Study Hacks Blog Posts from April, 2008 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

My World Famous Mechanical Exam Prep Process

April 29th, 2008 · 17 comments

Exam advice week continues here at Study Hacks. I’m posting Wednesday’s article a little early because I’ll be gone tomorrow morning and I wanted to make sure you got your productivity fix in a timely manner.

So Much WasteRobot

Finals period is tough. I can’t change that. But as I watch students slog through this process I keep remarking at the amount of unnecessary stress. The main culprit: waste.

Too many students begin exam prep without a (sufficiently detailed) plan. They have, at best, only a rough idea of how they’re going to review before they dive straight into a pseudo-work grind. Cue the red-eyes; the coffee-stained hooded sweatshirts; and, of course, the early morning competitions to see who slept less. (“You went to be at 4 last night!? For shame! I’ve only slept 18 minutes in the past 9 weeks.”) It’s tedious.

Waste Elimination (The Good Kind)

Exam prep doesn’t have to be this hard. If you’re willing to spend a few more minutes planning, and if you can put aside that childish impulse to procrastinate on absolutely everything until the last minute (it’s not a genetic trait, chief, you’re just being a lazy ass), you can eliminate most of this wasted time from your prep schedule. This elimination, in turn, will push the experience from overwhelming and terrible to hard but manageable.

Trust me, it’s worth it.

In this post I explain the simple mechanical process I used to prepare for exams back when I used to have lots of exams to prepare for. (Ah, the joys of being a senior graduate student.) Yes, it requires that you start things early. But it works. You can follow the plan more or less blindly; avoiding the ill-fated need to draw upon your limited will power to make decisions on a daily basis.

Cal’s Patent-Pending Mechanical Exam Preparation Process

I’m not usually so formal with my habits, but, for the sake of exposition, I’ve clustered the main ideas into clean bullet points. As usual, I expect you to customize, challenge, and experiment with the system until it best fits your situation:

  1. Gather and Plug.
    Spend 20 minutes on each course. Gather together all the material you need to review. This might require printing your notes off your computer. If there are any holes in this material — a missed lecture or, perhaps, an important reading you didn’t get to — make plans in the immediate future to plug the gaps.
  2. Construct Battle Plans.
    Once you fill the gaps you’ll be left with complete collections of information to review for each course. Spend some time to come up with a review battle plan for each of these piles. These plans should consist of — and only of — specific review actions with well-defined endpoints. I can’t stress the latter part enough. I don’t want to hear about you blindly flipping through your book for hours. You need to specify exactly how you are going to review and how you’ll know when you’re done.
  3. Take a Break.
    If you don’t have time to step away for a day or two, then you started too late. You need time to clear your head before the next step.
  4. Make Your Plans Less Dumb.
    Look back at your battle plans with a fresh eye. Ask yourself: where can I make this more efficient? Most likely, you’ll find several strategies that are redundant or could be replaced with something more streamlined. It’s easy, in the heat of the pre-exam moment, to get overzealous with your planning. Always assume things will take longer and your schedule will be tighter. Be prepared by cutting, cutting, and then cutting.
  5. Schedule Your Battle Plans Using the Two Day Rule.
    Assign the different pieces of your battle plans to specific days leading up to the exams. When doing so, I suggest the following simple rule which, if followed, will provide a significant stress reduction: schedule each battle plan to finish two days before the relevant exam. There is something magical about never having to study the day before the test. It’s like a whole different (relaxed) experience. I know, I know, you’re probably saying right now: “I can’t finish a day early! I’m such a wild and crazy procrastinator!” Sigh. Here’s my response: “Man up.” You’re not starring in a National Lampoon movie. No one is impressed that you can put off work.)
  6. Execute.
    Notice I’m avoiding the “s”-word here. “Studying” is for pseudo-working grinds. You’re executing a specific plan custom-designed to minimize time and stress. Bonus: Kelly over at Hack College will pound one beer for every time you work the phrase “I’m executing a specific plan custom-designed to minimize time and stress” into casual conversation with an attractive member of the opposite sex.

