Letter to new or continuing students

“What if I get to choose how my life works?”

Almost all of the obstacles you see in your path right now, the “what-ifs” and “buts” are entirely hypothetical, rather than being based in what is. The hypothetical is an awesomely scary place to live, but lots of people live there. “What if it turns out that we forgot to finish an exam in High school and our current college degrees are now, somehow, invalidated?” This is a real what-if that I heard a while ago and it scared me so much that I had a nightmare about the idea.

We all get caught by hypotheticals occasionally…

It is dark and you are walking to your car in a parking lot. There is a man taking something out of the trunk of the car next to yours.

Hypothetically, you could make up a very scary scenario from those 2 sentences, but did you? What if the man is a uniformed patrolman? Does that relax you, or is that even scarier? Do you see how hypothetical questions make life more exciting at the same time as they can never be answered definitively?

“What if I can choose, really choose how my life works?” is an enormous question and our society, which runs on avoiding blame and assigning fault, is very confronted by the idea. This is a hypothetical question, and leads many people back to “Might work for others, but I am special and it wouldn’t work for me.”

I know a man who says it is impossible for him to catch the bus and go downtown based on the same kind of reasoning.

The idea that there is nobody out there, ready to punish us for our transgressions, so we really can choose a path, is apparently more frightening than the idea that there is some extraordinary entity out there with nothing better to do than monitor our every thought, word and action.

Asking hypothetical questions is a ploy to avoid entering the game.

Asking useful questions, like “How do I have to set up to make this shot” gets a person closer to the game, but just taking the shot is what shows that you are actually playing.

Putting out a classified ad requesting “a rich, athletic, sexy, intellectually inferior man to entertain you and feed your need for expensive sportscars” would be painfully incorrect in these days, but if you are going to get what you want and not just what shows up, you have to level with yourself (and the universe) somewhere, even if you just write a note in your journal. There is nothing wrong with a request that silly, but the culture we live in tells us that there is such a thing as being deserving. Lots of stories are written about what it takes to deserve anything “good” and that it is bad, somehow, to have a desire. This is why there is so much evidence for randomness, I think.

You would never have gotten through high school if you had not envisioned the desire and stuck to it. I know that 50% of the people who start college don’t ever finish. There are lots of people who have very fuzzy goals or no goals at all because they have been inoculated with the idea that everything is accidental, and you finishing college was a lucky break, and we put men on the moon by a series of extremely fortuitous happenstances, but their 4-under-par golf game was ALL SKILL.

It is just political correctness to avoid saying that you chose to do something, and it happened about how you envisioned it. If nobody ever knows you had a goal and achieved it, they can’t rag on you about it.

Sometimes a goal like “I want to have people like me, and I want to fit in” can lead to unexpected consequences. Nobody wants to say, “I am a broke, hep-C-infected crack-addict and I worked hard to become so”. Nobody has that as a life-long desire, but sometimes we get hooked into courses of action because others have told us they are the right things to do, or there is a payoff for doing the not-so-wise thing. Winston Churchill is reputed to have said “When you discover yourself going through Hell, keep going.” You do not want to park there and set up a tent. Sometimes you really have to make a geographic move to get away from the mental, habitual and psychic Hell you have found yourself in, but sometimes it just requires you to get a new crowd of friends to fit in with.

There is a strong puritan ethic in this country that says handicaps and shortfalls are God’s way of saying he is personally pissed off at you. This is why the homeless population is so invisible. This is why the support nets in this country are so soul-destroying. The institutions were founded on an unspoken premise, that you are being punished by God, so these God-fearing institutions are reluctant to help ease the punishment.

It seems like, sometimes people get into their own internal hypothetical discussions. “If I help that person who is being abused, maybe the abuser will notice me and abuse me too.”

This is no more likely than the option that the abuser will run away when they are outnumbered. In fact, it is probably less likely, but most people overestimate risks related to personal safety. Just look at the institutional response to the 9/11 attacks. The TSA found exactly zero terrorists in 2013, and spent billions to do it. You are more likely to win the lottery than be attacked by terrorists in the US. To put this in perspective a little bit more, you are more likely to be hit by lightning 1000 times than to have the single ticket that wins the big pay-out from the Mega-Millions lottery game.

How does this apply to you? Getting through school, and successfully graduating is a series of small and large things, many of which are in your control. One thing that many people think is not in their control is the amount of drama in life. Grades are not a lottery. Grades are a result of memorizing new material for long enough to get through the period you need the information. You will usually need the material you learn in any one class in at least a couple more classes, so it is smart to retain it as long as you can.

Most people get about the grades they expect, because they work about hard enough for that level of play. Just like NBA players practice the basics more than weekend pick-up game players do, people who have a 3.9 GPA practice the basics more than people with a 2.9 GPA. Talent is important, but early family support and expectations are probably more important. People who have a lot of college graduates in their family have the expectation that that is what they should do as well. If you are the first person in your family to get a degree, you may feel like you don’t have the support those lucky people did. You can learn the basics and perform adequately, though, to play the academic game well enough to complete your degree.

When is the right time to learn the basics? Have you waited too long? is it too late? There is a point where you could get in trouble with this, but if you have passed 80 or 90 percent of your classes, or only flunked one or two, you have time to learn the basics.

1. Your reading comprehension can improve at any age.

2. Your note-taking skills can improve at any age.

3. Your knowledge-integration skills can improve at any age.

These are the three most important academic skills, in my opinion. Schools have courses in the first two. Knowledge-integration may not be taught in your school, but it may be the highest impact skill of the three. To remember something, a human brain uses chunking, rather than indexing, like a computer does. Computer long-term memory puts the object in a file and writes a named and numbered index pointing to that object. Human brains attach knowledge objects to other objects, and includes the environment and how the person feels (which is part of the environment as well). A new bit of information has to be written down and attached to other already-held knowledge bits past the critical short-term/long-term memory divide. Human short term memory is about 30 seconds. You have to get good at chunking the knowledge into long-term memory.

There is a general push to the other side that says “bad luck” and “accidental” and “not my fault” about all kinds of “diseases”. Addiction is now a disease and not a lifestyle choice, so you can not merely choose another lifestyle, you have to get medical intervention. This is really helpful in some ways. Having people passing judgments upon you for things that you didn’t choose is very wearing. The disease classification gives you a little breathing room. Once you become aware that you are addicted, it becomes a personal choice to get treatment. Performance at school is a personal choice and responsibility. It is not a situation of who is at fault. You will have professors who have various skill levels of explaining the material. Your study skills should be designed to counteract poor instruction and improve brilliant instruction. You will have project team members who are not as proficient as you are. Your team-building skills can put each other member of the team where they can do the most good, and the least harm. Team leader sounds like a cool place to be, but the project editor is the one who puts the final draft together. If you want to make sure the team gets the grade you want, make sure the editor is as effective as you are or more so.

As a student considering entering or continuing in school, the deep question is “Will you be stopped?” If your motivation is not sufficient to see you through two, four, eight years of intentional privation and stress, it is easy to see how you could be stopped by almost anything. “I am having too much fun learning about network cabling, this can not be normal,” is as serious an obstacle as any other. We are geared to be very accepting of reasons to fail, but we are not encouraged to accept reasons to succeed.

Here’s to your success!

Wolf Halton

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