Slightly off topic, but I'm sick of post titles that start with "A Redditor's ...". A title like that is just going to encourage comments and culture from reddit which is usually inappropriate here. "Redditors" are mostly normal people, "An insightful message for discouraged students" would have been a perfectly good title to this.
I agree. I feel some people on reddit don't realize that reddit has a gazillion users & that everyone who's on reddit isn't part of some borg utopia collective. This is actually a problem with a lot of user generated content sites where the site gets more credit than the users who create the content that powers the site.
Agreed. There is some bias against reddit here, which is fine, HN & reddit have different goals. But this sort of "A Redditor's …" makes me feel like pro-redditors are trying to say "Look! Look! We're not all bad". The goal seems to be reconsiliation, but in reality it is just divisive.
The comments on /r/bestof links are usually about the fact that it was posted in /r/bestof, rather than about the subject itself. And if they are about the comment itself, it's really just because the comment itself already had too many replies for a new comment to be noticed.
There's research behind this too. The book NurtureShock has a chapter on telling kids "you're smart" vs. "you worked hard." There was even some HN discussion on it. Basically, when you attribute your kids accomplishments to their being smart, they kind of freeze up when they get a problem they can't handle. But when you attribute it to hard work, they work harder to figure it out. There are a series of fascinating experiments that bare this out.
For people into parenting books, I highly recommend NurtureShock. It's about the only parenting book I've found based on actual scientific research, as opposed to being somebody's opinion.
All through primary and secondary school, and through most of university, I have scraped by on brute intelligence and my efficient memory. Like a lot of HNers, I suspect. But that began to leave me behind. I failed algorithms. I jokingly said to my professor a year later "I'm not smart enough for algo".
"You're plenty smart", he said. "You just didn't do any work".
I took up Olympic-style weightlifting ("Oly" to friends) about 3 years ago. It taught me the most important lesson of my working and studying life:
You cannot cram for a competition.
No one training session makes for success on the platform. Success comes from months of work. A few hours, every day or two. Each session is hard, sure, but by itself does not seem like much. But the cumulative effect can be amazing.
By my third year in computer science I was becoming more methodical about studying. My scores improved and my professors accepted me for honours. Thanks to the learned ability to stick to a project for months on end, I completed my degree last year with first class honours.
I wish I'd known earlier that consistency, and not flashes of brilliance, is what would get people to think of me as truly capable.
I kind of hated this. I did pretty well in school. But the result never seemed to match the amount of effort I put in. I would be told "you worked hard" for something I didn't work hard on, or "you should work harder" for something that took me weeks to finish.
When someone would tell me I had worked hard on something, I would get embarassed and shut down. I'm not sure exactly why...
But I did react exactly like the NutureShock book mentions.
I'm feeling pangs in my chest just thinking of all the times I froze with a fear of failure when presented with even the slightest challenge. Or even worse, when I would brush something off as beneath me, since I was so smart. I didn't need to try.
I'm in high school right now and I agree with this a lot. It's not as much in high school, but in middle school, almost every assignment had an effort mark, and it always annoyed. I mean, how are they going to know how much effort I put in it? They could look at the quality of the final product, but a few times, I would screw up completely so I had to redo the whole thing and then what I handed in would not look as good. Obviously, there was some merit to the idea having an effort mark, as that would reward hard work, but it annoyed me personally.
It was kind of the opposite in college for me. I remember in one class, I got a B- on every single paper regardless of how much time I spent on it or how much planning I put into the paper. I got very discouraged and almost flunked out of two courses in my last semester. So I guess some amount of effort is required :)
Ya, effort is required for sure, but I think the papers should be marked according to categories that actually can be marked, such as grammar and spelling, factual correctness etc. There is still some subjectivity, but it's way more fair.
It's hard to grade a non-research paper that way though. For example, that class was a Humanities 101 class. We were supposed to do some analysis of whatever book we'd just read. So good grammar is not a large part of the grade, and factual correctness is not easy to check when you could "hit the stacks" and cross-reference any other books in the library. The teacher (who was good by the way, I'm blaming the system not him) would grade the paper based on how "good" he felt it was, based on your apparent understanding of the material, and your ability to think well and express your thoughts clearly.
