Dangers of being a Straight A student

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Cost of success at school

Kids who report straight A's at school often fail to convert their success to greatness.

It is generally assumed that to be a "straight A student" is a good thing. However, in a large number of cases, good performance at school should also be a warning sign. There are two aspects of being a perfect student that can carry dangers: (1) opportunity costs and (2) psychological costs. Both can be dramatic and both can have effects lasting a lifetime.

Opportunity costs

To be a perfect student, one usually needs to put in a lot of work. Learning has many advantages. Learning that brings good grades has many advantages. Quality learning is precious. However, for many good students, lots of learning means little time for free thinking and own passions. There are four major costs of those limits on time. There is negative impact on: passion, creativity, self-motivation and self-discipline. Opportunity costs affect the whole learning population, however, it is the perfect student who often needs to go that extra mile to pass an irrational benchmark, or please an irrational teacher. In that, opportunity costs for a "perfect" student will usually be greater than the cost borne by a "bad" student given the same level of learning capability.

Passion: Life-changing passions take time to germinate and often require a lot of tinkering and own time to mature. Straight A students rarely have time for their own passions. In the ideal case, they might combine passions with learning and good grades (see my own case when I was able to achieve that for a while at the end of my 22 years of education). Lack of passions affects learning and creativity. Lack of passions slows down development and has a huge long-term impact on the ultimate educational outcome. If your kid got great grades but is not passionate about anything in particular, you should consider having a little chat about it (see: Childhood passions).

Creativity: In creative pursuits, ideas sprout new branches of knowledge with new seeds of interest. This process is essential for expanding the surface of the knowledge tree (see: Knowledge crystallization). Creativity requires passion, knowledge and free exploration, which has high demands on time. Creativity requires an appropriate state of mind (see: Natural creativity cycle). Schooling blocks the best creative slots of the day and steals time from creative pursuits. Perfects students, on average, have less time to soar creatively. This has an overall stunting effect on development. Naturally, it is possible to combine great learning with a great deal of creativity. Unfortunately, this is not how the usual straight A student operates.

Self-motivation: Great people have great goals. Those who run their life under the whip of short-term rewards or instant penalties will never live to their true potential. Those who focus on living a happy life may run into the hedonistic paradox. In contrast, those who set lofty goals tend to live more accomplished lives. They are more productive, more happy, and healthier too. Schooling conditions kids to submit to short-term rewards and penalties. When grades become a goal, long-term learning goals get obfuscated. When competition with others is the chief motivator, it will mostly reward the winners. Students who live for grades have no habit of setting meaningful goals. This habit is trainable, and should be developed from the youngest ages. Self-motivation is the best propeller of a good life.

Self-discipline: Human brain planted in the modern world is easily lost in a chaos of confusing signals. It is burdened with millions of years of evolution targeted at different survival criteria. The brain is weighed down with a great number of instincts, emotions, cognitive biases, personality traits, defense mechanisms, weaknesses, distractions, innate needs, and more. The art of self-discipline is about harnessing the brain power, without negative health outcomes (see: Formula for healthy self-discipline). Self-discipline is trainable. Self-discipline is best accomplished by a set of micro-rules that govern one's behaviors. For example, one of the rules proposed in this book is: never learn if you do not enjoy the process. Students who run their lives under the whip of tests and grades, push their brains to action against the rules of brain hygiene. At the same time, they never develop their own rules and habits that boost self-discipline. Perfect students often live by principle: No test, no threat, no effort. Poorly developed self-discipline will affect students for life. They may thrive in rigid setup of a corporate environment, but they may be less productive in creative professions, e.g. in science. They won't make good entrepreneurs either.

Psychological costs

Psychological costs of being a straight A student will affect the student himself, or other kids in the class. As long as the "perfect" student stays on the lead, he may thrive with a sense of being a winner. However, any change in the variables affecting his status can make his position in the ranks plummet. This can have a devastating impact on self-esteem and self-belief (see personal stories below). In a matter of months, a stellar winner of rewards and competitions may turn into a case of school refusal and depression. Later in life, good students may triple their risk of bipolar disorder.

In a class with 2-3 winners, the rest of kids may feel inadequate. I survived 22 years of schooling because I did not care. I liked winning, but not enough to give up my extracurricular passions. The sense of feeling inadequate may be made worse by teachers who try to employ leaders to spur losers to action. I made this mistake in tutoring too.

