18/11/18 Things I wish I’d known sooner — Rant and advice on excellence

“Fake it till you make it.” This ancient word of wisdom has neurological basis. The problem is, very few of us have the socioeconomic privilege, psychological peace, neurological grounds and essential qualities, such as passion, determination and perseverance to verify this, especially in academia.

Sounds intriguing to you? Go and have a read of Incognito: the secret lives of the brain by David Eagleman, and let’s have a discussion about this topic!

If you were privileged enough to be born in a relatively well-off and open environment where everyone competes for similar resources, chances are that horizontal comparison and peer pressure have once driven you to the edge of self-assurance, if not sanity. (enter the unidirectional pressure of natural selection :P) Academics, like any other areas of competition including sports, the arts, politics and even relationships, involve the idea of “talent” to varying degrees. Different cultures place different emphasis on the role of talent in academic pursuits: back in my home city in China, academic excellence is preferably attributed to tailored study methods and hardwork; in Singapore, it is often ascribed to the mysterious and seemingly irreducible concept of “smartness“. From my by-no-means comprehensive social observations, this could have stemmed from the emphasis on eugenics, meritocracy and efficiency, and the competitive atmosphere (borrowing the apt analogy of students to ducklings idly strolling as appeared on the water surface yet frantically peddling underneath). However, few are willing to accept “smartness” as an irreducible and intuitive concept, and most attempt to crack this mystery box open using brute force or tactics. 

Coming from a different cultural background, I once held a grudge towards this talk of “smartness”. But now, I’ve come to the realisation that since no one has uncovered every element of this concept, it is completely up to each individual to define it. Hence, I hereby define smartness, in my current context, as a multifactorial strength one develop and maintain from talent, and talent, in my own terms, as one’s inherent or natural propensity towards a certain area. Talent, I believe, is not necessarily something hardwired in your genes or demonstrated from a young age, and can miraculously pop out of nowhere even in your 40s or 50s, provided that you keep your brain and mind’s plasticity.

Now that housekeeping is out of the way, let me attempt to unpack the elements of smartness from my personal experience and observations from my smart friends and peers (relax, I won’t name names), and give you some advice (and myself some constant reminders) on how to strive for excellence in academia or, to varying degrees, in any other areas your talent falls in.

Picture speaks a thousand words. The above illustration I made (excuse my primary school level of tree drawing lol) sums it all up quite self-explanatorily. 

The soil is where you take root: your family and socioeconomic background. You might think that this is the most limiting factor of all; you are wrong.

Yes, your grounding determines the development of your primary vascular cylinder; your parents’ values are ingrained in you way before you can make a choice for yourself, and no matter how far you stretch, you may be limited by educational resources at school or lack of access to the Internet etc. But, within your capacity, you can grow tall by building on your mental peace and the hardware and software of your brain; you can grow wide by training on all the above-mentioned qualities on the branches and support from your friends and families (if they evolve together with you and slowly but surely you can make that happen), which determines the ability of your vascular cambium to divide; you can cast your seeds far beyond, to find better soil to grow on. Looking at it this way, your room for growth is limitless.

Why psychological peace? First of all, mental wellbeing is indispensable to your health; with peace, your mental capacity can be expanded to accommodate all the drive you want to shove in.

My smart friends seldom waste time on their emotions; when they are in their academic bubble, they emanate a glow of tranquility and wisdom. One of them, interestingly, was predisposed to strong feelings (an INFJ like me); but she trained herself hard to separate her feelings and academic pursuits (for two years at least). Now, whenever she sits down at her desk with a pen and draft paper, all she can feel is tranquil happiness and utmost focus.

 For me, I definitely tend to react to things with strong feelings; when I couldn’t work out Math questions, I used to write poems for Math and beg her to elucidate me. One of my best enjoyment from Biology is to make bio analogies to social phenomena and life lessons (like what I am doing in this post). My mind is constantly inundated with questions and thoughts about the meaning of life, why people behave the way they do, and the secret to success. Currently, my solution is to fill myself up to the brim with things I need to do such that I have no time for overthinking, which is apparently unsustainable. The only way I can keep a clear mind is to hum, exercise, yoga and meditate. Now, I make it a conscious effort to carry out these practices regularly, and my peace of mind is on the way to recovery.

This demands focus as well; as a Youtube and social media addict I still find focus exceptionally hard at this day and age. I suggest using focus app such as “Forest” and Pomodoro clocks to help you with this. Self-discipline! Follow the timing strictly! (I’m still new to this but it’s really important!!)

After all, there is no one-size-fits-all formula to smartness; the most crucial step is still to discover yourself and embrace your strengths and weaknesses, curves and edges.

For me, I recently have to come to terms with the fact that I am a slow yet impatient thinker at the same time (a desperate combination ooops). However, with numerous practice of self-acceptance, I now quickly embrace this quality of mine, look on the bright side of things, and take small but consistent actions to regain my patience to amplify the strengths of being a slow thinker in situations such as longterm learning, and up my thinking efficiency to reduce the downsides of it in situations such as timed exams. 

The key is the act of repeat: it is impossible to use your consciousness for these improvement practices without tiring yourself; when you repeat an act enough times, it becomes part of your dormant unconsciousness, and each subsequent act would seem natural and unthinkable to you — you’ve made a new habit. Congratulations and keep going!

Likewise, your thinking habits need to be trained through repeats as well: if your job demands critical thinking, read argumentative essays and do a critical evaluation of the writer’s argument before bed, or simply have a meaningful debate with your friends on dinner table. For me, the habit of drowning myself in Youtube videos when I feel tired has now made it hard for me to absorb knowledge from educational videos: my brain is used to videos as a lethargic pill. To turn things around, I now have to make sure that I watch short videos to freshen myself up, and take notes when watching TED-ed and crash course videos and documentaries.

Last, have patience in time: results say nothing about your efforts or your abilities. You might be stuck in a bottleneck period so you don’t see any progress; an incident may occur out of the blue that hit you back to the starting point. Don’t be frustrated; keep going.

I will end off with my personal motto in Chinese: 人生是流动的,当下是静好的,努力是常态的。All the best and let’s motivate each other!

Islina x

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