In Conclusion

A lot of this might reek of common sense. But that’s also the smell of advice that might actually work. Approach your exam prep like a robot and you’ll be surprised by how smoothly it goes.

Monday Master Class: The Study Hacks Guide to Exams

April 28th, 2008 · 11 comments

Exam Season is Upon UsExam

As we careen into May, there is one thing likely dominating your college student mind: exams. In recognition of this (terrible) reality I’m dedicating all of this week’s posts to strategies, tips and screeds about kicking ass during finals period. Today, we’ll get things started by dipping into the always exciting Study Hacks archives to highlight some of the most important test taking related posts you may have missed.

The Best of Study Hacks Exam Articles

On Preparation:

Drizzle Test Preparation Over Many Days
How early should you start studying? This post lays out the basic philosophy preached in Straight-A. Put simply: start early; work in little batches.

Use Focused-Question Clusters to Study for Knowledge Based Tests
How should you study for classes that require you to know a large number of facts and concepts? I overlooked these classes in Straight-A (as many of you subsequently brought to my attention.) In this post I rectify this oversight. It was originally written for multiple choice tests, but the advice is relevant for any exam requiring a large amount of memorized information.

Pseudo-Work Doesn’t Equal Work and Studying is a Technical Skill
How are some high-scoring students able to escape the stress of the grind lifestyle? These two early posts, from a series titled “The Straight-A Gospels,” lay out the core philosophical ideas behind the mysterious, yeti-like low-stress ‘A.’ I recommend a quick review before diving too deep into exam period chaos.

On Test-Taking and the Aftermath:

Five Ways to Avoid Panicking on a Hard Test
You know the feeling: you flip open the exam, read the first question, then freeze. This post helps you move past test-taking panic and maximize your score regardless of the situation.

How to Perform a Post-Exam Post-Mortem
When you hand in that blue book — brimming, I’m sure, of brilliant analysis — your job is not quite over. This post explains what to do once the graded exam is handed back; a 10-minute targeted review of what went right and what went wrong, will make your life significantly easier in upcoming semesters.

Ignore Your G.P.A.
This Unconventional Scholar essay tackles the larger question of what significance exam performance should play in your life. It’s core message: ignore your cumulative G.P.A. Instead, view each courses as an individual challenge to come up with the most efficient possible method for learning the material. Sometimes you’ll screw up the actual exam. That’s okay. Believe in your strategies and keep improving; it’ll save you a fortune on ulcer medication.

Disruptive Thinkers: Marty Nemko Wants You To Forget Your Boring Passions

April 25th, 2008 · 8 comments

Disruptive Thinkers is a semi-regular series that features interesting people with interesting ideas about college, achievement, or life in general.

How to Become GoodMarty Nemko

Marty Nemko is good at becoming good. As he outlined in a recent blog post, when he set his sights on becoming a career coach he eventually logged over 2800 clients. When he decided to parlay this expertise into writing, he landed a career columnist gig first for the San Francisco Chronicle, then the Los Angeles Times, then transformed this into a contributing editor slot at U.S. News & World Report. He wanted to learn the art of rose hybridizing, now three of his varieties are sold nationwide. He wanted to try playwriting and won the “Roar of the Crowd” award for the best Bay Area entertainment of the week. His first screenplay caused a stir. He has a radio show.

And the list continues…

To use Study Hacks parlance, Marty is a finisher. He doesn’t just tackle projects that pique his interest, but he also manages that rarest of the rare skills: to consistently push them into the elite strata of noteworthy accomplishment. Fascinated by his approach, I asked Marty to share some of his famously unconventional advice on how to become good at becoming good.

What do most people get wrong when they set out to become good?

The average person isn’t smart enough to tackle lots of things, yet they try and thus become dilettantes. They need focus, unrelenting focus — until the world has provided sufficient signs that it is interested or not interested in that person’s focus.

What’s the role of talent versus strategy in becoming good?

Strategy is absolutely necessary….but insufficient. Talent and drive (or luck — damn those lucky people) are required.