It's been a horrifying academic secret for decades that the children who walk away with the highest formal honors, the valedictorians and National Merit Scholars, have a horrendous performance record in later life (John Taylor Gatto)

Bad students

Time and time again I hear from my super-smart friends that they were one of the worst in their class. Human brain is a great generalizer. This is why it favors black-and-white over shades of gray. This explains why most people claim that they were great or that they were awful at school. Few people report average performance which, statistically, should predominate. However, there is undoubtedly a second component that explains why great people do poorly at school:

Teachers find original minds disruptive. Schools are NOT a fertile ground for spawning creative attitudes

A famous dropout, Bill Gates, would get 25 cents for each A in elementary school. However, he kept getting awful grades and would keep lagging behind his sister until the 8th grade when she got interested in boys. We can see it all the time: bad school results do not preclude greatness.

On average, originality, and creativity get suppressed at school. Instead, those more conformist students are more likely to collect good grades. This can lead to a "GPA addiction", which may favor cramming over true learning, i.e. learning derived from passions and the learn drive.

At times, great students get excellent grades, but get hurt in the process of striving for good school performance. I list a few cases below.

Examples: Personal stories of straight A students

Being a good student is a drain on free thinking

When one of my smartest friends, Daniel, complained "I am 26 already. Most of great scientists have already achieved great things by that age", I ridiculed the claim with good intent. Daniel is super-smart, great at math, well-versed in science, and a graduate student at the most reputable Ivy League school. His future in science looks fantastic. Only sheer statistics may prevent him from getting a Nobel Prize. Nothing will stop him from Nobel-level achievements.

Schooling might actually be number one reason Daniel is unhappy with his research output thus far. He was always a good student. He treated school seriously. It was easy. He attended good schools and even had a brief stint at homeschooling. He has been perfectly trained in the whole toolset needed to do good science. His grounding in theory of basic sciences is spotless. However, years of being a good student in a Prussian-style education also have their costs.

During our discussions, I discovered that Daniel shows quite a degree of tolerance to limits on freedom imposed by schooling. Those limits tend to generate conformist attitude. All schooling has its origins in prepping conformist members of society. They have been perfected in totalitarian system for totalitarian needs. Daniel even tossed an idea of compulsory schooling of adults in subjects such as trigonometry!

Daniel has been trained to perfection in skills and knowledge that he can now finally employ in his Nobel Prize endeavours. However, on the way he might have lost (1) untold hours of time he might have devoted to his own explorations, and (2) some of the good habits in terms of self-learning, self-motivation, and self-discipline. Perhaps even in self-belief?

Cost in time does not sound that bad until one realizes that most of those great early scientific discoveries come from hours and years of tinkering, studying, exploring, and brainstorming (often only with oneself). In theory, one might blame schooling for the lack of Daniel's precocious Nobel credentials! He never got a chance. He was always busy with the school routine.

The cost in conformist habits might be affecting him even today. However, the damage in habits seems reversible. Nobody is ever born with a perfect attitude for work, productivity, exploration, etc. Self-discipline is based on a set of micro-rules we employ daily. See the personal anecdote below in pink for how I worked on my own set of micro-rules.

The good thing is that Daniel is now perfectly primed for his Nobel achievements. I told him to just never look back with any regrets. Those can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of my chief theses in this book is that late achievements might come better.

The higher you soar, the harder the impact of a stumble

Peter Thiel is an example of a good student who went on to greatness despite his conformist approach to schooling. Not without regrets though. He would stay among the best of the best when climbing his educational ranks. At each level though, he noticed that the competition was getting stiffer and stiffer. In the end, he missed his Supreme Court job by a whisker. At the time, it felt like a disaster. However, his mental stamina quickly re-awakened him to the fact that the failure was a blessing in disguise. He went on to a wild success in business. Had he stayed on his fixed tracks, he would have never achieved that what he today considers most precious. For one Peter Thiel, there are many good students who run their education in blinkers only to get stunned by a setback at some point.

