I have four fierce and independent nephews. Three of them are over 13, which means they’re now “serious” about academics. They also have equally fierce moms with high expectations, and that means report card season can get tough.
To help them get through the ordeal, I repeat a few ideas over and over. I realized these ideas apply to all ages, so I thought I'd share them with you.
Here’s what I tell them:
Your goal is curiosity
I don’t think grades are important.
(This gives them a bit of a shock, and their mom raises an eyebrow, but I forge on)
You can do so much more than what’s expected of you. Just getting good grades won’t have you feeling like you’re becoming the person you want to be.
I want you to make great friends and explore. Create games, music, launch businesses, play, investigate, talk to that girl, do whatever drives you. Those experiences forge your character and teach you in uncountable ways
Adult Aside —
Think about how much of your time is spent on status games. The most leveraged, creative work comes when you’re following your taste. Are your goals just about the status game, or something bigger?
But grades are your day job
You still want to get good grades though. This keeps your options open, gives you chances to learn new things, and keeps people from asking too many questions.
At this point, they invariably say: But…some courses I’m just not interested in — when will X be useful, etc
Treat this as your day job and a challenge. What’s the minimum time you need to spend to get the grade you want on those courses?
If you focus on the challenge, a lot of your time will be spent figuring out creative solutions and productivity hacks. This itself will be more fun than the course, help you build discipline, and learn techniques that will be useful to you throughout life. Remember, you just want to do a good job so you can be that inventor, renaissance explorer, hacker, or artist that you want to be.
Adult Aside —
Before google came around, search was boring: a “simple” technical problem that no one wanted to solve anymore. Google turned it into a very interesting problem. Think about how you could do that to some of your grudging must-do tasks. At the very least it will strengthen your discipline
Be wary of slave morality
They may interject with a platitude: What’s important is to be a good person, I don’t kiss up to the teacher, who cares about grades.
Have you heard of Nietzche’s slave morality? Be wary of combining bad characteristics with good ones. You can get good grades and be a good person.
Learn to catch yourself doing this, because it will happen all the time in your life. Now it’s grades, but tomorrow it may be “Rich people are evil, I’m not evil”.
You may feel good about yourself, but if you follow this idea, you won’t get what you want. Instead, ask the question: “How can I get good grades and *not kiss up?” Find people like that and learn from them.
Adult Aside —
Anytime you want something that you don’t have, this thinking will materialize. “Oh people who are fit spend so much time in the gym, I’m not that kind of person”, etc etc. Be careful about the constraints you set with your ideas.
Be wary of all or nothing thinking
Slave morality can get hard to swallow, so they may say — but grades are unfair. Even if I do well the teacher can knock me for “participation”, that’s why the kiss-up people get good grades.
You’re right. This is frustrating and unfair. And there’s a reason some people kiss up: it’s easier to do that. But, just because some parts are unfair and some people cheat, doesn’t mean you should give up on what you want. The world isn’t so black and white.
Tell yourself: you will do what’s under your control. Learn from the people you admire who behave the way you think is right. Yes some people have an advantage, yes some things are plain unfair, but you can still get what you want. If you do all of that and it doesn't work, you'll know you tried your best, and something better will certainly happen regardless.
Adult Aside —
I remember Ramit Sethi telling the story of someone who wanted to start working out, but only had one day free a week. Instead of working out once a week, they didn’t work out at all. They thought it had to be 5 times a week. The more you can let go of the black and white nature of childhood, the more you’ll flourish
Be wary of comfort
A final interjection may come from comfort — I want to learn this thing, but I don’t want to look dumb, etc.
If you lived in our village, you’d be prettyy cool. Wow you study in the big city, wow, you know so much math, wow you are good at fighting.
But imagine if you met a navy seal from Afghanistan. How do you think your fighting skill would stack up?
If you actually want to become great, you have to get outside of your comfort zone. Actively look for those opportunities. You’ll have an urge to drop them because you want to feel cool…but hey it’s better to be cool then to feel cool
Adult Aside —
Ask yourself constantly, where are the people I can learn from? It can be uncomfortable to go from the best person in the room to a noob, but this is the path forward
Many of these ideas crystallized by reading two people have inspired me: Nassim Taleb and Paul Graham. Nassim for elucidating the life of the flaneur, and Paul for his essay “What you’d wish you’d known”
Thanks to Nino Parunashvili, Elene Asanidze, Alex Reichert, Julien Odent for reviewing drafts of this essay