Dear Wes

We wanted to share some great news. (My son) presented 3 posters at the (large conference) in (major city) last week.  One of his posters on (interesting math topic) got selected as one of the top posters and he was invited to present it formally at the Abstract session.

(My son’s) confidence in math because of you has helped him achieve these amazing milestones.

Believe me, I really would love to take this credit.

But let’s be fair here: this student has gifts you would hardly believe. The entire family is inspirational: hard-working and accomplished, appropriately demanding but also warm and witty. It has been my great privilege to work with them, and with many such families and students.  I hope to continue meeting and helping people like this far into the future.

Even so, I’m going to permit myself to let this note make my month.

I really do appreciate the opportunity to do what I do.

I’m just venting.

It really bums me out when the New Yorker piece on someone in our industry covers someone so… ugh, where do I even start?

  • Peppermint is not “nature’s adderall,” and even if it were, the only stimulants that are good ideas here are the prescriptions you have for your actual real diagnosed condition.
  • Only working for a few hours each day is not something to brag about. It suggests that striving for excellence isn’t a priority for you, bub. (And if not for you, then why for your students? Remember: you set an example.)
  • The money you’ve been paid: again, not something to brag about. (Your students’ successes, on the other hand: go nuts, brother.)
  • “Brain balm.” Oh god, don’t get me started.

The fact is: tutoring really is an expert skill. We may not be neurosurgeons, but… we aren’t the fly-by-night hokum this guy sounds like in print either.

At our best, we’re coaches, mentors, guides, patient co-travelers…

…at our best, we’re the teachers you remember thirty years later.

Excellence in balance

My sister-in-law recently wrote this piece on modern work and its relationship to family and community. So I’m taking this opportunity to thank Adam, Aidan, Amy, Audrey, Debbie, James, John, Michael, Michael, Owen, Ollin, Rora, and Stephanie: you past-or-present teammates have all contributed materially to our shared success, and every single one of you has done it on hours that corporate America would consider unworkable.

(Goes to show you what real A-players can do.)

Thank you all for making work fit into your lives instead of the other way around, without ever compromising the quality of your work.

ACT & SAT: are they winners’ games?

I didn’t expect Farnam Street to relate so directly to college admissions, but it does, and in a way that is as important as it is deep.

According to the post linked above, the outcome of a “winner’s game” is determined mostly by the actions of the winner; the outcome of a “loser’s game” is determined mostly by the actions of the loser.

So, in a winner’s game, superior skill matters, whereas in a loser’s game, it’s consistency that matters.

Everyone acts as though the SAT and ACT are winners’ games.  And, for middle-tier scorers, they probably are.  But for high scorers, these tests are loser’s games, 100%.

In other words, you don’t get from 1400 to 1550 by becoming smarter or more knowledgeable. You get there by consistently avoiding mistakes.

You show me a 1400 scorer, and I’ll show you someone who already has the necessary knowledge, but who also experiences some combination of anxiety, hubris, wandering attention, and/or magical thinking when it comes to answering the hard questions.

Getting rid of such bad habits is really hard. That’s why so few people get perfect scores.

That’s also why high scores are so prized.

Test anxiety

Students suffering from test anxiety often make things worse by misunderstanding the nature of successful preparation work.

They think: “my goal is to have new knowledge and new techniques.”

But that’s wrong. The right goal is to have new habits.

Under pressure, all people follow their habits.  So if you don’t have new, well-established, constructive and functional habits by Test Day, you’ll just automatically revert to what you did before.

And of course, when you do what you used to do, you’ll get the score you used to get.

The alternative is to painstakingly train new and better habits in the weeks (months?) leading up to Test Day. Then, under pressure, you’ll thrive.

(Also check out my book, specifically Chapter 9, Stress.)