Going After The Average

When making work that’s important to you, it’s tempting to focus on improving your best work. After all, when you think of your work, that’s what first comes to mind. (You don’t think about the mediocre work.) Therefore, it makes sense to focus on that.

By definition, this should be scarce. It’s not that you decide to sometimes do great work. Rather, it’s a simple consequence of looking at many pieces. Some will jump out at you, while others will be only “okay”.

Your instinct might be to improve your best stuff. That will allow others to see how great you are and what you can offer. However, I have a different perspective. Instead of trying to better your best work, why don’t you try to improve your mediocre work?

Think about it. If we arbitrarily rate your work out of 100, improving your best work might mean going from 88 to 94. This is definitely a good improvement, but if you improved your average from 75 to 81 (the same in absolute terms), I think your work as a whole would seem a lot better. By improving your average, you’re setting the bar higher when people look at all your work.

This is important to realize, because I don’t judge a creator by their best work. Instead, I like to look at the bulk of their work, and make a decision from that. If I see one really nice piece and a bunch of lower-quality pieces, this makes me think that they’re not serious about their craft. On the other hand, if I don’t see any amazing pieces but lots and lots of great ones, that’s someone I want to follow.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t improve on your best work. Working on your skills is a great commitment. However, I think improving your average piece will yield a much higher return than going for your top work.

When people look at what you do, they will mostly see your average work. Unless you’re trying to only post the absolute best work you can make (and therefore only post a few times a year, for example), most people will see your average work. That’s what they will think of. Sure, some amazing pieces might come to mind, but I would predict that this isn’t what you will be known for. You will be known for the average work you produce. You might like this or hate it, but the numbers ensure this will happen.

By improving your average, you raise the bar of what people think of your work. It’s what leads to people seeing you as great. When I think of the creators I follow and admire, most of them are doing things I can do. The difference is that they committed to showing up consistently and producing great work on average. They aren’t in search for the mega-hits. They’re simply looking to create good work every day.

Whether you’re writing, drawing, coding, designing, making music, or studying, you can use this idea of improving your average work. If you want to become better, focus on the fundamentals and make the work you do on average better than it is today.

The Right Touch Of Novelty

We all like new things. It’s exciting to try a new activity, to do something we’ve never done before. It breaks us out from the usual rhythm of our lives. A novel activity ends up looking much more enticing than the regular activities you usually do.

We are wired to respond to novelty. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means we don’t get trapped doing the same things all the time. Instead, we seek to inject some novelty in our lives, because it’s an enjoyable experience. On the other hand, it’s easy to go too far in seeking novelty. Any time we are bored, we will thrash around, looking for a shot of novelty to soothe us.

You can imagine what happens next. Instead of spending most of our time on doing the work that matters to us in the long term, we will turn to anything that gives us a novel stimulus. The latter is much more enjoyable than the grunt work that will only give us satisfaction far in the future. We want to have fun now, and novelty supplies this for us. The cost, however, is only seen in the long term. *Furthermore, it never seems like a big deal in the moment, but it accumulates. If we spend most of our time seeking novelty, by definition we aren’t investing time into getting better at *one thing. This means we can’t achieve long term goals, because we aren’t spending the required time on them.

I’ve put emphasis on long term projects and goals, but I also see this all the time in other scenarios. For example, I’ll talk to some of my fellow students about their studying habits, and they confess to me that they study and do something else at the same time. This could include watching a film, or consuming other media. You can see that the temptation of novelty has taken hold of them.

I’m not trying to say that novelty is bad. In fact, I encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. That’s what life is for, in my mind. That being said, it’s critical to realize that if we want to do work that matters, we need to be willing to invest time and energy into doing it. If you can’t get in any sort of concentrated block of time because you’re always switching to something new, you will never get these long term projects done. You’re letting the pull of novelty take away from the other wonderful work you could be doing. The work that takes time, but is worth it.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking novelty, but we need to limit ourselves. Left without any boundaries, it’s too easy to spend hours and hours going from one novel thing to another, never spending any considerable time doing something. If you’ve ever tried to check “just one thing” online, and found yourself an hour later wondering where the time went, that’s an indication of too much novelty. Instead, we want to have novelty in moderation. What we really want is to have blocks of time where we can focus on one thing. That’s how we get to do the work we are satisfied with. We need to put a strict limit on how time we allow ourselves to seek novelty. We also need to be mindful of when we do this. If you can’t ever get in a solid block of time to work on a project because you’re always interrupting yourself with novelty, you won’t get your work done.

