Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Obsession (pastebin.com)
390 points by SecretofMana 1638 days ago | hide | past | web | 114 comments | favorite

If the OP wrote the pastebin content and is reading this, don't be so hard on yourself. The self-awareness on display here alone is a sign of high ability, and it's something many people lack. I go to a top-10 school and it's clear to me that intelligence ≠ grades in a lot of cases.

Also, you can't be "a fool" for believing in yourself. Confidence, false or earned, is incredibly useful in motivating yourself to push limits and achieve great things. I have found that as long as I tell myself my goals are achievable and do my work in that mindset, I can do many things I thought were out of my reach. It sounds like "The Secret"-esque bullshit, but it can help.

There is no reason to push yourself to the point of "breaking as you describe. When you get there, take a step back and think about why you're at school and why you're chasing x or y career goal. The point of work is to purchase leisure, but if you're letting work consume everything then you'll have a hard time being happy. I think many people forget that work is, in many cases, a means to an end. Slow down until you're at a point where you can enjoy your time, and don't worry about the pace of everyone around you. Again this might sound like cliché nonsense but I take a lot of comfort in thinking about the big picture when pressure builds.

If you weren't looking for advice, forget everything I said. Also I congratulate you for "letting it all out", it's not easy to compose one's thoughts into such a rational assessment of a bad situation.

I too went to a top 5 school and took some of the hardest classes in a school which is famous for its hard classes. And yes, it becomes pretty obvious quickly that grades are not a reflection of intelligence. And when the threshold intelligence is high in the sample size, say at a good school, grades and intelligence may be very weakly correlated, if at all.

Personally, I do have the ability to be extremely focused for long hours. But I don't think that having that ability counts for a lot in real world. My cofounder is borderline ADHD and there are things he can accomplish that I just cannot.

> Personally, I do have the ability to be extremely focused for long hours. But I don't think that having that ability counts for a lot in real world.

As a person who recently discovered that he doesn't have this ability and can't focus for more than 10 minutes unless it's a hobby project or one is in a really good mood, I can tell you that this ability does count a lot.

Happily, you can train the ability to hold your attention on whatever you desire, just like you might train your biceps to be stronger.

If you're interested, look into "mindfulness meditation". If you're immediately repelled (as I was) by the idea, know that there are several serious engineers who now swear by this technique. There is a guy at Google who teaches mindfulness meditation in a series of classes to other Googlers, and he can't keep up with demand. Look at siyli.org for some introductory videos (especially the ones showing a physiological effects of having done N hours of meditation).

Thanks for your advice and reassuring references. I actually stumbled upon mindfulness meditation several times on HN, and after first being repelled, I ended up up reading "Mindfulness In Plain English" recently, and now I'm about to start practicing it.

Basically, I got fed up with this state and decided to solve it once and for all. I've managed to make some progress on it and I feel better/more productive at work now, so I have high hopes it'll get even better. Mindfulness is what I'm trying now, and the next book to read is "Feeling Good" (similarly, heavily recommended on HN), a basic Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy book.

While I agree that this ability may help in certain kinds of development/ coding work, I do think they are various cognitive niches that different people can occupy well.

For instance, I think people with functioning ADHD do pretty well as dealmakers, traders and maybe even certain kind of managers. I suffer from a mild form of bipolar, and it allows me to be very creative & productive in my manic phases, but I cannot always be as consistent as an ops person.

I get what you're saying and why it has to be said, but I want to add that I think it's reasonable to work for reasons other than buying leisure.

In particular, I believe that it's important for me to be useful to society, and I also consider my work to be personal, like an art. As a result, my happiness is tied to how well I think I'm working. I don't think that's crazy.

I'd like to add to this too:

There are two kinds of false confidence: the kind you believe to be true and the kind you don't. Both can cause trouble when you can't deliver, but when false confidence is expressed in good faith it's hard to really lay too much blame on the person in the short term; it was simply a mistake. If failure acts as a "market correction" and the person amends their behavior in such a way that they improve (always in many small increments, never in one swift move of grandeur) and subsequently gains a new high confidence that's backed by something real, the failure was a good and worthwhile one.

One thing I've learned to love is being average. I'm not some rockstar ninja coder. Nor do I want to be. Average is fine. Do you know what average people accomplish? A lot! Average people build cars, houses, farm food, they even manage to program these magical things called computers. Not everybody is a genius, or even bright. Nor everybody needs to be one. You can do amazing things without having been an straight A student. How do I know? I graduated with a GPA of 2.16. Yep. 2.16. Guess what? I am a programmer who enjoys his work, make a very, very good living, and have managed to build a coupe of profitable businesses. All while being an average guy.

I used to think that being smart was the thing to be. Not anymore. What you need to be is resilient. While a smart person pauses to analyze, I keep trying and trying until I get it. No pause needed.

Go on. Live your life. Love the gifts you have and put them to good use. Don't measure yourself by how you compare to others. But how you compare to your own past. Keep moving. Be resilient.

I have some similar issues, though I still breezed through college (prestigious school in 3.5 years, deans list, didn't "study"). I probably related that story here (and definitely did on reddit in one of those kids-called-gifted-where-are-you-now thread), so I'll spare us that story again.

But where this really hit me was just two years after college, trying to write a large technical book (on HTML). I'm just now completing the task after 9 long months.

It seemed like my mind broke, not because it was hard, but because of some other invisible wall. I still don't have the words for it. Writing about other things and reading other writing seemed to be the only thing that helped. It was easy to write about the topics of my expertise, but so much of the book was material that I had only heard of, and had to immerse myself in completely before I could even begin the task of writing. The project was therefore a set of many tasks within tasks.

OP writes:

> Regardless of whether or not they like or dislike the material, they break the challenge of studying for a test or completing an assignment into small problems, working away until they know, not think, but absolutely know that they are ready.

There are four or five poems I read almost every day as a sort of cathartic ritual, and one of them is The Ladder of St. Augustine, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (of Paul Revere fame). The snippet that runs through my mind constantly:

    We have not wings, we cannot soar;
    But we have feet to scale and climb
    By slow degrees, by more and more,
    The cloudy summits of our time.
    The mighty pyramids of stone
    That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
    When nearer seen, and better known,
    Are but gigantic flights of stairs.
    The distant mountains, that uprear
    Their solid bastions to the skies,
    Are crossed by pathways, that appear
    As we to higher levels rise.
    The heights by great men reached and kept
    Were not attained by sudden flight,
    But they, while their companions slept,
    Were toiling upward in the night.
Some days its hard to open a text editor. I don't know why. But sometimes looking down at the stepping stones is more useful for moving forward than looking up at your goals or (sometimes worse) everyone else. I think of poetry and start the program.

[1] http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Ladder_of_St._Augustine

> I have some similar issues

It honestly sounds like you do not have similar issues at all.

Everybody has an experience or story about where they hit a wall with something in their life. This post was specifically about hitting a wall in college.

Writing a book is quite a different task from taking college classes. It's also not something where you can easily compare yourself against others, which was a huge component of this post.

While you give good advice, I'm going to call you out on the humblebrag here. I imagine that OP might feel kind of bad to hear about the troubles of a deans list student who had trouble becoming a published technical author.

I think you're right here, sorry about that.

The point I should have made instead of comparing it to myself is that I don't think its collegiate difficulty per se that is problematic for a lot of people. Instead I think the problem is large (seemingly too large) tasks, and people like the OP and myself never learned how to deal with them until far too late.

Had I gone to a college that assigned larger homework I don't think I would have done nearly as well, so my chance to attempt a non-trivial sized project until I was out of school.

There are four or five poems I read almost every day as a sort of cathartic ritual

Wonderful! I'd love to hear about them. I also have a few go-to poems for those days I feel unbalanced. The two I've probably digested the most would be "If--" by Rudyard Kipling, and "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann. They're not exactly hidden gems, and I've even seen them floated around HN from time to time, but man do they work.



> There are four or five poems I read almost every day as a sort of cathartic ritual, and one of them is The Ladder of St. Augustine, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (of Paul Revere fame).

Out of curiosity, if it isn't too personal, which are the other ones?

One random by Du Fu, I have a book on my desk with several bookmarked. They are hard to understand without knowing the time period (he lived through one of the largest losses of life on the planet), but here's one that's fairly neutral: nothttps://gist.github.com/simonsarris/5472121

Mad River, also by HW Longellow (I live on this river)


St. Augustine, which was above

And one from a collection of poems by an "amateur", the poet most dear to me, and one of the few people who has encouraged me to write: http://everything2.com/user/etouffee/writeups

"...though I still breezed through college (prestigious school in 3.5 years, deans list, didn't "study"). I probably related that story here (and definitely did on reddit in one of those kids-called-gifted-where-are-you-now thread), so I'll spare us that story again."

Sorry but reading this makes me want to wretch -- the Bard character from Asterix comes to mind ;-)

There's a similar passage from Pope's "An Essay on Criticism that I'm particularly fond of and I think illustrates the kind of hubris the OP was suffering from:

  A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
  Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
  There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
  And drinking largely sobers us again.