There is also a lot of bias in this though. I have an interesting anecdote from this, one I'm not so proud of... For the first half of my writing 101 class I got a B-/C+ on every essay I wrote ~3-4. Then I took my girlfriends at the time "creative writing"/poem or whatever the assignment was and my teacher went bonkers about it thought it was better than sliced bread, tried to get me to take a creative writing class (which I milked and was like yaa i'll think about it). I wrote every paper after that and consistently got 95+ on them. Interestingly in the last paper one notable comment from her was "Your content is brilliant! your analysis of the book and your thoughts are the subject are amazing! however be careful with your sentence structure and grammer it detracts from the paper" I got a 97 on this and I put basically the same effort on this paper as I did in the beginning.
This is simple human bias if you expect something to be good it will be good, and has to do with how your teacher feels about you.
Ya, many of my English papers are graded on factors like thought and understanding, supporting evidence etc. While, these are still subjective, for these and the measures you were marked on, it much easier to explain what a five out of five, what a four out of five is etc. rather than say effort. But, ya, it's way harder to come with fair, objective criteria for Humanities papers. (At least it is for my experienced high school mind)
It's hard for everyone. He was one of the deans of a liberal arts college, and had had a paper published in Dickens Quarterly. So he really knew what he was talking about when it came to writing humanities papers. But in the discussion we had on grading, he admitted that there were very few rules. He would try just to be fair.
I recall seeing a posted list that related student ID numbers to grades. I think I would remember if everyone got an A. Because I felt so guilty about that A that I did the assignments and turned them in, after the fact. The class was about morals and ethics, and the irony bothered me.
I wouldn't do that today, because I'm more aware of how irrelevant school is.
This is exactly what came to mind for me. To see Don Knuth say that he was afraid of failing is downright shocking... I would have thought he would have spent very little time thinking about classes and would have already been in a world of his own at that point.
One interesting happening I've noticed too is that with mathematical and computing knowledge specifically it seems that as people gain knowledge it becomes easier to add new knowledge. The curve seems exponential. It's easy to pick up Python if you're already familiar with C and C++. It's easy to understand a new comparison sorting algorithm if you know it can't be faster than O(n lg n) and can place it in perspective with merge and quicksort.
This is why I still go on Stack Overflow and am floored by how few questions I can answer and how much more experienced guys know than me. But I have hope that learning will beget faster learning.
This is hugely important. I don't remember where I ran across this idea (the "you're smart" vs "you worked hard") but it was a while ago and it explained a _lot_ about my life. Growing up I was always told "you're smart" instead of "you worked hard", and this left me vastly unprepared for situations where actual work is required (starting near the end of high school). By the time I was a sophomore in college I had already identified this problem, but it didn't stop me from flaking out most of my classes and eventually dropping out. Even today, I'm 26, with a great job working for an extremely influential tech company, and I'm still struggling with the motivational issues that started with "you're smart".
Indeed, I really liked this post. Everyone hears how hard MIT is, but then everyone sees how 97% pass, so you think these must be some geniuses that get in who transcend "normal" folk like us. They're just normal people who might not have been the smartest at school, but know when they're not motivated and how to look for help and get motivated. It's a good message for any student.
This. My brother goes to MIT and he is precisely life-sized. He just works very hard. Let me also comment that the difference on starting salary at MIT is not so different from that of top five schools. Coming from one of those schools and knowing the students there, I believe that your degree of success is more strongly linked to your work effort and the experiences you seek, compared to the school you went to.
I have another message for struggling students: Go outside and get some fresh air; exercise; smile. It's only a grade.
I have experienced first-hand the shock of discovering just how hard university is, but pushing yourself harder and harder until you break is not the answer. You need to be smarter about how you work, you need to develop proper study habits, and you need to get over your fear of asking for help. But at the end of the day, grades are just grades. Once you finish university and get your first job, none of this will matter anymore.
