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The Grade Whisperer: How Do I Start an Impressive Project if I Don’t Have an Impressive Interest?

April 11th, 2011 · 9 comments

The Grade Whisperer is a regular feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of doing less and doing better to help students solve academic problems.

Warren’s Missing Aspiration

Recently I heard from a college student named Warren. “I’m conjuring up a few ideas for grand projects after reading about them in your yellow book,” he said. “The thing is, I don’t really have any heartfelt aspirations. I don’t know what to do with my life yet.”

As fans of the yellow book know, I advise college students to embrace a “grand project,” my terminology for a project that, when described, makes people say “wow!” These projects help inject motivation and spontaneity into a student life that is otherwise heavily prescribed. They also tend to make you really impressive to the outside world.

Warren’s response to this advice is common: How do you launch a grand project if you don’t have a grand passion?

Here’s how I replied:

  • I don’t believe that there’s some magical right pursuit waiting for you to discover.
  • Choose something that seems reasonably interesting and really go after it. Keep exceeding people’s expectations.
  • Over time, this will grow into something meaningful in your life. (See my article about getting into Harvard by doing less for more details on this idea.)
  • It will also lead you in completely unexpected and fascinating directions. (See my article on getting into Stanford with a B on your transcript for more details on this idea.)

It turns out, for example, that Warren has written some screenplays. That’s as good a starting place for a grand project as any. He should consider, I advised, applying the pyramid method to his writing: i.e., pick a venue that will give clear feedback on his work, and then focus on this venue until his work is unabashedly great. There has to be a student contest, or something similar, where he could put the method into practice with his writing.

Above all, remember that for most students: Passion follows impressive accomplishment; not the other way around.

 

9 thoughts on “The Grade Whisperer: How Do I Start an Impressive Project if I Don’t Have an Impressive Interest?

  1. Elina Smith says:

    Very nice guide for students scared from projects. one way to find a better project is to contact one year students who already have seen obstacles on some specific topic.

  2. Elmas says:

    Hey Cal,

    After reading this post I clicked on the “pyramid method” link. I read there about your method to become a better writer.

    Do you have any suggestions on how to start writing?

    Thank you.

  3. Elle says:

    Brilliant! I cannot wait to see the day that your insights become the conventional wisdom. I get something new and great out of every one of your posts.

  4. Sashwat says:

    Hey Cal

    I was wondering… do you think that volunteering for http://www.cnet.com is a good idea for getting into a closed community.

  5. chicobun says:

    I am truly inspired by “how to be a high school superstar”. The book reminds me the story of “totto-chan: the little girl at the window”. In the school described in tottochan story, students are allowed to do whatever they want in the lessons. Your book makes me realize the real values of education.
    Like other students, I have lost in the number game for a long time. If it’s possible, would you like to open a school? A school where students have more freedom to explore and build up their grand projects. A school where students are not forced to digest new knowledge. The students will pick up the knowledge that is needed for their interest instead. The school will be created not to train students to fit in any Ivy college but meant to cultivate talents.

  6. Ray says:

    Hi Cal,
    I know this is irrelevant but I’m 14 and planning to become a surgeon so need great grades. The thing is I study 7 hours (with breaks of course) on weekends and 4 hours on weekdays. My dad urges for me to study hard and although I don’t mind studying (though I have to admit it gets boring sometimes) I get stressed out a lot, I feel like I’m burning out.

    I’ve gone through some of your articles and you seem to be a great supporter of the ‘Study smart’ method, although some techniques are very good but don’t apply to my high school level.

    So overall I’m wondering, on a high school level, how can one keep top grades (I also learn a lot by doing practice problems btw) but still having a social life? And how can I exactly “study smart”? Thanks!

  7. Study Hacks says:
    Do you have any suggestions on how to start writing?

    I started by writing an op-ed for the student newspaper at Dartmouth. It was the beginning of my sophomore year.

    I was wondering… do you think that volunteering for http://www.cnet.com is a good idea for getting into a closed community.

    Sure.

    If it’s possible, would you like to open a school? A school where students have more freedom to explore and build up their grand projects.

    I don’t think there’s much wrong with the current structure of our schools. The problem is in what students do within this structure. Joining 9 clubs and taking 6 APs eliminates the possibility of doing something well. In my book, I profile numerous students who have wonderful experiences in both public and private schools by doing less, but doing what they do better.

    So overall I’m wondering, on a high school level, how can one keep top grades (I also learn a lot by doing practice problems btw) but still having a social life? And how can I exactly “study smart”? Thanks!

    If you’re able to get your hands on a copy of my latest book, I dedicate a big section in the Part 1 playbook to studying at the high school level.

    I think there are a lot of lessons in there you’ll find useful about building a life that is both impressive and fun to live. If you’re missing the latter at the age of 14, the chances that you’ll make it all from here through a surgical residency without a major break down, are very low.

  8. Sam says:

    Hi Cal,

    My two main interests are international relations wrt the Middle East and creative writing. Problem is, I can’t seem to find any truly impressive projects to create. I’ve searched for some kind of student research program that would involve studying the Middle East but all the ones available in my country are for university students, which is a good two years away for me. For creative writing, I have been published in some literary magazines, but I don’t think these would count as an impressive project, and I would personally be more fulfilled taking on the research program right now, even though I would like to craft a novel in the future. Any possible tips? One of my end aims would be to write for a renowned geopolitical publication eg the economist, or perhaps work for the council for foreign relations.

    Thanks a bunch!

  9. joey vaz says:

    its very simple logic,,if theres no passion theres nothing.,,for any project/scheme/venture etc to excel beyond mediocre,it needs the founders explicit attention and understanding,,or it wont go too far..

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