  Fir'd at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
  In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,
  While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
  Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,

  But more advanc'd, behold with strange Surprize
  New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
  So pleas'd at first, the towring Alps we try,
  Mount o'er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;

  Th' Eternal Snows appear already past,
  And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
  But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
  The growing Labours of the lengthen'd Way,

  Th' increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,
  Hills peep o'er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
Also, "Before the gates of excellence, the high gods have placed sweat" -Hesiod

I've had similar issues as the OP, though at university I accepted lower marks than I could have gotten because I simply didn't want to go to class. I could learn the material on my own and use the time-savings to learn other things I was interested in. I almost always made top marks on exams, so it wasn't an issue (unless attendance was mandatory...)

I met a few people that had screwed off in High School, but for some reason had decided to take College extraordinarily seriously. I realized that for other people, material that would take me an hour or two to learn would take a solid 8 locked in the library.

As it turns out, after talking to some of these people, the problem wasn't that they weren't smart. It's that they didn't know how to learn, or had some misconceptions about what learning entailed. I've watched people slog through upper-level math classes by trying to memorize the relevant material, when they could have understood it in half the time, if they'd approached the material with the right mindset.

For a while, I was the OP. At least until I realized that if your goal is to beat your peers, or measure up to some arbitrary external standard, you probably won't. Even if you succeed, you'll make yourself miserable trying. On the other hand, if your goal is to learn, you'll do it. You might even stand a chance of beating out your peers. Unfortunately, something a lot of people don't understand about learning is that after a certain amount of effort, it just takes the amount of time it's gonna take. You can't really sit down and say "I'm going to learn x in y hours" and not be disappointed much of the time. Sadly, the education system all the way through College makes it seem like this is so.

It totally is about the mindset. And it's a combination of being properly motivated(intrinsic interest), and also seeing different ways in which to navigate the subject, and also knowing which ones are suited to your abilities at that moment.

With all of those traits, it's easy. If you miss one, you might be able to slog through. And if you miss two, it will be extremely difficult.

And our educational systems really don't encourage anything but memorization, despite ample PR otherwise, so there's a selection bias by the time you hit college level courses.


>The original outside of pyramid consisted of smooth, white limestone that hid the layers of brick, giving the effect that a pyramid was one giant solid piece.

I liked that very much. Now I'd be quite interested in knowing what your four other chosen poems are.

Nevermind, I see your reply elsewhere in the thread. (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5617082)

Do you mind sharing the complete list of poems that you read daily?

I love these poems, they're such a great motivational reading.

I'm interested in what other poems you read.

> I spend the day bedridden and panic-stricken by my own insecurities.

To the author of the piece: you are depressed. You are shutting down all reasons to like yourself or even to have fun. I strongly advise counseling, immediately. Even though you're in the middle of exams, this is very important. Your school will have free or inexpensive resources available.

I know you wrote your piece as a cautionary tale, but there's a subtext of giving up on yourself, and it seems that acknowledging and showing imperfection is very difficult for you - or very difficult for your family. (Let me guess, Asian parents?)

There is a way out. However, the way out does not involve barricading yourself in your room or deciding that you are inherently broken.

The thing that successful people have in common is not being superhuman, it's that they seek out -- and get -- help from other people all the time.

I agree. Get help! It's not something to be ashamed of. Failure isn't something to be ashamed of. College isn't a race; maybe consider taking a year off and doing some exploring. Here's a quick Google for advice for taking a year off from college: http://ask.metafilter.com/25004/Taking-a-year-off-from-colle...

Otherwise, I can recommend to you a book that opened my eyes to the process of learning. The Art of Learning -- Josh Waitzkin.

Thank you for your advice.

The acknowledging and showing imperfection part is very difficult for me, not for my family, who have been very supportive and understanding along the way.

A lot of people don't mention this, but being smart (and more importantly knowing that you're smart) at an early age can have a HUGE negative effect on your development.

This obviously doesn't happen always, but when you're a kid that knows you have some superior intellect, you make immature kid-like decisions because of it. You fall in love with your own head. You believe that you just "get it." You ignore opportunities to develop skills because you have this irrational (and often misplaced) confidence in you abilities.

This sounds like exactly what happened to the OP. They never truly developed ther ability to focus because they could always skate by. Then when they finally couldn't skate by anymore, BAM, they realize "oh shit, I'm nowhere near as good at this as I thought I was."

The good news is that once you have the awareness you can fix it, which is what it sounds like the OP started to do. Just don't focus so much on grades :)

I read an article a while back that how you praise your children makes a huge difference. Basically instead of telling them "you're so smart" it's much better to say "wow you tried really hard and it payed off."

Hey everyone, OP here.

I'm sincerely very grateful for all the advice. I wrote this out of frustration less so with my grades, despite the tone of the piece, and more so with the way I had been treating my friends as of late, in particular my girlfriend, because of my grades versus theirs. I have been a jerk to the ones that I love without reason, and that irritates me. I will definitely keep in mind what's been said here, though.

For what it is worth, I also do not believe that I suffer from depression. Although I am harsh on myself, and always have been harsh on myself, I have always managed to work through and overcome my fears, usually by venting like this, although until now I did it privately.

I also don't think that I have ADD, since there are stretches of time where I can focus intensely, such as at hackathons or when I'm more relaxed over school.

Returning to my computer after posting this was really a shock, I didn't expect this much of a response to what I had initially perceived as an immature outburst. Thank you all so much.

ADD doesn't mean you can't focus. It just means you usually only focus on things that interest you. At least, until they no longer hold your interest.

There is a certain anxiety that comes when you know you have to do something you really don't want to do. For example, a class holds no interest, you know what needs to be done but you have no inclination to do it, so you don't. Besides you can always do it later and later sounds great. The deadline draws near and you must complete tasks (final projects, prepare for the exam, etc) or risk taking the class over again. You know you need to perform but you just can't bring yourself to do it. The anxiety of missing the deadline sets in and the thought of doing something over again that you detested doing in the first place begins to eat away at you. The tasks really aren't all that difficult or time-consuming. The real barrier to success is just you and your own stubborn will. Now there's anguish from the self-inflicted pain. Then you get depressed because you realize that you did this to yourself.

If they are true friends, they will forgive you for your behavior. An apology will probably help smooth over any discord that you might have prepared. After that, don't worry about what you've done in the past: you can't change it, all you can do is change how you move forward.

Thank you for posting this. It was an eye-opening read, and hit pretty close to home.

Your experience resonated with my first year of college (~12 years ago). I came from a relatively small pond, and found myself similarly outclassed when I got to college.

What I read in your story is that you are attributing the success of others and your failure to intrinsic qualities in them and yourself. This is a bad mindset; from this point of view at best your successes are realizations of a predetermined destiny, and at worst every failure is a personal reflection on you. In this worldview, it is emotionally safer to not try at all, and to pin your failures on a lack of interest or lack of effort. In the long run this is an incredibly destructive way to think, as you never accumulate the experience necessary to ultimately succeed.

You wrote:

"The students who obtain top grades in classes have an ability to focus like no other... It was an insult for me to think that I was ever anything like them"

It is possible that some rare people possess this ability from birth. Most of us have had to learn it. There is a way to gain this skill, and that way is by trying, failing, then trying again.

By your own account, you have not been trying until very recently. You should not expect to succeed on your first attempt or perform at the level of individuals that have been working at it for years. The good news is that your failure is not a reflection of anything intrinsic to your being, it is a reflection on the way people learn good study skills and work habits.

It sounds like you are arriving at this conclusion on your own, and I strongly encourage you to adopt a learning mindset where intelligence and achievement are things gained through practice and gradual improvement rather than characteristics engrained from birth.

There are good studies on the value of this mindset from the field of developmental psychology. A quick scan of the literature turns up a few. I didn't look very hard here, but you may find them worth a quick scan and a starting point for further investigation:

http://academic.reed.edu/motivation/docs/DangerousMindsetsPu... http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17328703 http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/23087453?uid=3739560&#...

Some of those are not available in their entirety on the public internet, though it sounds like you're at university and may have access to them through the campus network.

My closing advice is to stay focused on incremental achievement and do your best to learn from your failures. You are starting at a disadvantage, but you can close the gap with time and effort.

> I should have put the effort in first and should have only allowed myself to gain confidence through the results that followed.

This is a very powerful ending. I've struggled a lot to change parts of me in the past, but this is my big fight. I, like everyone else, care too much about other's opinion. I base almost my whole confidence on other's people opinion. Others rise me up or take me down. And I've tried to change that to something else. I've tried the "I don't give a fuck", I've tried to be mean... But I think trying to get confident through work is the best way.

There is so very correlation between grades and creativity[1], which I consider to be far more important than raw intelligence (as measured by an IQ test).

The problem with the OP is not that he got so worried about grades, it's that he/she let is obsession with grades impact his relationships with others. He saw them as a zero-sum game, and that's not the way life is (generally) played. Even within university, where grades may be distributed in a zero-sum fashion, the entire experience is most assuredly not zero-sum.

More importantly than all of that, though, is the OP gained a large level of self-awareness. That self-awareness (as long as he doesn't let him completely cripple his confidence) will be far more valuable than full marks here and there.

1. http://www.jofamericanscience.org/journals/am-sci/0505/13_09...

I can vouch for the fact that self-awareness is a VERY sharp double edged sword.

