We all have that friend who, for the life of them, cannot seem to fail at anything they try to do. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three people I know who fall into that category: a Duke friend who transferred to MIT because he was offered a full ride, takes six classes per semester and still has time for research and startup projects; an Irish friend who is studying engineering at one of the best schools in the country and has still managed to represent Ireland on six international athletics teams (twice for field hockey and the tetrathlon and once each for ultimate frisbee and the pentathlon); and a Duke Pratt engineering student who (in his spare time) plays field hockey, is mastering every coding language he can get his hands on and even manages to practice the art of knitting. None of these individuals have sacrificed grades for extracurricular pursuits, nor have they given up on the special skills and activities that set them apart from the herd. So the million dollar question becomes: how do they do it?
In elementary school my classmates and I were frequently reminded to “stay out of the Comparison Jungle” because “everyone has gifts and challenges." That seems fine and dandy when you’re talking to a bunch of 10-year-olds, but real life is a Comparison Jungle. In the world beyond elementary school are people that I not only want to be comparing myself to (not simply out of masochism but because it will make me push myself to the limit) but who I will be compared to when it comes to things like job applications or anything else competitive. So what must I do to level the playing field and catch up with these Gods Amongst Men?
After rigorously interviewing (sending a slew of text messages) back and forth with two of the aforementioned superstars, I have acquired from them some advice on how they succeed not only academically but also in the extracurriculars of their choice. “Only do stuff you enjoy is my usual motto,” my Irish friend told me. “Cause then it’s not a struggle… And you’re always excited to do the next thing.” Do what you love may seem like cliché advice, but sometimes things are cliché for a reason. I recently downgraded from a dual major in Computer Science and Math to a CS major and a Math minor because I realized that I actually couldn’t stand thinking about the amount of math I would have to do in order to succeed. If I wasn’t going to be excited to churn out mathematical proofs on a regular basis, there was no reason for me to grind my forehead against a cheese grater several days per week in order to get a fancy degree.
“Know your priorities,” my friend added. “Know what’s important to you. [For me that’s] sometimes what I like. Sometimes other things.” I’ve read enough lifestyle design books to recognize the well-known adage behind his words—the things you don’t do are as important as the things you do do. Indiscriminate action is the basis for inefficiency. I myself try to take time at least once a month to sit down and explicitly write out my goals on a piece of paper, along with what I’m doing to achieve them. All too frequently, I find that I’ve drifted off course. If we are to achieve high levels of accomplishment in what we choose to do, we need to primarily do things that we like and to secondarily pare down our commitments so that we can focus on those things with all our power.
Focus, in fact, is the key that my MIT maestro extolled to me in his text message responses (which he sent intermittently while flying a plane in the airspace over Puerto Rico). “Mind control is the key to efficiency… [because] it all boils down to focus. It’s gonna take much less time for [people] who’re 100% concentrating on the thinking process.” Tools for improved focus are many and varied, but some of them are universally applicable. One of them, in fact, complements the advice of my Irish mentor: focusing on fewer tasks is a recipe for improved focus on all of them. By reducing your breadth of activities your attention can go from an inefficient spread of shotgun pellets to the dead-center precision of a sniper rifle.
Our ecosystem at university abounds with high performers. We all arrived here because we have unique talents and abilities that have consistently set as apart from the people around us. It’s as if the Comparison Jungle was stripped of almost all prey animals and was left full of jaguars, pythons, crocodiles and killer piranha fish. Each of us has the capacity to be a successful predator, but only if we can learn to focus on what we like with all our capacity. Another friend of mine, highly perfectionistic with a genius-level IQ (she was recently tested), reminded me that if we try and match the abilities of all the people around us (if I try to be as sporty as my athletic friends, as musically talented as my musician friends and as computationally correct as my mathematician friends) we’ll just burn out and succeed at nothing. The jaguars can’t try to be piranha fish and neither can the pythons and crocodiles switch places. Take some time to think about what you enjoy, figure out how to put yourself in the position to do it and then when you do, focus on the activity with all you have. Good things will follow.
Jack Dolinar is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "more percent efficient" runs on alternate Fridays.