaving this afternoon for a three day trip. This means no Friday post and I might be a little slow moderating comments. In the meantime, I wanted to leave you with a few interesting articles that I found in some unexpected sources.
(I might also suggest that you go back over Dan Pink’s interview from Wednesday and review what he said about “fundamental” versus “instrumental” interests. I’m increasingly impressed by the idea, and I think there is a lot of wisdom packed into those few sentences.)
See you Monday!
Interesting articles from unexpected sources (at least, “unexpected” for a student advice blog):
May 7th, 2008 · 7 comments
The Book(s) of Daniel
If you don’t know Daniel Pink, you should. His bestselling books, Free Agent Nation (2001) and A Whole New Mind (2005), heralded the arrival of the conceptual age. Dan has also written on issues of business and technology for The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Wired.
His full biography reads like a Zen Valedictorian, post-grad adventure tale. He attends Yale Law School then never practices a day of law, deciding, instead, to bum a ride out to Washington. Soon he’s a vice-presidential speech writer. He leaves that job to write two of the most important business books of the last decade. He then wins a fellowship to move to Japan and study the Manga industry.
Enter Johnny Bunko
Perhaps most exciting for Study Hacks readers, however, is his latest project, the new book: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need (illustrated by Manga hotshot Rob Ten Pas). In Bunko, which tells the story of a young graduate receiving workplace lessons, Dan lays out six core pieces of advice for making it happen in the real world. As someone who works and writes a lot about these issues, I can say with conviction: this is some of the most dead-on, effective young career advice that I have ever read. (Don’t take my word for it, you can preview the rules here and read the first chapter here.) The Miami Herald, perhaps, puts it best: “[Johnny Bunko] blows away all the rest with its clarity, simplicity, and intelligence.”
As you can imagine, I was quick to get in touch with Dan. I asked him what advice he had for a current college student looking to jumpstart a Pink-esque career after graduation. He was kind enough to respond.
The interview follows…
Your own post-college path seems serendipitous. How did you stumble onto this path. And once on it, how did you keep moving in such an interesting direction?
You’ve got it right. There was a lot of stumbling and serendipity. Since I knew I wasn’t going to practice law, I decided to go into what I then found most interesting: politics. I worked on a number of political campaigns as a policy and communications person — and then, yes, stumbled into speechwriting. What happened is that I wrote a few speeches. They weren’t awful. Then they asked me to write a few more and before I knew it, I was a speechwriter. I got reasonably good at it, did it for awhile, but then got sick of the b.s. of politics. At that point in my life, I was becoming deeply interested in business and technology — so I decided to go out on my own and write about those topics.
All of the books and most of the articles I’ve written since then have really emerged from pursuing the things I was curious about. That’s a key. Curiosity. I tried to follow my curiosity and see where it took me. Also — and this is important — I decided that since so many people could outsmart me, nobody would outwork me. As you know, I’m a big believer that persistence trumps talent.
What’s the biggest myth about the post-graduation search for a job that you would like to dispel?
That you need to have a carefully articulated plan. Too many people make career decisions for instrumental reasons — because they think what they’re doing will lead to something else. Not enough people make decisions for fundamental reasons — because of the value of the activity itself.
The dirty little secret is that instrumental reasons don’t work. It’s way too tumultuous out there. The people who really flourish are those who make decisions for fundamental reasons. They have to live with a certain amount of ambiguity about not knowing what’s going to happen next. But that keeps them alert to unexpected opportunities and the serendipity you talked about earlier.
What lessons would you give to Johnny Bunko’s little brother who is, let’s say, a rising college sophomore?
1. Begin the process of discovering what you love to do and what you’re great at — what, in some sense, you are on this planet to do. You won’t necessarily find the answer in college. But asking that question will put you on a promising trajectory.
2. Pick the professor, not the course. In the hands of a good teacher, every topic can fascinating.
3. If you’re in the arts, take a laboratory science course. If you’re in science, take a studio art course.
4. Exercise. Seriously. Exercise is one of the few things in life that is uniformly, unequivocally good for you.
Thank you so much for your time!