Straight A kids have no time for passions

The main problem with straight A kids is that they are too busy with learning for school and have no time to develop their passions. I love reading biographies. I read hundreds, and I always focus on early life looking for factors that determine greatness. I recall very few cases of great people who were great and well-polished students. Just the opposite, it is the rebellious types and the self-learning types that usually spring to greatness. In my local investigations among kids, only Freddy comes close to straight A criteria. His grades are very good, but not perfect. He got passion for football. That's wonderful. He also loves FIFA computer game. However, when I asked him for his learning passions, he was not sure. His dad tried to prompt him "Come on! You got a great interest in one thing. Think!". Freddy recalled that he often spends quite a chunk of his time on geography, flags, country characteristics, capitals, etc. He won some geography contest. He knows that Monaco is its own capital as a city-state, however, he did not know the capital of Montenegro (Podgorica). I contested his passion claim saying "If you have to think what your passion is, it does not qualify as a passion". However, the best part of that "passion" is that it was born from his interest in football. He likes to know more about individual teams. In that sense, his budding passion in geography might still develop into a meaningful pursuit in addition to his love of football.

Lessons from unschoolers

A striking thing about unschoolers who get to college is their surprise with the attitude of an average student, who seems to care less about his attainment. To an unschooler, a typical student drilled via compulsory schooling seems as if he had been conditioned to have a dismissive approach to the system. They seem "burnt out" from the unschooler's perspective. Unschoolers in college find superficial learning at high speed unsettling. Not because it is hard, but because it is inefficient. Self-learning is based on self-pacing and this is vital for its efficiency. Unschoolers know that. Archetypal student is conditioned to rush fast through the material and cram titbits needed to get a passing mark (see the example of Tanya in Futility of schooling).

Peter Gray who surveyed unschoolers noted that at college they "do better because of high motivation and their high capacity for self-initiative, self-direction, and self-control"

How school destroys self-confidence

Timothy (57) is a classic case of a straight A student turned into an adult perpetually unhappy with his school memories.

Timothy was a straight A student in primary school. In high school, the bar went up. With just a couple of stumbles, he lost his self-confidence. In the new environment, he did not feel at home. He got labelled as a "struggling student". This had a dramatic impact on his performance. He literally tumbled in the ranks down to the bottom of his class. When he tried for college, he tried without enthusiasm. He chose his college because it was a good school with good prospects for a good job. He did not choose it out of love. He kept using his old-and-tried cramming methods, but his mind was always elsewhere. He made little progress learning. He failed to pass the entrance exams twice and gave up. He entered a lesser college and, to everyone's surprise, incl. his own, he started shining again. He regained his straight A status. I hypothesized and he confirmed: being a leader gave him learning wings, dropping in ranks messed up his psyche and learning would crumble. Competition can be toxic for some students! Timothy got an amazing social brain. He seems to remember all his schoolmates. He knows their jobs, children, and who died when, and of what causes. Similarly, he seems to know everything about mobile technologies despite never being schooled in technical subjects. At the same time, in his own field, Timothy shows no passion for learning or knowledge. He considers his education a failure. When he meets his old high school friends, those failed college exams seem to dominate his mind. While he is highly respected at work for his knowledge and experience, back in his high school company, he regresses to the same old behavioral system of a weak struggling student. In that sense, he is very similar to Tamara (see her case in How school can ruin a life). High school is a dark period that casts shadows over Timothy's professional, and personal life. Timothy takes education of his daughters seriously. They are 11 and 18. He is determined to shield his girls from experiences he had. So far so good.

How school destroys the love of learning

For 8 years, Ronnie was a straight A student in his primary and his middle school. He was considered the best student in the entire school. Like most of winners in my investigations, he liked learning, and liked attending school. Things changed dramatically in high school. He went to the best school in his city and suddenly faced much stiffer competition. In addition, the volume of learning increased significantly. His love of learning was replaced with the sense of being overwhelmed. He could not keep up with the demands of teachers. Like in the case of Tanya, he always complained of getting more homework that it was humanly possible to process. It did not take long for Ronnie to start hating his learning experience and his school. First half of his day was filled with school, after school he had to go to meet his private tutors to catch up with hardest subjects. In the late evening, he was going through his homework often with his brain literally going to sleep while he was reading. To make things worse, he slipped in the ranks. He was now just an average student, right in the middle of the pack. He looked at straight A guys, and there always seemed to be one or two of those. He kept wondering, "what are they doing right that I don't do". Perhaps they got better books. Perhaps their parents have more money for better tutors. He has never been able to find a satisfactory answer to that question. He might have fallen on the depressing default: "I am not as good as they are". This is exactly what happened to Timothy with lifelong implications. However, Ronnie replicated my own lucky break and he won a geography contest. He became best in Poland. He dismissed the importance of his achievement saying, there were not that many contestants and this was a specific variety of the contest with only a subset of schools participating. Ronnie hated school, but he did not lose his self-confidence. For a quick comparison with others, I tested Ronnie on history and English. Now 26 years old, Ronnie forgot history almost entirely. All those cramming hours and lost sleep are for naught. In contrast, his English is excellent. However, he attributed that to SuperMemo and to studying abroad. At the end of high school, Ronnie started using SuperMemo. He mastered a large bulk of English and German vocabulary. This made it possible for him to pass exams for a German university. Unlike Timothy, Ronnie's story has a happy ending. He was the only foreign student among 60, and one of a handful without practical training in the field. This made his start in Germany very difficult. However, his not being a top student would not bother him. He was finally studying things of interest, among people he liked, and for a great purpose he set for his life. Only half of his group graduated. In that he considers his degree a screaming success. In contrast to history, his knowledge of chemistry and physics is pretty good. He gave some credit to all those hated years of cramming at high school. However, he admits that if he could learn it all at his own pace, he would do even better. Most of all, he became a lifer in terms of learning. His learn drive is now resurgent. He spends a great part of his time studying new things just because he finds them interesting. He is an addict of National Geographic. He rarely misses a day of learning with SuperMemo. He is sure that if he was given the same chance for self-directed learning back in high school, his four years before college might be more enjoyable and more productive.

