Being academically successful is, arguably, something we can hone to near-perfection during our tenure in school. After all, most of us are practicing it for almost two decades of our lives. We humans are also very good at figuring things out and bettering ourselves when influenced by the right incentives; if you scour the science of learning online, you’ll find out how quickly we respond and adapt to stinging punishments or enticing rewards (yes, even us humans, especially if we are enticed with money). In school, these incentives take the form of teachers whose wrath we don’t want to feel, letters and numbers in red pen we do or don’t want to see at the top of our returned papers, and leaderboards full of our and our peers’ scores. We eventually functionalize and operationalize our methods down to an exact science to deftly dispose of syllabus assignments and exams. We “get” how to do school. Some of us may do this better than others (of whom the generous become college academic tutors), but nonetheless most of us inevitably improve. Then, we are finally released into the real world to unleash all our skills and ability.
And that’s when we realize just how much we never learned.
Now, I had an issue trying to accomplish things for work when I finally moved out of the college bubble. I thought that because I was done with classes, I would know how to do everything now, and I wouldn’t have to learn so much all the time anymore. At least, not in the traditional way of “cramming”. Boy, was I wrong. It turned out that not only was there just as much learning, it was way harder to do in the real world. There were no instructions, no syllabus. It was a nightmarish, pathless, organizational free for all. I felt pressure all the time to get to goals that I couldn’t even see clearly, all the while grappling with paralysis and procrastination. I preferred not doing to feeling like I was running around like a headless chicken; the problem was, I wasn’t moving at all. But how do you “see” when you’re in the dark, when your mind has no proscribed template for how to do the task? The answer: with your hands.
The key is letting go the need to think it all through first, and being willing to "blindly" move forwards, or feeling your way with a “hands-on” approach. This is why it is essential to take the pressure off yourself because it is scary to not know what you’re doing and to go ahead anyway. Eventually though, with enough small, small steps, you have a good sense of what’s there, and you know how to go ahead. Now, you may be thinking, “Of course you just have to do things when you don’t know how, that’s how you start every new job.” Well, I’m here to tell you that school does not prepare you for that. If you’re lucky, you have the chance to participate in a co-op, an internship, or project course experiences where you’re accountable to real organizations and companies. If not, you need to pick up this ability, this courage, yourself.
Education gets you to the point of knowing a good amount and gives you a solid foundation, but that doesn't mean you can stop learning. At some point, you may face the fear of not knowing how to do something, and because you've spent so long in the academic environment being graded and achieving based on knowing things, you're afraid to just go ahead and try things. The thing is, at some point we didn't know anything - so how did we learn? We just went ahead. It’s a skill that is essential to re-cultivate once past your training, the key to continuing to learn in the real world of work and life. You must be able to keep making mistakes; fortunately, as the old adage says, it's what you do afterwards that really determines your course.
Here I’ll diverge onto a slightly different topic. Note: ahead lies a shameless plug for tutors and academic consulting. We are entering an age of unprecedented access to online learning and new methods to gain skills. It can be easy to fall prey to the illusion that we can do anything with all these resources at our fingertips, but the reality is that few things rival a good teacher and coach. We are constantly juggling demands on our time and energy. Even worse, we live in a culture where self-sufficiency is often touted as the only way to be respected…but as the best way of learning and accomplishing things, nothing could be further from the truth. We learn and gain an incredible amount from being supported by the presence of others. Cast off any sense that we have to do everything ourselves!
So if you’ve been out of school for some time or took a gap year and are now feeling serious about committing to paths that may include the formidable MCAT or GMAT tests, consider the invaluable help and time saved that MD application consulting, an MCAT tutor, or even online GMAT tutoring can provide. The MD admissions process is no joke, often taxing at least a good 6 months off your life as you go through rounds of essays and interviews in tandem. These tests can be broken down into units of learning and different tactics that will make your life a much brighter one on the way.
After we leave the academic environment, the incentives and motivators for our learning change. We must adapt to the new circumstances, where we’re not working for a grade anymore. So practice a new skill that you may not necessarily have learned growing up – set a goal, and find your way there – feeling it out on the way, do everything you can for it everyday, even if you’re walking a seemingly random walk towards that end. In the wise words of Rilke, “live your way into the answer”. Yes, it’s a hard adjustment, but at the end of it all, you learn to really learn. This time, you write your syllabus. And hey, there’s no shame in getting a little coaching along the way.