University is far harder than programming jobs, so don't judge yourself too harshly for struggling. Many things are more important in life. Remember to enjoy the most intense learning experience you will ever experience, and don't forget to look after your own health.
I agree with him when he says that it is mostly how hard you work, dedication, and ambition. But wouldn't we just be fooling ourselves when we say it's not genetic? Maybe I'm wrong but, there are such things as kids that knowledge comes easier to, and kids that they simply can't understand something.
Also, for example, a kid with ADHD is woefully behind on the "being able to sit and work" ability. I think it's nice that we say "everyone is equal and let's hold hands" But I personally don't understand that.
That's one of those facts that is probably true, but not useful (at least to an individual plotting their own course.) If you feel stupid, what's the more likely thing? That you are up against a fundamental barrier, or that you haven't worked hard enough? What's the better outcome, that you knuckle down or give up?
Knowing the genetic basis for intelligence is kinda like knowing about obscure diseases. When you have the sniffles, it's probably just a cold, not lupus. When you're finding something beyond your grasp, you're probably not working hard enough, or working smart enough.
Sure, if you're a policy maker allocating budgets and looking at the population in aggregate, it makes sense to have a deep understanding of all the problems that may not be fixable. But if you're deciding what to do with yourself, why give yourself the excuse?
Don't you like logic & understanding? I am not sure why anyone here would promote an ignorance is bliss kind of attitude when it comes to mental or learning disorders. This reeks of the military's inability to accept PTSD as a real condition, ostracizing those who claim they have it as being weak or lazy. Does the hacker/geek crowd have the same trouble accepting learning disabilities as a valid form of mental illness?
I really haven't heard any successful startup founder say "My genetic make-up made my project successful".
The truth is genetics do matter if for no other reason than the fact that who your parents are will greatly determine your opportunities later in life by the fact that they control the country you're born in. Not to mention that your family's mental or physical health history can have a great impact on you as well. If your family has a history of depression, anxiety, attention deficit, dyslexia or substance abuse you are indeed at higher risk of developing those same issues later in life. Also families with those issues can have a greater struggle creating a nurturing environment to break free from the cycle of dysfunction.
I feel that people ignoring the genetic or parental factor are ignoring science & using that ignorance as an excuse to call people lazy so that they feel more in control of their situation despite a considerable amount of their success having nothing to do with their own effort or ingenuity.
My appeal isn't to give people a reason to be lazy, but to admit that we don't know how the brain learns or re-learns things. A person's life my be an eternal struggle until they find help that allows them to escape whatever disease they are dealing with. Ignoring those diseases does not help the person & merely casting them off as lazy or needing to try harder is not a valid remedy.
"My appeal isn't to give people a reason to be lazy, but to admit that we don't know how the brain learns or re-learns things."
If we dont know how the brain learns why should we hurriedly conclude that it is genetic and fixed.Why cant we adopt an attitude that will make us better and work our butts off?
Why cant we adopt an attitude that will make us better and work our butts off?
Because the point of a learning disability is that the person is working their butt off already but still struggling.
It's like having two people try to catch a pig, but one of those pigs is greased. If you tell both participants to use exactly the same effort to catch the pig, the person who has to get the greased pig will probably fail. The person with the greased pig may even try harder than the other person yet still fail to catch the pig.
There isn't an easy solution to mental illness or learning disorders. Again, I am not saying that we should tell people to not try hard, I am just saying that people shouldn't go around saying learning disabilities are an excuse for the lazy or those who don't like to work their butts off.
You are right, and I came here to take issue with this quote:
I admired R., and I looked up to him, and while I doubt I
will ever compete with his genius, I recognize that it's
because of a relative lack of my conviction and an excess
of his, not some accident of genetics.
Endurance, focus, and determination are likely to also be substantially heritable, just like raw intelligence.
> there are such things as kids that knowledge comes easier to
Of course, if it's possible to learn how to learn--that is, if you can learn more efficient study methods--one would expect to see this disparity (effort expended per unit of knowledge acquired [not that you could measure this]) even in a hypothetical population of genetic clones raised in different environments.
