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.

The price and the value

Working with me and my team is more expensive than working with most tutors. That’s because what we do is actually different in a few ways. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting good value for your money.

Does one of these describe you?

  • You need the right answers to math problems
  • You need to know the techniques for solving certain math problems
  • You need to know how to read a math book more easily and effectively
  • You need better study skills
  • You need to feel less anxiety in your class or during tests

If so, then we can help you, but you can probably find good help for less money. (Even if you need many of the above things, it’s probably worth looking around.)

Or are you looking for something more like this?

  • You want your classes to go better, but don’t know what more you could be doing
  • You want to understand your own mind better, and understand why you’re actually having trouble
  • You want to get better at solving problems, especially when you feel underprepared
  • You want to learn cognitive skills that will benefit you for decades
  • You want to excel at math competitions through creative thought, rather than by memorizing obscure math
  • You want an expert co-strategist

If so, then I respectfully suggest that you’re in the right place. The price is high, because it’s difficult to do this work well.

But that’s exactly what we do, and we’re grateful to get to do work we love.

Thank you for allowing us to give these benefits to you and your family.

Goodbye, Princeton. I loved you while it lasted.

I will no longer be recommending Princeton Review’s Math 2 prep books, because their latest edition features a test that is a problem-by-problem parody of an official College Board test.

I don’t have a problem with close copies of official tests — on the contrary, that can be a very sensible strategy for creators of practice materials. However, my methods rely on a rich collection of problems that are different enough from one another that the student can come to generate underlying principles that apply broadly to many different kinds of problems.

Those methods of mine are undermined by problems that closely mimic other problems in the training corpus.

Therefore, I have to reject PR tests, because they follow a strategy that undermines mine.

(Alas, poor Yorick.)

10,000 hours?

You don’t have to make yourself miserable to be successful. Success isn’t about working hard, it’s about working smart.

Andrew Wilkinson

When it comes to homework, more is not better.

You’ve probably heard  of Outliers (“The Story of Success”), Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 opus, based in part on research by Anders Ericsson. Even if you haven’t read it yourself, it’s probably been quoted to you. It’s the main source of the idea in popular culture that true mastery requires ten thousand hours of practice, which in turn has been used to justify all manner of craziness, including too much homework.

Let’s set the record straight: Gladwell’s book is not the source of the craziness per se. The craziness happened because somewhere between Ericsson’s original research and the reports on Gladwell’s book in the popular press, the proper context and conclusions got lost.

Gladwell (or at least those who reported on his book) popularized the idea that across a wide variety of fields, and especially in cognitively demanding ones, true mastery generally requires a minimum of ten thousand hours of a particular kind of practice.

A common misreading of this observation was the notion that since it’s the magical 10,000 number that determines successful mastery, one should get in as many hours as one can, as soon as one can. Hence, for example, never-ending homework assignments.

This sounds good, but unfortunately it isn’t what the research actually showed.

The right kind of practice is smart.

The research showed that the right kind of practice leads to improvement, and the wrong kind of practice does not.

This is true no matter how much practice you put in. However you define “mastery,” the right kind of practice will
get you there fastest. Furthermore, continued correct practice will continue to improve your skills. (The 10,000 hours number comes from the observation that when you are competing with other people, being the best depends on putting in an enormous quantity of the right kind of practice, because everyone you are competing with will be doing the same.)

Let’s get practical. How do we do this, and what else can we learn here?

The main thing is to stop practicing mindlessly. Believe it or not, practice doesn’t actually make perfect, no matter what people say. Instead, practice simply makes permanent; only perfect practice makes perfect.

So what is perfect practice? It’s a situation that challenges your current ability. So strive at every session to work ever so slightly beyond the highest level you can reach. It’s demanding, frustrating, and often annoying work. Generally, it can’t be done for more than about three hours a day. It is not generally pleasant. But it works.

Make your work better.

So remember: quality, not quantity of practice is the most important factor. Even a hundred hours of quality practice will move the needle. On the other hand, though, you could spend your whole life practicing something by rote and never get any better. (Do you hear me, teachers who assign piles of mindless work?)

Your goal shouldn’t be to do a ton of work, and your teacher’s goal shouldn’t be to pile it on. Instead, the goal should be to make your work better. The better your work, the less of it you will need, and the faster you will progress. Avoid the kind of inefficient work that doesn’t get you closer to mastery.

You don’t need more smarts

Another important lesson here is that although talent matters, it doesn’t matter much. Most of life isn’t actually a “more talent is better” situation. Rather, it’s more like “you must be at least this tall to ride this ride.” Some talent is necessary, but beyond that, more is not appreciably better. “A basketball player only has to be tall enough—and the same is true of intelligence. Intelligence has a threshold,” says Gladwell.