Many people who focus on something for a long time can get pretty skilled, but have a hard time making that transition to the big-time. How does one make that final push from amateur to expert?

Become an amazing and relentless marketer. That skills is usually orthogonal to (the less accurate term is “incompatible with”) becoming expert at something, yet it is critical, alas, especially in this society where the stupid public responds to marketing hype more than to excellence. Why else would dishonest idiots like Oprah be more beloved than, for example, Christopher Hitchens on the Left or Larry Kudlow on the right..

What advice would you give a young college student looking to make a name for himself in something?

Forget passion unless it’s a rare one. Too many other people will be passionate about it, eviscerating your chances of “making a name for yourself.” Don’t be a lemming. Make a name for yourself in some pursuit that top people rarely pursue: Be the most amazing undertaker, industrial acid broker, advocate for the most under-served and worthy kids (in my opinion: intellectually gifted boys in elementary school.) Even if the field seems mundane, you will feel more rewarded and better about your life being a vanguard in a dull field than a soldier in a “cool” one.

[For more on Marty, check out his popular website, which includes, among other content, his new blog and a collection of his most popular articles on life, goals, work and achievement.]

The Science of Procrastination Revisted: Researchers Rethink Willpower

April 23rd, 2008 · 28 comments

Willpower as a Limited ResourceLow Stress

In January, I posted an article titled The Science of Procrastination. It reported on the work of Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist from Florida State University. Baumeister had demonstrated an effect called ego-depletion. The idea was simple: self-control depends on a limited resource — a resource that, like a muscle, depletes during repeated, continuous use.

The experiments were elegant and convincing. Give a subject two tasks that require self-control and they’ll do worst on the second. Replace the first task with something that requires no self-control and their performance on the second increases.

The conclusion: willpower is a limited resource. The more you use, the more you lose. So use it wisely during the day.

A Problem Emerges

In February of this year, an article appeared in the journal of Social and Personality Psychology Compass. It was written by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, a pair of pioneering social psychologists from the University of Rochester, who, over the past three decades, have innovated our understanding of motivation.

Their message to Baumeister: your experiments are nice but your conclusions, unfortunately, aren’t quite right.

Enter Self-Determination Theory

Ryan and Deci have been amassing, for more than a decade, a substantial body of evidence supporting a model of energy and vitality that they call Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

This model overturns Baumeister’s “willpower is like a muscle” message, and provides us with a more nuanced view of why sometimes we’re energized when we face work, and why other times we are very much not.

Self-Control is Hard; Except When it’s Not

Ryan and Deci’s SDT framework describes how we maintain and enhance vitality. The concept of vitality captures, roughly, physical and mental energy. Among other things, it’s often associated with “vigor,” feelings of positive affect,” and “calm energy.” In short: the opposite of the mood that fuels procrastination.

The SDT model makes several predictions about what affects our vitality levels. Perhaps the single prediction most relevant to our discussion of willpower:

  • Autonomous self-regulation (decisions made based on your own deeply held interests) is less depleting than activities that are controlled (decisions made based on other sources, from societal pressures to external control).

Ryan and Deci’s response to Baumeister is that self-control can deplete willpower. But, if the activity is autonomously self-regulated — if it derives from a deeply held interest or value — then willpower (as described by vitality) will not be depleted; in fact, it might even be enhanced.

In short: the effect self-control has on your willpower (vitality) depends not on how much work you’re doing, but the ultimate reason why you’re doing it.

Putting the Theory to the Test

In a series of experiments, conducted in 1999 by Ryan and Deci, along with Glen Nix and John Manly, also of the University of Rochester, this hypothesis was put to the test.

Experiment #1. The subjects were given the Wisconsin Card Sort, a standard cognitive problem-solving task. Half the subjects were self-directed. They could solve the task however the wanted. The other half were other-directed. They had to follow the strategy of the previous subject.

Happiness and vitality were tested before and after the task. As predicted by SDT: vitality decreased for the other-directed subjects but stayed the same for the self-directed. Happiness increased for both cases. (People are temporarily happy when they do well.)

