Skills and habits

Sometime in the 1990s I was walking in Portland, Oregon with a friend when he saw a computer store and said, “Do you mind if we stop here for a moment?”

We walked in. The young man behind the counter looked at me and said, “Mr. MacKnight!” I had no idea who he was.

“Guilty as charged,” I replied. “Who are you?”

He told me his name, and it rang a bell—one of my students from several years before. We began chatting, and I began remembering more about him. He had been my student for just one year, in Grade 12. Finally I asked him what he had learned in that class. He paused, looked puzzled, and then brightened. 

A lot is two words!” he cried triumphantly. 

That may seem very little to remember from a high school English class, but if someone asked me what I remember learning in high school, I would be hard-pressed to recall anything at all.

So what does stay with us after all those books and facts and lessons are forgotten?

Skills and habits. They remain for years. Both of them are formed by repetition over a long period of time. 

In one sense, repetition is easy. No genius or special aptitude is required. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and sooner or later your skills improve. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and eventually you will have formed a fixed habit. 

Do you want to improve your reading skills? Read every day!

Do you want to improve your writing skills? Write every day!

Do you want to form the good habit of checking for assignments and deadlines every day? Then set a reminder, and check every day!

It’s easy.

Except that it’s not. 

If you love playing basketball, then you enjoy the daily repetition of shooting and dribbling. If you love reading, then reading every day is a pleasure, not a chore. 

When the skills and habits you desire involve activities that are not immediately enjoyable, however, repeating them every day is something you dread. You make excuses. You develop, through repetition, the habit of procrastinating.

To practice those “unpleasant” skills and habits, therefore, you need help. Maybe an electronic reminder will be enough. Maybe teaming up with a friend will do it. Maybe asking a parent for daily reminders will work for you. When you don’t enjoy what you know is good for you, when motivation is too often overcome by laziness, you will need to find support of some kind.

The good news? Once you do that, it’s a simple matter of repetition. And that’s easy.

“If You Want to Get Better at Something, Ask Yourself These Two Questions”

Peter Bergman’s short piece in the Harvard Business Review nicely explains the idea that improvement requires a certain amount of discomfort and frustration.

“I have two questions for you,” I said. “One: Do you want to do better?”

If the answer is “no,” then to attempt to coach would be a fool’s errand (a mistake I have made in the past).

“Yeah” he said.

“Here’s my second question: Are you willing to feel the discomfort of putting in more effort and trying new things that will feel weird and different and won’t work right away?”

You can read the entire article here.

On “being the best person you can be”

The trick is to stop worrying about the future, which is so full of unknowns.

Be the best person you can be right now, today, this hour, this minute. If you do that—if you succeed at that only some of the time—you will find yourself equipped to deal with whatever life brings you, and to create the future you have imagined when the opportunities arise.

At certain moments, however, “being the best person you can be” means being someone who is exhausted, run down, discouraged, out of ideas, completely lacking enthusiasm or inspiration.

At such moments, you need to stop and take care of yourself.

The Education Genie [book excerpt]

Imagine . . .

It’s your summer holiday, and you’re walking along a beautiful, deserted beach. The wet sand oozes between your toes. The salt breeze blows in your hair. The seabirds run up and down as the waves roll in, then recede.

In the water up ahead, a strange shape catches your eye. As you approach, the waves wash it onshore. When you get close enough, you see that it’s some kind of old jar. No, wait—it’s a bottle, the glass so dark it’s almost black. And sure enough, it’s sealed with a cork that is covered with red wax.

“Cool!” you exclaim.

The wax is old and brittle, and with a bit of effort you are able to pry it loose. After some tugging, you succeed in pulling out the cork.

If there was ever something inside that bottle, it evaporated long ago. You turn it upside down and shake it, but nothing falls out and nothing rattles.

Oh well, you think. At least it’s a cool old bottle.

Then a thin trail of mist begins wafting up out of the bottle, growing into a cloud that hangs in the air just in front of you. Suddenly—bang!—a genie appears where the cloud had been. A genie! Just like in the old stories, dressed like someone out of The Arabian Nights, with one ring through his nose and another in his left ear.

“Greetings, my friend,” says the genie, bowing slightly. “A thousand thanks for freeing me from my imprisonment. I am ready to grant your wish.” 

“Whoa!” you say. “This is so cool! What’ll I wish for? Hmm . . .  I could wish to be the richest person on the planet, or an Olympic athlete, or a famous singer, or—” 

“Hold it!” cries the genie. “Let me explain. I’m not like those genies in the stories. I’m an Education Genie, and I only grant wishes that have to do with education.” 

“What?! You mean, out of all the genies in the world trapped in bottles, I have the rotten luck of freeing an Education Genie?” 

“If you’re that disappointed,” says the genie, “we can forget the whole thing, and I’ll just be on my way.” 

“No, no,” you say. “Wait, I’ll think of something.” Then, an idea. “Could I wish for my math teacher to take early retirement?” 

“No,” says the genie. “I’m not a School Genie. I’m an Education Genie. It has to be something about education.” Seeing the puzzled look on your face, he adds, “About learning.” 

“Oh,” you say, unable to conceal your disappointment. “Okay, let’s see, three wishes about learning . . . .”

The genie clears his throat. “Who said anything about three wishes?” 

“I don’t get three wishes?” 

“You’ve been reading too many old stories,” says the genie. “You get one wish.” 

“One wish?” 

“One.”

Oh boy. So you start thinking. You could wish to be a genius. But Melvin, the guy in your class who’s closest to being a genius, isn’t the most popular kid around… and he doesn’t even get the best grades. He always seems to be thinking about something totally different when the teacher calls on him. So maybe being a genius isn’t the best idea.

