How to grow as a student

I recently finished reading a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You, written by Cal Newport, a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown. The book is aimed at those already in the workforce, giving interesting anecdotes to illustrate what it takes to create a fulfilling, satisfying career. The title of the book comes from a line by famed comedian Steve Martin, who, when asked in an interview with Charlie Rose how one can become successful in comedy, replied:

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’…but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.‘ “

Newport uses this quote to espouse a hard-headed pragmatism that, if not revolutionary, is nonetheless refreshing to hear in today’s culture of quick fixes and easy solutions. The way to get really good at something, Newport argues, is to work really, really hard at it. Well gee whiz—who knew?

Comedian Steve Martin, who said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

 

If this was all there was to Newport’s book, it wouldn’t be worth the read. Luckily, he offers good, concrete advice and examples for how to stretch ourselves and grow. While the book is targeted at working professionals, everything Newport has to say applies equally well for students, or anyone working to hone a skill, whether it’s playing a sport or a musical instrument. (Newport has also written various other books specifically for students, and his blog, Study Hacks, is full of useful information to help students study more effectively and efficiently.)

So how do we grow our ability? According to Newport, we need to use deliberate practice, a term coined by Florida State University professor Anders Ericsson. Ericsson describes deliberate practice as an “activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” According to Newport, “Deliberate practice requires you to stretch past where you are comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance. In the context of career construction, most knowledge workers avoid this style of skill development because, quite frankly, it’s uncomfortable.” To this it could be added that it’s not just knowledge workers. Students, too, avoid deliberate practice because of the discomfort it causes—a fact that, to my mind, is a pretty good explanation for why we all procrastinate.

Most striking to me are the phrases I’ve highlighted in bold above, as they seem to hit on something fundamental regarding what happens in a one-on-one tutoring session. Tutoring is a dynamic call-and-response between the tutor and student, with the tutor assigning targeted tasks and problems that are all slightly beyond the student’s current ability level. In assigning such problems, the goal is to stretch the student’s ability by pushing her beyond her previous limits. The best analogy here is to a personal trainer—the trainer selects weights that are heavy but not unbearable, assigns an exercise, and pushes the client to execute that exercise until mistakes or failure inevitably occurs. In the process, muscles are stretched beyond capacity, only to grow back stronger in subsequent days and weeks.

The same occurs with students who, upon inevitably making errors and mistakes, are stretched beyond their previous abilities. An academic coach, just like a personal trainer, also provides the immediate “ruthless feedback” that refocuses the student when she goes off course, and pushes her back in the right direction. Thus, the student knows immediately how she is performing, and is constantly made aware of her progress. I think this analogy to physical training is particularly apt, and it’s one reason I refer to myself as an “academic coach.” During tutoring sessions, I often have the sense that I’m actively conditioning a student’s mind and critical thinking abilities, which is an ever-rewarding task.

Whether you’re a teacher, a student, or just someone trying to work at something on your own, are there ways that you can incorporate some deliberate practice into your routine, to stretch your abilities and more effectively work towards your goals? For me lately, that means devoting some time each day towards my fiction writing, which is something I find difficult and strenuous, but nevertheless something I want to become highly skilled at. What would deliberate practice look like for you and your goals, or the goals of your student? In what ways could a tutor or coach help push you to achieve them?

Keep on working, and until next time, thanks for reading!

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