Experiment #2. The researchers investigated a more subtle form of control. They turned their attention from external control (the experimenter giving instructions) to internal control (in this case: ego.) The subjects, who, like in the first experiment, were college students, were given a series of puzzles to accomplish. The task-directed group were given some background on the artist and told about the comics in which the puzzles originally appeared. The ego-directed group, on the other hand, was told that the puzzles were increasingly being used to measure intelligence and perceptual skills. A story was weaved about the Air Force using the puzzle to screen pilots. Both groups were given positive feedback throughout the experiment.

Once again, the non-controlled, task-directed group had vitality stay strong, while the ego-directed group crashed and burned.

Same task. Same positive feedback. No external control in either case. By simply turning the framing of the experiment to one of supporting ego, the task became not about a freely made decision or interest, but, instead about the maintence of others’ perception of the subject’s abilities. By doing so, the task became a willpower drain.

Implications for You

As college students, we’re quick to blame feelings of burnout or mental malaise on the amount or type of work we face. (“Not another paper! I’m tired of this!”)

The work of Ryan and Deci, however, gives us new insight into the source of these student slumps: The “why” matters. We can harness this insight to generate a collection of concrete strategies to avoid such low points:

  • As much as possible, engineer your student life to make the source of your actions intrinsic — that is, freely chosen and connected to an honest interest.
  • Run fast as hell from any large commitment that you feel like you’re expected or have to do. Over time, these will keep draining your vitality until you spiral into a burnout.
  • Be careful about asking for advice from authority figures. Hearing, for example, a parent telling you that you should follow a certain path can have the effect of making the related actions feel controlled — even if you might have arrived at the same conclusion on your own. Mentors are safer as they exist outside of an existing framework of control in your life.
  • Spend the time necessary to figure out what’s important to you and what’s not. Without real values, almost any activity will be arbitrary or controlled by outside forces.
  • Leave your schedule open enough that, on a regular basis, you can pursue random, interesting opportunities as they arise. These provide the vitality equivalent of booster shots; keeping your zest for life strong.

In Conclusion

Procrastination remains inevitable. But the hope provided by Ryan and Deci is that for many activities it’s allure can be weakened. When you’re doing something that you choose to do, it’s just not that bad.

Not surprisingly, this empirical research resonates well with the optimal lifestyle approach described by my anecdotal experiences. I’m talking, of course, about the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. When you read the story of a ZV-practioner like Tyler, with his defiant choice of a classics major, a focus on research he enjoys, the lack of resume-fodder activities, and his open, random-event rich schedule, it’s hard not to imagine Ryan and Deci smiling with approval.

Keep these experiments in mind next time you feel like your college schedule is becoming too much to bear. Remind yourself often of what is perhaps the most important question you can learn to ask: why?

The Makings of a Good Day

April 21st, 2008 · 9 comments

A Good Day

It’s a nice spring day here in Boston. This morning, when I arrived at my office at MIT, I decided it was too nice to spend staring at a computer screen. After a quick triage on my schedule, I brought some class readings to a local coffee shop.

After I finished what I needed to get done, I wandered over to the humanities library to participate in one of my favorite activities: wandering the stacks looking for random interesting sections. I soon stumbled across a shelf of books on academic theories of motivation. I pulled down a collection of papers from a symposium held at the University of Nebraska in the early 1990’s. This in turn brought to my attention a particular research team, from the University of Rochester, that has been uncovering a theory of self-determination and motivation that has strong resonance to our recent discussions.

I tracked down the group’s web site and printed a few of the more interesting looking papers. My plan for the rest of the day: I’m going to bring these papers downtown to read while I eat a hot dog, watch the marathon, and enjoy the sun.

The only thing missing is a little transitor radio to keep me up to speed on the Sox game — but somehow I get the feeling, in the downtown Boston crowd, these updates won’t be hard to come by.

Yes, a good day indeed…

Monday Master Class: Control End of Semester Chaos with the 4D Method

April 21st, 2008 · 8 comments

Winding Down into ChaosChaos

Here at MIT we’re rapidly approaching the worst part of the semester: the last 2 – 4 weeks. Just when I think I have everything under control — my autopilot is humming along, my fixed schedule is keeping my stress low, GTDCS is herding my little tasks — the end of the semester looms and threatens to destabilize my whole world. I know that my work load is about to spike as all my large projects become due simultaneously and every class initiates their own scramble to tie up all the loose ends.

