When you’re among too many smart people for too long, it’s easy to come to the conclusion you’re stupid.
That happened to me – JEE coaching, undergrad, first job, gradschool.
Now when you feel this way, it can go one of two ways. One, you ramp up your learning, try harder, plan better, take it as a challenge and all that.
The other one usually comes about after frustrated attempts at the first way – you give up because there’s no point.
I don’t know at which point that happened. Probably JEE coaching. The exams were so unattainable and high scores never went beyond 60%, and the average was around 35-40%. It kind of made me forget what attainable goals looked like, I suppose. Subsequently, with deadlines falling all over me for years, I never did really deal with this issue head on, and coasted along. I didn’t even put my finger on this as being an issue until recently.
The result was, I never really applied myself to anything new. I tried learning German in undergrad and gave up when the grammar got intense. It took me tons of trial and error to learn linear algebra… and that process was anything but linear. I gave up on the guitar when my fingers hurt too much. I got intimidated by everything. It felt like everyone knew better than me, and once you get intimidated, you stop asking questions and trying.
I quickly learnt though, that I couldn’t bring that attitude to a job where I am expected to own and lead projects, push my own ideas into becoming new projects, and generally expected to be reliable. I also couldn’t bring that attitude to improv class. You can’t be intimidated by the others on stage and hide, not even if they have acting credits on Law and Order and 30 Rock. What’s better, both of these things opened my eyes to everyone goofing up and owning up to it and it was all okay, so why can’t I do the same thing. And I did. And everyone noticed.
Another thing I noticed among successful people – they took feedback so very constructively, didn’t for one moment assume it was personal, didn’t for once concentrate on the way the feedback was given, just on the content. I began trying that. God it helped. Subsequently, I also noticed people take it personally, and saw how that impacted everyone around them and it wasn’t good at all.
None of these however helped me get through Andrew Ng’s Coursera ML course or Daphne Koller’s PGM course. I got so intimidated, I gave up in two weeks. That, and I didn’t really have the time for it.
A month ago, I attended Peter Norvig’s talk about online education. He was just a little older than I remembered him a couple of years ago at the Google office, and had on this cheerful Superman shirt. I went and asked him if he had any ideas for improving engagement with learners who were usually intimidated by subject matter, giving him the examples of underrepresented minorities and those who faced stereotype threats. He said the courses were more or less designed to provide consistent feedback with regular quizzes and assignments and deadlines.
Now that didn’t really help me, but articulating that and thinking about it made me realize I had reached a point where I can try harder. And that I can at the very least start small and personal – and technology helped with that.
So there were hackathons where I forced myself to just blindly code, not worry about efficiency and things like that. I came out with cool stuff, and I could do it because I was the one setting the rules, and I set the rules and goals to suit me.
Then I found Duolingo, which essentially aims to make learning fun. An app on my phone is what it takes to teach me some German. I still need subtitles to watch Der Untergang, but hey, I can tell you if my breakfast is too salty.
And then I worked up the courage to try learning to play the guitar, from a Coursera course. The course is structured well, unlike other online resources I found where there isn’t a time-based progression and doesn’t tell me how much I need to practice, doesn’t give me goals and exercises, except that I need to do as much as I can if not more, and that if I was motivated enough, I’d learn. Nope, forcing myself to make those decisions wastes valuable cognitive energy. I’d rather someone smarter than me makes those decisions for me and just blindly follow instructions. Sure enough, I can at least hold the guitar appropriately now and play two chords and hold a pick without getting carpal tunnel.
It seriously doesn’t matter to me if I can speak in German or play a guitar or sing like Norah Jones (though it does matter if I have linear algebra and graphical models on my fingertips… :)). It matters more to me that I learn how to learn. That when I come across something new, I can break it down into small achievable goals, and develop enough patience to set aside some time and do it over and over again till I kind of get it. And when I kind of get it, it motivates me to get better and better at it. I know there will be people who get it quicker than me, and others who won’t, but that doesn’t matter… besides, online education and adulthood means I can try as many times as I want to learn and take my own time and no one says anything. I’m not setting lofty goals of being able to do this for everything I set eyes on, but have enough of an attitude to know that while some things are not worth the effort, it certainly is possible, but with some time and effort, and it’s not a bad idea to do so.