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Do it the Hard Way

The great jazz musician Chet Baker once offered the following words of wisdom:

“Do it the hard way, and it’s easy sailing.
Do it the hard way, and it’s hard to lose.
Only the soft way has a chance of failing.
You have to choose.”  1

He was singing about romance, but the principle applies to nearly everything we do in life.

When we choose the hard road, we’re usually rewarded. If you consistently choose the more difficult, less comfortable options in your day-to-day life, you’ll probably end up having an easier life in the long run. For example, by choosing to exercise and meditate every morning for the past two years, I’ve greatly reduced my anxiety and increased my happiness.

On the other hand, when we choose the easy road, we often pay for it later. If you choose to avoid challenging yourself and avoid hard work, you increase the likelihood of facing difficulties down the road. I chose an easy major – Sociology –and I’ve paid for it with reduced career prospects.

If you eat healthy food and exercise, you’ll be rewarded with greater health. But if you eat junk food and avoid exercise, you’ll pay for it with health problems. If you work hard at your job and self-education, you may be rewarded with career advancement. But if you do the bare minimum at work, you’ll probably be passed over for promotions. If you clean your house, you’ll be rewarded with the pleasant serenity of a clean home. If you avoid cleaning, you’ll have to navigate clutter and, if you’re like me, experience the nagging thought that you should clean every time you look at the mess. I could go on.

This isn’t a new idea. Spartan warriors knew this principle and lived by the following motto:

“He who sweats more in training bleeds less in war.”


When it comes to learning, students have a choice between “hard in, easy out” and “easy in, hard out.” If you study and study effectively, your exams will be easier because that hard work convinces your brain to care. But if you take the easy road and use ineffective study methods or choose not to study at all, your exams will be much harder.

Here are some classic examples of this principle applied to school:

  • It’s easier to zone out or doodle in class. It’s harder to pay attention, take notes, and ask questions.
  • If you wait until the last minute to study, you won’t benefit from the effects of spaced repetition. It’s harder to study early and often, but it makes the test easier.
  • It’s easier to use a Quizlet someone else made, but it’s much more effective to make your own. Hand-made flashcards are even better.
  • It’s easier to study by looking over the materials, but it won’t form strong memories the way making written product will.
  • It’s better to take – and fail – a practice test than to avoid taking a practice test and failing the real thing.
  • It’s harder to spend the car-ride home from tutoring doing mental recall practice rather than thumbing through social media, but that’s a powerful way to strengthen the memory of what you’ve just learned.

You have to choose.

It’s much easier to choose the easy way. It’s easier to give into temptation or to allow inertia to keep us on the couch. Hard work isn’t just hard to do, it’s hard to choose. But it is the right choice. And knowing that it’s the right choice makes it a little easier.

We have to remember what impact the choices we make today will have on our future. Doing the hard thing today is a cost paid only by your present self, while the benefits will be enjoyed by all of your future selves.

The poet and world-champion weight lifter Jerzy Gregorek put this best:

“Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.”2

Do it the hard way. You won’t regret it.


Works Cited

1 Baker, Chet. “Do It The Hard Way.” It Could Happen To You. Riverside Records, 1958.

2 Ferriss, Tim. “The Lion of Olympic Weightlifting, 62-Year-Old Jerzy Gregorek.” The Tim Ferriss Show, #228.

Image Credit

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. Text added.

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Why a Teenager is Like a Chinese Finger Trap

A teenager is like a Chinese finger trap. When you do the intuitive thing – pulling them in the direction you want them to go – they only resist more.

How many parents of disorganized teenagers have told them to “Use a planner!” or “Organize your binder!” only to see the planner remain empty and the binder slowly succumb to the second law of thermodynamics?

Are you saying I should use reverse psychology?

No. This only works sometimes, and only with certain personalities. I wouldn’t count on it as a reliable strategy. Most teenagers will quickly pick up on it and use it against you.

Why Parenting Teens is so Hard

Most teenagers seem wired to reject the advice their parents give them. Something about going through puberty changes their brains, increasing stubbornness and decreasing obedience. This is not without reason. Nearly every parent of a teenager experiences this phenomenon because it is deeply ingrained in human nature. And like all parts of our evolved psychology, it exists for a reason: When teenagers push back against the status quo and go their own way, they sometimes invent better ways of doing things, driving progress.

Parents understandably find this difficult to comprehend because young children are much more inclined to do what their parents say. This, too, comes from human nature. Very young children are both very ignorant of the world and very vulnerable to danger, and their parents are the ones keeping them safe. Heeding the advice of your parents when, as a child, you’re told to “Look both ways before you cross the road,” is akin to a hunter-gather child being told, “Don’t go near the river because it has crocodiles.” Either way, the child should listen, and they generally do.