I had much the same high school experience as the OP, but unlike him, I didn't get into a decent college or university and took two years off to work at a small startup. I couldn't have been luckier. I was a much stronger student later as a result, and a much harder worker.

My dad did the same thing, and spent a couple of years in the naval reserve.

My advice to other students would be: don't rush into higher education if it's not the right time for you. Time "off" for other life experiences, including work, makes a huge difference.

All through high school, I was this guy. So sure of my own abilities, so sure that all I lacked to achieve was intent. When i went to university, failing my first compsci year badly, this served as a wake up call. Strangely however it was not the one I needed. It showed me that I knew less than I thought I did, but I remained convinced that with good solid cramming I could force into my brain what I needed to excel and that fundamentally those students that did get good grades were no better. It didn't help that I got good grades on the actual programming parts, it was mostly the theoretical subjects that I failed. But my intentions to cram what I lacked in theoretical knowledge never panned out. I could never motivate myself enough to cram as long and as hard as it seemed I needed to, and I continued to get bad grades. I made excuses, how a long period of illness prevented me from studying, how getting great scores didn't matter as long as I passed. But in the end, the results stayed the same.

Eventually I was forced by my parents to a decision: get serious or drop out. I dropped out and got a programming job.

And then something strange happened. I felt a sort of obligation to my employer to not slack off. Where i could never spend 8 hours a day in motivated effort for myself, i could do it for someone else. Not with ease mind you, i was physically exhausted those first weeks, and I suffered from many stress-induced health problems the first year. But gradually i got into a rhythm of continuous sustainable dedicated work. And then i figured out some things.

A. Cramming doesn't work. The only healthy pace to truly learn is one that you keep up indefinitely. I noticed that high achievers almost invariably are always in study mode, but don't overexert themselves. Slow and steady wins the race.

B. Knowledge compounds. The longer you continually apply yourself, the more return on additional knowledge you get. Again i noticed that high achievers had always been studying, while i was slacking off. The foundation they had cannot be bypassed. It's the whole 10.000 hours thing. The reason i did well on the programming subjects at university was because i had always been programming throughout high school, even while i slacked off on everything else.

C. Humility and self-doubt are they key to self-improvement. If you are sure that you're already great, you will block yourself from the path of self-improvement.

By changing my habits I changed my results. I'm now a tech lead for a dozen other developers, and enjoy a reputation as a top achiever. I still feel awkward with that reputation though, because i can easily recall those times where i felt better than i actually was, so I try to remain humble.

Had the same experience with working after graduating on what I feel was a 'charity pass'.

Once one's ability to support oneself is at stake, rather than some nebulous concept of 'education' i.e. learning something because someone thinks its important - it becomes surprisingly easy to work. I realised I would not be showing anybody up around the same timeframe as the original poster.

In case it's not obvious, there's a corollary? from C: If you've no faith confidence at all, you will block yourself from the path of self-improvement.

This is the danger of building self confidence for the sake of self esteem. It can set people up for an epic fail. In a world of helicopter parents and misguided, but well intentioned, efforts to give everyone a star, it will eventually become apparent that self awareness is far more important. Well written and succinct, this could be used as inspiration for a fable.

Sometimes, its just a case of being in the wrong field of study.

I was a straight A student out of high school, with little effort to boot. Then I picked a major that I didn't really care for, because I didn't know any better ...

I breezed through the first few years of college taking general classes and the introductory classes to my major, but even then the cracks were beginning to show in my choice of major, I'd score B's where I thought I'd get A's and ever so often I'd come really close to getting C's.

When I hit the senior level courses, those B's turned to C's and ever so often I'd almost get a D.

Why the decline in performance? Nothing had changed, except what I was studying. I didn't care for it, and it didn't play to any of my academic strengths (lots of math which I simply don't have the patience for), so I couldn't just cruise through them.

When I graduated college, I had a very decent general GPA (in the low 3's), but it was only so because of my strong early performance in college, my major GPA was in the 2's. I was so ashamed that I didn't attend my own graduation and wouldn't let my family come either. I withdrew a little bit from friends and life, because I felt I had let down a lot of people and was a bit of a failure.

3 years later I discovered something I truly loved (programming and building things) and after many years of excelling at it ... I finally realized what I'd done wrong.

Hopefully you come to this realization much earlier than I did.

There is a danger in measuring ourselves (and our worth) too literally through traditional measuring sticks like grades. May sound a little fluffy or cliche, but bear with me.

My high school had a different grading scale than the 10-point scale used by most high schools and colleges. So:

95-100 was an A; 88-94 was a B; 82-87 was a C; 76-81 was a D; 75 or below and you failed

Brutal. But, I didn't even realize this until I got to college. What was once failing was now a C. And what was once a D could now be a B. It was a liberating feeling, but it underscored two things:

1. I could have had a much higher GPA in high-school 2. These measurements are artificial and arbitrary as a means for determining our "value" or even our proficiency in a subject

I get that these measurements can have real impact on our lives, because others use them. The key is not to believe they tell us anything about ourselves beyond our performance in a specific context, wherein an arbitrary measurement is applied.

Find what you love and learn it. If you struggle to do so in the environment, then work with professors, other students, and whatever resources are available to help you learn to learn. Once you've done that, you will find that the actual education and knowledge gained is more important, valuable, and self-improving than its measurement.

Ironically, you will also see a lift in your grades. But most importantly, you will likely be happy with yourself, no matter what letters appear on your report.

No amount of words on my part can capture the essence of the message better than this: http://bitsandpieces.us/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/famous-fa...

The words would be something along the lines of "good grades are indicative of discipline and work ethic moreso than intellectual capacity" and that many people that we consider extremely intelligent or gifted had really poor grades.

I believe that this type of crisis ultimately hits everyone with an analytical mind, given the current school system. That is at least the conclusion that I've drawn from my similar experiences. The urge to understand is not catered for in school. Questions and discussions are not encouraged. Instead, you are supposed to succumb and absorb enourmous amounts of information as fact. First after doing this, you are allowed to form your own opinions. A clear bottom-up approach.

This does not work well for an analytical mind, and as I see it there are very few choices for us who prefer top-down. I feel that the hacker community is one place which caters for us, given the unrestricted access to information on all levels. But in school there is usually very little you can do except be quiet and take notes, like a robot.

The consequence is that top-down analytical minds have a tendency to skip studies and ultimately hit this crisis. And because bottom-up people eventually will start to draw conclusions from their fact bases and gain the ability to reason, you will be outsmarted.

The real fix for this in my mind is to start catering for the top-downs, with more focus on how disciplines interrelate, their background and history, and less focus on direct facts and methods.

I wonder if I wrote this post. I didn't but it sounds eerily similar to my condition right now.

I was admitted into one of the most reputed universities in my country. I've failed, year after year 2 times in my junior year & on track for a 3rd year of failure this time.

I was a bright student in school - the top 10 in my grade. But that's where the problem stems from. I thought I was a genius to excel high school without studying whereas everyone around me was pretty mediocre. After all they studied so hard and didn't do as good as I did.

In university everyone told me how brilliant I was and that my marks didn't reflect my potential. Now they're all working, getting promotions, traveling, enjoying their lives and I am no better than I was 3 years ago living with my parents and hardly contributing anything to this world.

PS: Throwaway for obvious reasons.

My wife was at the top of the class in nearly every course she took in school, K-Ph.D. I was at or near the top of the class in material I liked, essentially just math, physics, and chemistry. From those two examples, here are some lessons on how to make good grades and/or do well.

I will start with what my wife did: First, care about making good grades; care a LOT. Second, actually do at least most of the reading and homework. Take good notes in class and study them. Work with other good students in the class to share notes and thoughts on the content of the course. It helps to have a terrific memory, and for that it helps to really care a LOT. It helps to cut out nearly everything except course work and to have the ability to do well with relatively little sleep.

Then, with the basic learning done, work with other good students in the class to get a good view of what the teacher likes to see on tests, term papers, etc. I.e., figure out how to please the teacher, i.e., 'read' the teacher. So, before tests, work with those other good students to write out likely test questions and together work out good answers. Then on a test with, say, four questions, may have written out good answers to two or three of the questions the night before. Tough to compete against that.

For the other good students she worked with, she had a room in the girls dorm on the 'academic unit' with other astoundingly bright girls, and they shared draft test questions, etc.

Lucky was not in a class with any of those girls because would have come in at best second. For making As in college, those girls were fantastic.

Of course they were beyond belief in the humanities courses, e.g., could actually make some sense out of the mush. But for a while my wife was in pre-med so also made As in the 'filter' courses in organic chemistry and comparative anatomy.

It also helps to have some just fantastic academic talent: My wife wanted to take a course in European history but did not want to have to work to make a good grade so just audited the course. The prof asked audits also to take the tests, so my wife did. At the end of the course, a lecture course with 300 students, the prof told my wife that she should have taken the course for credit because she made the highest score in the class. And she didn't even seriously try. Tough to compete against that!

For a term paper, she organized all the information on index cards, arranged them, then typed the paper.

She made high school Valedictorian, in college was 'Summa Cum Laude', Woodrow Wilson, PBK, and won two years of NSF graduate fellowship in one award.