How school destroys self-motivation

I cannot quote any good research showing that GPA addiction leads to inferior performance later in life, however, in my interviews I heard from many people who have moved from good students to helpless adults, and who suspect their conformist attitude at school has messed up their later life.

Anthony has been a good student in primary school. He conformed nicely. His school discipline started lagging by high school, but he turned resulting freedoms into teenage distractions, not self-learning or self-development. Whatever conformist imprint he carried from the primary school, it prevented him from taking his life into his own hands. At university, Anthony went with the flow. He did not try to impress the world, nor did he fight for his freedoms.

After college, now 30 years old, Anthony had a plan to start up his own business, but he was perpetually hesitant. It was a combination of diffidence, feeling uncomfortable with his own choices, the need for perfect school-like order in life, the need for the security of someone else's supervision. Even his girlfriend seems to always rule the relationship and Anothony seems to enjoy the fact.

When Anthony works under supervision in his current place of employment, where there are fixed rules and deadlines, his performance is stellar. He is well-liked and considered a consummate professional. However, when Anthony is given freedom and asked to soar creatively, he admits he curls down into inaction: "I just don't have it in me. Without a boss and a deadline, I seem to procrastinate for ever. I lack no self-discipline. I shine as a good example in the gym". His physique is impressive! "But when it comes to creative work, I procrastinate to the point of hating myself".

Schooling does not prepare kids of modern age to uncertainties of fast change in 21st century economy. The main ingredient missing is the lack of training in making choices, self-motivation, and self-discipline. Rote learning leads to memories that don't last or get irrelevant within a decade. Schooling leaves kids naked on ice!

Harsh teachers, easy teachers

Easy teachers teach little. Harsh teachers spark hate of learning. Great teachers play to kid passions. In the end, the outcome largely depends on the child, her personality and interests.

Kasia is a smiling 16-year old. I know her since she was a talkative 3-year-old. She was the cutest kid in the playground. I would play football, she would follow me with her dog and ask serious questions. In her questions, she was a true little prodigy. At school, she was a straight A student. However, this was a different type of straight A. Everybody loves Kasia. She is nice to everyone, she makes no trouble, she means no harm. All teachers liked Kasia too. This was her formula for good grades. She did not really even need to learn much. A teacher would always bail her out of trouble. For 6 years of primary school, life was fun and easy. Kasia always kept asking questions. More and more often, I would ask her about college. Smart kids deserve best options. Who would she wanna be? She never gave me an answer. She did not know. When Kasia went to middle school, things changed dramatically. Her family welcomed a little sister, 12 years her junior, and Kasia stopped being the epicenter of family life. New teachers set new demands and they did not seem to love her as much either. She did not bring that much knowledge from primary school and this made life harder at middle school level. At puberty, I noticed Kasia smiled less. She did not look as happy as before. She was still nice and polite, but did not ooze that much energy as before.

