The Elementary Principle Underlying Success
I’ve achieved a grade of 100.4% in my country-wide high school exit exam.
Don’t be surprised. In my case, you could choose to study an extra course and some scanty points will be added to your total grade — that’s how it happened.
But this isn’t the important issue here. I’ve been either the first or the second of my class all through school and university, give or take a few years, until I graduated summa cum laude. What you really should know is that:
- I study for nearly 1–2 hours a day.
- At university, I’ve been usually 20% present in any given lecture. I would sometimes deliberately arrive late to save time.
- I rarely take notes. I’ve held a single notebook all through my five years in university, 80% of which is still empty.
- The day before the final exam is to me like any other day.
Now these are some pretty odd claims. How could I justify this apparently careless behavior?…
Most babies are walking well when they’re 15 months old. We could then say that the 15th month is the date of your final exam in walking.
When you were learning to walk, you didn’t spend 7–8 hours a day Studying the theory of walking, work obsessively on perfecting your technique, or attend a professional course and take notes. No, you naturally and intuitively became a perfect walker by applying an elementary principle:
You took baby steps towards your goal.
That’s the way we normally learn. Why should we ever change that when it comes to other endeavors? Surely, other endeavors can be complicated, but walking was also complicated when you were first learning it — you just got used to it and forgot.
The question now seems to be how to take these baby steps to become a top student.
If only it was that simple.
Look again at our elementary principle, and you’ll see that it has two parts:
- The Baby Steps.
- The Goal.
For a baby, the goal is pretty clear: carry yourself upright like mom and dad.
For a student, however, it’s not as obvious as we might hope. What do you really want from all these hours of studying, attending, and practicing? Do you want to be the top of your class? Do you want to be one of the 1%? Maybe you just want to get a decent grade and move on to find a decent job or a scholarship?
Believe it or not, what I’ve discovered throughout the years is that, although ambitious, none of these goals truly work.
You have to contemplate deeper than that.
Discovering the essence of your goal should begin by recognizing a simple fact:
Being a student is your full-time job.
Now your goal becomes only a matter of respecting your title as a student and being worthy of it:
- A top student gives his studies the top priority.
- An authentic student always aims to increase his knowledge and understanding of the materials assigned to him, not to only pass an exam.
- A true student sees his grades as just an arbitrary and a rough indicator of his progress, and is mainly focused on this progress rather than his grades.
- An achieving student takes full responsibility of himself, and doesn’t throw that responsibility on his instructors, but regards them as guides along the way.
- A real student cultivates real interest in his studies, by figuring out why someone ever thought it’s a good idea to include a certain material in his curriculum, and by considering the practical aspects of his studies that make it worthwhile.
I’ve lost count of the number of times my fellow colleagues ask me how I became a top student, what my studying habits are, how I organize my time and find time for other activities, how I approach difficult subjects, and other entertaining questions that make absolutely no sense.
For I have never asked any top student this kind of questions. Ever. And the reason should be clear by now: if you respect your role as a student, as discussed above, you already know everything you need to know.
Most student who ask this kind of questions desperately hope that someone will give them the shortcut to success, a tip to alleviate their pain when they sit and study, a clever technique that will lift them to the top with no effort, or a long held secret of the elite students.
We all wish there would be such a thing. But there isn’t. And the sooner you recognize this fact of life, the better.
This brings us to the next half of the principle.
The Baby Steps:
You know the students who brag about how they can cram an entire course a few days before the exam, how they stay up all night poring over textbooks, or how they diligently and incessantly spend many hours a day sitting there just studying (this includes, of course, the time they spend staring at the wall, daydreaming about the impossible, cursing their instructors, wondering why on earth they’re studying these subjects, or repeatedly opening and closing the fridge for no apparent reason).
This is not how it works.
After you have respected your role as a student, it’s time to remind yourself with what’s long forgotten — our instinctive and natural way to learn:
Take baby steps.
