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How to Become a Deep Thinker at College

October 24th, 2008 · 25 comments

Seeking WisdomThe Thinker

A reader from Princeton recently asked me an interesting question. He first highlighted a phrase I once used to describe a group of straight-A students:

…they have trained their mind to think hard, produce subtle, nuanced arguments, and find deep connections between ideas.

He then asked: “how do I do that?”

In other words, this reader wants to actually live the promise hastily tagged onto the liberal arts experience by its many defenders: to learn how to think. He wants to know how he can maximize the increased mental sophistication that college can provide (but by no means guarantees).

I want to describe a simple technique that could help this reader — and you, if you’re so inclined — send his brain development into overdrive.

It requires three steps:

  1. Choose a mixture of courses that all seem interesting to you. No more than half of these courses should be in a subject that you already know something about. (This will keep things novel.)
  2. Calculate the number of hours per week you will need to handle the workload for these courses.
  3. Double this total. Keep this number of hours free in your schedule. This probably means you won’t have many activities going on. This also means the course load you choose in (1) must be reasonable.

This advice is so simplistic as to border on facetious. But it’s the truth. The students who make great mental leaps, and really become more sophisticated thinkers, are those who have more than enough time to think about, work on, grapple with, and revel in their coursework.

This might sound familiar. It’s exactly what happened to our friend Toph when he was forced into taking only three courses and no activities during his exchange semester in Australia. He later reported to me:

I learned more during that semester than in my two previous years at Skidmore.

He also got an ‘A’ in each class and a mark of high distinction. His professors loved him. He loved the material. He went from being a grind to an honest to God deep thinker.

So here’s my message to you: if one of your goals at college is to become a deeper, more nuanced thinker, then you need time — lots of time. You can’t be rushing from activity to activity. You can’t be finishing work at the last minute. You need the freedom required to let loose and think.

It’s not for everyone. But if you’re like the reader from Princeton, then at least your path ahead — though perhaps not easy to accept — is easy to put into practice.

If you have any doubts, ask Toph. I’m sure he can offer a sophisticated, nuanced, well thought out reply…

25 thoughts on “How to Become a Deep Thinker at College

  1. Anna says:

    Thanks Cal!

    I’ve read your books and of recent started reading your blog. You give a lot of useful information, my only wish is to have discovered YOU sooner! Being a senior I’ve dealt with a lot of distress, and stress over the years. Your books would be an awesome book for high school seniors and college freshman.

    My question to you is… Since coming to college I’ve become a ‘deep thinker.’ But I’ve also become introverted and shy. How do I over come this? Because I know that professors like students who participate in class discussions…etc.

    Thanks!

  2. Study Hacks says:

    My question to you is… Since coming to college I’ve become a ‘deep thinker.’ But I’ve also become introverted and shy. How do I over come this? Because I know that professors like students who participate in class discussions…etc.

    Don’t worry about what professors want. Let’s talk about you. If you’re shy, you should start adding some regular but small habits into your schedule that help force social contact. Make sure you’re setting up at least one night of partying per week with your friends. There’s no better way to overcome shyness than having a few beers. Try to finagle things so that there’s someone you have lunch with on a regular basis. Consider joining something were you can volunteer to head up an effort with other members. Etc. In general, I think, the danger of introversion is if it leads to isolation. By forcing some regular social contact things are better.

  3. Joe The II says:

    Hi,

    Just two questions:

    -How can one calculate the general number of hours needed for a certain workload?
    -How exactly does becoming a great thinker progress from having free time (sure enough, I understand that rushing is not the best way, but how can I follow up?)?

    Sorry to sound ignorant, but those are just two things I want clarified.

    Thanks for reading!

  4. Nate says:

    @ Joe the II

    1 credit of coursework is usually considered to require 3 hours of studying outside class. Using Cal’s method, you would double that to 6 hours per credit.

  5. Mike Perry says:

    Reading widely on your own will work much better than taking almost any array of college course. Political correctness has destroyed the freedom to think freely and widely that was once a hallmark of university life. Take classes, and you’ll waste a lot of time trying to see past your professor’s biases.

    I could see it in the difference between my undergraduate education (BSEE, 1972) and the graduate work I did at the University of Washington a decade later. At the latter, some older professors still wanted to teach you to think, but younger ones almost invariably wanted to tell you how to think. I know. I clashed with several.

    Stick with your regular education, perhaps taking a lighter load to free up time. Don’t worry about how much time. The goal is to use what time you have wisely and keep doing so. Pick a topic that interests you, that’s important, and read widely in it. When another topic draws your attention, follow it. Start of lifelong process of doing that and ten years from now, you’ll be far ahead of anyone who simply takes a few electives.

