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.