As to why downplaying genetic potential could be a good thing, I've got this excellent pg quote fairly well seared into my brain:
"I'm not saying there's no such thing as genius. But if you're trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right." - http://www.paulgraham.com/hs.html
I think people with disabilities or disadvantages in whatever capacity have the ability to hack the system and find the power to overcome these issues but maybe just in a different way than someone without these problems would solve this problem. I guarantee you, there are kids like me who've gotten fantastic grades at University levels without the scholarly understanding, effort, and aptitude that other people exhibit--but we find a way (and I mean more in taking advantage of the system rather than crossing the line to cheating).
Still looking at genetics, look at height--then look at all of the athletes who've defied "sports logic" and excelled in their sport despite the naysayers and their "disadvantage"-- Muggsy Bogues, Doug Flutie, and Martin St. Louis to name a few.
I think knowledge does come easier to some kids, but there are always people with the drive, ambition, and passion that find a way to persevere despite their issue. I know it's cliche but, those that want it, find a way.
There are definitely those who have succeeded despite the odds, but there are also plenty who have failed because of the odds. To ignore genetics is to put your head in the sand. My Portland Trailblazers have had major issues with injuries. Brandon Roy retired due to the knee issues he was born with. Greg Oden's knees appear to be made of rice krispie treats. LaMarcus Aldridge had to get his genetic heart condition treated before this last season started. You cannot just ignore those issues, so I don't see it of value to ignore mental health.
It's true that some people are genetically more intelligent than others. What matters is what you do with your intelligence, which only makes the work easier or harder, and the amount of improvement. People can get much better or worse, regardless of their genetic characteristics. After all anything genetic has been simply given for free..
Not sure why that would happen. I studied Neuroscience as an undergraduate and the topic never really surfaced, largely because enough research has been done to confirm what most of us had already suspected: It's mostly nature, with a bit of nurture to round out the edges. Still, rounding those edges is a big deal, so posts like the one we're discussing here are worth a read (though, to be frank, this one was a little dull. You need good study habits and a bit of humility to be successful? I'd hope all college students know this, not just the ones at MIT). There's a nice book on the subject by Steven Pinker, though a lot of it is filler.
regardless of where you sit on that discussion, he was addressing a specific student who was one grade away from valedictorian and discouraged about not getting into MIT. That being said I think the advice is solid for anyone; there's only one way to find your true limit.
That advice was great, not only for younger students, but for those who have completed university (read: older) as well. Hands down, my favorite part of the piece was:
"smart" is really just a way of saying "has invested so much time and sweat that you make it look effortless."
All of the people that I truly admire (who subsequently I consider to be "smart") fall directly under this guise. They took the time and effort to learn how to be who they are. It's a simple idea, sure, but when it's really taken to heart it can change your entire outlook on things.
Your post makes me grumpy for the following reason:
What you're talking about isn't a failure of willpower, dedication or ambition.
It's a failure of knowledge. It's a failure of knowledge of the resources that are available to them, and it's a failure to awaken from the Samsara of self-doubt.
Inri137's doing the Buddhist thing and trying to shake people awake. These are skills that you can acquire. Sure it's modulated by willpower, dedication, ambition, and some natural talent, but that's not the important part imo. To quote FDR, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
There is no one book to learn from. On the topic you wish to learn about, find the best book you can or the best lecturer/mentor you can. (You're in a very good position to do this. Since you are on Hacker News you are well connected to the kind of people that can point you in the right direction!)
Inri is talking about the conscientious personality trait . This is highly correlated to success in school and in the workplace.
You may consider yourself a struggling student but often a struggle is needed for success. If you're doing this already then have faith that you are on the right path as eventually it will be borne out. My point is that you can learn a conscientious personality, and you can become smarter and stronger willed. Every human is born with some willpower. Every human is born with some intellectual ability. Intellectual effort and willpower are both cumulative. They are like muscles, simple exercise of them grows them.
I have never met a man or woman who has fulfilled their potential.
Students should always be at the lecture with the content in advance to discuss in some form such as peer instruction. My University didn't even release a reading list of Mathematical or Computer Science material prior to the course beginning.