    Don’t hesitate to stick with people who anger you. You may change your mind. I begun to read Erik Hoffer (The True Believer) to write a book critical of some of his ideas. I still disagree with much of what he says, or at least the extreme he pushes his ideas. But I’ve also discovered that’s there’s a lot he said (mostly in other books) that I fully agree with. Of particular importance is his belief that American historically has had a marvelous ability to take’s Europe’s “refuse” and turn them into marvelous and successful people. (That’s one reason why the European elite has always hated us.) That, I fear, is now threatened by those attempting to sell grievances and victimhood. Whining won’t take you far. Looking to politicians to straighten out your life will do even less.

    In short, read widely and follow your interests. You’ll learn more if what you’re reading grabs your interest. Then challenge what you read. If author X and author Y disagree, read them both.

    –Michael W. Perry, Seattle, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace

  6. Katherine Cespedes says:

    Your advice is a good starting guide. Though, as you yourself admitted, it is no guarantee. Deep thinking is definitely something that everyone could aspire to, but it is rather on people’s characters whether they will achieve it or not. Achieving it presupposes you value such thinking and also that you will have the discipline to train yourself and the willingness to persist.

    My added advice to everyone: take at least one philosophy class. You will be forced to think. Your grade will depend on it.

    Good thoughts! 🙂

  7. Katherine Cespedes says:

    One additional advice: Engage in artistic activities (i.e. dance, drawing, painting, film, creative writing, music, acting, etc). You will be surprised at how the arts spurt your creativity and in turn help you become a better thinker in general.

    Your problem-solving abilities will certainly be enhanced. I can testify to that!

  8. Silvy says:

    Hey Cal,
    Cool article, I like your thoughts on developing the ability to think. Is there any chance you could schedule an article for tips for students in technical majors? I know you were a computer science major and while I love your books, I feel like it was geared mainly towards liberal artsy classes with a few asides thrown in for stuff like problem sets. Thanks!

  9. Jordan says:

    You have summed up my life. I have time to burn so to speak. Not to say I am a deep thinker but I have been told I have a keen perspective on a lot of subjects. I also agree with Katherine and maybe throw in a physical activity. Something as simple as running on up to a more thought centered activity like rock climbing. When you engage in being physical that is were all the info you’ve collected marinates into your own ideas on the matters. Make time for ‘ah-ha’ moments.

  10. David says:

    Obviously giving yourself more hours to think is no guarantee that you’ll become a deep thinker, but it definitely a step in the right direction.

    This really nicely fits in with your Zen Valedictorian philosophy that doing less is much more beneficial to success in college. If you do less and allocate more time to simply think about the stuff you’re learning in class, you’ll do better in those classes. Consequently you’ll learn more in your classes and do better on exams. Also, there’s a chance that you might even impress your professors who in turn write you good letters of recommendation which win you scholarships or fellowships or alert you to cool opportunities in your department. So not only have you followed the Einstein Principle to a successful, truly impressive college career, but you’ve also emerged a better thinker. Also you’ve done less than your perpetually stressed classmates who gripe about their workloads and how it is “impossible” to get A’s in their classes. Your ZV philosophy and becoming a deep thinker almost seem to go hand in hand.

  11. Ilham Hafizovic says:

    I have a question that was raised and answered earlier. It deals with the question of how many hours do you allocate to each class. The answer was 3 hours for each 1 credit of coursework. Which would then be doubled to 6 hours. Would that mean that per week you would allocate 6 hours? Also would 6 hours be an ideal number for all courses, or is will there be variations for different courses – and what would be a good way to assign hours to each if there is some method of knowing.

  12. David says:

    Also, a great idea for becoming a deep thinking try to get together periodically with a friend who is a more nuanced thinker than you are. It’s similar to how you become a better chess player: you play people who are better than you are. Go for people who don’t let you get away with being vague.

  13. David says:

    …and engage them in conversation about things you care about or are learning about in your classes (or if you have a class with them, engage them in conversation about that class). I personally have done this and can attest to the benefits.

  14. Study Hacks says:

    I know you were a computer science major and while I love your books, I feel like it was geared mainly towards liberal artsy classes with a few asides thrown in for stuff like problem sets.

    I’ve written some about technical classes. Give me a sense of the type of problems you’d be interested in seeing discussed, i’ll see what I can do.

    If you do less and allocate more time to simply think about the stuff you’re learning in class, you’ll do better in those classes. Consequently you’ll learn more in your classes and do better on exams. Also, there’s a chance that you might even impress your professors who in turn write you good letters of recommendation which win you scholarships or fellowships or alert you to cool opportunities in your department.

    In story after story, I see exactly this happening…

    I have a question that was raised and answered earlier. It deals with the question of how many hours do you allocate to each class.

    It really depends on the class. A very rough rule of thumb is that for deep thinking set aside about one week day’s worth of work per class.