Then what I did: In K-8, the girls were much better students than I was in penmanship, spelling, writing, memorizing poetry, artistic drawing, working in groups, clerical accuracy, etc., all as should be expected. Also all the teachers were women and clearly liked the girls much better than the boys. So, I gave up on trying to get good grades from the teachers and just pursued what interested me.

I was so often treated with such contempt by the teachers that for all the rest of my time in school I was unconsciously terrified of criticism from the teachers. So, if something didn't go just right in a course, then I was terrified that the situation was hopeless so gave up. So, really, I could be comfortable in a course only if the material was pure math with a level of precision about like that of Bourbaki so that I could be iron clad sure that my knowledge could not be questioned. It was also good if I had carefully read an excellent text before the course and, thus, really already knew the material. K-12 teachers: Quit hurting good students.

Things made a big change in the ninth grade in math: I liked the math and really cared. I had no study skills but began to develop some. The teacher sent me to the state math tournament; I was likely at the top of the class. He realized that mostly I was learning just from the book and told me that for the tournament I should learn the last two chapters on trigonometry he was not going to be able to cover in class, so the weekend before the tournament I did.

That pattern went on: I really liked math and learned mostly from the book. I really made no attempt to get good grades from the teacher, but I understood the material so well I got A or B from the teacher but led the class or nearly so on state standardized tests.

That pattern continued in college:

It worked out that I never took freshman calculus! The college I went to for my freshman year didn't want me to start with calculus but put me in some course beneath what I'd already covered in my high school (that had a relatively good math sequence). So, I showed up only for the tests and otherwise got a good calculus book and dug in. For my sophomore year I went to a much better school, with a quite good math department, and just started with their sophomore calculus. Did fine.

In freshman physics, I really liked the material and led the class, effortlessly.

It was nice: Often I studied the physics in the gorgeous reading room of the library. There some of the really pretty girls were wearing some short, slightly full, plaid, heavy wool 'wrap around' skirts, each held together with a huge, chrome diaper safety pin! Still I got some physics done! Got to really like physics to learn under such circumstances!

Some of the more advanced physics was badly taught or from a poor book, and then my grade fell to a B; I had no patience with poor quality material. But in math the books were much better, and I did very well on both learning the material and grades. I got Honors in math and 800 on the GRE test of math knowledge and got sent to an NSF summer program in axiomatic set theory, modern analysis, and differential geometry. The differential geometry was lectures by a Harvard graduate and student of A. Gleason. He said that I needed only the inverse and implicit function theorems, but so far I'd not seen either of those (I later got them from Fleming's book). I was too intimidated to realize that I could have hit the library for an afternoon and evening and walked out with good knowledge of both theorems. The theorems are just local non-linear versions of the standard and fairly obvious general solution of a system of linear equations. There is a nice proof using contractive mapping. Alas, due to those two theorems, I walked out of the class -- bummer, it was material I would have liked to have learned, especially for relativity theory.

In my career I continued a lot of independent learning from some of the best math texts, e.g., I took a second pass through Rudin's 'Principles', went carefully through Halmos's 'Finite Dimensional Vector Spaces', Fleming's 'Functions of Several Variables', the math parts of von Neumann's 'Quantum Mechanics', and much more, a big stack more.

When I went for my Ph.D., what I had learned before I entered was nearly enough for the course work. For the research, I brought my own problem with me to graduate school, had an intuitive solution I'd worked out on an airplane flight, got enough math in my first year to turn my intuitive solution into some solid applied math, later wrote some corresponding illustrative software, and that was my Ph.D. research. For a Master's, there was a question in a course without an answer. I thought for two weeks in the evenings and saw a first solution and asked for a 'reading course' to attack the problem. When the course was approved, I gave my first solution right away. Two weeks later I had a much nicer solution, wrote it up, and that was the end of the 'reading course' and the last I needed for a Master's. Later I published the paper. When I published I did some more library work and discovered that I'd invented a theorem comparable with the classic Whitney extension theorem, that is, H. Whitney long at Harvard. I also discovered that I'd solved a problem stated in the famous Arrow, Hurwicz, Uzawa paper in mathematical economics. So, that work I did in that 'reading course' was publishable.

Eventually I concluded that working the more challenging exercises in the best pure math texts -- Rudin, Halmos, Royden, Neveu, etc., is good training for doing original research. Eventually I discovered that if not afraid of being whacked in the neck with a bad grade by a prof in a course, then usually can get what need for a given research problem from stacks of books and papers much more quickly than the rate of coverage in a course.

Eventually discovered a 'way' to do research: Do a lot of intuitive guessing; then test the intuitive guesses with some intuitive filters or checking on special cases.

For a simple outline, "Is A true? Okay, likely if A is true, then B is true. Is it believable that B is true or would that be asking too much? Naw, likely B is false. So likely A is false. So, check A on some simple special cases. Okay, still A seems false. So, try C. Is C true? If C is true, then likely D is true. Okay, maybe D is true. Check out C on some simple special cases. C might be true! So, maybe try to prove C is true. Now to prove C is true, likely the proof has to make essential use of all the hypotheses we have for C, so in looking for a proof, be sure can make good use of all the hypotheses. Else are trying to prove something stronger than C which is likely not true. Now, if C is true, just what, intuitively, is going on?"

Can do a lot of this while writing little or nothing. When the intuitive work seems good, then try to write out some actual math with careful derivations, any new definitions and then theorems and proofs. If the intuitive guessing goes well, then have a good shot of seeing how to do the proofs right away.

Mostly don't write longer than trivial algebraic derivations without having a fairly good idea what is going on intuitively. That is, mostly don't expect to get much just from pushing symbols around.

In nearly all of K-12 and college, what my wife did worked much better than what I did. For graduate work, a Ph.D., publishable original research, and applications in a career, what I did worked much better.

In high school, I kind of looked down upon the culture of 'caring a lot' about getting top grades. Partly because I saw much of it as suckers jumping through arbitrary hoops, and partly because I reckoned that my memory was easily capable of holding all the necessary information, if I just put in a meagre number of hours studying (which I hated, so usually didn't bother). I focussed on trying to impress the teachers by answering the difficult questions in class which (seemingly) stumped the 'straight A' students, and also I loved English class because that was the one where disciplined study yielded little advantage. If someone got top grades but didn't outwardly show any flare in any of these areas, I considered them 'not that intelligent.'

Not saying this was justified, but it's definitely how I felt. What I probably should have realized is that in the long run, self-discipline is an extremely important trait no matter what your natural aptitude is. But I also think schools should make more effort to make subjects appealing on an intuitive level, not just a stack of exercises to slog through - I would have done much better in say maths if that was the case. I have to admit though, even though my attitude is different these days, what your wife did in college to get top grades still seems... kind of lame.

Once I understood what she did to get top grades, it did surprise me, was maybe "kind of lame".

But there was a 'reason' she did what she did: There were some strong influences from her family that anything less than an A would be 'shameful'.

So, yes, might notice that in K-college she didn't "outwardly show any flare". Right. She wanted the As. They meant a LOT to her. She knew that she didn't really get any extra points for "flare".

But eventually I learned that away from a course with a prof, credits, and grades, really, out of the view of anyone powerful, influential, and potentially critical, she had plenty of 'flare', really was just brilliant. E.g., computing wasn't her field at all. But at one point she wanted to do some computing, in of all things artificial intelligence. Well, I was on a team of three that had designed and developed an AI language. So I gave her a one hour lecture covering everything from how to use the computer, file system, text editor, and scripting language to our AI language.

Two weeks later she had a good, first program running. I looked at it, explained some of the 'theme' of how that AI approach was intended to work, and let her try again. In two more weeks she had one of the nicest AI programs our group ever saw. Just brilliant. We had some really bright computer science grad students in our group; in computer science, she was brighter. Astounding.

There is much more to human performance in school, research, and a job than meets the eye: In front of powerful, influential, potentially critical people, she was just terrified to appear less than Little Miss Perfect in the sense she got from her family. In our home, in front of just herself and me, she was free to show 'flair' and be brilliant.

If you sense that the "lame" part might not be so good in some respects, you are correct. I spent a lot of time around high end academics and saw a lot of people with spectacular grade point averages, some of whom maybe never failed to dot an 'i' since before kindergarten. Commonly these people were from very bright up to brilliant, but it seemed that their grade point averages were from various reasons and not just brilliance. Some of those various reasons were, in the end, not so good.

But if want to make the As my wife made, then what she did worked, and not much else does.

There was a time in high school plane geometry where apparently I did something like you did: I was totally in love with the subject, ate the exercises in the book like popcorn, by the hand full. The teacher was the most offensive person I've ever met in a classroom, so I refused to appear to do her assigned homework and mostly slept in class. Each day she assigned three not very difficult exercises. What I did was all the non-trivial exercises then turn to the back of the book for the more difficult supplementary exercises and do all of those. I never once failed to do a non-trivial exercise during the whole course. To save time, I didn't write out all the proofs but usually did small versions just in my head, in the margin of the book, on scraps of paper, etc. For the few exercises that actually took some effort, say, two hours, I'd write out a proof carefully.