For anybody looking for solid tips on how to apply this attitude to their academics, I've found Cal Newport's blog* an invaluable resource. It's been linked to here before, mainly for its recent posts on 'deliberate practice' versus 'flow', but he also describes many strategies and tactics that high-scoring students at Ivy League-level universities use. They've helped me invaluably, and I find it a real pity that more students don't know about this writing.
Quite literally this is why I love climbing mountains alone, particularly 14ers. Every time I climb one I go through a range of emotions over the 5-7 hours it takes to reach the summit and back.
When I start there is excitement as I see the peak in the distance. Then as I tire comes doubt and the fight with myself about turning around because no one would know, except me of course. The key is to never stop pushing forward. There often comes a point, especially on a new challenging mountain, where all I want to do is turn around. Instead I just focus on the next step in front of me. Step, breath, step, breath,... Then when I finally reach the top, the view is of course beautiful, but the real reward is looking back at the trail I followed and thinking that's impossible yet here I am.
Great post, this happened to me in high school I got into a specialized school after being just above mediocre at a normal school. This was math/physics school in Ukraine that was basically one of 2-3 top schools in the country (whatever that means). First semester my usual mark in my math was 0/12. They only kept me because I was one of the best in programming and physics courses. Took me 5 month till I could solve one of 2 problems that they used for tests (3 hours 2 problems).
In a way it was maybe too early, in university everything was too easy (I did not go to a top school because I had trouble getting a high enough TOEFL score and wanted to start as early as I could). It took failure in graduate school, then few years of wasted 9-5 code monkey work to get me to see the light again.
For me, this read like a manifesto for making your hamster wheel spin as fast as the other hamsters. The OP's core message (i.e., that intelligence is not in-born, but is earned by self-discipline and hard work) seemed very myopic to me, and bound up in the self-congratulatory world of academia. It starts from a position that rests on conclusions about the value of formal education that are no longer dogma for me.
At first, I felt depressed after reading it and all the fawning responses to it. Then, I remembered this parable about how knowledge comes from people, not places:
> "At a gathering of divines, the Mullah was seated right at the end of the room, farthest from the place of honor. He began to tell jokes, and soon people were crowded around him, laughing and listening. Nobody was taking any notice of the greybeard who was giving a learned discourse. When he could no longer hear himself speak, the president of the assembly roared out: ‘You must be silent! Nobody may talk unless he sits where the Chief sits." "I don’t know how you see it," said the Mullah, "but it seems to me that where I sit is where the Chief sits."
After recalling this parable, I realized that I had initially misunderstood the OP's insight. His message was really the same as the Mullah's in many ways.
I'm not following your train of thought here. It seems like you have serious issues with academia, which is fine. But what does the assertion that intelligence and ability is honed by hard work and practice vs innate talent have to do with academic dogma? This is equally applicable to all human endeavor.
The debate about intelligence being a trait of nature vs. nurture is an academic debate, and not the takeaway here.
What I took away from OP's story is that his friend "R" was a more useful source of lasting wisdom than his MIT instructors. Why? Because "R" had cultivated an air of confidence, charisma, and credibility. How "R" achieved this wisdom himself is a red herring.
P.S. This also isn't about my gripes with academia. I have no problem with people squandering their time and money and lives on any variety of "rat race", including the various diversions that people consider to be an education. As I said, you have to "taste" for yourself to truly understand. I have no agenda to change anyone's mind with words. I was just sharing my own revelation about the OP's message.
Allow me to further muddy the waters with another Nasrudin parable:
An opinionated and small-minded cleric was lecturing the people in the teahouse where Nasrudin spent so much of his time.
As the hours went by, Nasrudin realized how this man’s thoughts were running in patterns, how he was a victim of vanity and pride, how minor points of unrealistic intellectualism for its own sake were magnified by him and applied to every situation.
Subject after subject was discussed, and every time the intellectual cited books and precedents, false analogies and extraordinary presumptions without intuitive reality.
At length he produced a book which he had written, and Nasrudin stretched his hand forth to see it, because he was the only literate man present.
