Over the weekend, I was organizing, doing an early spring cleaning when I came across this deadweight.
This box is filled with my notebooks, exams, and homework from University. Pages and pages of painstakingly detailed engineering workbooks (written mostly in glittery gel pen) served me well on my journey to build a healthy GPA. Now, I think they are a hindrance to my progress…
Flipping through pretty notes
So, I threw out four years of academic work in the name of Minimalism.
These Papers are not My Education
Receiving a diploma gives the impression that academic achievement and learning is tangible. We take an exam, and our “worth” is marked in red pen, we take notes to prove to ourselves we are absorbing and understanding a lecture, and we receive a diploma as proof that we are now enlightened beings worthy of employment.
Anyone who has since graduated from University has probably concluded that the accolades and metrics academic institutions use to measure success are not an accurate representation of an individual’s knowledge on a subject. Rather, they represent how proficient they are at taking exams and winning in the game of institutionalized education.
Learning does not stop the minute you graduate. If you want to progress in a professional career, especially in the age of automation, you have to reinvent yourself, grow, and increase your human capital.
Your education’s full extent is broader than just your technical knowledge, and even “soft skills” (and the humanities) are essential in highly technical fields. If you have the world’s best new invention – but lack the communication skills to share your idea or find someone who can approach investors, then your invention will likely never make it to market.
Soft Skill Examples:
- Time Management
- Growth Mindset
- Public Speaking
- Personal Finance
- Project Management
- Interpersonal Skills
- Problem Solving
- Conflict Resolution
I learned lots of technical skills at University, but for the most part, those are not the most meaningful knowledge I gained through my education. Yes, I learned how to solve many fancy math problems, but 90% of the technical understanding I need to complete my job was learned while working or with Dr. Google’s assistance.
I’ve had two different jobs since I graduated, and neither were within my study concentration. Yes, they both fell within the larger umbrella of Civil Engineering, but most of my course work was in structural design. I thought this was my calling in school, but I learned very quickly while working at a local civil firm that I didn’t want to spend my career in a spreadsheet… don’t get me wrong, I love math – but I also have a lot of pent up creativity that numbers can’t solve.
The most important thing that I learned while in University was that my abilities were not static. I have the ability to learn ad grow to reach new challenges. This is particularly challenging when faced with an entirely new challenge where you feel like a novice. You can feel completely out of your depth, overwhelmed, or extremely anxious. During a particularly stressful finals week, one of my favorite professors reminded me to breathe and that I will grow into this challenge. What may feel out of reach to you today can become second nature if you accept that uncertainty and confusion are just a natural part of the learning process. Give yourself time and give yourself a license to be imperfect as you developed mastery – no one became an expert overnight.
Carol Dweck popularized this concept in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Within, she highlights how our perception of a challenge is instrumental to our success. Her research shows that those who approached challenges believing that their ability is plastic are more likely to put in the work and effort required to achieve mastery and are more successful in the long run than individuals who believe that their abilities are innate character traits.
In the context of preparing for exams, a job interview, or an important work presentation accepting that we are not “perfect finished products” enables us to see our knowledge gaps more easily and intentionally work to improve. Growth is easiest when we accept our ignorance and let go of the ego that insists we must be masters from day one. From a growth mindset, we are more open to the insight of masters, accepting of feedback, and collaborative when working in groups.
One of the reasons I love learning so much is that I’m increasingly discovering just how ignorant I am to the world’s wealth of knowledge. I’m always chasing proficiency, and for a curious mind, the knowledge that I have still more to discover is thrilling. Ryan Holiday outlines the role ego has in growth in his book Ego is the Enemy. His work and research on stoic philosophy echos Dweck’s research by showing the reader that Ego prevents us from having the mindset that enables growth.
Even though my degree was very technical, the “soft skills” I learned, and the growth mindset instilled in me have arguably helped my career more than passing an exam or understanding how to solve a physics problem.
Is this Hurting or Helping Me?
There is a consensus within the personal development community and the scientific literature that rereading, highlighting, and taking notes is a pretty inefficient way to study for exams.
Like in many professions, engineers have to take a certification exam before they are fully licensed in their state of practice. I qualify to take the PE Exam soon and plan to take it because there are few other ways to grow as a civil engineer without this certification. And as a general rule, I will sign myself for any resume-building activity that will buy me more options in life.
The last thing I will do when trying to prepare for an exam is to fish through my notebooks from 4 years ago. This is a complete waste of time. In rereading your old notes, you are not preparing for an exam; you relive specific lectures and, more often than not, cute doodles from your time in class. Everything you learned in the lecture will not be on a broad exam, and you will probably forget the majority of the material you reread by the time exam day rolls around.