May 5th, 2008 · 11 comments
The Small Paper Shuffle
When faced with an essay or small paper, most students follow a similar pattern. You glance over the relevant readings, crack your knuckles, sigh loudly, check your Facebook feed once more, just in case some vital change in a friend’s relationship status requires immediate, intense attention, then, with great resignation, start writing. You type a little. You add a quote that makes sense. You glance at that little page count number in the lower left corner. You type a little more. Eventually you hit your magic page count. A couple quick editing passes and you’re done!
The Problem With Writing-Centric Papers
I call this approach writing-centric: it centers all the relevant activities around the core activity of writing. Here’s the problem: it produces mediocre papers of the type that drive professors, over time, to a slow, but ever darkening despair regarding the state of American youth.
For short papers and essays it would be inefficient to completely revamp your style. In this post, however, I describe a simple tweak to your process — requiring 1 – 2 extra hours — that will significantly increase the quality of your paper (and your experience with the writing process.) It will also make your professor’s day.
The Idea Vacation
Let’s rewind our story of typical student writing. You’ve just finished glancing over the relevant readings — we assume, because these are essays and small papers, that you’re responding to class reading, not conducting significant research. You turn to your keyboard, ready to dive in…but wait! Not yet! Step away from the computer…
Instead: take your readings and go for a walk. Wander campus asking yourself questions such as:
- “What do I really think about these topics?”
- “What did this writer really mean?”
- “What are different things she could have believed instead, and why did she choose this particular angle? “
- “What would I have said?”
- “What do I really think about this? Why?”
Allow the first, obvious thoughts — the type that fuel writing-centric papers — to come and go. Then push deeper. Keeping asking hard questions. Dig out a tiny gem of thesis that fits your personal take on the material. It doesn’t have to be brilliant. But it should be both: honest and nuanced; something you actually believe. This might take a while. Let it. Enjoy being outside and spending time with your mind. (This is a good step to combine with an adventure studying expedition.)
Once you think you have something, settle down in the most inspiring possible room in your college’s library system. Bonus points for plush chairs, old wooden book cases, and, of course, tarnished old oil painting portraits old solemn looking white men. (See, for example, the Dartmouth Tower Room image at the top of this post; courtesy of Susan Simon.)
Settle in and go back through the relevant readings. Start fleshing out some of the details. Take some notes. Maybe sketch out a simple topic-level outline.
When you finish, you should be at a point where you can give a convincing little speech about your idea. Indeed, in a perfect world, you would take your idea vacation right before office hours, so that you could immediately pitch your idea to your professor.
Time Alone With Your Mind
One of the biggest surprises about the experience of the modern liberal arts student is how little time they actually spend just alone with their thoughts, sifting through, in a complicated inner monologue, what they believe and why. Essays and small papers offer you this opportunity. Most students ignore it and instead just blaze ahead blindly in their comfortable, “I hate papers!” writing-centric approach.
I’m suggesting that you try something new. Take a 1 – 2 hour idea vacation before your fingers hit the keyboard. Not only will you produce the type of paper that can pull a professor out of his low-grade despair, it actually has the possibility of making paper writing something that, if not anticipated, is, at least, no longer dreaded.
A Study Hacks Mini-Crash Course in Paper Writing
If you’re relatively new to Study Hacks and the style of paper writing I preach here and in my book How to Become a Straight-A Student, here’s a collection of past paper-writing posts that will help bring you up to speed:
May 2nd, 2008 · 32 comments
Exam advice week here at Study Hacks is winding down. So sad! Next week it’s back to the normal mix…
An Inspiring Space
Two days ago, I spent an afternoon roaming Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which, in its new building, is situated right on the harbor. While exploring the main exhibition space on the the fourth floor, I stumbled into a room they call the mediatheque. It was stunning. The ICA’s architecture has the fourth floor cantilevered out over the water of the harbor. This particular room hung off the bottom of this ledge, and featured a steep set of descending tiers. At the bottom was a full-length picture window through which only water is visible. (See the picture above.)
