The suffocation seemed overwhelming.
It was making me shrink into my seat. Just to breathe, I began to hyperventilate.
This wasn’t the first time that I took a practical exam, and it certainly wasn’t the last.
The first was when I was probably 11 years old and was given an ACT exam as part of a program for “gifted youth.” Yeah, one of those—don’t worry; in the Midwestern US, the term “gifted” actually applies to anyone who managed to graduate high school.
So anyway, in that case I didn’t particularly care and had no idea how the grading system worked.
This time, I did care.
Not that I should have, particularly. It was just another arbitrary SAT exam—actually an SAT II, in Physics–a subject that I was ostensibly taking but had never truly studied. Ironically, it would be my major at University.
Entering the room, I had no idea that other people were taking Physics courses in high school that actually taught them practical things instead of having abstract discussions with the teacher ranging from the moral benefits of Chaucer’s “Chanticleer” to how gravity is God’s work.
In short, I locked up. I was screwed. There were questions about things I’d never even heard of, let alone studied.
It was a wash—horrible.
In short, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I went in totally unprepared. Not just in terms of not understanding the material on the test, but not understanding the testing procedure. In fact, I had even brought a calculator, which we weren’t allowed to use!
Unfortunately the worst thing was that, looking back on the SAT II Physics exam—even teaching it several times after University—many of the questions made sense. I could have solved them, even with limited knowledge. They could have been worked out if only I had had the confidence.
So where was that confidence?
It’s the confidence of being able to let go.
Perhaps illogically, I couldn’t let go because I thought that doing so would make me perform less well. However, realistically, I needed to study and repeat questions. Study and repeat questions.
I needed to drill. I needed to figure out the things I was good at and do them until they were reflex actions.
I needed to figure out the things that I was bad at and do them until I was competent at them. Most importantly, I needed to assume that my conscious mind would be totally off-line due to simple terror.
It’s the same reason that musicians practice scales: when you’re on stage and ready to crap yourselves because the audience terrifies you, you need to know how to play in key. Even if it’s not the exact right note, it won’t sound wrong!
It’s the same reason that basketball players practice free throws until they can make 99/100. Because they don’t have a choice—under pressure, we revert to habit, which we develop through practice.
In fact, it’s usually the most boring practice that is the most valuable. Things need to become natural, which means you need to be able to do them without thinking about them.
The more that you intellectualize what you’re trying to do—that is, to keep it in your conscious awareness—the more brainpower you are using simply to think. Ideally, you can get rid of this excess stress by repeating the task so often that you don’t have to think about it.
And that is why Masters–in any subject–are so obsessed with practice.
A master is someone who has learned to love practice. Jerry Seinfeld is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but he still gigs regularly because he loves the work.
He’s reached a point where—no matter how difficult stand-up might have been for him when he began—he has learned to love the craft of preparation.
Miles Davis practiced ten hours a day. John Coltrane used to sneak away at dinner parties to practice his arpeggios.
Professional athletes obviously spend all day practicing, but often do other complementary athletic work such as ballet or yoga in order to augment the skill set that is directly related to their work.
How Can You Become Obsessed with Practice?
The process might seem illogical, but bear with me:
1) Start with easy wins that don’t offer much resistance: e.g., start by basic grammar exercises such as memorizing GMAT idioms; practice algebra mindlessly. This mindless practice will shift your brain into the right gear for beneficial study. It is totally necessary: this is more important than anything. For 10-15 minutes. ALWAYS DO THIS STEP.
2) Work through hard problems with a goal of 1% improvement per day. It doesn’t matter as long as you’ve learned something. Write down what you have taken away from today’s exercises. 30min-1hr.
3) Work as quickly as you can while still getting 80% of questions correct in the section you’re working through. They don’t have to be Official questions at this point—whatever exercises you’re working through will do. 30min-1hr.
1) This assumes a two-hour study session.
2) Ramping up speed DOES NOT mean going so fast as to be demoralizing. Rather, it means doing WELL until you are comfortable doing well a little bit faster.
It’s All About Winning.
The most important thing about studying is to be making progress.
There’s no point in spending the time getting better at anything you’re already excellent at, after all!
Progress has to be realistic, though. Learn what you can reasonably accomplish in a day and set your sights to that. How long to you have to study and what can you expect to get done in that time?
Come to terms with the fact that you’ll probably get 50-70% of that actually done. That’s not a bad thing—it’s just life.
Realize that this may postpone your GMAT exam. Come to terms with that. A lot of people start studying far too late, thinking that the test will not in fact require 3-6 months of solid preparation (hint: the GMAT requires 3-6 months of solid preparation).
Learn to love studying by giving yourself small wins. Learn to break your progress into increments that make sense–increments that are achievable.
Those who love what they do are the people who do the best.
Learn to love GMAT study and you will be the best. Simple.
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p.s. What is your worst performance experience? How does it feel after this exercise?
p.p.s. Can you apply this technique to other problems in your life?