Breaking the glass

We all have an extra gear. Our day-to-day existence requires just a fraction of our full mental and physical focus. This makes evolutionary sense - most of our time is spent dealing with the same problems we dealt with the day before. If there’s no environmental change, then there’s no reason to spend finite willpower to change our behavior.

Put yourself in a situation where 120% of your focus is needed to survive.

I remember two times in my life where, under both extraordinary external and internal stress, I had to break the glass.

The first time was when I first got to college. I coasted through high school on the belief that I was smart enough to not have to work hard. I failed algebra. Acing your exams isn’t enough when homework is worth half your grade.

I didn’t get into the university of my dreams. That hurt. I remember asking an orientation leader at the college I ended up going to what it would take to transfer out, and they told me I basically had to get straight A’s.

I got straight A+‘s the next two years and transferred out. For two years I studied every single problem in my classes until I could meticulously arrive from memory at the correct answers. I burned through more notebooks in those years than during any other time of my life. If you had asked me how to solve the time-dependent Schrödinger equation for a particle in an infinite potential well I could recite a solution as easily as I could recite the national anthem.

If I had gotten into my first choice university right out of high school, I doubt I would have ever pushed myself as hard as I did. In fact, when I did start taking classes there the next year, I went back to coasting. After all, the dream was achieved.

The second time I broke the glass was when I was trying to land my first internship. I’m not a naturally talented programmer. I wasn’t writing computer games at 12 years old, I was playing them, cause that’s what kids do. Recursion still gives me headaches.

After struggling for months to get an internship, I fell into a dark place. I felt my back against the wall, that familiar pressure of failing to live up to your own expectations. But now me and this wall have history. I knew what to do.

I spent the next month doing all of my studying by hand, pen and paper. I wrote solutions until I knew with certainty they would compile and produce the correct results. My professional career started right after my next interview, internship and all.

Put yourself in a situation where 120% of your focus is needed to survive. It doesn’t have to be all the time, but it can’t be never. True learning, the learning about yourself, who you are, and what kind of person you are, happens only through the crucible of struggle. There’s no other way. There’s no other learning that matters.


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