Photo courtesy of Jorge Fernandez Salas/Unsplash
Lily Tomlin’s quote is a good reminder of why some people never succeed at college or university–a lack of focus. It is hard to start down any road without having at least some idea of where you want to wind up, but it is even harder to persist on that road if you are not sold on where it is going or if it is worth your while. The question of whether you believe in the value of education is the subject of the next post, but even if you believe in it, it can still be hard to decide on which path to take.
Vision. Can you see where you are going? Or at least, do you believe that the path you are on is, at least broadly, going to get you the fulfillment you feel you need or deserve? If you remain ambivalent about going to college or university, or any other activity for that matter, you will likely be unable to give your best effort to succeed. If your heart isn’t in it, your brain won’t be either. The good news is that you can change your mind in a minute, whether because you see friends succeeding, your are unhappy with the path you are on, a mentor’s sincere advice resonates with you, or you have an epiphany or at least a moment of clarity. The good new is that you really do not have to know exactly where you are going, since the journey to your presumed destination will offer you many newer (and maybe better) options along the way–you just have to believe in that. And once something clicks, these next steps are easier.
Once you decide going to school is the best path for you, you will need to know that becoming a good student and getting excellent grades begins well before your first semester starts. In this post, I will review the essentials of getting “Ready” for a great semester, which can be summarized by this time-honoured quote:
First ascribed to Benjamin Franklin, and repeated by the likes of legendary basketball coach John Wooden, this message remains clear: Success in most human endeavors are predicated on good planning and preparation. Could you see a civil engineer just showing up to work one day to start building a highway or a highrise? Or a brain surgeon scrubbing into a case without understanding everything about the patient he would be doing surgery on? Or a pilot not bothering to review a comprehensive checklist prior to flying to another continent with 400 lives on board? Trained professionals, whatever their stripe, know they are taking full responsibility for their actions, and therefore the results of those actions–and their reputations hang in the balance.
So, when it comes to your education, and ultimately how highly it is regarded going forward, it should not be difficult to see how some careful planning and preparation may go a long way towards a high-quality end-point. And who would be identified to be the captain of this process? You, of course. So, for your consideration, here are the first foundational principles for being well-prepared.
Owning it. The first step in the process of becoming a good student is accepting full responsibility for your education going forward. You may need to let go of some adolescent excuses–“I woulda had a good mark, but the teacher hated me”, or “What I was learning in school was pretty useless, ” or “I don’t have to study if I don’t want to.” Sliding through high school while just hanging out with your buddies and skipping classes is one thing, but actually embracing education for your own purposes is quite another. From the moment you leave high school, all educational pathways in front of you are optional–no one is going to hound you to do well, and no one will care if you drop out. Since it will be you, the student that pays for tuition and teaching materials–with your own money–you might want to rethink your attitudes to education, given that you are now personally invested in it. If you bought a nice car, or a nice vacation package, would you not want to take good care to get full value of what it has to offer you? Why should it be any different with school? Are you ready to accept full responsibility for your commitment to your studies?
Giving your all. When asked how he was able to remain unbeaten for years as the World Cross country running champion, the great Kenyan long-distance runner Paul Tergat responded with,
Most young adults have not come to fully realize what they are capable of, since it isn’t common to push the limits of performance in any number of areas for most people. So to paraphrase Tergat, ask yourself if you gave your all, you tried your absolute hardest, that you left nothing on the table for any kind of performance, whether in sports or in academics. No matter who you are, the answer, as Paul Tergat suggests, is probably that there might still have been something you could have done better or harder. So if this is true, then chances are you can do better in school, even if that just means preparing better. Most of us can dig deeper, and try harder. Read on.
Coming into your own. There comes a point in most people’s lives when their own uniqueness is a point of pride and celebration. It is also when the need to compare oneself to others diminishes–how others look, what they do, what products they buy, what their opinions are. Paul Tergat had something to say about that too:
His drive and focus on success was personal, and not in any way dependent on his competitors. Down deep, he had a belief that the only way you were going to beat him was to train with even more determination than had, which he believed was exceedingly unlikely. Are you able to separate yourself from the pack? To step away from being average, or just mediocre? If you aren’t ready to fully embrace your potential, your success in school is already at risk–even before you have picked up your first textbook.
Conscientiousness. This is an attribute that implies a growing maturity and awareness of the world around you, and how you apply yourself to it. With respect to your approach to schoolwork, this would imply being thorough, determined, tenacious, meticulous, diligent, assiduous, and persevering. It becomes easy to see how these attributes are necessary to become a successful student.
Discipline. To succeed at reliably reaching any goal, you have to carefully follow and control the way you behave, and that is as true for goals as varied as those of successful investors as it is for athletes. To be a successful student, the same rules apply: you need to reliably attend classes, schedule time for study and course work, and be able to persistently prioritize what is needed for your studies over your wants. Saying “no” to a party invitation becomes easier when the big picture is considered–the need for a successful semester over a wasted night–that might also spill over to become a wasted next day. For some, saying “no” to friends is very difficult.
Maturity. Preserving your vision, taking full responsibility for your potential going forward, leaving nothing in reserve, and being able to find pride in your uniqueness and your potential–these are the necessary foundations to establish a seriously good run at your education. Sure, you may stumble, and there may be times where you want to quit. But if you stay with it, dig a little deeper, and keep showing up, you will not only change the trajectory of your life, but you will be a better person for it. And you may even live your best life.