For one of the supplementary exercises, I started on Friday afternoon and just kept going and finally got it late Sunday evening. Nice exercise! On Monday in class, there was one of her assigned exercises, easy, with the same figure. So, after she discussed the solution to that exercise, for the first and last time I 'participated' in the class and mentioned the exercise in the back of the book with the same figure. She was thrilled and had the class turn to that exercise. Time passed .... After about 20 minutes she was getting frustrated and nasty, was exhorting the class to "think", etc. Since I didn't want to be accused of ruining the class, I raised my hand and said, "Why don't we ..." at which time she angrily interrupted me nearly shouting "You knew how to do it all the time". Yes, I was 'guilty' as charged! Of course I knew how to do it. I knew how to do every non-trivial exercise in the book. If I didn't know how to do it, no way would I ask her.

She never let me finish the solution!

I didn't know that the exercise would be difficult for the teacher. I wasn't even sure I was one of the best students in the class. I guess she wasn't working all the exercises!

Uh, apparently on the state test in plane geometry I did well! Another guy and I were 1-2 in the class. We were also 1-2 in the school on the Math SAT. The teacher who read me my SAT scores had known me since the sixth grade, looked at my Verbal SAT, 538 (654 the second time I took it) and said "Good". It wasn't good, and I knew that. Then she looked at my Math SAT, stopped, looked afraid, and said, "There must be some mistake". Yes, sweetheart, there was, and had been for 12, long, painful years, you ditzy bimbo. I was a good candidate for the best math student in the school, and the school never knew it (actually apparently the principal did know; apparently he looked at some of my standardized test results -- but the teachers did too much gossiping among themselves).

So, yes, for that plane geometry teacher, there was a strong sense of 'competition' even with the students. So, she didn't want me to show any 'flair'. But I demonstrated that my knowledge of the subject was from my efforts in learning and not from her efforts in teaching. Of course this was in part my reaction to all those K-8 teachers who treated me with contempt.

Contempt? Of course, my Ph.D. and research were in mathematics: Well my eighth grade arithmetic teacher strongly advised me never to take anymore math in school! Why? I didn't do well on her tests. Why? I understood the material quickly but for the exercises, say, multiplying two four digit numbers, had poor accuracy. Why? Not from lack of understanding. But at the time, common for boys, my 'clerical accuracy' was not good; my handwriting was awful which meant that commonly I misread my intermediate results; and no one explained to me that I needed to be sure to work carefully to write clearly, keep the vertical columns lined up, and get correct results. Finally a college physics prof told me bluntly that I had to work carefully enough to get correct numerical results since a mistake could ruin a physics career. From then on my accuracy was from okay up to good enough.

Even now I do not trust my clerical accuracy. So for anything important, I do it, let the results 'age' hopefully for a few days, do it again independently, and compare the results. Also I no longer want to do anything like 'manual' arithmetic or use a calculator where I have to copy between the calculator and, say, paper. Instead I essentially just program all arithmetic. Otherwise I'm too prone to simple mistakes.

But the contempt from those K-8 teachers did damage. One graduate course started off with some axiomatic set theory. The prof gave a pop quiz. One of his questions was tricky, and I saw how to do it only at the end of the time. So I wrote quickly and used a symbol without defining it but used it with the meaning I'd seen in an earlier NSF course in set theory. So, later the prof called me for a 'conference'. He was convinced that I was a poor student. I explained the symbol and said that I thought that its meaning was standard in axiomatic set theory, and he then saw that my solution was one step shorter than his and good. Then he relented. But that contempt from him was too close to what I'd gotten in K-8; I concluded that there would be no way to please him; gave up; and never went back to that class. He wasn't teaching the course very well anyway, and later I got a just brilliant presentation of that material, best course of any kind I ever took in school.

These examples can show students some of the challenges in school: Not all the challenges are obvious on the surface. Your remark about 'discipline' is correct: Even if a teacher dumps on a student unfairly sometimes, the student needs to continue on and not just walk away. The course is not all just about competition for 'flair' but also has some material should get through, flair or not.

But, for a Ph.D., one way for a grad student to 'polish their halo' is to do some publishable, original research, independently or nearly so, early on, i.e., show some 'flair' for research. Why? The main difficulty for a Ph.D. is just the research, and showing that can do research, especially independently, can do wonders at getting the faculty on the side of the student.

We've now solved all the problems in higher education!

Thanks for writing this.


OP: I remember being in precisely your position when my last year's exams came around many years ago. I remember going from effortlessly succeeding in school to busting my ass to be mediocre in uni, too.

The fact is that over the long run, effort counts for more than exam performance, so if you are trying, keep doing it. That's what counts. ADD/ADHD-type inability to concentrate and focus are hard, but you do learn to cope, and more importantly you learn to position yourself in situations where you exploit its advantages.

What I wouldn't do is not push yourself when you believe you can get away with it, a mistake you and I both have made. Keep yourself on the boundary of uncomfortable, otherwise you will not be prepared when it gets tough.

Keep it up for a few more weeks and it'll be done, and just keep getting up.

This resonated well with myself, another student two weeks from graduating, with similar issues. It helps to remind myself that Rome wasn't built in a day, and trying to do work that usually takes peers weeks in just a single night is just my immaturity coming through.

You're trying to replicate on demand, at the last minute, the discipline, focus, and maturity that the others have gained and heavily practiced over the same years that you apparently spent fooling around. It has nothing to do with intelligence, really. Self comparisons and value judgements are pretty useless when all you really need to do is put in the time required to achieve your goals. You may have to accept that it's just going to take longer to get where you want to be because you lost some time. Ultimately, I'd rather be the new you, getting wiser about life, instead of the old you patting yourself on the back about how smart you are but getting nowhere.

To err is human. Persistance is evil.

By your post, you clearly show a will to amend your past actions, and to work seriously now, to get grades you deserve - not just because you're "good at anything you touch", but because you are good and apply effort.

Trust me on this one, these deserved success will taste like ambrosia.

At the moment, do not overtly blame yourself. Many people can't see through themselves like you did. Yet since we're all human, we all fail time to time.

The real danger, as you so clearly phrased, is self delusion, ie refusing to see or understand how or why we fail.

The TV philosopher of my childhood said it best - "knowing is half the battle" (†)

†: Gi Joe, famous tv philosopher, giving quotes and wisdom to children, worldwide :-)

College revealed that several tools were missing from my collection. I did not know how to study, manage/budget time, or work hard on something I did not like. I had always been able to understand something just by looking at it. I could see, hear, or read something and be able to recall it, verbatim, without really trying. I never had to think very hard or study. Everything was just easy. I never understood why my peers couldn't grasp a concept, recall details, or understand things.

Then I got to college and stuff got real. I looked around and did not know why everything was so easy to my peers. I just couldn't keep up with a full load. Even a half load was impossible. My innate abilities didn't scale and I had to learn new ways to do things. It was a bitter time with repeated failures.

Get a mentor and some decent coping tools - something that will track what you need to do and remind you so you don't have to keep it all in your head. Learn how to break tasks into smaller pieces so that it's easy to visualize their completion. Know your own limitations and avoid situations that will make you fail (video games all night means no HW done, no sleep, and a really crappy tomorrow). The hardest part is self mastery: doing what you need to do when it needs to be done instead of doing what you want to do whenever you feel like it.

TL;DR? College is a boss level. Learn how to defeat it so you aren't stuck playing the same level forever. The abilities you (l)earn are required in the levels that follow.

I did not know how to ... work hard on something I did not like

I guess I'm the only one here who considers this the worst habit of all. How do I know when to stop working on stuff I don't like?

OP, this exact thing happened to me in high school then into uni. Well, I actually dropped out because I just could not make it work. I wasn't like the top students either. Hell, I was hardly even average.

If there is any advice I can give, it would be to be _proud_ of every accomplishment you achieve. People use pride to motivate them. The pride of finishing a course, an assignment, a homework problem, getting a paycheck, promotion, a diploma -- I could go on. I can't even count the number of times I thought I was prepared for a test only to end up with a barely passing grade (if I was lucky). Practice and preparation are empty, unfulfilling activities without pride, and I think that's why I could never get anything out of them.

Pride is something that I struggle with even ten years after I packed all my shit into my car and made the long and painful drive home from university. My failures still hang heavy on my every movement, regardless of the good things that I do today. It could have been different, I think to myself. I should have done better. It seems like you are struggling with the same emotions.

In the end many functional, successful people struggle with regret of _some_ kind. You seem to be remarkably introspective about yours, and that is a good thing. Let it guide you, motivate you. It took me ten years (and debt that I am still paying off) to trust those instincts.

I am a highschool dropout who got a GED while in prison for a hacking charge, slacked through community college to bring up my pre-calculus to university level, transferred to university and slacked through that as well.

I did not do the full time course load where you must be disciplined to handle 30+ credits per year therefore require extreme military like focus on your studies. I was doing half that sometimes less, while working on days off or getting wasted in the campus bar with the student radio society.

The biggest assumption in this paste is that grades = ability. Getting good grades is a such a specific ability requiring so much dedication that getting bad grades may not necessarily reflect a lack of ability.

It may not be so wrong to think that others do better than you in school because you don't try, and that you are actually more able than them. The counterargument is, "Well, try for a bit. Show me what you can do if you just start trying." The problem with that is that your success at any moment isn't just your effort applied to the lever that is your ability. You have to build up to it. So even if you're smart, if you suddenly start trying to get good grades during high school you'll still be behind people who aren't as smart as you but tried the whole time you didn't. It's more accurate to say, you would be better than others if you had tried as hard and as long as they had.

