The Secret to Success

There’s an old joke.   Driving around New York City, a tourist rolls down his window and asks a passerby “Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  The answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”

Indeed, the path to excellence is well known among musicians.  They are aware that learning to play the violin, for instance, doesn’t result from attending lectures or reading textbooks on the theory of violin-playing.  They know that musical skill comes only from practice.  Twenty minutes a day, an hour a day, or four hours a day — depending on their goals.  Lessons do help, and theory can be taught in a classroom setting, but learning to perform comes only from performance itself.  To be more precise, the acquisition of skill derives from the cycle of performance; critical feedback; and diligent, deliberate and conscientious practice.
Athletes, too, have always known the way forward.  A football coach can provide wise counsel, and videotaped plays can furnish helpful analysis, but you cannot develop the actual abilities and talents without putting on your helmet and pads, going out to the field, and dirtying your uniform.  Like the musicians, the jocks know that practice is necessarily a daily thing (excluding days rest and recovery, of course).  Similarly, no one prepares for a marathon by running a practice marathon the day before.  Rather, it takes many months of steady, intensive training.
The same principles for skill acquisition apply to every field of human endeavor.  This is particularly true of academic subjects, such as math or expository writing.  To learn math, you must do math.  Going to lectures and seeing math done at the board does help — but not much more than listening to recordings of Isaac Stern will help the aspiring violinist.  That’s where homework comes in:  homework provides the opportunity to be challenged, to perform, to receive constructive feedback, and to take corrective action.  It should be done on a steady (almost daily) basis, in order to maintain the level of intensive engagement necessary for the associated neurological adaptations to take root.  As with the marathoner, you cannot properly prepare for a test by cramming the night before.
So the secret to success is not such a secret after all.  We’ve known it all along: practice, practice, practice.

Unlearning Unreason

Here are excerpts of an article in the New Boston Post by Adam J. MacLeod, who is an Associate Professor of Law at Faulkner University.  It addresses reversing certain habits of thought that could stand in the way of future success.

I teach in a law school. For several years now my students have been mostly Millennials. Contrary to stereotype, I have found that the vast majority of them want to learn. But true to stereotype, I increasingly find that most of them cannot think, don’t know very much, and are enslaved to their appetites and feelings. Their minds are held hostage in a prison fashioned by elite culture and their undergraduate professors.

They cannot learn until their minds are freed from that prison. This year …, I found my students especially impervious to the ancient wisdom of foundational texts, such as Plato’s Crito and the Code of Hammurabi. Many of them were quick to dismiss unfamiliar ideas as “classist” and “racist,” and thus unable to engage with those ideas on the merits. So, a couple of weeks into the semester, I decided to lay down some ground rules…

Here is the speech I gave them.


Before I can teach you how to reason, I must first teach you how to rid yourself of unreason. For many of you have not yet been educated. You have been dis-educated. To put it bluntly, you have been indoctrinated. Before you learn how to think you must first learn how to stop unthinking.

Reasoning requires you to understand truth claims, even truth claims that you think are false or bad or just icky. … And reasoning requires coherence and logic. Most of you have been taught to embrace incoherence and illogic. You have learned to associate truth with your subjective feelings, which are neither true nor false but only yours, and which are constantly changeful.

…[Y]ou should not bother to tell us how you *feel* about a topic. Tell us what you *think* about it. If you can’t think yet, that’s O.K. Tell us what Aristotle thinks, or Hammurabi thinks, or H.L.A. Hart thinks. Borrow opinions from those whose opinions are worth considering. As Aristotle teaches us in the reading for today, men and women who are enslaved to the passions, who never rise above their animal natures by practicing the virtues, do not have worthwhile opinions. Only the person who exercises practical reason and attains practical wisdom knows how first to live his life, then to order his household, and finally, when he is sufficiently wise and mature, to venture opinions on how to bring order to the political community.

Accordingly, one of Professor MacLeod’s ground rules for his course is

If you ever begin a statement with the words “I feel,” before continuing you must cluck like a chicken or make some other suitable animal sound.

MacLeod continues:

…Disagreement is not expressing one’s disapproval of something or expressing that something makes you feel bad or icky. To really disagree with someone’s idea or opinion, you must first understand that idea or opinion. When Socrates tells you that a good life is better than a life in exile you can neither agree nor disagree with that claim without first understanding what he means by “good life” and why he thinks running away from Athens would be unjust. Similarly, if someone expresses a view about abortion, and you do not first take the time to understand what the view is and why the person thinks the view is true, then you cannot disagree with the view, much less reason with that person. You might take offense. You might feel bad that someone holds that view. But you are not reasoning unless you are engaging the merits of the argument, just as Socrates engaged with Crito’s argument that he should flee from Athens.

Read the whole article here: Perhaps there are lessons for all of us.