Holding it in front of his eyes, Nasrudin turned page after page, while the assembly looked on. After several minutes the itinerant cleric began to fidget. Then he could not contain himself any longer. ‘You are holding my book upside down!’ he screamed.
‘I know,’ said Nasrudin, ‘Since it is one of the archetypes which seems to have produced you, it seems to be the only sensible thing to do, if one is to learn from it.’
The Redditor is talking about a specific trap that some people who've been told from a young age that they're smart fall in to, at different ages. The trap involves - mostly - having not been challenged previously, and not knowing how to work through things that don't come easily.
When I was a kid, I spent 6 years at a school in Barbados, and some time at a school in Thailand, where I was unambiguously the smartest kid in the class, with the top grades, always. Then at 10 I went to the UK's largest prep school. I was behind in Latin, French, and a bunch of other subjects - especially those which required any rote learning (which I hadn't come across up to that point).
The transition to a school with /much/ better teaching saw me become a distinctly mediocre student almost straight away - faced with challenges, and faced with not being able to simply smart my way to the top of the class, I started rejecting work wholesale - something that stayed with me throughout the rest of my formal education, and led to me getting some truly shitty A-Level grades, to the disgust of teachers who saw much greater potential there.
Hard work and talent are both important, and so is the ability to encounter and handle challenge. If you grew up in an environment where you were coasting at the top, the first time you encounter serious challenge you might well fall apart.
I've recently started an MSc at what Americans would call an Ivy-League university (having talked my way without an undegrad degree), and the first module I'm working with is "Software Engineering Mathematics". Working through the chapters of the book I have consistently had real trouble getting to grips with the material. I want it to just fit in straight away - and I just want to understand it - and it doesn't, and that's a constant challenge.
Being a little older, and a little more mature, I'm throwing everything I have against it now, and seeing real dividends for perseverance. But every day is a struggle of fighting against the part of me that doesn't know how to deal with challenge, and I put that down to the sudden transition from coasting to the top to sudden massive challenge, and having not dealt well with it at the time - which it sounds like the very very original poster was also struggling with.
When you're in school, it often doesn't seem like the work is given to you. I remember knowing this, and I remember when it switched over for me in different subjects or different contexts. I'm not sure that start up world or "real world" is any different, there are just new (more difficult) contexts which can start out seeming mysterious but can become routine (often in retrospect).
Learning to code and actually coding are much like dealing with difficult courses. You work hard and you have to know how to find the knowledge you need.
Being an entrepreneur is entirely different. You need to work hard, but there are a lot of things which aren't so linear. It's kind of like picking up chicks. Hard work and being smart doesn't help you there. ;)
This post is an eye opener, true and engaging. You can co-relate to the maths example with anything hard. You have give it time. I had a math book in school where it said, "If you love mathematics it will love you back." Actually if you look at it, for competency in any topic you have to work with it. You will eventually get it, if you are ready to work hard.
It may take some time but what the hell if you really want to understand something you got a give everything to it.
That post is very good, but it could delve more on how to motivate oneself. I am therefor cross-posting my own post here, trying to add some more value to this thread. First, a disclaimer, this will probably sound too abstract and not a guide on motivating yourself to study, well, it's true, this is a comment on how to motivate yourself through your entire life, and studying is usually a big part of it.
I've met very motivated people in my life, many of which are creating amazing things and companies. The first characteristic you can see in all these people is that they all have a well defined end goal. That's the first thing everyone should look for when motivating themselves, finding an end goal. This is essentially a long term goal, not short term ones. It must be a single goal, not a set of goals, else you will loose focus. I can hear you thinking already, "but I want to do so much", but that's the beauty of this end goal, it can be broad enough to cover all your dreams. This is the hardest question to answer ("what's my purpose in this life?"), took me 15 years (from the day I started to think about this, when I was a kid) to decide on what I wanted to do with my life, but the more life experience you have, the easier it is to decide upon it. When deciding on this, make sure you don't confuse the end with the means to reach it, so don't choose a specific goal such as become a doctor, or become the president of your country. Do you want to be a doctor, or do you want to actually save lives? Do you want to be the president, or do you want to build a better country/world? A tip that can help you with not confusing the end with the means is: state your end goal in 3 words or less. I can state mine in 2.