Think of it this way:
Water can’t crack through a rock with sheer force or in a few violent blows. It can only do so by consistency and repetition over a long period of time.
It’s the same with studying:
- You must start from day one, studying every single day. Now it becomes much easier, and much lighter, because you’ve split up a whole year’s work on all of your days.
- Because you have cultivated real interest in your studies, you have no problem in finding the motivation to study every single day.
- Since you have taken full responsibility of yourself, you don’t wait for your instructors to teach you. You teach yourself. You come to the class knowing everything, because you are always prepared. If you believe in and enjoy what you study, you can’t wait for someone to tell you about it.
Now you are ready to hear the justification of my claims, and understand how they fit into that principle.
It’s ridiculous to expect you can shove your 3 meals a day in a single chew. It’s as ridiculous to hope you can cram your entire study materials a few days before the exam.
Because you’ve started from day one, with a clear goal in mind, you can now divide your work into bite-sized pieces.
There’s no limit to how small this can get.
For you must face the fact that everyone has a limited attention span. If you really want to get the most out of it, spread out your daily studying time on several sessions around the day. This way, you can’t feel stressed or overburdened— the length is short, and the load is small.
Still, you’ll get much larger benefit. All these consistent small bites will add up in the end to a much greater effect than spending 7–8 hours a day in the final week.
Not only that, but due to your consistency and repetition, in the day before the exams, you have already accumulated too much knowledge and skill that it becomes like any other ordinary day. All these repeated exposures to your materials, however small, makes you confident and immune to pre-exam dramas.
If you keep doing this consistently long enough, you’ll discover an interesting phenomenon:
You can reduce your required studying time if you actively work towards doing so.
Properly practicing any skill whatsoever will make you more efficient — studying is no exception. You can do in one hour what you were able to do in two, and so on.
That’s how I could eventually manage studying for 1–2 hours a day, although I couldn’t get away with that little at first. Though your mileage may vary from mine, the principle is still the same.
You Are Your Own Teacher
If all you do is throw your responsibility on the teacher, wait for him to explain the tough stuff the you are too lazy to comprehend yourself, or agonize over the unfair professor that makes you hate your life, you won’t be able to amount to anything significant.
As stated earlier, your instructor is merely a guide. If he in some way fails, you’re untouched. You are already set on your path and know what you should do.
Be independent. Prepare your materials before the class. If you do so, you’ll discover that, in the common case of an uninspiring teacher, you’ll feel bored, and that’s a good thing. You only have to be 20% present because you know what’s going to be said. In this particular case, not being present isn’t a bad sign of nonchalance, it’s a good sign of preparedness.
As a result of that, the only notes you would need to take are the new stuff you didn’t hear about, which should be a rare occurrence.
In the case of a remarkably uninspiring instructor, I don’t waste time agonizing over it, I simply arrive late and save as much time as I could. There’s no point in being 100% present while you know beforehand there’s no benefit.
I’m not, in any way, underestimating the great and conscientious teachers, instructors and professors. They definitely deserve your full attention and presence. But I realize that it is exceptionally rare, at least in my case, to encounter such great people. And so you shouldn’t put too much weight on finding them, and instead learn to teach yourself. Nor am I advocating nonchalance. What I’m saying is: allocate your limited time wisely.
Do yourself a favor and forget about the grades. Your goal is to become a worthy student. Don’t tarnish that sublime goal with an obsession with mere numbers. They don’t define you, you define yourself.
Ironically, from the moment you forget about your grades and instead focus on your studies, the top grades will come crawling to you. It’s inevitable.
If you let a bunch of arbitrary numbers define you, they will.
If you strive for the mastery of the diverse disciplines assigned to you, and appreciate their purpose in your life, so will you be — a respectable student.
Finally and most importantly:
Take care of yourself.
Good luck. I sincerely wish you the best.
How I Became a Top Student By Following a Single Principle was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.