  15. Study Hacks says:

    Also, a great idea for becoming a deep thinking try to get together periodically with a friend who is a more nuanced thinker than you are

    Absolutely!

  16. Greg says:

    Contemplation is often underrated.

    While taking a variety of courses is good and I encourage it, being self-read has had a tremendous value. Look for connections.

    Silvy: In the technical realm, “soft skills” are even more important. Having worked 10 years in IT, I am still amazed at some of my technical counterparts that are unable to communicate or think beyond their own area of expertise. Especially understanding how business models relate to technologies (not many engineers are CEOs) Understanding “why” and “how” are powerful tolls, and often cross disciplines.

  17. andres jimenez says:

    @Katherine,

    Good point, ARTS even in its most fundamental states are essential to begin to see things from other perspectives. Therefore leading to a better understanding.

    A “music or art appreciation” class is encourage, not only is simple to pass but is helpful as well.

  18. Study Hacks says:

    A “music or art appreciation” class is encourage, not only is simple to pass but is helpful as well.

    I’m a big fan of every college student taking intro Art History. The class is tedious — lots of memorizing — but it gives you a quick tour of human civilization and some insight into how it channeled its emotions into physical form.

    Also, it will ensure that you sound smart at cocktail parties later in life.

  19. Silvy says:

    I agree: arts are crucial for every major, not just the cultural ones. However, since most people are better or at least have an easier time learning things like English or history, many of us need to put extra work into learning the technical side of things (since the human mind prefers anecdotes and stories over facts and rules).

    Cal, I’d love to see your thoughts on scheduling for tech majors (since registration is coming up) such as myself: my sophomore schedule has 3 physics classes and a math class in it- nothing else. My gen eds are all done due to APs and I’ve seen a lot of students like myself who would appreciate tips on dealing with a math- and science-heavy schedule.Your tip on spreading out courses so the schedule is balanced unfortunately doesn’t work in some cases.

    If you’re ever running short of ideas for articles (or not), a roundup of tech articles or a student story relating to this would be awesome. Thanks Cal

  20. Study Hacks says:

    Cal, I’d love to see your thoughts on scheduling for tech majors (since registration is coming up) such as myself: my sophomore schedule has 3 physics classes and a math class in it- nothing else.

    Why do you have to take four major courses all at once?

  21. Silvy says:

    Why do you have to take four major courses all at once?

    It’s necessary to complete my degree on time. I can’t take any of the physics courses this year because I am just finish calculus next semester (pre-req) and I need minimum 15 credits each semester to keep my scholarships. I asked my advisor and no other courses that are available to me will count towards graduation requirements, not even electives because I’ve satisfied them all. Quite a situation.

  22. Linh says:

    Hello Cal,

    Loosely related to the deep-thinker problem, is it possible for you to write an entry on taking English classes? I’m taking my very first English class ever (Modern British Lit) and the reading is (so far) neither very interesting nor very accessible (think D.H. Lawrence followed by Virginia Woolf). I don’t have any experience with literary criticism, heck, I don’t even know how to read a book that I need to write a paper on (which I guess is also how you get the most out of a non-required book). What I’ve been doing is read the book first as if I was reading for fun, so no note-taking, and then a second time with notetaking, but it hasn’t worked out too well. So if you have some advice to give about how to read novels for class, how to spot interesting passages and score good observations, how to organize English papers, etc., you’ll have my gratitude for as long as I continue to read novels:)

  23. Linh says:

    Incidentally, re: estimating how many hours a class takes, I’ve found that the 1 credit = 3 hours rule is, well, not very helpful to say the least. Different classes require dramatically different amounts of time. The only valid way to find out how much time it takes is to spend a week doing the typical amount of work for that class at the rate and thoroughness you normal work at, then tally up the hours. I went so far as to divide it by the number of pages read for a per-page rate so the time estimate can be adjusted for different amounts of reading. So far it has worked out quite well. When you have a time quota to look at (I write it on a Post-It on my desk) it helps you focus so you can avoid going overtime.

  24. Study Hacks says:

    Loosely related to the deep-thinker problem, is it possible for you to write an entry on taking English classes?

    If someone here has experience doing well in English classes please send me an e-mail…I think this is an interesting topic to tackle, but I need some help!

    I’ve found that the 1 credit = 3 hours rule is, well, not very helpful to say the least.

    I completely agree. The only place I’ve seen it fit consistently is with technical courses with one problem set due per week. These typically take 6 – 8 hours of work, the class is usually 3 credit hours, so it makes sense.

  25. Angel S. says:

    The students who make great mental leaps, and really become more sophisticated thinkers, are those who have more than enough time to think about, work on, grapple with, and revel in their coursework.

    Can you be more specific? When developing deeper thinking skills, what sort of processes should I engage in?

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