The second characteristic motivated people have is confidence. They are usually pretty confident they can reach their end goal. This is one of the reasons people have very different goals. Many would say that making the world better is a good goal, but how many would say they got the confidence to do it? If you don't have the confidence, build it. A little example from my own experience: when a kid I was scared of skating down a big half-pipe from a park we used to go to. At that time, my goal was quite simple, have fun and skate better than my friends, but I didn't really have the confidence to accept the challenge of skating down that huge half-pipe. I built up my confidence by going down smaller ones (even broke an arm when doing that, but it didn't stop me, I learned from my mistake and started using gloves) until one day I was confident enough to try going down the large one, and so I did. That's how you build confidence.
Lastly, after choosing your goals and building the confidence to do it, you need to decide on what way to take. For any goal, there are a wide choice of ways you can take to move towards them. Some ways are easier than others, some are more interesting, some are very challenging. This is what will define your short and mid term goals. Think of them as stepping stones so you can reach the end goal. Let's go back to one of our examples, you want to save lives. You can be a doctor and save lives, you can be a scientist, finding cures to diseases in a lab and save lives, you can be a fireman and save lives or even be an investor in nanotechnology labs and save lives. Which way is more appealing to you? Let's continue, you decided that by being a doctor you will save lives. First of all, what kind of doctor do you want to be? A cardiologist? A neurosurgeon? An E.R. doctor? Well, do you need to make that decision now? Not really, you can choose it while you are at college, so let's move on. Oh, right, you must enter college and graduate before becoming a doctor. Uhm, do you want to enter the best college you can? Damn, we need to study for the SAT then (I ain't American, not really sure how college admissions really work). Anyway, this is how you decide on the way. You state your end goal and work backwards from the longest term goal to the shortest one. That's how you decide on what means you will use to reach your end goal.
Anyway, after deciding on all that, that's how you will be motivated to study for that algebra exam, or to pay attention at that physics class from that boring teacher at 6pm on a Friday. A couple important notes, I highly suggest you to never share your end goal with your peers. This usually undermines your confidence, and therefor, your motivation. Secondly, your goal, once defined shouldn't change. If it changes, it just mean you haven't found yours yet. What can change, and should change (due to changes in environment) are the means you choose to take. The means can always change, but they should always be moving you towards the end. An example, your country enters in war. This is highly disruptive to everyone's lives and this will very likely affect on the means you will choose to reach your goal, but shouldn't change your end goal.
The more I learned the more I realized that the bulk of his intelligence and his performance just came from study and practice
Bullshit. When a 3rd grader masters differential calculus it is almost entirely hard-core innate intelligence combined with an innate ability to concentrate. No normal 3rd grade has the ability to study at that level. People who succeed often want to think it was entirely their hard work, and that lucky genes had no real influence.
Think about it.
If you take someone of average intelligence, he could spend his entire life, sweating and studying like crazy every day,
and not get through MIT. Even Bill Gates went from Theory to Applied math at Harvard when he realized how difficult it was. If you think he isn't a determined, hard-working person, well... The truth is, he just didn't have the freakish IQ required for the work.
Work as hard as you can, learn your own strengths and limitations, learn to enjoy your successes without getting lazy, and struggle to understand something just enough so you can ask questions about does and doesn't work.
We are three levels removed from the original post. This all seems very meta. ;-)
Anyhow, I don't have much for tips. I was like the OP, too confident from my own good and was almost crushed by a college engineering program.
I think my main problem is I often accomplish things by with intense fits of work. It's easy to underestimate the effectiveness of the slow-and-steady approach. I'm still working on improving with that.
Regarding college, my advice is go to class, do the reading, do the assignments. If you can find a group to study and do homework with, that helps. I'd also recommend reading "Getting Things Done". The power of identifying the next task for a project is truly amazing and the "get it out of your head" ready does reduce stress.