But as children grow into teenagers, they naturally assert their independence more and more, and in turn, listen less and less. This is because they’ve learned enough about the world to have a rudimentary sense of what’s safe and what’s not. They are developing their own values, which drive their own goals, that may or may not align with those of their parents. And in order for teenagers to grow into full-fledged adults, they need to steadily gain more and more independence.

They’re not yet responsible enough for you to fully relinquish control, but they do need to be granted more freedom. Conflict typically arises when parents assert too much control over their teenagers, or when teenagers, eager to enjoy their freedom, overextend themselves and get into trouble. It is a delicate balancing act, one that no one gets perfectly right.

Growing Up

As Greg likes to teach (and draw), the style of interaction between parent and child needs to shift from the image on the left to the image on the right:

Few things are harder for a parent to watch than their own teenager making terrible choices. But clamping down too hard will breed resentment and rebellion, and any advice you give would be unwanted advice, which is always rejected. The best things I can offer are the principle of leading by example, rather than telling them what to do, and the framework of authoritative parenting, which has been shown to produce the best long-term outcomes.

Every parent of a teenager, though, has actually been navigating this balancing act for years. When your toddler was running around the playground with reckless abandon, did you stop him? Or did you let him run, and inevitably fall and skin his knees? He’d learn more from skinning his knees, just as a teenager will learn more from getting into a bit of trouble and facing the consequences.

Parents have to give their teenagers a chance to screw up because the pain of failure is what motivates good choices in the future. No matter how wise you are, they probably won’t listen to you because they feel compelled to test things out for themselves. They may wind up doing exactly what you told them to do, but only after suffering the consequences of doing the opposite.

So if you’ve ever wondered why your teenager doesn’t listen to your smart, well-meaning advice, well, the reason is, a teenager is like a Chinese finger trap.


Image Credits

Title Image: Fleser, Casey. “It’s A Trap! (237 / 365).” Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.

Frustration: Mozart, Mike. “Finger Traps.” Creative Commons 2.0.

Walk in the Woods: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Two Types of Interaction: Greg Smith’s original “artwork.”

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PSA: The Case For Textbooks

The following is a public service announcement about textbooks.

In recent years, schools have been shifting away from traditional, paper textbooks. Some schools have switched to electronic textbooks on the students’ school-issued tablets, some have switched to online textbooks, and some have scrapped textbooks entirely.

Some schools are doing this to save money, while others are doing this because they believe electronic resources and handouts are better than traditional textbooks. No one has made this shift with ill intentions, but, whatever the reason, the outcome is always the same: Learning suffers.

First, I’ll make the case for textbooks in general, and then I’ll explain why we here at Northwest Educational Services believe that traditional paper textbooks are superior to electronic textbooks. But before we get into it, I want to make it clear that we aren’t a collection of luddites railing against electronic resources, and we are well aware that the modern world abounds with useful resources other than textbooks.

Okay, so, given that the previous statement is true, why do we still need textbooks? Well, we don’t need them, actually. They’re just really helpful. In that vein, we also don’t need grocery bags. We could take our groceries from the cart and put the items one at a time into our cars, and then remove the items one at a time when we get home. We could do this. But of course we don’t because it’s terribly inefficient. Likewise, searching the internet for what you need rather than pulling the information from a textbook is usually very slow.

The information superhighway, as the internet was called back in the ‘90s, is, of course, very fast. And if you want something simple, like the formula for the area of a triangle, Google will tell you instantly. But for anything more complicated or less commonplace, textbooks are faster. The reason for this is that searching the internet requires that you discern what is relevant from all of the rest of the information that pops up when you search for your topic.

The filtering process is often tedious and frustrating. The textbook, by contrast, will contain a much narrower set of information, one that is age-appropriate and aligned with your particular class, not to mention edited and fact-checked to a far greater extent than most things on the internet. The filtering has been done for you.

When you do a Google search for the information you need, you sometimes find versions of the content that are incomplete, inaccurate, or biased, but the most common issue is actually finding versions that are too advanced and excessively detailed. For example, if you’re a high school biology student learning about genetics, and you do a Google search for that, you’re likely to find articles that present the content at a college level. The explanations and the diagrams will contain far more detail and far more advanced vocabulary than you’re currently required to learn. A biology textbook issued by your teacher, on the other hand, will offer exactly as much information as you need right now.