Novelty is fine, but we have to be careful in how we let it enter our lives. Be intentional with how you bring in novelty, and then it will be easier to do the work that matters to you.

Safe Questions

The process of learning with another person is a tricky thing. When you’re on your own, it’s fine to ask as many dumb questions as you can come up with. After all, nobody is going to judge you, since you can simply look up the answer in a book or online. As such, learning by yourself is safe (though it can be slow).

On the other hand, I’ve come to realize how vulnerable you can feel while learning with another person. One person holds the knowledge of a subject (the teacher), while the other is hoping to gain knowledge (the student). However, there’s the added complication that the student doesn’t want to appear stupid in front of the teacher. One reason might be that the student respects the teacher, but a more general reason is that we don’t want to appear less intelligent to anyone. This is only exacerbated when you’re in a large class. Even though this worry is mostly unfounded, we stress about how others will perceive us.

As a student, I’ve felt this firsthand. Even though I work hard and understand a small amount in my field, I can’t help but think that others might judge me if I start exposing the limits of my intellect. It’s a useless worry because the groups I’m a part of are quite supportive, but this doesn’t lessen the anxiety I feel.

This has made me reflect on the kinds of learning environments we create. Are we thinking about how safe the environment is? Sure, we want to have teachers that are knowledgeable, but I would argue that those who can create a safe environment for learning are much more valuable.

There’s one particular aspect of the learning process that I think encapsulates how students think of a teacher: how teachers ask questions. What kind of tone do they use for the question? Do they make it seem like this is an inquisition, or is it a question to guide the student along? Is the question at an appropriate level? Perhaps most importantly, what kind of reaction does the teacher have when a student gives an answer that is partially (or totally) wrong?

These seem like questions which can be answered by instinct, but I think that’s leaving a huge opportunity on the table. If you’re not thinking about the way you ask students questions, you’re probably not doing your best work.

I’ve had a variety of teachers in my life, and some were better than others at asking questions. It could be nerve-wracking at times to answer a question, because you knew that the teacher would shred your answer if you were wrong. I’ve also had classes in which no one would answer questions. I would argue that this is a sign of not creating a safe environment.1

Flipping the script

As a tutor, I get the opportunity to see this play out from the other side of the equation. When I work with students, I try to ask them questions in order to figure out if they understand the topic we’re covering. What I’ve realized is that I haven’t approached this with the idea of creating a safe learning environment.

Each time I ask a question, I don’t care if they get it wrong. I don’t judge them or think less of them if they can’t answer a question. However, what I understand now is that this doesn’t matter to them. To them, they want to avoid looking “bad” in front of me anyway. As such, if I probe this area of weakness, it’s quite painful to accept that they don’t fully understand it. I’m basing this off of my own experience as a student, but I don’t think it’s a huge leap to say that others feel the same.

When I’m the student, I know that the teacher has my best interests in mind (for the most part). This isn’t a huge comfort though, and I still try to not expose any weakness. As such, I shouldn’t be surprised if students feel the same way when they work with me.

I’m fully aware that I need to ask questions in order to help them learn. It’s inevitable that they will get some of these questions wrong. However, I’m realizing now that perhaps a crucial first step is to make them comfortable with me. In essence, they need to not only intellectually know that they are in a safe learning environment, but feel it too. I don’t have answers for this yet, but I’m hoping to learn more as I continue teaching.

I suspect that the length of time I work with a student helps foster this feeling of safety. If I’ve worked with a student for two years, there’s a good chance they will be comfortable with me compared to a student who only just began with me. That being said, I’m interested in learning new ways to foster this feeling, because I think it can really help.

If you’re a teacher of any kind, please think about how you’re structuring your sessions to encourage safe learning. It might sound like an odd thing, but having students be unafraid to try an answer that they are unsure about is a fantastic thing. Getting to that point though doesn’t come for free, and requires some work. By prioritizing a safe learning environment, you’re sending the message to students that the questions you ask aren’t designed to expose their weaknesses to every other student, but are there to help them grow.

The more we think about how we ask our students questions, the better we can connect with them. And isn’t that what we want, in the end?

  1. Of course, I’ve also had many other classes in which the class (including myself) was just lethargic or lazy, and didn’t want to answer questions. 

The Right Time

Do you hate mathematics? Have you found that the rules you have to follow seem to make no sense? No matter what you do, it never feels obvious, like the teacher says it should. Perhaps you can follow your teacher through a problem, but you know that if you ever had to do the problem on your own, there’s no way you could do it.

For someone that identifies with the above paragraph, I want to let you in on a secret. I feel the same way at least once a week, in terms of things not making sense. And I’m in the midst of completing a degree in mathematics.

