Scales

Judgement comes in all the time, every day. There is no judgement “switch” in which you can flip on and off. Instead, there’s just judgement, all the time.

Consider writing a test. As soon as you get your test back, you look at the mark and you form a judgement. It’s quick, but it always happens. You see the number on your test, and you brain quickly analyzes it to tell you if you did well or not.

This may seem obvious, but consider what that judgement is based on. After all, judging is a comparative thing. It’s hard to judge one thing without some sort of reference point. Saying that a person is intelligent doesn’t actually mean anything substantial, since the term is so loosely defined. Somewhere in that definition though, is a comparison. The person is intelligent compared to another person, or the average.

Now, within that split judgement and comparison is a scale. What do I mean by a “scale”? Simply put, a scale contains reference points that we use to make our judgement on. Going back to the example of the exam, let’s assume the result of the test was ninety. Even as you read this, a judgement and a comparison is running through your head. In an instant, you’ve already decided if the grade of ninety is a good result or not. Put more bluntly, a person who usually scores seventy on exams will be thrilled with a mark of ninety, while the one scoring close to one hundred on everything will be devastated with ninety. Same score, vastly different reactions.

What’s going on here is that there is a scale to these comparisons we make. Think of it as a lens in which we view the world. For some people, that lens is of getting marks near one hundred. For others, that same lens is of passing a test. Same situation, but different ways to approach that situation.

This is important because it shapes how you view the world. If you’re someone whose scale is too demanding, you risk burnout from always getting “bad” results. On the other hand, those who see their work as a step in the right direction have the motivation to keep on going, even when the work is difficult. It’s not that the situations are different, but that the mindset of the person in that situation is different.

Remember, the way you view the world has a huge impact on what you deem “good” is. As a result, the story in your mind about yourself is heavily reliant on that worldview, that scale. Making it too high doesn’t actually change the situation for anyone else, but it does create unrealistic expectations for you that will simply end in frustration.

Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. It’s not easy to hear, but it’s okay to make mistakes. Rating yourself on a scale that is unrealistic will only make you unhappy. Instead, focus on telling yourself a realistic, but good story about yourself, and the work will seem to flow that much better.

Showing Up On the Nth Day

It’s easy to put a big effort in one day. Yes, it takes effort, but it’s not overly difficult. If you wanted, you could write for the whole day, or run for three hours, or practice a musical instrument. When it’s just one day, it’s no big deal, right?

Of course one day is easy. The situation is both finite in nature and approachable. Yes, it may suck to do it, but a day isn’t going to kill you. You can count down the hours in a day without too much trouble.

The bigger challenge, then, is to show up the next day. And the subsequent one. And the one after that. (Particularly, when no one but you seems to care about your effort.)

When the scope of the commitment increases from one day to the nth day, there is inherent uncertainty in the proposition. It may feel like the commitment is never going to end, or that it will eventually seem like just another chore to complete every day.

These are legitimate concerns. However, we need to remember what we are trying to accomplish. Yes, showing up every day is difficult. Yes, it can seem like you’re finishing the goal for today only to have to show up yet again the next day. This is all true, and it can look grim.

But, we aren’t making a commitment because we have nothing better to do. Our commitment shows that we love what we do, and we want to work on becoming better with the best method we know: slow, steady improvement. We use that slow improvement curve to show up every day with an average of moderate effort, since any singular large effort will be smoothed out over time. Therefore, it’s not easy to show up every day, but it is a heck of a lot easier than putting in big efforts every day.

If we want to hone our skills in our craft, we have to be willing to show up on the nth day. That’s the recipe for success. Showing up and doing your work every day will slowly bring you to where you want to be.

Intuition

Through my two years in a CÉGEP science program, I learned an important lesson about the nature of my education. The simple truth is that it’s possible to go through the program without any intuition.

Said differently: one could pass by only relying on being skilled in mathematics. The nature of a science education revolves around three components: assignments, labs, and exams. As a result, everything that is marked in a science class revolves around getting the logic (usually, in the form of mathematics) right. As long as one is well-versed in mathematics, it is possible to do well in a science course.

How did I see this? Mainly, it occurred when I saw people who were uninterested in a subject1. The way it’s expressed in physics is through a lack of interest in an intuitive answer.

