Finish Strong

A long-distance runner pushing toward the finish line

You’ve been running for miles. You’re exhausted. You can’t wait to be done.

You turn the corner and finally see the finish line.

What do you do?

Slow down and walk the rest of the way?

Or sprint to the finish line?

I know how a dedicated cross-country runner would answer: they would finish strong.

But this is an education blog, so I’m not really talking about running a race. I’m talking about school.

It’s May, so the school year is nearly over. For graduating seniors, high school itself is coming to an end. There’s an understandable temptation to start taking it easy.

Acting lazy. Coasting until summer vacation. Senioritis.

Whatever you call it, it’s a mistake.

I can already hear your objections:

But Chris, I’ve worked so hard this year, I deserve a break.

I have good grades. Even if I slack off for the rest of the semester, my GPA will be fine.

I’ve already been accepted to university. All I have to do now is graduate.

Fair enough. But the point of high school is not to get good enough grades to graduate and go to college. The point of school is to learn and grow. And you have the opportunity – the privilege – to use school as a mental training ground all the way up to the end.

Finish strong because you’re not “done” yet. You won’t be done when school is over. In fact, I hope you never stop learning and growing.

Finish strong because acting lazy is a form of arrogance, like the hare who took a nap near the finish line, while the tortoise labored on.

Finish strong because it sends your brain the right message about who you are, reinforcing a hard-working identity that will serve you in the future. Everything you do counts, even if it doesn’t affect the results people see on paper. The way you do everything matters, even – maybe especially – at the end.

So finish strong and carry that momentum into the next chapter of your life.

Start With Whatever You Have

An anxious student staring at their computer

You’re uncertain.

Your idea is incomplete.

You don’t know all the steps.

You’re not sure how to say what you want to say.

No problem. You can begin anyway.

Too often, students let these be reasons to hesitate, to avoid starting, to procrastinate. They believe, mistakenly, that you can only begin a math problem, a science project, or an essay if you’re already certain of the entire process.

Rarely in life do we get to feel completely confident about what we’re doing. It’s impossible to predict the future and foresee all the steps that we’ll need to take. Uncertainty is the norm.

You cannot allow feeling unsure to stop you from moving forward, from trying things, from going for it. You must cultivate the ability to start anyway. School, it turns out, is a place to practice this vital skill.

So don’t wait for the full thought or the feeling of confidence to begin writing. Start with whatever you have. It’s okay that it’s incomplete. It’s okay if it doesn’t sound good. It’s okay if it doesn’t completely make sense yet. It’s okay if it ends up being wrong. That’s all part of the process.

Writing down whatever you have in your head frees up space in your working memory, allowing for more and better thoughts. Write those down too, as soon as they come.

Think of it like finding your way through a corn maze. You can’t see the end. You can’t see what’s around the next corner. You just have to keep walking. Try stuff. See where paths lead. You’ll make wrong turns and hit dead ends, but that’s okay. You’ll never get to the end of the maze if you just stand there.

A child walking through a corn maze

This applies to writing essays and stories as much as it does to solving math and physics problems, conjugating Spanish verbs, and just about everything else students get asked to do.

Being unsure of your ideas is normal, and it’s not a valid reason to be stuck.

Begin anyway.

Build Up Your Calluses

A teenage boy using a wooden-handled rake

You’ll have far better luck toughening yourself up than you ever will trying to take the teeth out of a world that is – at best – indifferent to your existence.” –Ryan Holiday1

Here’s a metaphor for academic accommodations:

You’re a child who has to perform yard work using wooden-handled tools. But your hands are naturally very soft and prone to blisters, and the wooden-handled tools are quite rough. There are a few options to consider.

  1. You could avoid the work entirely. While an understandable desire, this will leave the work undone and leave you no stronger.
  2. You could ask to have the rough wooden handles sanded or wrapped in padding to make them easier on your hands. While an understandable request, the world is unlikely to grant you that accommodation. The work is the work; the tools are the tools.
  3. You could tough it out, doing the work despite the painful blisters. While one could applaud your grit, this just seems cruel.
  4. You could wear gloves that reduce the likelihood of blisters. This is clearly the best option, but you don’t feel good about it. Your peers don’t have to wear gloves, and you don’t like feeling different. Plus, you worry about what will happen if one day you can’t find your gloves.

The solution is to think long-term and gradually toughen up your hands.

Work without gloves when you can in order to build up calluses. When the work is relatively easy, you can skip the gloves, but when it’s hard, go ahead and wear them. Or start the work without gloves, go until your hands threaten to form blisters, and then put on the gloves. Over time, you’ll be able to do more and more without gloves.

This is, of course, not about doing yard work with rough tools. It’s about finding the balance between accommodation and remediation. And the answer isn’t to do just one or the other – it’s to do both.

If, for example, you have dyscalculia, you should get to use a calculator when you’re doing math. That’s an appropriate accommodation, like the gloves in our metaphor. But you should also do as much math as you can without a calculator to strengthen your capabilities. That’s remediation, building up your calluses.

1 Holiday, Ryan. The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. Portfolio/Penguin, 2014.