The reason is simple: learning mathematics isn’t easy, and it comes in different levels. The latter is a crucial distinction to understand, because it can be the difference between finding mathematics engaging and creative versus being just a bunch of symbols.

There’s a reason that students have so many mathematics classes during elementary and secondary school. It’s because there’s a lot of material to cover, and one has to have a certain level of mathematical maturity in order to make sense of it all. Imagine if you had to learn about trigonometry when you were in the fifth grade. Sure, maybe you could learn how to manipulate a few symbols, but I doubt most would understand how trigonometry works. This is because students in the fifth grade aren’t ready to tackle those kinds of topics yet. As such, it would be a mistake to teach them trigonometry at that time1.

This example generalizes to any topic within mathematics. Mathematics is a process of layering new abstraction and tools to understand objects. Expecting students to understand topics without grasping the layers underneath is a recipe for confusion. Not only that, but it frustrates students. If you ask many of them, I know they want to learn. It’s just that some concepts make no sense to them, and they don’t have the time to go back and master the previous layers during school. This leads to poor results and lack of desire to do mathematics. Should we be surprised by their low enthusiasm?

After my first year in the physics program, I did research for the university in the summer. The field I worked in was alternative theories of gravity. These are theories that modify the usual recipe of general relativity in order to explain different features of our universe that we observe (particularly on the large-scale).

To understand this area of research, it should come as no surprise that a knowledge of general relativity is a must. To understand general relativity, you need to be comfortable with tensor equations, which are an abstraction of the idea of vectors and matrices. Notice that these don’t give you any insight into how these alternative theories of gravity work. They’re just the pre-requisites that allow one to comprehend what’s going on.

Coming into the summer, I hadn’t taken any course that helped with this knowledge. I didn’t take a course in special relativity, electromagnetism, Lagrangian mechanics, or any mathematics course that introduced tensors. This meant I had to learn everything on my own, from scratch.

There are some who are able to learn things on their own with ease. I’m not one of those people. It was a struggle to wade through the concepts. Not only was I learning new physics, I was also learning new mathematics. It was difficult, because I had no prior tools to work from. By the end of the summer, I would say that I had an “operational” understanding of the subject. I could do some computations, but I didn’t have a holistic understanding of the subject by any means.

I was in the same scenario as the one I described at the beginning. Things were confusing, and it was difficult to see the “whole” picture. This made it frustrating because I could more or less follow an argument, but I couldn’t see why it began as it did. In essence, I wasn’t approaching the subject at the right time.

Fast forward a year later, and things make a lot more sense. I’ve taken courses in special relativity and Lagrangian mechanics, which has made my understanding of general relativity much better. Just going over the same notes I wrote last year is so much easier. It’s remarkable how much difference a year makes, once you’ve taken the right courses.

My recommendation is this. If you find yourself struggling with a subject, ask yourself if you’re comfortable with the material that has come before. Chances are, you will find that it’s the surrounding details that make the current discussion difficult.

Everyone is capable of learning something new. However, you need to keep in mind the timing. If you’re trying to understand concepts that are more advanced than you are ready for, you’re bound to feel frustrated and confused. That’s not a sign that mathematics is not your thing2. It’s a sign that you’re not prepared.

What can you do about it? The first step is to be honest that you’re in over your head. This can be difficult, particularly if you’re in school and are supposed to know the material that was covered in previous years. However, the most important thing is understanding. There’s no shame in admitting that you don’t quite grasp a subject that you’ve already “finished”. In fact, it will help you out in the long term.

The second step is to go back within the subject until you can explain the concepts to someone else. That’s your new “foundation point”. You will build up your knowledge from there. It doesn’t matter how far back you go. Keep going until the concepts are obvious to you. Once you’ve found that point, revisit the next concepts one by one, until each one seems evident to you. This will take some time, but it will ensure that you don’t have a shaky foundation.

I can’t deny this is time-consuming. Worse, you will have to juggle doing this while also working through your present subject in school. But, the idea here is to get back to a place where the learning feels like the “next logical step”. If learning is frustrating, we are unlikely to continue. That frustration is often a symptom of learning new things without mastering previous material, so a great way to proceed is to go back back and strengthen the fundamentals.

It’s all about tackling new subjects at the right time. If you do that, learning will be much more rewarding.

  1. Note that I’m not saying that young students can’t earn advance material. Instead, we should be aware of the prior knowledge that students need in order to tackle certain topics. 

  2. I’ve concentrated on mathematics and physics here, but this concept applies in general. You want to make sure that you don’t try to take something on without the proper preparation.