So, do smarts matter? Yes, but not as much as you think. You are already smart enough to be doing what you’re attempting. Believe it or not, being smarter wouldn’t help you all that much.

In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way. If you practice something in the right way for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement. And from there, you can keep going and going and going, getting better and better and better. How much you improve is up to you.


All that matters from now on is how well you learn.

How to Be a Bright(er) Student: Be Your Own Pilot

Spring is the busiest time of the year for most high school students. But seniors, you face a special challenge: your support system has already done its work, and you’re on your way to college. But are you empowered to start making even more of your own decisions?  Being an effective self-advocate and self-manager is absolutely essential for success in the next phase of your life and career. Let me help you help yourself along the right path by giving you a preview of what’s to come, and some ideas about how you can grapple with it successfully.

Should you fail to pilot your own ship, don’t be surprised at what inappropriate port you find yourself docked.

Tom Robbins


The more decisions that you are forced to make alone, the more you are aware of your freedom to choose.

Thornton Wilder


A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

George S. Patton

Getting help

As you may have noticed, making important life decisions is mostly regarded by our culture as something best left to the experts: first your parents make decisions for you, then college counselors, then graduate advisors, then professional mentors and managers, and on and on and on.

This isn’t necessarily such a bad thing: experience often leads to better results. (Also, there are certain kinds of mental tasks related to decision-making that become biologically easier in ones early 20’s, so advisors for students may be especially helpful.)

Sometimes these experts will be amazing professionals with fantastic, groundbreaking advice for you, and sometimes they’ll just be a “safety net” of decent advice, so your very worst decisions won’t be too bad.

You need to be able to tell the difference. Ultimately, you’d prefer to make your own decisions, perhaps informed by the wisdom of others, but not defined by it or by them.

Going it alone

Next, consider that most decisions are informed by your “autopilot.” You make decisions at least partly (if not entirely) by seeing that the current situation matches some past situation (possibly in relevant ways, and possibly not), and then doing in the present whatever you think was the right thing to do in the past. (See Gladwell’s Blink and Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow for more in-depth knowledge on this.) This is not a bad thing, but it’s useful to understand how to balance this important but unconscious force with your conscious, executive mind.

And even your conscious mind can have arguments with itself. Aligning your identity, your emotions, and your cognition behind a single decision can be hard work. For example, there might be disagreement between what you want, what you think you want, and what you want to want. It’s so complicated that it can be hard to get started.

But a good system can help you overcome these difficulties. Through practice, you’ll come to better understand how to align these drives within yourself. The process of making decisions will become easier. I recommend you find one you like. To get you started, I’ll provide one of my own.

Mine is a method for making decisions that helps balance your mind, heart, and gut. So it avoids a lot of the problems with “unbalanced” decision making. However, it takes a long time to get really good at it, so think of this as a long-term project. If you give this a try for now, and keep up with it, then sooner or later this method will become part of what makes you especially capable.

It works on problems big (“What should I do with my life?”) and small (“How can I solve this difficult homework problem?”). I call it the Pilot Program.

Before we get too far into it, let me acknowledge that there are many, many excellent processes out there for setting and achieving goals. There are two ways in which the Pilot Program is different from most:

  1. It uses a “ready, fire, aim” strategy. This means that you start quickly, even before you have all the details worked out, and you fine-tune everything later. This strategy helps you avoid overwhelm and perfectionism, and it helps you build momentum fast. Yet it’s also accurate over the long run, because of the fine-tuning that is built into the system.
  2. The focus of the Pilot is on constant improvement, which allows it to transcend mere goals and aim for more powerful targets: vision and values. As a result, the Pilot Program is not limited to short-term projects, but rather can be applied on a large scale—as large as you can imagine.

The five parts of the pilot program

The five parts of the Pilot Program are: a Desire, an Action List, a Journaling Plan, Course Correction, and a Finish Line.

Desire: What I want to have achieved, what I want to have, what I want to have done, or what I want to be.
Action List: Specific actions I should take in order to get closer to that vision
Journaling Plan: The location of my notes on my progress, and my schedule for reviewing the notes
Course Correction: The actions I should take in order to fine-tune all five of these parts, as I gain experience by doing them.
Finish Line: How I’ll be able to tell that I’ve succeeded.

A quick example

Here’s a quick example of how this might work:

To be a straight A student.

Action List
1. Discover what straight-A students do that is different from what I am used to doing
2. Identify the parts I can’t easily do
3. Learn how to do those things
4. Turn that learning into habits

Journaling Plan
Every week, I write down in an online journal what I’ve done during the week that is likely to raise my grades.

Course Correction
Every week after journaling, I read through the whole journal from the beginning, and then I do two things: (1) make any changes to the Desire, Journaling Plan, action list, Course Correction, or finish line, according to my best judgment at the time, and (2) write notes telling myself what I should try to do the following week in order to stay in alignment with those parts.