Furthermore, the familiar structure of a good textbook is very helpful to both learning and efficiency. The glossary and appendix make quick references, and the index lets you quickly look up what you need to find in the text. The chapter summaries offer a chance to review the main ideas, and the chapter quizzes provide ready-made practice tests. The table of contents – and simply having the whole book all year long – make it easy to review old content as well as preview what’s coming next.

When students just have handouts with the homework, and perhaps whatever notes they’ve taken in class, they’re missing quite a bit. Let’s use math as an example. When you’re working out of a good textbook, and you’ve got a set of problems to do for homework, the explanations for how to do those problems and several worked examples will be offered on the preceding pages. This is especially helpful if you’ve misunderstood the lecture, if you were distracted in class, or if you happened to miss school when the content was taught. Students today can, if they so choose, go watch relevant videos on Khan Academy, but because this is much harder than just flipping a page or two back in the textbook, few students do it. So when there’s no textbook, math students are much more likely to give up on confusing homework and fall behind.

The AP Calculus Class with no Textbook and Other Horror Stories

There is at least one Seattle high school, which shall remain nameless here, that is teaching AP Calculus without a textbook; everything is presented through handouts. AP Calculus is hard enough as it is. The absurdity of teaching it without a textbook is mindboggling. If there was ever a class that needed a good resource to help students walk the mastery path, Calculus would be it.

That same school is teaching George Orwell’s 1984 in their senior English class. But the school doesn’t have enough copies for all the students to take home, so they’re spending class time listening to the audio book. This struck me as crazy, and as far as I know, the students haven’t been encouraged to find a cheap, used copy on Amazon or check one out from the public library. Furthermore, it seems like a poor use of class time and a poor use of an English teacher who, rather than hitting play on an audiobook, could, you know, teach. Please don’t mistake this as me judging that teacher. I’m sure he is doing the best he can with his limited resources. Instead, I’m criticizing the school, the district, those who vote against school funding, and all the misguided mindsets that make this situation possible. We can do better.

Bad Textbooks

Sometimes you are given a textbook, but it is not a particularly helpful one. The best (worst?) example of this is Discovering Geometry, the textbook used by Seattle public high schools and at least one local private school. This particular textbook is designed to be exploratory; it encourages students to discover the theorems and formulas of geometry on their own through guided exercises. There is, to be sure, some value in this approach, and if the text also offered actual information, it would be an excellent resource. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, so most students are understandably at a loss for how to use the book to find information. Here’s a link to buy a $9 used copy of a much better Geometry textbook.

Electronic vs. Paper

Here’s something we witness all the time in our office:

The student’s goal for the session requires a textbook, but the school doesn’t issue a physical copy. So the student has to get access to the online textbook. This requires that the student login to Schoology, which is itself a three-or-four-step process, go to the Schoology page for the particular class we’re interested in, find the correct link to click to be sent to the online textbook’s webpage, enter the login for the textbook on that page, and then, finally, seek out the right section within the online textbook.

If that sounds a great deal harder than just pulling a book out of your backpack and opening it up, that’s because it is. Students often struggle to find the Schoology page, struggle to remember their Schoology password, struggle to find the correct link from within Schoology to get access to the textbook, and then struggle to remember the other password that gets them into the textbook.

Now, if everything goes well, it takes only a couple minutes longer than pulling a physical book out of a backpack. But usually, it takes at least five minutes longer. Those extra minutes might not seem like much, but they’re actually a big deal. Why? Because students already don’t want to open their textbooks, do their reading, do their homework, or study, and every extra step, every extra bit of tediousness that we introduce into the process, makes it less likely to get done at all. Even making something just 20 seconds less convenient to do makes us less likely to do it.1

The very fact that we make it this difficult to do something as basic as opening a textbook is outrageous. This is a clear example of making school harder than it needs to be, and this time, it’s the schools rather than the students who are guilty.

Of course, many students have the pages bookmarked and their logins stored, or their school-issued tablet already has the books loaded. This is better, but the electronic textbooks still prove to be slower. Despite cool features like a search bar and the ability to enter a page number and go straight there, I’ve yet to see a student who was better at navigating an electronic textbook than a paper one. It’s just easier to flip through the pages of a physical book. It’s easier to quickly access the table of contents, the index, and the glossary without losing your place. You can bookmark key pages to remind for quick access. You can put sticky notes in the book to remind yourself to revisit certain pages.

Many of the tablet/laptop schools also require that you complete your homework on the computer screen rather than on paper. A major drawback to this system is that, because your electronic textbooks can only be seen on that same computer screen, you can’t have both open at once. If you want to use the electronic textbook to help you with your homework, you have to constantly go back and forth between the two apps or the two windows that you need to have open, and you can never look at both at the same time. And switching back and forth usually takes three clicks and 30 seconds of lag time.