A lot of smart people don't try at things that don't interest them but do an extremely good job at things that do. So, I agree with the spirit of your message that you should measure your abilities with your results rather than your own guesswork about your own abilities. But I disagree that school is necessarily the right metric to use.

Random thoughts - just in case the OP is around:

* "It was an insult for me to think that I was ever anything like them" - No it wasn't. At the very, very worst it was a mistake. And everybody on the planet makes 'em. Mistakes, especially mistakes in your teens and twenties, are rarely fatal ones. Failing at something sucks, and can feel ghastly, but things usually get better again. I'm in my forties now. A bunch of my friends who are well off, successful and happy now had a shitty time in their twenties. They dropped out. They went insane. They failed their degree. And later on they found something they were passionate about. They found a balance that let them live with their mental illness. They figured out how to study and went back and got their degree. Bad things happen. They seldom last.

* You sound really, really stressed. If you have friends you can talk too outside of the university / finals environment go talk to them about this. Especially if they're a bit older and have been through this. They'll have a different perspective that you may find useful and reassuring. I'd also really consider going and having a chat with your tutor and/or the counselling service your university provides. Doing this isn't failure. Doing this is acknowledging that there is a problem and starting the process of fixing it.

"The students who obtain top grades in classes have an ability to focus like no other" / "Under pressure, they excel where I break" - Handling pressure and being able to focus are habits and skills as much as they are innate gifts. But they take time to acquire. Like becoming physically fit it's a task that takes months and years - not days and weeks. They are things you can get better at - no matter where you are now. Keep trying it will pay off in the end.

Thank you for sharing your feelings OP. I can empathize with you, and wish you the very best.

Sometimes it's great reading how other people feel in these kinds of private situations that happen inside one's conscious.

You can't really discuss them with anyone else so when one person decides to let it all out (as OP did), I think its beneficial to EVERYONE who may have had or still have these kinds feelings/experiences.

The odds that you'll be the best in something very competitive are low. Sorry to say. If that's your selection criteria what are the odds that you got the perfect genetics and a better upbringing than everyone else there? Sure, effort and all that jazz - but everyone else who sits down and thinks similarly is executing a similar strategy, effort isn't that rare. You might get a slightly better study algorithm, spaced repetition vs cramming or something, but that's a thing here and there....

That said, I've rarely found being the absolute best at something to be worth the effort even among a small pool of a few thousand people. Crippling over specialisation I believe is the meme. If you can't be the absolute best, you might want look for related areas you can get better quickly - most of the time, in my experience, it can make the initial problem you were having trouble with easier anyway.

It's also a lot harder for you to get fired if you've got your fingers in lots of pies =p

OP should stop comparing himself to others and know that good grades isn't the meaning of life, just appreciate what you already have. I also got a low score in Theory of Computation, but the subject itself is actually extremely hard. Also me and my friends study harder than most of our other classmates but we still never get decent grades

As someone who can count the number of B's I've gotten in one hand (K-PhD), I have to relate a saying: "grades don't matter ... it's just how we keep score". In the original version of the saying, money comes in the place of grades :-p

But seriously speaking ... at some point, you will stop caring about grades. I stopped grading after I starting grading undergrads as a lecturer. Heh .. I stopped caring about my age after 31. As a former child prodigy, I sometimes do feel I've wasted opportunities and my potential. But then I remember that the battle isn't over yet ... I may yet do something I feel is consequential. It is no longer an achievement in science. Rather, I hope I can create a company that gives a livelihood to many people, treats them well, and does right by the world. Given that I don't even zero entrepreneurial experience at this point in my life, this dream might just wither away. But c'est la vie.

You will do just fine.

The point of education is to set aside the hubris and learn.

You very clearly have.

There are a lot of people out there that didn't and don't fit into the classroom learning model. Stanley Kubrick was a truant. Ansel Adams was pulled out of school at an early age because he was "hyperactive." Steve Jobs dropped out of college because of cost. Jimi Hendrix "played" a broom for more than a year before his father bought him a cheap used guitar. Jane Austen, the author of "Sense and Sensibilities," dropped out of school at age 11 because of cost.

The classroom model is not for everyone.

Dropouts can and are just as successful, more so, I think, the earlier they realize they are not like everyone else.

Like you, I am not like OP.

Everything I learned that is valuable to me on a daily basis was not learned in the classroom. Classrooms are really boring and who wants to listen to a talking head?

I have achieved much so far in my life, but I wish I would have known earlier that direct experience was a much better way for me.

School's out. Forever.

There is an important lesson that many "gifted" people don't learn until later in life (myself included). Being gifted is like having a head start in a marathon. It is minuscule compared to the results of hard work and nothing to be proud of. Be proud of the things that you worked for, not the things you are born with.

That came deep from within the heart of the OP. Good luck to him.

I know this very well. It is like watching your life drift by, and promising to yourself that you will be fine because the winds favor you. I was able to pass high-school easily, and in the last year, to prove to myself that I could, I passed 9 AP's. I'm now in college, and I'm on the verge of dropping out, for other reasons, nevertheless. I know now that one day I will hit my wall, and that I want to get there as fast as possible, so that I can push it further.

Concerning productivity, what helped me go from doing nothing to being fully functional, were three things. I started meditating in the morning and evening (read Mindfulness in Plain Engllish, free pdf), I started sticking to a good sleep schedule, and I started using the Pomodoro technique. Hopefully they may be able to help you.

I can relate.

Around the age of 10 my family moved to UK. Few weeks after being enrolled in the primary school, the teachers were extremely impressed by my mathematical/studying ability and asked me to take a Mensa test, my parents agreed and I somehow managed to get in. That was year (grade) 6. After that I managed to a secondary grammar school solely on mental ability. I hated memorizing content, in fact, to this day I still don't remember studying at all after moving to the UK.

The secondary school was boring, I strolled through the first 5 years by simply turning up to the lessons, I didn't have to do any work at home. In my spare time I concentrated on programming and building things. I almost feel fortunate that I had so much time to be creative because I got to build websites reaching 40M pageviews per year, I got the chance to play national level basketball and everything else in between.

But that all changed when I started my a-levels. I picked random subjects like psychology, economics and computing along with mathematics with no thought and oh boy was that a mistake. For the first time ever I got a D on a maths test, it was horrible, I though I could just manage my a grades by simply turning up to the lesson. What was I doing wrong? "I've always been good at maths!!"

I was too late to realise that I couldn't just "turn up to the lesson" and get the grades I wanted. I ended up messing up my entire year and decided to take it again. Not having studied properly over the last 6 years probably also brought my studying skills and time management down. It's kinda funny, last year I was e-mailing the google security team about vulnerabilities but somehow failing an a-level computing test! Maybe it had something to do with the boring content?

This year I dropped psychology and picked up Physics instead and I've been doing pretty well, getting A and B grades in all my subjects. I also realised I prefer STEM subjects since there is less memorization involved and it's more about understanding the content. In hindsight, I could I have saved some time if I had just tried.

I was probably fortunate that this kind of frustration came much earlier in my life. In elementary school, I basically never studied for any exams other than memorization-style spelling and vocab tests. I excelled at math but was mediocre at best at everything else. I distinctly remember getting a 17/100 on a 5th grade, take home, open book history test. (actually, the only reason I was good at math was because I went to my normal "American" school 5 days a week and a separate "Japanese expat" school on Saturdays and had double the math hours as all my peers)

I also remember when things changed for me, and had OP's "I can do better" moment. It was in 7th grade when I got my first B in math in my life (Algebra) and narrowly escaped a C in Civics (I think I got a 79.6). While not "disastrous" marks by any means, it was still incredibly jarring for a generally studious kid who always turned in his homework on time, wrote his papers, tried hard, etc.

Looking back, it's strange that the almost-C bothered me, since I think I had some Cs during elementary school. Maybe I had instinctively known that in Junior High, the stakes were somehow higher. But more importantly, my new friends were getting straight A's, and I knew that there was no reason I couldn't do just as well as them. Also, I knew that I was "good at math" and that I should of course be able to get an A in the subject. Of course, I had basically never studied in my life, so it was growing pains figuring out how I can do well in history/literature/spanish exams.

I somehow managed to figure out a studying method that worked for me and it was good enough to get me near straight A's throughout the rest of Junior High. My High School was the same as my JH, so knowing "the system", I was able to do similarly well in HS. The biggest difference that I can see between OP and myself is that my "on" switch was flipped 6-7 years before OP's, which allowed me to turn on the after burners while I still wasn't too far behind my peers and still had enough time to catch up.

However, I was definitely not the most efficient or the smartest in my class, and was probably putting in the most time out of anyone in my grade. Two guys were definitely much much smarter than me and I knew it, despite my having higher grades than either of them. To this day they are two of my closest friends.

