Humility and Confidence

“Study as if you know nothing. Work as if you can solve anything.” –James Clear

Humility

Of course, you don’t actually know nothing. You know a great many things!

But it’s all-too-common to slip into intellectual arrogance based on the knowledge you already have: thinking that you know everything that matters, losing your innate curiosity and wonder, and ultimately deciding that further learning is pointless.

Kids sometimes do this. Teenagers, in particular, are notorious for believing they know everything. But adults do it too.

There are many problems with thinking you know everything that matters. In school, you become demotivated. In your career, you become inflexible. In your social life, you become boring. In politics, you become narrow-minded.

There are some good philosophical reasons to act like you know nothing.

Compared to the vast, perhaps infinite, amount of things there are to learn, your knowledge will always be so miniscule as be effectively zero. In math, we sometimes consider what happens if you divide a number by infinity. No matter how large the numerator (so long as it is less than infinity), the enormity of the denominator makes the fraction effectively zero.

1,000,000,000 ÷ ≈ 0

There’s an old saying that the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. Each door you open leads to a room with three more doors. The only question is, how deep do you want to go? For example, if you begin studying biology, you’ll quickly discover that there are whole categories of knowledge that you know little about: microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, zoology, botany, ecology, paleontology, evolution, physiology, medicine, and more. Some people devote their entire lives to tiny areas within these categories.

So what does it look like to “study as if you know nothing”?

Let’s pause the high-minded philosophizing for a minute and talk about actual studying. You know, the thing students do for tests.

If you’re really struggling with overconfidence – or not sure whether you are – take practice tests. Self-testing is not only the quickest way to find out what you don’t know, but it’s also a powerful tool for learning in and of itself. If you have no motivation to study because you believe you’re good to go, take a practice test and prove it. If you ace the practice test, great! If not, well, better to find out now than during the real thing.

More broadly, I take the “study as if you know nothing” command as a call to engage in relentless learning. This means striving to learn something new every day, whether you’re in school or not. It means learning things that are practical as well as things that serve no obvious purpose. It means learning both deeply and broadly.

If you actually engage in this sort of daily learning, you will prove to yourself, over and over again, that you don’t know everything. You’ll discover, in fact, that there are a great many important and interesting things you know nothing about. And you’ll be overcoming the toxic mindset of “done” that pervades our culture. You’re never done; you can always keep growing. And humanity as a whole isn’t done; we’re still learning.

Confidence

Now, just as important is to “Work as if you can solve anything.”

This means trying your best to tackle any problem that comes your way, whether academic or otherwise. When you’re faced with a problem, your default assumption should be that you can figure it out. But it doesn’t mean you get to feel certain that you’re taking the right steps. You have to take risks.

Many difficult problems are akin to a hedge maze. You stand before the entrance, unable to see the end and unable to fathom what steps will be required to get there. The only way to get there is to enter the maze and start walking. You might get lost along the way, but the only hope you have of getting through is to begin.

However, confidence doesn’t mean blind foolishness. You should use strategies, such as writing to manage cognitive load. You should use resources, like textbooks. And you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help.

Remember, true confidence is self-efficacy, which can only be earned through the acquisition of skills and the memory of real-life successes. Solve problems, and you’ll prove to yourself that you can.

We Need Both

Humility and confidence might seem like opposites, but they’re not. It is possible to embody both simultaneously, and you need to if you want to become the best version of yourself.

If you approach learning with humility and take on problems with confidence, then you’ll be engaging life with a growth mindset. We can encourage students to do this, of course, but we also need to lead by example.

What’s something you need to study with more humility?

Enjoy the exploration.

What’s a problem you need to face with more confidence?

Go for it. You’ve got this.

About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.

Why Going Fast Often Means Going Slow

I have a student who loves to go fast. We do math together. He likes to rush through problems, he doesn’t like to write things down, and he doesn’t like to work things out step-by-step.

But he also likes to pursue mastery, or at least, the Khan Academy version of mastery. To achieve that for any given topic, such as subtracting mixed numbers, you have to rise through three ranks: from familiar to proficient to mastered. To progress through these ranks, you have to answer four questions correctly in a row in a focused set, then answer another question correctly on a quiz, and then later answer a question correctly on a unit test. If you get it wrong on either the quiz or the unit test, your rank drops.

This student wants to get full mastery on all the topics, which I love. Mastery learning is a great goal. But because he likes to go fast, he makes silly mistakes. He often misreads questions, misses key details, or makes errors in calculation. As a result, he frequently has to repeat problem sets in order to get four in a row correct, and then he has to repeat quizzes and unit tests in order to get the mastery level for each topic. In other words, trying to go fast slows him down.

One instance stands out to me as emblematic. He rushed through a quiz and made an error. So he had to repeat the quiz, but he rushed again and made a different error. Finally, on the third attempt, he got them all right. If he had just gone slowly and carefully the first time, he would have been done sooner.

Of course, this comes as no surprise to me. I know that mental math leads to a higher error rate. I know that writing helps you manage cognitive load, leading to less confusion, better understanding, and fewer mistakes.