When I want to know how kids do at school, I use a simple trick, I turn to English. This way we can continue our conversation on their favorite subject, while I can have my insight into the efficiency of schooling. Needless to say, in most cases, I am quickly forced to switch back to Polish or there would be actually little conversation. For a longer while I tried to test Kasia's English. My impression was that she was always evasive about English. It was pretty easy to figure out that she is just ashamed to admit that after 9 years of learning she cannot speak the language. When I kept insisting, at some point, she turned blunt: "I cannot even introduce myself!" This sounded a bit like: "stop bothering me, what do you expect?, blame the school!". For her, Kuba's 2400 words sounded like a world-class achievement. I asked her to explain the paradox. How did she retain her good grades without learning anything? In her case it was all about passing the next test. She would do her homework, pass the test, get the grade, forget, and move on. The difficulty level in her English class never kept advancing. If she was in trouble, her teacher would often bail her out with some set questions about cats. She summarized this as "all I needed to know was how to name a cat in English". Her teacher was a truly loving lady, who tried her best to encourage and teach, but would never hurt a fly with the use of a grade whip. Each time Kasia meets her teacher downtown, they have a conversation about her future. Why are some teachers tolerating total lack of progress in their class? Because they accept the inevitable status quo: kids forget as fast as they learn. By being a ruthless executioner, a teacher can only add stress to young lives and make kids hate school even more. They see school as exercise that is bound to be futile anyway. Kasia's teacher did not believe harsh grades could be used to make kids work harder. The problem is that leniency may backfire at later stages. Kasia's mom adds: Kasia never really liked English.

For Kasia, learning English became a serious issue in middle school. Her English teacher now is, in Kasia's words, a "man without heart". He can issue a few bad grades during a single class. He is blunt about his purpose "it is your own interest to learn and to learn well. My job is to explain and grade. Expect no leniency". Despite this polar-opposite strategy, Kasia's progress in English is negligible. In her mind, she does not know the basics to meet the demands of her new teacher. Her mom considers sending Kasia for private tutoring. The problem is that Kasia now truly hates English. English is now a source of nightmares. Kasia might consider private lessons, but her mind is elsewhere now. She fell in love. Private lessons would take away the little free time she got for her boyfriend, a locally known teen football talent. The time with her boyfriend is peaceful, serene, and unconcerned. All things related to school, she now associates with stress and trouble. School has now driven a wedge between Kasia and her mom. When I suggest "I can talk to your mom about...", Kasia shushes me "No. This will only drive my mom mad". Kasia's mom is a nice, reasonable, but stern lady. They have always been a good team. It is hard to understand why their communication collapsed that fast due to school trouble. Part of the problem is that until now, Kasia was socially active mostly via Facebook. Her mom was happy to see her daughter do homework, meeting friends on-line and stay safe at home. Now that the gap of misunderstanding keeps growing, Kasia's absence from home is an additional source of conflict which powers the spiral of positive feedback that drives Kasia away from school.

Again I asked the immortal question about college. At 16, Kasia's dreams are hazy, but they gravitate low. She spoke of a vocational school. She suggested that she got no talent for going any higher. Not even high school. When I dug deeper, she revealed a bombshell: she would actually be relieved with grade retention. This would let her slow down, catch up with learning, rethink her life, find some time for her boyfriend, and, in short, lower the pressures in her life that keep squeezing her up from all directions. The only fear is of her mom's reaction. When I later spoke to teachers about this suicidal grade retention wish, I found it is pretty common. It seems kids often see grade retention as a chance to to catch a breath in a mad curriculum race. A few months later, Kasia failed English, and is now repeating the grade. She seems happy though: My grades are up now. Again I feel like a winner. Good grades will help me get to a better school!

My advice to Kasia is to focus on learning things she likes most. This will help her get strong in at least one area. This will bring back self-confidence. Strength in one field can be a weapon against the pressure of other teachers, or her mom, or school in general.

Secondly, she needs to be careful about finding the right proportion between (1) learning and (2) the detox time with her boyfriend. The right proportion will help her maximize success across the board.

Optimum level of harshness

Kasia's highly unusual switch from super-easy to super-harsh teacher begs a little theoretical divagation. Would Kasia do better if the sequence was reversed and she had a harsh teacher in the primary school? Or if she went through all her years with just one type of teacher?

A harsh teacher in early years can easily cause a lifelong dislike of a particular subject. Easy teachers do not command enough attention to tip the balance between learning and forgetting. I always preferred easy teachers because easy teachers mean freedom and a chance to develop your own interests or angles.