I’m sure this experience sounds familiar.

Worry Not, I Have, as Always, a System to Help

I thought I might share with you the cobbled-together collection of big-picture strategies that help me navigate the end of semester crunch. I call it the 4D method because each of its four components — after some linguistic wrangling — starts with the letter ‘D’. The end of semester will remain hectic. But the four D’s will help you maintain your sanity.

The 4D Method

The method consists of four general strategies:

  1. DROP
    In preparation for the increased load: drop or defer every activity or obligation you reasonably can. Early in the term, when life seems tame and under control, it’s easy to start initiating projects and agreeing to participate in events and activities. Then things get busy. Now is the time to undue that optimistic obligating in preparation for the battle to follow. Be ruthless.
  2. DASH
    Many small obligations in your life resist dropping. Maybe you owe an article to a campus publication. Maybe you’re supposed to present the readings in an upcoming class. Before you transition into full on scramble mode, focus on dashing through as many of these remaining small obligations as possible. Purge the small and urgent off the face of your to-do list. Be a relentless completion machine — clearing your plate of the little things that might later gunk up the wheels of progress during the critical weeks ahead. Do this even if it means you are finishing small tasks well before they are due (the horror!)
  3. DENY
    If someone tries to rope you into a new obligation, give them one of only two answers: “no” or “after the semester ends.” Stick to this. No matter how small or how tempting it is to offer up your time. For now, you need to keep things simple.
    Once your schedule is cleared of the small stuff, start dividing up the final days of the semester between your major projects and obligations. Put aside, for example, an entire weekend just for studying for a given class. Maybe Monday and Tuesday will be for finishing the rough draft of your research paper and Wednesday for studying for another class and Thursday to polish the paper. These finalizing work pushes require a good consistent block of non-distracted time. Don’t let them muddle all together.

Clear Schedule, Clear Mind

The philosophy behind the 4D method can be summarized: simplify, simplify, simplify. You want your entire working life during the final weeks of the semester to be just about the major things you have to finish. You want to provide these major final projects uninterrupted blocks of concentration — unhindered by mosquito tasks sucking dry the life blood of your focus. The 4D method will get you there.

Keep in mind, however, this does not replace the ESS Philosophy — you still need to start major projects early. But even projects that have been thoroughly pulverized typically require major pushes at the end to finish them off. Combine this with the other big tasks that loom around this time of the term — test studying, final problem sets, class presentations — and even the most conscientious student will have her hands full. Let the 4D’s guide you home.

Bonus Post: A Zen Valedictorian Case Study

April 20th, 2008 · 20 comments

I don’t normally post outside of my Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule. But this story seemed like a perfect addendum to Friday’s discussion of the Zen Valedictorian, and I have some time to kill this afternoon, so the result: a bonus weekend post. Enjoy your Sunday…

The Tale of TylerA New Beginning

Earlier this month, I received several e-mails from a reader whom, for the sake of his anonymity, I’ll refer to by the pseudonym Tyler. This student attends a top university. He recently returned after taking some time off to travel and work. In his recounting, he had burnt out trying to live the grind lifestyle. He needed the time off to get away from the undergraduate meat grinder and rediscover his direction.

His Return to Campus and Simplicity

On his return to campus, Tyler vowed to live a different lifestyle. Serendipitously, this decision coincided with the publishing of my Radical Simplicity Manifesto, which captures many of the core principles more recently detailed in the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. Motivated, in part, by the manifesto, Tyler made some major changes to his student life.