In a nutshell, intuition is about working out an answer to a question by observing how phenomena work. This means little to no mathematics is involved. A common phrase you will hear physicists or teachers say is, “Let’s try to get a feel for this problem.” Obviously, they aren’t trying to literally touch the problem. Instead, it’s about reasoning why the mathematics work based on what we can observe.

One of the classical examples in mechanics (the study of forces on physical objects) is how friction works. Mathematically, it can be described as the force that opposes the motion of layer moves against another layer. And, if you were to take an exam, you could get everything right about friction.

However, what if I explained friction with intuition? Consider a person walking. It’s fairly easy to visualize how each step creates a certain amount of force that translates into movement. But now imagine the same situation of walking, but on a smooth sheet of ice. Would the two experiences be the same?

Of course not, and that is precisely the purpose of friction. Even better, imagine an ice sport, such as hockey or curling, played on concrete. The sports would never be able to play in the same manner, and it’s completely due to friction (or rather, the lack of friction).

This is the sense of intuition I’m talking about. It’s not a radical new way of solving a physics problem. Instead, the goal is to give a person a sense of context or grounding in a situation before trying to tackle it.

The reality is that many physics problems can become mathematical beasts to solve. When this happens, it’s easy to distance oneself from what is actually happening. However, we need to realize that, while we use mathematics as our tool of analysis, the situations we are looking at are physical situations. Consequently, there is usually some way to illustrate the problem in an intuitive way.

As one goes further and further into physics, there are problems that don’t have direct physical situations that can be easily thought of (such as a puck sliding on ice). However, this does not mean that intuition is completely lost. Instead, it is found by creating mental models of the situations. For example, we know that atoms inside of a metal don’t physically move when electricity is passed through it, yet we still talk about the “movement” of positive charges (even going so far as to say that they have a certain drift velocity). Why do we do this?

The simple answer is that having an intuition helps us fully understand a problem. Intuition and mental models allow us to take a problem that is abstract (or made abstract by mathematics), and bring it back down for us to get a physical sense for what is happening.


It’s quite possible to get through a science program without paying much attention to intuition. However, ignoring your intuition and only focusing on the mathematics is a way to lose a good portion of your science education. By always looking for an intuitive answer, you’re seeking an answer that does not only make mathematical sense, but also physical sense. This is a key distinction which will separate those who do well and those who truly understand a science subject (particularly physics).

Plus, it helps you see patterns in the way our universe works. Having an intuition means your brain is telling you, “I’ve seen something like this before, and this is what ends up happening.” As a result, you become better at having a fully rounded understanding of a subject, instead of just the mathematical aspect to it.

Therefore, always seek the intuitive explanation to a situation2. It will aid you in understanding the processes behind the situation.

  1. I am not immune to this behaviour. While I enjoy learning any kind of science, there are definitely those that I look at with less interest (biology, chemistry) than I do with physics. 

  2. I can appreciate that not all situations have an intuitive answer, but since most do, I think it’s a good thing to search for. 

Storyline

A close second to doing work that matters is how we tell our story about what we do. Perspective is everything to an audience. How are you portraying yourself to other people? This question is just as important as any other consideration when thinking about the work you do.

A concrete example can be found when there’s a matchup between a stronger opponent and a weaker one. On average, we tend to favour the one least likely to win; that is, the underdog. As a result, many people (such as politicians), position themselves as underdogs in order to get an advantage. This happens whether or not the person is actually an underdog. The key here is that they are perceived as underdogs, which makes all the difference.

This also happens in the upper echelons of sports. As a way to relieve the pressure of performing, the athletes play their expertise down, more comfortable instead – mentally – with being the underdog. By doing this, it allows the athletes to both tap in on the crowd’s energy (due to being an underdog), as well stay cool-headed so as not to crack under pressure.

But is this kind of “skewed” perception unethical or misleading?

As with most things in life, it depends. On the one hand, purposefully fabricating a story that is false is dishonest and should not be done. However, you can and should think about how you deliver your message to your audience. You needn’t lie in order to tell your message in a compelling, story-like way. I’m not advertising for making your story more grand than it actually is. Instead, I’m advocating for you to think about how your message is delivered. As such, you can be better poised to communicate with your audience in a way that is more emotionally connecting than just going about it in a random manner.

Stories matter to people. Connect your message to them, and you’ll be doing better than everyone else who doesn’t even think about it.