Finish Line
I have a report card containing nothing but A’s for the current grading period.

A life-size question

Now let’s say you’re trying to figure out what to do with your life. That’s an awfully big question! But the size of the question isn’t a problem. Here’s how it might work:

To know what I want to do with my life.

Action List
1. Ask some older people what they do, and whether they like it
2. Think about what they say and how it applies to me

Journaling Plan
I record all the interviews, and after each one I listen to it again and take notes, focusing on how I think the ideas in that interview apply to me (or not).

Course Correction
I think about which interviews seem most and least helpful, and I use that information to determine what sort of person to try to interview next.

Finish Line
I have written down a specific “life Goal” that I believe is worth pursuing.

A research project

Here’s a different way in which someone might use the Program to come up with their Desire:

To know what I want to do with my life.

Action List
1. Ask myself what I want to do
2. Pay attention to what I find myself saying

Journaling Plan
Every time I ask myself the question, I come up with a one-sentence answer and write it down on a piece of paper taped to my wall.

Course Correction
Once a month, I spend ten minutes reading the paper and remembering what made me give each of those answers.

Finish Line
I have noticed myself giving the same answer three or more times.

As you can see, two different people could use this method to solve the same problem, and wind up with very different paths and very different results.

Let me be clear: the method isn’t easy. You have to really think about each of the parts, and that takes time. Sometimes, it also requires courage. But the personal attention you put into it is also a major strength of the Program. Since the parts all come from you, they aren’t nearly as vulnerable to anyone else’s bias. You are making all the decisions. You are also deciding the very rules of the game. This means that your decisions using this method are more likely to have high integrity. In other words, true to yourself.

So you get to decide how much “outside bias” you’re going to let in to your process. Let me suggest some guidelines for deciding how much bias to let in, and how to avoid that bias when you want to.

How much bias

A good guideline is replicability: if many people before you have gotten what you want, and it’s clear how they did it, it’s probably best to let others’ guidance help you. This can mean researching how to do it, or trusting an expert to help you find the best path. Note: this doesn’t mean to relinquish all control (or worse, responsibility for the outcome); it just means that you’ll probably do better with advice than without.

By contrast, if the result has not been replicated many times, or if it isn’t clear how it’s been done in the past, then you may be the best guide for your own process, because (1) you care more than anyone else, and (2) you probably know yourself better than anyone else. (One key exception: one or both of your parents might be even better guides than you yourself are.)

Another good guideline is boundedness: problems and questions that are well-defined, short-term, multiple-choice, and/or straightforward are usually best answered with outside help or bias. However, more nebulous, long-term, open-ended and difficult-to-even-define problems and questions usually benefit from removing as much bias as possible from the decision process.

One last thing: it’s okay to use one method now and another later. For example, many people enlist the help of a college counselor (high bias, high expertise) to figure out where to go to college, and only later use their own process (low bias, high integrity) to determine what sort of career to build on the foundation of the college career.

How to avoid bias

Read through each line of your analysis. Ask yourself: why is this here? Whenever you have a hard time answering that question, find and remove the bias.

How bias can help

The form of the question often gives you some idea about what kinds of answers would be good or bad answers, and this can help you, especially when you’re just getting started.

For most problems, there are solutions that are considered “out of bounds.” That is: there’s a strong sense of what you are “allowed” and “not allowed” to do. For example, take the SAT. There, it is not considered valid to write in your own answer choice on the multiple-choice sections. This means that most problems carry with them implicit hints about how the problems should be solved. As you learn to recognize bias, you will learn to recognize solution “hints.”

One other way in which bias can help is that it can show you what everyone else has tried, so that you can try doing the opposite. Some very successful companies, for example, got their starts by trying to do what was considered at the time to be “obviously” impossible.

How eliminating bias can help

At its most extreme, the Pilot Program helps you to examine all the possibilities. Even the “crazy” and “impossible” ones. So make sure you take advantage of that leeway by including all the “outside the box” possibilities in your analysis.


Making your own decisions is actually a lot harder than it sounds. A reliable method helps. Here’s one such method. Getting good at it really pays off.

Expert level

Once you get comfortable doing this, remove the explicit Desire and Finish Line from a project, and continue only with the Action List, Journaling Plan, and Course Correction.

You’ll often find that an area of self-improvement is made much more powerful by removing the “fixed destinations” from your thinking and framework, and instead, putting your focus on open-ended, continuous improvement. This is related to the Mindsets described in Chapter Five.

Creating the habit of continual improvement, where it’s about always taking the next step (Action List, Journaling Plan, Course Correction) is one of the most powerful meta-habits you can build.