If I needed specific information in this pile, could actually find it?… and would it be more accurate than the up to date information online. Probably not, and even if I found it hours later, it wouldn’t necessarily be relevant to answering a question correctly on a professional exam.
The time you spend looking for information directly detracts from understanding and effectively using it. On timed exams, you can’t afford to be sorting through pages of notes if you are allowed to bring them to a test, and frankly, I don’t want to spend my free time passively flipping through my old notebooks in the hope I will absorb something through osmosis.
Reading math does not make you better at math – you have to understand the concepts, yes, but you have to practice so you can be confident enough to work your way through a problem while under pressure.
That is why I always focus on Active Recall as my main tool when preparing for exams and why these notebooks will remain untouched even if I keep them lying around.
For the SAT and the FE (Fundamentals of Engineering Exam). Practice tests were my weapon of choice to hone my study skills. The first few rounds of practice exams can be very demoralizing I admit since you can discover that your ignorance of the material surpasses your proficiency. However, this is also the best part of Active Recall in the form of practice testing – it shows you directly where you need to concentrate your study efforts. You don’t need to spend time methodically coming through all of the material; practice tests tell you where to study to have the best chance at improving your score.
Until we test our knowledge, we don’t know what we don’t know. In relinquishing your ego and approaching learning with a growth mindset, we acknowledge that we don’t know everything now. Still, we want to discover the extent of our knowledge to give ourselves the best chance at true mastery and understanding.
If you are interested in learning more about my study tactics when preparing for an 8-hour long exam, let me know in the comments section below.
A Minimalist’s Efficiency
Often, we keep things because we think or hope that they will be useful sometime in the future. We imagine our aspirational future self will wear beautiful clothes, read classic novels, or finally make use of that forgotten gift a distant relative gave us 5 years ago. I’ve kept many theoretically useful things, but they tend to collect dust. On top of the dust collects an emotional burden when my space feels cluttered. I’ll admit, I am a touch OCD (not clinically, mind you), but I’m dramatically less stressed and am most efficient when things are well organized. I came to love minimalism after reading Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life by Joshua Fields Millburn because I realized that mental and physical clutter was occupying a significant portion of my mental bandwidth. In other words, it was distracting me from things I truly value.
I’ve decided that passing my professional exam is the priority in the near term outlook for my career. So, I’m trying to remove any roadblocks that will keep me from accomplishing that goal. Keeping these notebooks and sitting down to sort through my lecture-scribbles would take hours away from the time I could be spending becoming proficient in the targeted material tested during the exam.
When I am faced with a daunting problem, it’s easy to get caught up organizing the assignment and task instead of making actual progress. The act of organization is important to determine what is a priority and what is clutter, but apart from that it can give you a false sense of accomplishment while making little progress.
If you are at work or tinkering with a creative project, as yourself – Are you organizing your work or prioritizing the work that needs to get done? In the spirit of productivity, it’s important to create systems to get to the doing of the work. Still, it can feel deceivingly proactive when you organize your work; however, just because your tasks are in neat categories doesn’t mean they are closer to done.
Similarly, just because all of my lecture notes are in neat notebooks with color-coded sections doesn’t mean I am any closer to quickly recalling the relevant material on an exam.
The organization should show you how to start, your resources should be easy to find, and your workflow natural to complete – not give you another task.
I see prioritization in two parts:
- Identify the goal
- Strip away the distractions
I want to be able to give my full attention to the most important aspects of my life. I’m passionately devoted to the people, projects, and goals I value. There is not enough time in the day or years in my life to care passionately and be 100% present with the entire spectrum of the human experience.
When you choose to split your attention rather than prioritize and focus, you are on a sure path to burnout. There is a finite number of things that we can do well at one given time, and even if you are still an avid believer in multi-tasking, there is a limit to how far even you can stretch your attention.
If we want to master a new skill, cultivate deep, meaningful relationships, or avoid walking around like an anxious stress ball teetering on the edge of burnout, we have to constantly reprioritize and ask …
What or who is truly important at this moment? Where is my attention most effective? Are my actions in line with my values and goals, or am I reacting to events as they happen?
I’ve had to let go of many things and even relationships that were not compatible with my values. There is always fear in the moments I realize that it’s time to step back and let go to move forward productively. Yet, I regret committing to the wrong things more than I regret letting go.
I didn’t need to research to tell you that I could let go of my old notebooks, knowing that they would not serve my long-term goals. Yet, I hope it gives you the courage to let go and declutter things in life that are no longer serving your needs or adding to your happiness.