I know dozens of kids, with all combination of teacher styles and personalities. With few exceptions related to personal interests and hobbies, outcomes are inevitably dismal. I explain my own case here and here. Teachers can help or make things worse, but in the end, it is the personality, interests, and passions of the kid that determine the outcome. The school only matters in that it steals most of the kid's time. It suppresses passions. Because of school, youth is no longer the best time in life.

Kasia's friend Jagoda spent the same time learning English under harsh teachers and came out pretty well. At least in terms of grades and basic conversational skills. Jagoda's progress makes Kasia envious. Kasia and her mom believe that a harsh teacher in primary school would do a better job. This default thinking is natural. If "easy" did not work, perhaps "harsh" would. My bet is that a harsh teacher would work for Kasia only if she really managed to employ English in real life and start enjoying it. Otherwise, her hate of the language might quadruple without adding much to her knowledge.

A transition from harsh to easy can work pretty well too. One shy Victoria Ch. is 12. She did poorly in Polish schools. She was always intimidated. Then she moved to Norway and started shining in her school. She loved the friendly atmosphere and repaid in kind with good learning. This is exactly what happened to me when switching schools in 1975. For another kid, a switch from harsh to easy, or the other way round can have unpredictable outcome. It is all about psychology. Learning at school hardly ever progresses at satisfactory rate.

Queen Vicky progressed along similar lines like Kasia. She had an easy teacher in the primary school and a harsh one in middle school. When she refused to speak English to me saying "We are in Poland, why would I?", I suspected poor skills. "We are in Poland" is a frequently used defensive mask. Only some time later, she admitted that despite being a straight A student, her English was awful. As much as Kasia, Victoria claims that a harsh teacher in primary school could have helped. This can be an illusion and a wish for a change in the past. Kids hypothesize wrongly. After a short analysis, Victoria agreed with me: the real problems is that English is not her passion. Harsh teacher could only make things worse. Little do kids or parents realize how fast they might start hating the subject. They yearn for a change or for military discipline or anything that could change the status quo. A great teacher will play to each kid's strengths and needs. The crystallization process is slow and chaotic. This is why angelic patience is one of the best characteristics of a great teacher. She needs to know when to give up, when to wait, and when to push just a little bit. If my best teacher could not inspire me to learn English despite my mature thinking about science and biochemistry, I am skeptical about instituting a change. Short trip abroad can do more than a team of teachers. It affects the root cause: poor motivation.

My harshest teacher

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I had lots of easy teachers and liked them all. I was never bothered or affected by harsh teachers except one. I met my harshest teacher at the age of 14. During his first class, I was busy talking to friends and being disruptive. At some point, I was smacked hard on the head with a notebook. This was the teacher. He looked angry. After the class, I went to the teacher to apologize! This is very hard for me to explain after years, but I think it was a sort of a social trick I used to appease the boss. It worked like a charm. He looked totally taken aback, and very pleased. Me and the teacher became great pals even though I totally hated his particular subject: military technology (i.e. a typical example of a perverted communist curriculum). The teacher was still very harsh for all the other students, but I became his pet. His class was probably the only one in which I did not want to disappoint. I would do some minimal reading during the break just to make sure I could retain my pet status. In the end, it was the teacher who ruled that social interaction. I tricked him into liking me after the first class. That was my little tactical win. He tricked me into compliance for the whole year. That was his huge strategic win. He made me learn a tiny bit. He made me sit tight and comply. His impact was huge because rebellion was my first name. He tamed a little unruly kid. I have fond memories of that time, but I still hate the subject. Needless to say, I have no recall of things I have learned. No interest, no review, no memory.

Teacher's pet epiphany

Heather Svanidze is a translator who went through all levels of schooling with straight A's. Years later, with three little kids, she underwent a conversion. In a mirror copy of my own realization, she found that most of "real education" occurred during her "free time" that she did not have much due to schooling. She decided to homeschool her kids. Her story can be summarized as this:

I had straight A's from kindergarten through high school [...] I couldn’t manage to transfer that success to the real world of work [...] You might say that the only job I was good at was being a student. [...] Without the incentive of grades and tests, I found my own motivation and discipline lacking. Without someone telling me how to organize my time, I found myself wasting it [...] I never learned to motivate myself for the sake of a job well done or the love of learning [...] my love of math died a slow death in school [...]. I kept a very busy schedule – school, music lessons, dance, sports, church, and student leadership – which meant that I was often running around from 7 AM to 9:30 PM, after which I would do my homework, often past midnight [...] I didn’t have the time to discover my own passions and vocation [...] I remember the immense relief I would feel whenever I had to cancel one of my lessons or classes due to a cold. Oh, the sweetness of an unscheduled hour or two, to read or think or just be.