His changes included:

  1. Declaring a classics major.
    Tyler had been on track to major in biochemistry. He wasn’t interested in medical school, but people in his life assured him that such a major was “practical.” On his return, however, Tyler realized that if he didn’t focus on something that truly ignited his interest, he might once again tumble toward a burn out. So he declared a classics major. He enjoyed these courses. They helped him understand the world and his place it in. He wanted more of this intellectual stimulation. Practicality be damned.
  2. Slashing and burning his extracurricular schedule.
    Tyler was tired of running from one activity to the next, fueled by the belief that more was better, and without a full resume his post-grad options would dwindle. No more! On his return, he cut out all major activities from his life with the exception of one: assisting in cancer research in a campus lab. This work provided obvious meaning, and he made it the primary target of his extracurricular energy.
  3. Pro-actively enjoying his new free time.
    In his initial e-mail, Tyler shared with me a touching story. A few weeks into his newly simplified semester, he saw, at the last moment, an announcement about a well-known author coming to speak on campus. “With my old schedule, I never would have had the time to go to something like this,” Tyler recalled. But with his new, underscheduled lifestyle, he wandered over, got engrossed in the talk, hung around after and managed to meet and chat with the author. The event opened his eyes. There is a lot of meaningful living to be done when you give yourself the time.
  4. Focusing on his pared-down academics.
    With his schedule lightened and his major aligned with his interests — not some vague notion of practicality — Tyler has put renewed focus onto his coursework. Gone is the adversarial relationship with his assignments, as existed with his old, overloaded schedule — a context in which every new deadline stung him with a fresh injection of stress. Instead, he can now revel in his work. He takes his time with assignments. He can go back over readings and ponder their meaning. He can work on paper ideas for days before actually writing. Stress has been replaced with engagement and curiosity.
  5. Innovating.
    Tyler smartly noticed that his interest in biochemistry and cancer research as well as the classics, is an unusual combination. With this in mind, we recently applied for two different fellowships. One will allow him to stay on campus over the summer and work seriously on his research. The other will allow him to take classics courses over the summer while researching. As Tyler reported to me, his underscheduling allowed him to invest a couple weeks pondering his classics fellowship essay. Combined with the excellent grades he now earns in these classes, and the great recommendation this spawned, it was no surprise to hear, earlier this week, that he had won the grant.

The Zen Valedictorian at Work

Though I hadn’t yet described the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy when Tyler returned to campus, he had stumbled upon most of its core principles. He went from overloaded to underscheduled, cranked up his focus on his major and his single extracirricular, and, with his summer fellowships, he has begun the process of innovation.

The effects, you’ll notice, are exactly as predicted by the philosophy. The underscheduling led to an immediate stress reduction and a new engagement with college life. He enjoys his coursework and can now pursue random opportunities — like attending an author’s talk or applying for a fellowship. Also as predicted, the focus allowed by this underscheduling led to drastically improved academic performance. He credits his strong work in his classics courses as the key to him both being notified about and then subsequently winning the summer course grant. Finally, we can only imagine how the full innovative picture here — the departmental star, interesting, classics-spouting, cancer-researching student scholar — will open powerful, fascinating opportunities for Tyler after he graduates.

Imagine what would happen if you followed Tyler’s zen example…

How to Become a Zen Valedictorian: Decreasing Your Stress Without Decreasing Your Ambition

April 18th, 2008 · 93 comments

The Zen Valedictorian DecodedThe Zen Valedictorian Framework

Last week, I introduced the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. This concept captures the general approach to student life that I’ve been promoting on this blog. The big idea is to find a way to become less overloaded and less stressed without becoming less impressive. I believe that a student should be able to have an engaging, fun college experience, and still get into a top graduate program or professional school, and have the ability to choose between outstanding job opportunities. I lived this dream. I’ve met dozens of other students who have as well. In this article, I explain how you can achieve it too.

The Framework

As with the Straight-A Method — which provides a structure for all of my study advice — here I will describe a general framework for the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. This framework can be realized with any number of specific strategies. Specifically, there are three main principles: underschedule, innovate, and focus. If you can satisfy all three — however you do it — you can achieve the Zen Valedictorian lifestyle.

PRINCIPLE #1: Underschedule

The Zen Valedictorian has more free time than he has activities or classes to fill it. He does not stuff his schedule to capacity. Instead, he purposefully underschedules. Rare are the days in which the Zen Valedictorian is working for most of his waking hours. More common are relaxing nights and last-minute adventures.

