January is AMC crunch time.  Later will come SAT Subject Tests and AP’s. Examine your test prep strategy.  How will your hard work pay off, not only at test time, but also later in life? How will you utilize the skills you’ve refined over the course of your preparation to create a better you?


The mechanic who would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools. – Confucius

Now, let’s shift our focus from the creation of future you to the tools we will give him or her. I’d like to focus specifically on the theme of repeated challenge, since that’s what the future version of you is going to be grappling with. From our point of view, we might even say that that is the point of future you: he or she is going to handle challenges like your current challenges, only better. So let’s see how “better handling” of repeated challenges actually works.

How most of us think about repeated challenge

Most of us believe, incorrectly but stubbornly, that after we’ve overcome a challenge once, we will automatically overcome all future similar-looking challenges, as illustrated by this story:

Henry has done most of his homework for a class, but the last question is of a type he doesn’t think he has seen before. He tries a few methods suggested by the current chapter, but nothing seems to work. He feels a little anxious, but he decides to give it a break for dinner.   After dinner, he goes back to your desk, and the solution hits him! He finishes the question and finishes his homework, and closes his notebook triumphantly.  

 

Next week, he gets stuck again while working on his homework. Again it’s a type of problem he doesn’t think he has seen before, just like last week. And he figures that he’ll probably solve it quickly and easily, just because he solved it quickly and easily last time.

Note the mistake in the story Henry tells himself: it wasn’t quick and easy the first time, and it won’t be quick and easy the second time either. But if we are very careful to keep track of the details of how we solved the problem the first time, our chance of success the second time is much higher. Over time, this repeated process will become quicker, and it will seem easier and easier. But only over time, and over many repetitions, and probably with some mistakes and failures mixed in.

How most of us deal with repeated challenge

After overcoming a challenge, we move on immediately, and expect that we will be able to recall any important parts of the solution later. For example:

Grace has done most of her homework for a class, but the last question is of a type she doesn’t think she has seen before. She tries a few methods suggested by the current chapter, but nothing seems to work. She feels a little anxious, but she decides to give it a break for dinner. Just as she’s leaving her room, the solution hits her, based on an obscure method from a previous chapter. She goes back to your desk, finishes the question and finishes her homework, and closes her notebook triumphantly.

 

Next week, she gets stuck again while working on her homework. She thinks about the problem for a few moments, and no ideas come to mind. But then, she thinks back to the last time she had a mystery problem. She remembers that the solution came to her when she decided to break for dinner. So she decides to do the same thing this time. 

 

But it doesn’t seem to work this time. She finishes dinner, returns to her desk, and still there is no solution. There must be something she did last time that worked, but she just can’t remember all the details. She’s stuck.   That’s funny, she thinks. It seemed so obvious at the end last time.

How to better handle repeated challenge

If you want to handle repeated challenge in the best way, you have to start by realizing that the goal isn’t to change your challenges. The goal is to improve your ability to handle them. This takes an extra step or two that we’re not used to: reflecting on current successes just after they happen, and leaving notes for your future self to benefit from. Here’s how that looks in practice:

Rusty has done most of his homework for a class, but the last question is of a type he doesn’t think he’s seen before. He tries a few methods suggested by the current chapter, but nothing seems to work. He feels a little anxious, but he decides to give it a break for dinner. Just as he’s leaving his room, the solution hits him, based on an obscure method from a previous chapter. He goes back to his desk, finishes the question and finishes his homework, and closes his notebook triumphantly.

 

Then, thinking forward to “future Rusty” and the challenges he will have to overcome, he opens his notebook again and spends a few minutes writing down what he just discovered. It comes back in slow motion, and he gets it all down: the feeling of being stuck (so future Rusty can recognize it for what it is more easily later), the ideas he considered and rejected (so future Rusty can get better at analyzing options), the decision to break for dinner (so future Rusty can learn from his lucky experiment of solving a problem by giving it some space), and the flash of insight itself (which, Rusty now realizes, actually came from a mental survey of cryptic hints the teacher had given when assigning the homework). Now he has it all down.

 

Next week, Rusty gets stuck again while working on his homework. He thinks about the problem for a few moments, and no ideas come to mind. But then, he remembers that he had this feeling last week. He turns back in his notebook, and reads the notes he left himself a week ago. Suddenly it’s much clearer. He goes through the current problem step by step; he reviews what the teacher has said this week; he re-solves last week’s problem. He still can’t find the answer, but he doesn’t worry about that. Instead, he breaks for dinner. He’s pretty sure he’ll figure it out, even though he doesn’t yet know what the solution will be.   Sure enough, while Rusty is eating, he thinks of something that might work. When he gets back to his desk, he works out the entire idea. It works! He breathes a small sigh of relief.

Okay, so what are the steps again?

Whenever you solve a problem that you think you might face again, think forward to what will happen when you are confronted with a similar problem in the future. That will give yourself the idea of what to do this time, so that you will be able to take advantage in the future of what you learned just now. So:

  1. Think about what you just did
  2. Think about what was helpful about it
  3. Write a note to your future self

Don’t skip that third step! Writing that note to your future self means you don’t have to rely on your (let’s face it, imperfect) memory. This habit is a bit like being a time traveler, in a way: once you ask yourself what your future self would want you to do right now, you’ll find yourself taking actions that set you up for huge successes. With practice, you’ll get these successes again and again. In this way you can think of yourself as a team of you’s: past you’s, current you, and future you’s, all working together to shape the path to best fit the team (i.e. to best fit you).

Summary

If you want to get good at something over time, you have to analyze your performance. “Reps” alone won’t do it.

Expert level

You will face different kinds of repeated challenges in the future. Not just tests and courses, but interviews and jobs, and difficult conversations, and planning for a career and family, and beyond. The same tools apply.


Would you like to read more?

This post is an excerpt from my new book, “How to Be a Bright(er) Student: The Craft of Developing Your Brilliance”, a step-by-step guide to unlocking your inner potential and become the math whiz you were always meant to be. Soon to be available on Amazon.