Heather says she was only good at being a student. I would add that she is a also a great writer. Her story is very convincing. Read it here.

My own straight A streaks

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I had three short periods of being a good student in 22 years of schooling. I waited 7 years for my first streak, and another 7 years for my second streak. Most kids keep waiting and they don't get this rare "reward".

Against the warning coming in this chapter, I believe all those periods were harmless for my self-development. I explain that harmlessness by the fact that "good grade addiction" was only a minor component driving my performance. True interest in knowledge predominated. In the last streak I was truly doing exactly what I like. This is schooling at its best that most kids never experience. In the end, after many years of struggle with the system, I found a happy place within it. Unfortunately, this might also explain why I was largely silent about the system of education for that many years. That ultimate good experience has erased prior pains and tribulations. I seem to have forgotten that I found my lucky place only after 19 years of trying! I got there through hard work, self-discipline, self-directed learning, and sheer stubbornness. This is why I do not see many teens who seem to be on the right track to a similar happy resolution.

Here are those three good learning periods:

Chemistry streak (Apr 1975 - May 1976)

I was thrown away from School #72 in Poznan in 1975 for bad behavior. No paperwork followed me to the new school. Thanks to this lucky break, I was instantly rebranded as a good student in my new School #30. Being a good student was addictive. I loved the praise that stood in stark contrast with the status of an outcast I faced just weeks earlier in the other school. While all kids were exhausted with the long school year and dreamt of summer vacation, I was new and fresh. At the age of 13, it was my first ever real spell of actually learning at school! No wonder I easily stood out as an eager student! That GPA addiction could not last in my case. The reward was not sufficient to put in the extra time in homework. I had too many other interests (animal breeding, biology, boxing, sports, etc.). However, my chemistry teacher, Mrs Kaczmarek, perfectly hit my optimum push zone to drive many months of good performance crowned with a win in a chemistry contest. That good GPA streak ended with the end of primary school. I tried to replicate it in high school, but that idea was quickly hammered out from my head in the new school. In high school, we had to get up earlier, learning loads were much larger, standards were stricter, and I did not come with the status of a white-haired boy that made life easy. Moreover, I was far more interested in being a class clown than I was in learning. Getting the approval of new peers seemed more important than the approval of new teachers who all seemed remote and uninterested.

The big bonus from my chemistry GPA streak was that I combined my interest in animals with my interest in chemistry and developed a passion for biochemistry that lasted throughout high school, and actually lasts to this day.

Human biology streak (Jan 1983 - May 1984)

In January 1983, aged 21, I had a short break from my university classes before three tests: biochemistry, microbiology and physiology. For the first time ever, I was to have tests in subjects I was truly interested in. Without much planning, as if subconsciously, I decided to do well in those exams. I started putting in 8-9 hour learning days to perform well. I employed my active learning tricks that later led to developing incremental learning. It was one of my happiest days in schooling when I managed to get perfect score in those three exam and impress my professors. This period marked the beginning of my true and relentless lifelong learning. I started treating school seriously. Until then, I liked learning but I did not like learning for school. Unfortunately, that love of learning did not translate to straight A's. I had lots of boring exams. Moreover, I decided to continue learning by enrolling on another 5-year course in computer science. This meant that already in 1984, I had to focus on mathematics and physics to pass my entrance exams. In the meantime, I was a poor student again. I got great grades in exams I liked/needed, and awful grades elsewhere.

The big bonus from my biology GPA streak was the consolidation of my lifelong interest in science, esp. medical sciences. I never stopped learning since.

SuperMemo streak (1987-1990)

When I finally got free from the threat of the military service, dropping out from college was a consideration. However, without the threat of military blackmail, and with some help from open-minded supervisors, I was able to negotiate new curriculum for the remaining four years of study. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was able to study only things I thought were worth studying. This has quadrupled my enthusiasm. This is how I invented a perfect system for learning at college. I switched to English, stopped attending lectures, passed all exams in English using mutually approved textbooks, and generally had good fun with learning. Suddenly, my school, from a tiring oppressor became an ally full of smart highly inspiring people. Armed with SuperMemo, I was able to quickly master basics of individual subjects. Most of all, at the end of that period, I was focusing on SuperMemo theory itself. This culminated in writing my Master's Thesis that was sheer fun and pleasure. That lovely period might have lasted for ever. However, I graduated and my last streak of good learning came to a natural end.