Looking at the "traits" OP describes in the studious types is really interesting to me. I procrastinated like crazy and played video games for an obscene number of hours (I would frequently borrow a RPG + the console from a friend on friday, finish the ~25 hour game over the weekend and return it to him on monday). I remember playing FF7 before it was even out in the states (since all my consoles were Japanese region) for over 300 hours and had amassed so much "gil" (money) in the game that the number was overflowing out the left side of the menu window. But it's true that I have always performed well under pressure (I always did better on the actual standardized exams than my practice exams) and put in pointlessly long hours studying the course material until I knew (almost) everything (combined with the massive hours of video gaming and extracurricular activities I had, I would often only get 3 hours of sleep/night which is just pure idiocy).

But what do I have to show at the end of it all? Honestly the result is a book smart'ish and tool'ish person who can't build anything to save his life anymore, a far cry from the kid who would tinker around and build stuff when he was 8~10 years old. I do extremely well within the defined framework of an academic setting, but I highly doubt that I'd outperform this significantly doing anything "in the real world" (I probably do outperform the "average" to some extent, but definitely not to the degree I did as a student). Hindsight is 20/20, but it would have served me much better to have focused on what I enjoyed most: drawing, tinkering around with techy stuff, etc rather than devote thousands of hours to cramming academic material into my brain.

So even if you "succeed" in the academic rat race, it's not really useful unless you're going to use those supposed "accomplishments" in the future (ex: go into consulting/ibanking where academic pedigree and GPA is heavily considered).

I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say anymore, but as a person who managed a breakthrough from a position similar to the OP (and there are quite a few people in the top colleges who didn't study hard at all to get their perfect marks -- definitely not me), I can say that it's not necessarily useful to succeed at this either. In fact getting a wake up call 4+ years earlier might turn out to be a blessing.

Seventh grade was an awakening for me, too. I had sailed through elementary school with no effort, then hit seventh grade an nearly failed multiple classes my first quarter. That changed things significantly.

Unfortunately, it didn't change things enough. My senior year of high school, I was taking three AP classes and still only doing maybe an hour or so of homework a day and still getting good grades.

Then I hit college. And that hour a day completely didn't cut it (and getting hooked on MUDs didn't help :). I didn't get the grades I wanted, but I got the grades I deserved (maybe even better), graduated, and never cared about them again.

Far more important than the ability to get perfect grades is the ability to learn on one's own. And I don't think the two are perfectly correlated in any way.

I agree entirely. In fact, I've always been of the opinion that the institutionalization of learning works to the detriment of education and discourages most students from learning on their own, while doing an incompetent job of equipping them with knowledge of value. Schools ought to place greater emphasis on technical skills, applied math, nonfiction writing and modern government/geopolitics; and less on lab science, academic math, literature and classical history. It's not that the classical academic subjects lack intelectual value, but that public schools ought to serve a purely pragmatic purpose. The current system is, in my opinion, exceedingly ineffective and even detrimental to students who are deterred by what they perceive as pedantic material. They determine that they don't like school (particularly math), adopt defeatist attitudes and, by the end of high school, are entirely unequipped to enter the workforce or to matriculate into post-secondary programs.

Also, I'm curious as to when you attended school and which APs you took. I'm currently taking four, and I consider myself fortunate on nights when I have less than four hours of work.

"Far more important than the ability to get perfect grades is the ability to learn on one's own. And I don't think the two are perfectly correlated in any way."


Your story is exactly my story - surprisingly so. I'm out of college now and have better focus, but it is still getting better (I plan out my day in on paper with a 15 minute granularity and don't allow myself to deviate from that plan - exceptions occur.)

The advice I'd have given myself is: ok, so now you've realized it. You didn't /really/ know before, so don't fault yourself. The only logical thing you can do now is work towards fixing the problem. When I get upset about things like this, I just repeat this mantra until I realize the truth of it: It is what it is, not what it should be, not what it could be, it is what it is.

My email is in my profile URL if you want to chat more.

I did this as well. ADHD explains some of this.

"Cause when I die buddy You know whats gonna keep me warm? Thats right. Those degrees."

- Kanye West


Don't want to ruin the pity party, but learning is more important than grades. And grades don't actually matter. You need them to meet an end, but not much more. The question is, are you going to do something with all you claimed to have learned? And even worse still, are you going to do something that is going to mean anything to anyone?

Grade A students who graduate and just get a job somewhere, doing something, for someone for the rest of their lives, then retire cozily and die do not impress me, and they shouldn't impress you either.

Do something amazing.

(I'm not there yet, but I think I've got a point.)

I am sure there are many Grade A students who never went on to do amazing things, simply because there are many aspects in life that cannot be controlled. Many things one does in life end up being meaningless, and that's life. Your grudge against Grade A students is unjustifiable.

You may want to check out this movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2036416/

It is a story about Giddens Ko, who grew up despising Grade A students, then became somewhat of a Grade A student himself. He went on to become the most successful Chinese author / director.

So I think you're assuming that I'm not a grade A student. I've done plenty well in school, maintaining a 4.0 until that dreaded A- came along and ruined me.

My point is simple, whether you like Grade A students or not, if you don't do anything important, you won't be important. People are what they do. Maaaaaybe I was a little harsh, but the point doesn't change.

"There is nothing more damaging to a young man's character than for him to discover that he is clever."

I stumbled upon this once long ago and have not been able to (re)discover the source since. In my memory, it was attributed to Leo Tolstoy (or may have been a comment made by one character in reference to another in one of Tolstoy's novels). Or maybe I made the whole thing up and was simply chastising myself while trying to learn Russian by being clever instead of diligent.

It near perfectly distills so much.

I would prefer diligence over cleverness every single time, most especially within myself.

Grades as a metric for intelligence or understanding seems to be broken. I remember in high school and university there were students whom would do vastly better then my self in many cs courses. It bothered myself until learned that they had access to a Drop box that contained many solutions collected through out the years as well as past midterms. If stopped bothering me when they were not getting Co-op placements and had to apply their knowledge. My point is don't count on a metric to define who you are and how intelligent you are.

As I went through college (and I think everyone more or less goes through this) I learned to care less about marks as a whole and more about what I learned in that class/if there the knowledge is easily obtainable elsewhere. However, I'm fortunate enough to be in a field that doesn't explicitly require grad school (compared to say, those aspiring to be doctors) and that internship experience/generally more concrete interviews generally lessen the requirement for having really high marks.

In college, whenever I bragged about doing something interesting or achieving some milestone in my studies, my roomie Paul would draw hard on his big doobie (they hardly got you stoned back then even if you smoked all night) and say something like "Miller, I could do that if I just gave a shit. I'd kick your ass and everyone's ass, if I could just get off my ass".

Not sure whatever happened to Paul.

OP: find out what you are good at. Grades and academia are not the be-all and end-all of existence or success.

I heard someone say one, "I not getting mediocre grades because I'm dumb; I'm just as smart as the smartest kids, but because I don't work hard enough ... Y'know, if I was really smart, I would work hard enough."

I've found this to be true in my college classes. For example, I took a class recently that was heavily related to previous research I did. The class was easy for me because I did previous work in that area.

I have focusing problem and I figured out that working multiple projects at the same time is better for me than focusing only a project. Although, it's hard to finish one of them completely, it's good to know there's a different project I can work when am bored one of them. Just find an area that you like, you don't have to be good every class you take. It's enough be good at one area to be successful.

I too share this grand delusion. I know it's a delusion, yet I can't formulate a solution. I'm a first year right now, I share the same story from high school, to rejection from the university I wanted to go to, and finally to the low grades in university. Thanks for sharing the story, it gives me insight on where my behaviour will lead. Thank you.

So much wisdom in this thread for a guy like me who's just wrapping up his Bachelor's and headed for his Masters! Thanks guys! :')

I am one of the try-hards OP has described. I came to Canada at the age of 12 knowing very little English. In my first two years in Canada, my self-esteem and confidence dropped to a very low point because I couldn't keep up with my peers due to my poor English skills. Basically, I was not even allowed to take regular classes because my English was not good enough. I am not naturally good at learning language so I had to study very hard. My parents were not good at English and we didn't really have money for tutoring. I don't even think my parents really believe that tutoring would work; they always believe in self-learning. I eventually got better and got the chance to take regular classes. But my English still caused a lot of difficulty in understanding the course materials. Other students could easily understand the lecture and the textbook. However, to me, I could not understand anything the teacher said in class; so I had to read the textbook myself. The textbook was pretty hard for me; so I had to read two or three times. To my surprise, due to hard work, I was able to get the top marks in most of my classes. And the learning strategies I have developed along the way have helped me succeed in university as well.

I think OP definitely has "idealized" the people who could achieve top grades. I procrastinate a lot of times, wasting my time watching dramas and constantly interrupting myself with online chatting. I am not sure if I perform poorly under stress or not. But I am very very very prone to stress and anxiety. I think because that I recognize my limit (my predisposition to stress and anxiety), I always start things early so I don't have to stress out in the end.

It is not that good to get high marks all the time. Some people think I am simply a nerd who doesn't know how to socialize. They would also say that I only know how to get good marks but not know other things. Some people would think that I am an introvert who stays at home studying all the time... In fact, I love being around people, love hanging out with friends.. I love teaching, tutoring and giving out presentations.. There are a lot of stereotypical beliefs about nerds.. And these things made me very sad at times. But I feel that I had to work hard because I wanted to go to grad school and GPA is a big consideration when it comes to applying for grad school..