It reminds me of the importance of tying your shoes, both literally and metaphorically. If you want to get to where you’re going as quickly as possible, skipping the step of tying your shoes might seem like a time-saver. But if you trip and fall because your shoes were untied, it’s going to cost you far more time than would have been spent tying your shoes before leaving the house. Likewise, skipping steps in math problems – or in any learning process for that matter – only seems like a time-saver. It usually winds up costing you far more time in the long run.

This principle becomes even more powerful if we take the long view. If you want to go fast, you might skip a year or two in math. You’re saving time, you’re getting ahead, and you’re proving how smart you are! But, for many reasons, skipping ahead in math is rarely a good idea. For most students, this path means less mastery of the fundamentals, more holes in their upside-down math pyramids, and a higher likelihood of hitting a wall and quitting math altogether.

There are many students who want to become scientists, engineers, or mathematicians who are absolutely capable of doing so, but nonetheless pursue other careers because they falter in math. And many of them falter in math precisely because they skipped ahead in middle school. This is yet another case of the tragedy of lost potential that could easily be prevented if we only had the patience to go slowly.

Sometimes, going fast means going slow. And sometimes going fast means not going as far.

About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.

Accommodation and Remediation

When addressing learning differences and other academic challenges, there are two approaches: accommodation and remediation. Accommodation means providing extra support or alternative options to make things easier for the student. For example, a student with dyslexia might get extra time for reading assignments, or a student with ADHD might get to take their tests in a separate room that has fewer distractions. Remediation means working to grow the student’s abilities in order to reduce their need for accommodations in the future.

Now, I’m not here to come out in favor of one approach over the other. They both have value. The problem is that the vast majority of resources go toward accommodation, and very little time, attention, or money gets devoted to remediation. And I think that’s a shame. This approach to supporting learning differences reflects our culture’s fixed mindset at an institutional level.

We know that the growth mindset is the scientifically accurate view of human ability, and we know that when we cultivate a growth mindset in students, they do much better in the long run.1 But when we take students with learning differences or other academic struggles and only give them accommodations without putting any energy toward remediation, we are basically sending them a message that says, “You’re broken. You’re deficient. So you need these supports in order to keep up.”

Instead, if we emphasized remediation (while still providing accommodations as appropriate), we would be sending a very different message: “You’re struggling, but you can improve. You’re capable of growth, and we’re going to work hard to make that growth happen.” Struggle makes you stronger, so some degree of struggle is necessary for growth. School is supposed to be hard, and the purpose of accommodations is to make it appropriately hard so that students don’t get discouraged and slip into a downward spiral of avoidance.

For that purpose, accommodations provide much-needed short-term support, but unless these are coupled with long-term efforts that build skills and strengths, they are likely to just create dependence. It’s hard to strike a balance between the short-term and the long-term, but we can’t fall into the trap of always letting what feels urgent get in the way of doing what is most important. And I would argue that long-term growth is the most important goal, which means we need to make remediation a priority.

For example, a student who has difficulty focusing – perhaps an ADHD diagnosis – might benefit from academic accommodations, such as extended time for assignments, but the student also needs to learn how to combat the urge to procrastinate. They might also benefit from pharmacological accommodation – stimulant medication – but pills are rarely offered alongside skills: organization, time-management, and techniques for managing distractions. Lifestyle changes that promote better brain health, such as exercise, getting better sleep, and healthy eating also help remediate ADHD symptoms.2 Furthermore, focus is a muscle, so deliberately training the brain to focus through practices like yoga or mindfulness meditation can lead to long-term improvements.3

Dyslexia certainly makes reading more challenging, so academic accommodations are highly appropriate to improve short-term outcomes and give dyslexic students a hand keeping up with their classmates. But it’s also essential to teach active reading skills, such as the 3 P’s, to grow their abilities. And, as Greg’s personal story makes clear, when parents read with their kids – even in high school – they become stronger readers.

Lastly, in the world of executive function, parents often accommodate for their children’s underdeveloped skills by basically doing everything for them: all the planning, all the remembering, all the deciding, all the troubleshooting. Kids do need parental support – scaffolding – as they learn executive function skills, but overparenting inhibits growth. As kids grow up, they need to receive less and less support so their brains will be motivated to develop strengths and skills. If you want to remediate underdeveloped executive function, the two best options are to actively model your own executive function processes and to give your kids lots of responsibilities, such as chores.

The difference between accommodation and remediation is really what sets Northwest Educational Services apart from traditional academic tutoring. Tutoring is often seen as an accommodation – extra help given to students who need it. Tutors help students get their homework done and pass tests, but they don’t teach broader skills that foster independence and self-efficacy. By contrast, we are academic coaches, and our focus is on building up students’ strengths. We do support short-term needs, but we also facilitate growth whenever possible because we know that remediation matters too.

1 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.

2 Nigg, Joel, Ph.D. “Beyond Genes: Leveraging Sleep, Exercise, and Diet to Improve ADHD.” ADDitutde: Inside the ADHD Mind. May 9, 2019. 

3 Herbert, Anne, and Anna Esparham. “Mind–Body Therapy for Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.” Children. May 4, 2017. 

About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.