Quagmire of options

Life is a quagmire of options. I’m reading an article titled 10 Tips for College Students. I’m feeling pretty good about myself because I really understand what the author is saying. Yet this kind of focus is hard to maintain, and keeping these ideas in mind is definitely going to be helpful.

Every single day, we each make tons of decisions. I seriously mean a ton of decisions. Back when I was in elementary school, middle school, even high school, I felt like I was living a perfect life. I had classes at a set time. I had certain homework assignments and projects with known specifications. I was going to sleep at exactly the right time, getting all of my work done, having all the fun I wanted. I was maximizing my time. Taking the shortest path– a straight line– from one class to the next, taking every spare moment to do the next homework assignment in the queue.

I distinctly remember doing this in high school. With 7 classes, extracurriculars, AP courses, and more, life was scripted. I knew exactly the best thing to do at any given moment. I had specific and clear choices to make: what to write for this assignment, how to go about solving that project, what to say in this presentation, how to speak to this person. It was all very methodical. I remember thinking through each decision carefully and weighing my options. Then I made the best of it and took the next step.

Life is absolutely nothing like that anymore. Everything is open-ended. I’m taking a semester off from school. That alone was a big decision, and there were an infinite number of other routes I could have taken. I could go here, go there, talk to this person or call that person. I could do this or create that website, participate in this discussion or do this task. In the words of Steve Pavlina, author of the article I’m reading, college life is a “quagmire of options.”

Obviously, the model for living properly has got to change. There has always been an element of preference, of randomness, and of creativity. But that’s become a much, much greater factor now. It’s probably 99%, if not more. I could be typing this blog entry, or I could be exercising. I could be working on my website, or adding some other module. And each thing I do has huge repercussions down the road. Blog posts I wrote years ago still get comments today, and hundreds upon thousands of people have benefited from my computer solutions. Life is entirely made up of these small decisions upon small decisions, incessantly stacking upon each other and creating the world as we know it.

This is a glimpse at the kind of perspective I have when working through each day.

Every moment I ask myself “why?” Pavlina writes, “Don’t feel you have to go at a snail’s pace just because every else does.” This couldn’t be more true. I have never fit in with my peers. Even now it’s a challenge for me to find anyone even remotely like myself. I was reading Founders at Work and the interview with The Woz. That’s Steve Wozniak for those who aren’t familiar with the history of Apple Computer. He says, “Steve and I weren’t similar personalities, which was strange, but I’m sort of the person that goes along with anyone that wants to talk technology.”

That’s me. And here we are, so many years later, and I still feel the lack of anyone who wants to talk technology. Maybe I need to move to SF. But there are so many fakes that are just exploring the waters and don’t have the drive. And so many who are there just for the money. Where are the people with passion and vision?

Here’s a line from Pavlina which I wish I’d realized sooner:

What about prerequisites?  For the most part I simply ignored them, and fortunately at my school they weren’t enforced too well.  I found that most of the time a prerequisite is listed, it’s geared towards below average students.  Don’t let pointless bureaucracy slow you down if you want to graduate sooner.  There’s always a way around it — it’s usually just a matter of getting some random form signed by someone who’s too bored to care either way.  A smile and a compliment go a long way.

That’s probably more true than you think. I’ve seen it happen at USC and I’m very glad it does.

Here’s an interesting thing I might try when I go back to school in the Spring:

I would also triage individual assignments.  If I felt an assignment was lame, pointless, or unnecessarily tedious, and if it wouldn’t have too negative an impact on my grade, I would actually decline to do it.  One time I was assigned a tedious paper that represented 10% of my grade.  I really didn’t want to do it, and it required a lot more hours than I felt it was worth.  I was headed for an A in the class, and if I didn’t do this assignment, I’d drop to an A-.  So I respectfully told the professor I was declining the assignment and that I thought it was a fair trade to receive an A- in order to reinvest those hours elsewhere.  He already knew me and understood my reasons.  He gave me an A-, and I was fine with that.  It was indeed a fair trade.  In fact, looking back I wish I’d done this sort of thing more often.

Back when assignments were easier, everyone was taking 8 classes (my IB/AP friends), and we were honestly crunched for time, I remember doing lots of homework in and between classes. I was never all that great at it, but I know a couple of my friends who really were. I should seek to emulate them:

I was able to complete the bulk of my assignments in class (but usually not in the classes in which the tasks were assigned).  If you’re in school right now, I challenge you to see how much extra homework you can complete during your normal class time today.

This feels like common sense, but I saw many of my peers failing to do this:

If you don’t understand something you were taught in class today, treat it as a bug that must be fixed ASAP.  Do not put it off.  Do not pile new material on top of it.  If you don’t understand a word, a concept, or a lesson, then drop everything and do whatever it takes to learn it before you continue on.  Ask questions in class, get a fellow student to explain it to you, read and re-read the textbook, and/or visit the professor during office hours, but learn it no matter what.

Here’s another great point about final exams. I definitely feel that things should be this way, but all my peers were acting otherwise so I had to go with the flow.

During finals I was probably the least-stressed student of all.  I didn’t have to study because by the time the final exam came up, in my mind the course was already over.  The test was just a formality.  While everyone else was cramming, I’d be at the arcade playing video games.  I’d already learned the material and completed all the assignments (at least the ones I was going to complete).  At most I’d just spend some time reviewing my notes to refresh the material the night before the test.  Isn’t this how academic learning is supposed to work?  Otherwise what’s the point of showing up to class for an entire semester?

Tip 9, “Master advanced memory techniques,” is totally new to me. I have to look into this more.

2 Responses to “Quagmire of options”

  1. Michael says:

    Just about every institution (e.g. school) is geared to “processing” the average person. That’s the majority and the organization needs to fit that majority.

    To stand apart from the crowd requires conscious focus and dedication. That level of commitment is not easily maintained. Fortunately, we don’t need to. By purposefully scheduling yourself to a regular self-audit, you can re-aim and adjust what we do each day.

    It’s not possible to work at a constant high-level, we need to balance our high-performance with periods of total relaxation. Having the will power and fortitude to push ourselves into this self-imposed structure is a real challenge. This is something I really need to tackle and conquer.

  2. David Sutoyo says:

    and I still feel the lack of anyone who wants to talk technology.

    I think there are more people than you think. It’s just that sometimes we interact with people in environments not necessarily conducive to talking about that stuff.

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