Anyways...all these rambling probably won't help OP gets good marks..I will provide some of the study strategies that have helped me succeed in school: 1) Prepare before you go to the lecture. Read the textbook before you go to the lecture. There are times when I preview the whole course material during the summer before taking the course... I think that is simply too extreme for other people..But I did that and it worked for me. When everyone was struggling to understand the materials, I already know most of it...

2) I record my lectures and listen to them like "music"? If the prof is good at lecturing, it is actually not that boring to listen to the lectures again. At times, the prof would give some possible hints about questions on the exams; those hints can be helpful at times.

3) Start on your hw early so that you can leave some time to ask questions. If hw counts a significant portion of the mark, you should definitely start early and ask the TA questions if you don't get any of the questions. Keep asking them until you figure out the answers. KEEP ASKING! It is funny that I eventually become a very friend with one of my TAs because I always go hang out with her during her office hour.

5) I know every well about my limit. So most of the times, I don't take too many courses to overwhelm myself. I also tried to balance my semester with some easy courses and some hard ones. Whether the course is easy or not depends on what you are good at. An English course can be easy for an Arts student to get an A but extremely hard to a science student.

6) Know about the teacher's testing strategies. Some profs like to ask questions from the textbook; some like to focus on the lectures more.. Some have really tricky MC questions.Some teachers like to test the conceptual stuff more. Every prof is different. Knowing what the teacher's testing style is very important.

7) I don't know how relevant it is to other people but TAs have marked my exam wrong multiple times.... It happened to my friend also. There was once when the TA gave me 76 when I got 95.. There was also another time when I got 95 on an exam after crazy scaling. I thought this time, they probably marked everything right and I didn't need to check my exam with the TA; but I eventually went to check it before my final just in case there were some similar questions on the final. And they marked a written question wrong again. Maybe I am just bad luck.. Always check your exams carefully to see if the TA has made any mistakes.

8) I am generally a very curious person who doesn't mind studying anything. But after studying something for a long time, I would also get bored and frustrated.. At those times, I would keep telling myself "STUDYING SHOULD BE ENJOYABLE. IT IS REALLY INTERESTING!" OK.. Maybe I was just a bit too crazy..I don't know. My point is that at times, it is important to motivate yourself and to keep remind yourself how interesting the topic is.

These are all I can think about it so far..If I remember more, I may add later.

His inability to focus sounds like ADD. I thought all the college kids were doing Adderall these days. I'd recommend getting some counseling for that, plus the depression and anxiety. I wouldn't be too worried. Grades != work. If he's a CS major and can program his way out of a paper bag, he should be able to find work easily.

The later you can discover that you're smarter than someone else, the better. You're not alone in being at a disadvantage for discovering this at a young age. The humility that results from the awakening is jarring, but with some work you'll turn out just fine despite the initial discouragement.

I don't mean to be a dick, but its called the 99TH percentile for a reason. Those guys getting top marks are smarter than 99 percent of the general population. I've often been a bit mystified by peoples inability to recognize where they sit on the intellectual bell curve.

He/she is a great writer. Good advice too.

Break big tasks down into small ones, practice and train for each small task and then when the big tests (or the challenges of life) come you'll be prepared.

Learning how to study will help you learn how to live and deal with life in general.

Here's JFK's Harvard application.


I get the feeling he didn't work as hard as most of the people posting here. I'm sure the same can be said for a lot of famous people.

Good thing here: facing the feedback and updating.

Not so good: taking the narrow criteria of school grading as a crucial measure of worth. High or low, it may matter, but not so intensely as this writer seems to feel it.

I'll throw my little story in here in case the OP is reading - always helps to have multiple points of view.

I did alright in primary school[1] but mentally checked out in the first year of high school (year 7). I actually told my mum not to waste her breath chastising me for poor marks: I was more interested in friends and socialising so I wouldn't be doing much on the school front. She should expect Ds. not Fs necessarily, but D average. She was kind of taken aback but gave me the benefit of the doubt.

In year 11 I changed schools (common in Canberra where I went to high school, and Tasmania where I went to college which is what they refer to year 11 and 12 as, it's the last 2 years of high school when you're 17 and 18).

The school I went to in Tasmania was incredible (word up Friends' School!) and I had amazing teachers. I caught up and got good grades in (almost) all areas except for one crucial one: Maths.

See all the other classes like English, Psychology, Sociology, Japanese, to a lesser extent Chemistry and Physics, weren't cumulative. Maths, on the other hand, builds each year on what you learned the year before, so the fact that I had been actively ignoring maths for the past 4 years meant I had no hope of catching up. So I got a pass. I didn't fail, but I got a 7 out of 20 so pretty close to failing.

The fact that I passed and the fact that I went to school in Tasmania meant that I could use the Maths course I did as a pre-requisite when applying for a Mechatronics degree when I was 21 (the final year in which I was able to use my tertiary entrance score!).

Why I chose to do an engineering degree I have no idea. I didn't really think too much about how Maths heavy it would be. I just thought that Mechatronics sounded really cool. I didn't even really understand what it would entail.

The 1st year, I failed (yes, actual fail, like 32 out of 100) all my Maths courses. Didn't even come close to passing a single one.

I then took 2 years off and deferred while I went to the UK and worked for 1.5 years in London as a programmer. I had taken 6 months of C first year, and really loved it - it was the only class I did well in that year.

So I worked and a funny thing happened: I got a job I wasn't even remotely qualified for, and through a trial by fire realised that I could learn things, and then use them, completely independently. I did this professionally before I ever did it in an academic setting.

The first year of university, and these 1.5 years following it, taught me, basically, to RTFM.

So when it came time to go back to University for 2nd year (by now I was 23) I took 6 months to study my high school Maths text books at my own pace. I did all the exercises, asked some people I knew for help when I couldn't figure something out, basically, learned Maths the same way I had realised that I could learn how to program on the job.

I then went back and passed (with low credits) all the subjects I had failed in 1st year, and then passed all my 2nd year Maths (and Maths related) courses (some of them I even almost got distinctions - like 72 out of 100!)

I was so pleased with myself. I was so pleased with that fact that I'd learned how to learn, that nothing could ever have hurt my sense of pride in those marks, even though all the kids around me were depressed because they got a 90 instead of a 95.

The moral from this for my purposes (may or may not apply to you) was:

If you start from behind, you might never catch up in terms of the absolute value of your outcome (ie. I think there is virtually zero chance that, unless I was some sort of crazy genius, that I could have truly aced my Maths exams 2nd year of uni). BUT ...

Your sense of achievement at learning how to learn can, if you let it, overshadow that shortfall AND ...

That is the most valuable thing you can learn anyway: the most valuable skill (and the one I look for most when hiring people) is the ability to read and parse a complex set of instructions without freaking out. This is the essence of all learning, and regardless of what mark you come out with, you can count yourself lucky if you figure out how to do this. It's incredibly valuable.

The secret of life: RTFM.

[1] I'll be using Australian school terminology.

That's what happens if you slack off in school. School (< age 18) is essentially the best place to learn how to learn, and many (including myself) defer this because they think its somehow too easy. School often seems so irrelevant, and lets not kid ourselves, much of it is. The one thing that isn't irrelevant however is learning how to learn. Glad you learnt it late, as did I..

Yeah I actually dropped out of Uni after 3 years but I'm so glad I went. People kind of say to me "oh aren't you upset you didn't finish?" but in actuality I finished like 13 courses, I just didn't do my thesis :)

But above all it just gave me the experience of figuring shit out. Totally invaluable.

I had almost all of those issues except when I, filled with hate and competitiveness, decided to drop everything off and focus it paid off.

Maybe even with the good result I should know I'm making a mistake.

This was a really heart felt piece. Wishing you all the best.

Hmmm.. pastebin.com is not available from my geo location. I've had this couple of times before also.

Is there an alternative link to the original post?

The rest of the comments have been a good read anyway.


Thank you.

Dude. Chill. Grades are just numbers on a paper. Imagine how they will look when you are old and have children. You will probably not even remember them.

I would consider getting tested for ADD. I am not a professional or anything but some of what OP has described sounds to me like the symptoms of ADD.

To think that I'm are ready for a challenge, but mostly I fail without preparation, that mindset makes me weak and always fail

I've been experiencing the same feelings as well, OP. All we can do is to try to get better.

but we won't get better. Isolating ourselves and force-focus is not the key. I don't know a lot about the subject OP's referring to but to get good score all you need to do is understand things. Self study may not help at this time, have a friend over who is more or less like you but try and study together.

I'm just like OP. Recently I gave exams and if I hadn't had my friend over for studies then I would have failed. Now I'm getting a decent score.

I have learned something today, "To lose false confidence in me". You have opened my eyes.

I was fiddling with scripts and browsing all day long just before my physics exam. Can you believe it?

All the best ;)

Focus is the key to success in everything.

Focus is a byproduct of giving a damn. Find what you give a damn about and you'll learn focus through practice.

You would be surprised - there are actually a lot of people who, for whatever reason, are unable to focus even on something they care greatly about.

Perhaps you and I have a different definition of focus. Can you give me an example?

This is hilarious, this dude needs to get outside and enjoy the sun more.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | DMCA | Apply to YC | Contact