The goal of this principle is to leave room in student life for relaxation and participation in activities that generate happiness. It rejects the degenerate belief that if you’re not working every free minute than you’re somehow failing as a student. It also provides the flexibility needed to pursue the random interesting opportunities that often lead to big positive results.

To satisfy this principle requires two strategies:

  1. Simplification: Have one major. Balance easy courses with hard courses during a given semester. Slash and burn your extracurricular commitments to the bare minimum.
  2. Efficiency: Improve your study and productivity skills. Live the pillars of the Straight-A Method. The better these skills, the easier it will be to underschedule.

Previous posts that will help you understand and satisfy Principle #1:

PRINCIPLE #2: Innovate

The Zen Valedictorian strives to be interesting not widely accomplished. The psychology of impressiveness reveals that people are more impressed by someone who makes them ask “how did he do that?” than someone who has a sizable laundry list of standard activities. Achieving the former, fortunately, requires less time — and significantly less stress — than achieving the latter. The Zen Valedictorian takes advantage of this reality by constantly looking to push his involvements into the rarefied territory of interestingness.

The goal of this principle is to stand out from the crowd by means other than simply outworking your peers.

To satisfy this principle keep looking for low-hanging fruit. That is, identify interesting, unexpected directions toward which you can push your involvements. Take the normal course of action for someone in your situation then pump up its ambition by 50%. Next ask: if I had to make this happen, what would it really require? More often than not, you’ll realize that what once seemed hopelessly ambitious is, in reality, possible if you’re somewhat clever and, more importantly, actually follow-through. Keep completing. Keep pumping up your ambition and finding ways to get somewhere more lofty. The interestingness will rise sharply with each new push.

Previous posts that will help you understand and satisfy Principle #2:


The Zen Valedictorian is a specialist. He focuses on a small number of areas and works consistently over time to become outstanding in them. He realizes that the relationship between reward and skill level is not linear, but, instead, exponential. A corollary of this truth: being excellent at one thing can yield significantly more rewards than being good at many. Even though the former requires much less time than the latter.

The goal of this principle is to maximize the rewards and interesting opportunities afforded while minimizing both the time investment and the schedule footprint; i.e., total number of unique activities: a metric that strongly predicts stress. The world rewards experts. It is indifferent to generalists. And it could care less how hard you worked.

To satisfy this principle the Zen Valedictorian will, by default, make his academic major an area of focus. He chooses a subject that intensely interests him (not the subject that seems most practical). Because he believes in underscheduling, he has the time need to put serious thought into his class assignments. He soon becomes a department star, which opens up a wealth of exclusive opportunities and rewards hidden from most students.

He will also typically chooses a single extracurricular activity in which to become excellent. By the time he graduates, a Zen Valedictorian should be well-known on campus for his focus-area skill.

Previous posts that will help you understand and satisfy principle #3:

Pulling It All Together

The Zen Valedictorian Framework derives from a careful understanding of two important questions:

  1. What generates stress?
  2. What makes someone impressive?

It notes that the answers to the two questions are different. It takes advantage of these differences to make possible the dream of a low-stress impressive student lifestyle.

Specifically, it notes that stress comes from having too many obligations pulling at your time. The principle of underscheduling prevents this situation from occurring.

Impressiveness, on the other hand, comes from doing things very well in a way that defies expectation. The principles of innovation and focus generate these accomplishments. The principle of underscheduling indirectly helps the effort by keeping you low-stressed and providing the time needed to chase down relevant random opportunities as they arise.

Moving Forward

We have a lot more ground to cover. Each of the three principles provides a rich area of exploration. Over the coming months we will dive into these ideas and improve our understanding of how to satisfy them and the types of strategies that might work. Also expect more case studies of real students who are living the Zen Valedictorian lifestyle.

My goal here is nothing less than to dramatically remake your vision of a successful college career. This transformation is not trivial. But I assure you it will be worth it.

As always, I look forward to your feedback and interaction.