You ask yourself: what’s the one thing you don’t have, that you really need to help you do better in school? Hmm . . . No idea.

That’s it! Ideas! Wouldn’t it be great to be one of those students who’s always got an idea, or even several ideas? Like Lucy Dobner. She’s got ideas and inspiration to burn. Maybe you should wish for inspiration.

But then you remember that Lucy Dobner, for all her great ideas, is the most disorganized person on Earth. She forgets stuff all the time, her homework is always late . . . and she doesn’t get the best marks, either. Maybe inspiration isn’t the best thing to wish for.

Who does get the best grades? It’s usually either Janice or Chris. They’re not the smartest in the class, so what do they do that’s so successful? Well . . . they always pay attention, they write down all the assignments, they turn in their homework on time, and they never seem to have to cram for tests. They just have really good work habits.

That’s it! Habits! You start thinking about your own habits and realize that they could certainly stand some improvement. 

“Okay,” you say. “I’m ready. My wish is to have great habits.” 

“Are you sure?” asks the genie. “I’ve had many unhappy experiences with people making wishes and then wishing they’d wished for something else.” 

“I’m sure,” you say, “I’ve thought it all through carefully. The best thing to improve my grades would be if I had better habits. That’s my wish.” 

“Did you consider other alternatives?” asks the genie. 

“Yes,” you say, growing impatient. “I thought about being a genius, but that’s no guarantee of success. And I thought about being inspired with great ideas, but I don’t want to risk having great ideas without being able to follow through on them. So the best thing to have is good habits. Let’s get on with it. I should have been back an hour ago, and I’m getting hungry.” 

“All right,” the genie sighs. “Your wish is granted. From now on you will have excellent habits, and as a result you will earn much better grades.” 

“You don’t seem very happy about it,” you say. 

“You made the wrong choice.”

“What!?”

“You made the wrong choice,” he repeats.

“But why? I reasoned it all out very carefully!”

“If a genie offers to make your wish come true,” he explains, “you should wish for something you couldn’t possibly get on your own. You can improve your habits, if you really want to. You can even do things to become more inspired. But no matter what you do, you can’t turn yourself into a genius. You should have wished to be a genius.”

With a groan, you plop down onto the sand. “I’m such a loser!”

“Well,” says the genie, “I must be off now. Good luck!”

“Wait,” you say. “I have one more question.”

“Make it quick.”

“You say anyone can improve his habits. How?”

The genie seems a bit offended by such an easy question.

“It’s nothing difficult,” he replies. “Read this book.”

How to feel okay

1. Everyone wants to feel okay.

When we don’t feel okay, we do something to make ourselves feel better. There are good ways, and not-so-good ways, to do this. Good ways include going for a walk, calling a friend on the telephone, eating an apple. Not-so-good ways include making somebody else feel bad, gorging on sweets, or . . . sticking a needle in your arm. Just about all of us make ourselves feel better by using our strengths. If we are good athletes, we go with that. If we are very beautiful, or handsome, we rely on that. If we are very clever, we use that. This natural tendency to go with our strengths can, however, cause problems. For example, the star athlete may stop working at her studies because she doesn’t find the sort of easy, immediate success in class that she does on the playing field. Or the very clever person may alienate the people around him by constantly reminding them how smart he is. How do you make yourself feel okay?

2. Pain is your friend.

Pain is that little guy jumping up and down, waving his arms, trying to get your attention. “Hey, you! Look at me! You’ve got something to deal with here, and something to learn! Pay attention!” People who are not really our friends will give up on us. If we push them hard enough, even people who really love us will finally give up on us. Not pain. You can try to ignore him, run away from him, drown him in booze (or any other distraction you prefer) but he stays right there until you pay attention to him. He is trying to make you pay attention to some sort of problem, to fix it if you can and to learn from it so it doesn’t keep repeating itself. So then the question is . . .

3. What is your problem?

We all have problems. What’s yours? How can you fix it? How can you stop yourself from running into it again and again and again? This is the real work of being human, of growing and learning and developing. Think of a baby, just learning to walk. His problem is, he can’t stand up. Or if he does manage to stand up for a moment, he loses his balance and falls down. Once, twice, three times, ten times. It frustrates him, makes him angry, makes him want to scream, makes him want to cry. If he stops trying and just cries, it will take him much longer to learn to walk. The solution to his problem is patient, determined effort; the only way he can fail is to stop trying. Lots of other problems are just like this—but not all of them. In other cases, doing the same thing over and over again will get you nowhere. In still other cases the problem may be something we cannot change or control. So, what is your problem, exactly, and how can you best deal with it? That’s what you need to find out.

4. We can all use help.

That baby will learn to walk a bit sooner if somebody gives him a hand to hold onto and keep him steady on his feet. You and I will learn from our problems and move on, instead of staying stuck on them, if we get some help from someone who has been there before us, who can see the situation more clearly than we can, who can point us in the right direction. It might be a friend, a family member, a counselor or teacher or therapist or doctor, or a neighbour. Find someone who can help you, and ask for help. If the first person you ask is not the right person, keep searching: someone out there is able to help you and will be happy to do it.

Because we all want to feel okay, and one of the best ways to feel okay is to help someone else.

Oak Outliner: a great note-taking tool for students

Students who have laptops in class can take notes quickly and easily using Oak, a plain-text browser-based outliner that is free, fast, and easy to use. The commands are quite simple and intuitive. Nothing more than an internet connection is required, and you can save your work simply by copying it and pasting it wherever you like.

Give it a try: http://oakoutliner.com.