The full effect is hard to describe. You lose your sense of height and location in space. Are you in a ship? In a building? Are you a few feet above the water or hundreds? Very Zen.
My first thought: this would be a damn good place to work on a paper.
You Can’t Do That!
For many students, this thought reeks of heresy. Conventional wisdom says: studying happens on campus, or, if you’re feeling particularly crazy, maybe in a Starbucks near campus. And that’s it. It is supposed to be a grind that takes place in in the same old boring libraries surrounded by the same old boring people. And by the end, with your eyes rimmed red with exhaustion, and your skin sallow and whitened from fluorescent saturation, you can grin, feebly, and announce: I survived…
Here’s my question: does it have to be like this?
Beyond the Ordinary
At Dartmouth, I frequently sought ways to challenge this conventional wisdom. When I would see the hooded sweat-shirted masses trudging toward the library at the beginning of finals period, I would turn and run in the opposite direction. I was known to drive 20 minutes away from campus to study at bookstore where no one knew or cared that my school had exams. I would sometimes tackle thorny take-home exam questions while walking the banks of the Connecticut river. Anything to avoid the cinder-blocked study lounges that most students believed — bafflingly — that they were contractually bound to inhabit during this period.
Introducing Adventure Studying
I call this tactic: adventure studying. The basic idea is simple. Our minds crave novelty. If you work on exam preparation and paper writing in novel environments, it becomes easier to engage the material, be more creative, form stronger comprehension, and, overall, dare I say it, perhaps even enjoy the process.
My Challenge to You
I’m embarrassed, however, that as an undergraduate I didn’t have the confidence to push adventure studying as far as I should have. I want you to make up for my shortcoming. I want you to push the adventure studying concept to its limits. What is the most outrageously exotic yet undeniably perfect location where you can migrate your exam preparation or final exam writing? Try it.
Ignore ingrained student traditions of camping out in libraries and study lounges. Redefine finals period to be a source of personal reflection and novelty and intellectual adventure.
Some examples of adventure studying possibilities:
- If you have a car, spend a day reviewing in a completely different town. Preferably one that is small, and idyllic, and more than 30 minutes from campus. Switch between little cafes, the public library, and parks. Meet the locals.
- If you’re near a body of water and live somewhere reasonably warm: spend a day reviewing in your bathing suit. Cycle through: reviewing; napping; swimming; then back to reviewing. I’ve never tried running through flashcards at the end of an ocean-battered jetty; but I imagine it’s not a bad way to learn those art history dates.
- Head to the nearest big city and camp out at museum. Find your own local equivalent of the ICA mediatheque room.
- If your family owns a vacation house that has been opened for the season: camp out for a couple days. Bring a friend. Study during the day, have philosophical, semi-incoherent conversations at night. (Don’t, however, go late-night drunken skinny-dipping. According to the movies this will lead to you getting eaten by a shark.)
- Load up some quiz-and-recall study guides in your backpack and hike some place isolated and wild. Switch between studying and wandering and reading and zoning out in a Thoreau-esque state of blissfulness; like Into the Wild — but, hopefully, with less death. Who says you can’t review on a 5000 foot summit? It’s better than the library basement.
The Golden Rule of Study Advice
I’ll let you in on a critical secret: no one cares how or where you study. You don’t have to punch a time card when you enter the library. The dean doesn’t track how you spent your day. Take 100% advantage of this reality.
Just because it’s “tradition” to spend the week before exams holed up in the library in some macho display of academic self-flagellation, this doesn’t mean that you have to follow this path. Why can’t you study alone on the beach? Or in your parent’s cabin in Maine? Or sitting on a bench near that crazy, completely enclosed Egyptian Tomb they have setup at the Met?
The Zen Valedictorian Tackles Finals
You might have noticed that I tagged this article with “The Zen Valedictorian.” I think the adventure studying concept fits nicely with the ZV philosophy. It’s about the larger goal of constructing the college experience you want, not stumbling through the path of least resistance.
If you take up the adventure studying challenge — and I hope you do — keep me posted. We want to hear about your adventures. I’ll share the best with the full gang. Bonus points for pictures.