The big bonus from my SuperMemo streak was SuperMemo itself. This has set the happy direction of my life for the next 3 decades (and hopefully more).

There was a minor threat of GPA addiction early in that healthy process. With a co-founder of SuperMemo World, Krzysztof Biedalak, we had a competition for best learning results. In one of math exams, he scored perfect, and I came second. A militant personality made me go back to the teacher and insist: "We are in a fight with Biedalak. I must do perfect. Please retest me". Teacher agreed. I improved my score. Possibly, the teacher marked it up just to get rid of the bothersome student. Krzysztof did not like that teacher's pet attitude. Luckily, this episode did not affect our friendship and my GPA addiction did not set in. If I got intoxicated with good grades and busy with cramming during those good learning streaks, SuperMemo would not have been born and my whole life would go on a different track. My gut tells me this would be a highly inferior track.

In summary, all my good learning streaks had 3 things in common: (1) learning things of interest, (2) relying on self-learning, and (3) nice, tolerant, and impressive teachers

Micro-rules of productivity

Micro-rules are a set of rules of behavior that foster self-discipline without demanding grit. A micro-rule might say: "As of today, I will spend no less than 4 minutes learning English", or "As of today, I will cut down my smoking from 20 to 19 cigarettes per day".

The power of micro-rules comes from the fact that they can be introduced painlessly, and that they gradually condition the mind to love the object of conditioning. Micro-rules might be the most effective pathway towards high productivity. This is how a free individual can transition from productivity based on self-discipline to productivity based on the fun of being productive.

When a well-schooled mind takes on perfectionist goals, minor obstacles and cumulative failures can lead to significant sense of displeasure (see: 100 bad habits learned at school). Once displeasure enters the feedback loop with its impact on productivity, the best crafted plan may collapse. The failure of New Year's resolutions is a prime example. My texts at SuperMemo Guru paint an idealistic picture of happy free learning, creativity, and good sleep. However, if all the ideals were to be implemented for a deadline, they might result in the opposite: stress, bad sleep, and chaos. Rome was not built in a day.

Micro-rules may produce a positive feedback loop between the pleasure of productivity and the productivity itself. For example, a little bit of learning increases the pleasure of learning, which in turn may call for more learning. That feedback loop will ultimately get closed by fatigue or competing interests or obligations. In a healthy individual, in the long run, free learning initiated with micro-rules will fill up all the allocated time with theoretically maximum productivity.

In youth, I tried many approaches to "personal reform" and productivity. In the end, micro-rules served a personal transformation as explained in my story below:

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
Long years of schooling did not destroy my self-discipline and the ability to self-motivate. I attribute that to a slow incremental recovery with the help of productivity micro-rules. In my own case, micro-rules of productivity might be "never peek at e-mail while working", "never work beyond your optimum sleep time", "exercise daily", etc. I can actually date the development of my micro-rules set to Aug 31, 1983. I was at the advanced age of 21 then, which is pretty late for personal reforms. I claim that my brain was just slow to mature. It is better to reform at middle age than never! Aug 31, 1983 was the day I decided my progress would be relentless, and I never stopped improving the rule set. I started small with rules like "10 min. of English every day" or "2 pages of a biochemistry book per day". As soon as my micro-rule set was demonstrated to be sustainable and pleasurable, I would add a bit of extra effort (e.g. improving from 10 min to 15 min per day). After a mere 100 days, I could already see powerful effects. This started me onto a path of relentless progress until I could say, a few years later, that my whole days were spent productively. That gradual self-improvement lead to (1) Tools : Plan in SuperMemo and (2) incremental reading. Plan determines what I do, incremental learning determines how I do it. These days, I enhance those two with SleepChart, which also helps me optimize the time of sleep, the time for work, and the time for exercise. My wild guess is that it took some 6-8 years to get from simple baby steps to reaching 80-90% of my productivity potential. That maximum productivity potential is reached when adding more self-discipline could be bad for health. This means that it took me some 26-30 years of brain development to become a fully productive individual. Today, productivity is instinctive and comes with pleasure. There is no struggle. I prove elsewhere in this book that I had been damaged by schooling too. I am sure I could have reached my development and productivity benchmarks earlier if I employed free learning throughout my youth

Further reading