...and don't tell anyone about it!

I had this chemistry professor in first year university who was, for lack of a better term, a real stickler for perfection. Perfection being defined as “his way of doing things” of course. He was adamant you write your name on your tests no less than 1 mm above the line in the upper right hand corner of the paper placed there specifically for the purpose of showing you where your name was supposed to be written, and no more than 3 mm above that very same line. Fours, he opined, should be open at the top. Always. A four with a closed top was not a four, but a nine, and he would mark an answer wrong if you wrote your fours incorrectly.

He did all his stickler-ing with a reasonable amount of humour and put-on old-professorish-ness so you found yourself, not hating his pickiness, but amused by his delivery and considering his opinions on having some personal, professional standards in how you communicate and sticking to them. Add to that my impressionable first-year mind and I still write my fours open at the top. And now that my kids are learning numbers and math I’ve passed that specific standard along. It’s a great way to differentiate an engineer with slopy handwriting’s and a five year old’s nines from their fours.

But the biggest lesson I took away from his class had nothing at all to do with Avogadro’s number or the proper techinque for titration with a buret. Nope. It was, amazingly enough, how to learn. Or to be more precise: how to learn something specific.

His technique was simple:

Go home: do it one hundred times and don’t tell anyone about it!

Emphasis on the “and don’t tell anyone about it” was entirely his. And it was, it turns out, just as important as the first part of the technique. I’ve used learning opportunities in my life to test out his technique and with out fail, any occassion where I’ve kept my hard study to myself has always helped me learn the subject matter at hand far faster and far better than if I’d talked about it. That isn’t to say I don’t talk to others when I’m stuck; but on the whole I keep it quiet until I’ve done it repeatedly or read it repeatedly and get it.

Similarly, I keep my goals to myself too.

It turns out my old chemistry professor wasn’t making stuff up. It’s apparently known in psychology that speaking out loud about your goals makes you less likely you’ll attempt to achieve them. There’s a great TED Talk from Derek Sivers where he lays it all out in that 3-minute way that’s so convincing that only TED Talks can do. You get satisfaction speaking it out loud so telling someone about it fulfills your need to achieve and it inhibits your ability to push towards it.

So what am I working on this year? Mum’s the word.

Written on January 18, 2015