Because this is so tedious and inefficient, it trains you to not use your textbook and thus harms learning. These schools want students to use their textbooks, but the system they’re using actively discourages that behavior.

By contrast, the classic, tech-free setup allows you to have both your homework and your book out and on the desk simultaneously. You can efficiently look from one to the other without any wasted time.


Perhaps worse than the extra time it takes to access and navigate an electronic textbook is the insidious issue of distractions.

We’d be lying to ourselves if we said that students have no issue dealing with the myriad of distractions that can be accessed through computers and tablets. If you have to access your textbook through your computer or tablet, then you have to actively resist the temptation to check email, go on social media, watch videos, or play games because all of those things are just a click away. This is hard for almost everyone, but it’s especially hard for students with ADD and ADHD.

Asking students to study using a computer is the equivalent of asking them to eat salad while there’s cake on the table.

When we intend to eat salad first and cake later, we put the cake out of sight so it’s easier to do what we’re supposed to do.

One student I’ve worked with who uses a tablet-based textbook has video game notifications and ESPN updates constantly popping up onto the screen while we’re using his tablet to do homework. He’s actually very good at staying on task when this happens, at least when he’s working at my side. I suspect it’s a different story at home. And, in any case, every time this happens, a little bit of attention is taken away from the task at hand, and as a result, productivity slows down and learning suffers. As Brian Johnson says, we’ve got to stop “paper-cutting ourselves with distractions.”

To get a better sense of how distractions harm learning and why they’re so insidious, please check out this video which offers a quick look at Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Yes, computers are very useful, and yes, they’re here to stay. But we force kids to wrestle with all the temptations computers have to offer long before the students’ minds are developed enough to resist the pull of electronic fun. And on top of that, we don’t teach our children how to have a healthy relationship with technology and we certainly don’t model that relationship ourselves.


“I don’t have enough memory on my iPad for the textbook,” one Bishop Blanchet student told me. This was the reason he was falling behind on his homework.

On closer inspection, it turned out that he had loaded up his school-issued iPad with games. The solution was obvious: delete some of the games to free up some memory. But he was so hooked on the games that it took him another two weeks after our discussion to delete enough games to add the textbook to his tablet. At that point, he was way behind.

Many people today are addicted to their technology.2 People of all ages get hooked on social media, email, YouTube videos, TV shows, and video games, but young people are especially unprepared for the draw of these forms of entertainment. Plus, even if you don’t have any form addiction to technology, brain scan research has found that “too much screen time damages the brain.”3 Our society has yet to come to grips with this epidemic of tech-addiction, and in many cases we’re actively making it worse.

Forcing students who are prone to distraction and addiction to wade through the treacherous waters of technology each and every time they do homework is almost the equivalent of telling a recovering alcoholic that the only way he’s allowed to earn a living is by working in a bar. It’s downright cruel.


Unlike drug addiction, however, going cold-turkey with tech-addiction isn’t a realistic option.4 Total abstinence from technology would cripple your capacity to succeed in the modern world. The solutions will have to be more complicated, more nuanced. We’ll have to find ways to help students develop healthier relationships with technology and give them alternative options whenever possible.

In an effort to make it easier for students to get their hands on paper textbooks, we’ve done a little homework on which math and science textbooks are good resources for self-teaching and independent practice. You’ll find links to affordable (usually around $10) used versions of these books on our Textbooks page. If you dig around online a bit, you might even find cheaper ones. The benefits of having a real textbook far outweigh the costs.

Parents Can Speak Up

Hopping online to find a cheap, used textbook is a good, pragmatic solution for the here and now. But we also need to look to the future. Year after year, paper textbooks are falling more and more out of fashion, and because of this, students are suffering. We can do better.

Nothing is going to change unless people speak up. This is a call to action for parents to ask schools to return to traditional, paper textbooks. Whether your child attends public school or private, you have leverage; you have a voice. You can call your school’s principle, speak with your students’ teachers, write a letter to the school district’s superintendent, or write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. If enough people demand change, change will come.


Works Cited

1 Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business, 2010.

2 Alter, Adam. Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Penguin Press, 2017.

3 Dunckley, Victoria L., M.D. “Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain: Neuroimaging research shows excessive screen time damages the brain.” Psychology Today. February 27, 2014.

4 Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Penguin Press, 2015.

Image Credits

Title Image: Welling, Ashley. Text added.

Information Circles: Loper, Chris.

Laptop Bookshelf: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Book and Paper: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Cake: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Computer Game Kids: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.