Monday, February 8, 2010

Trying Harder vs. Trying Better

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” That’s good advice if you’re doing something the right way, but if you’re on a bike with flat tires, it isn’t good advice to just keep pedaling harder and harder. Persistence has it's place- it is important to realize that no is not scalable- but if you're trying again and again at something that isn't working, then look for a better way to do it. Sounds ridiculously simple, but in real life people aren’t checking their tires.

School is just one place where the advice to just try harder flows freely. School rewards kids doing things one way- the teacher’s way. The kids who can figure out the best way to give the teacher exactly what he or she wants end up with the best marks, regardless of if in a broader context it’s not the best way to do things. But before I get too worked up and go on a rant about school, I’m going to finish this post. Deep breaths.

For the sake of example, I’m going to roughly categorize two approaches to getting things done- the simple and tough approach where you keep slugging along at the same thing you’ve been doing until you get to where you need to be, and the complex, multi-faceted and targeted approach where you stop and figure out the best way to get to where you need to go- even if that road doesn’t exist yet. Driving faster down the wrong road doesn’t get you anywhere.

Back in high school in my International Baccalaureate English class we had about ten books that we had to read throughout the course of the year. We would have a test or an essay coming up and more than a few kids would get the bright idea that they were going to reread the whole book the weekend before the test (seriously). They saw that there was one way to success- having an intimate knowledge of the book, and that there was one way to gain that knowledge- reading that book. Without any shortage of motivation (or sense of time or priorities) they would go ahead and try and reread the book the day before the test. That's the simple but tough way.

In contrast, I never read any of the ten prescribed titles. It's not like I tried but got halfway through and gave up- I never opened any of them up to make an attempt to. I didn't have an issue with the books themselves and I do have an appreciation for good literature, but it just wasn't a priority with everything I was doing outside of school. I instead took the complex, targeted and multi-faceted approach- I realized that there was more than one way to achieve an intimate knowledge of the books- so I read the Cliff’s Notes of the book to get an idea of what was going on, then read reviews and analyses of the book by people with university degrees in English literature. I ended up with the knowledge of the major themes, characters and quotes and how they related to events in the book- what the other kids were supposed to get from reading the book itself, but I was resourceful and it took me a lot less time. Nobody cared how you came to know the themes and characters so long as you could regurgitate them in a profound-sounding way so that a stuffy marker in England wearing a tweed suit was satisfied with it.

In the end I ended up with a 5 on a 7-point bell curve made up of the kids across the world taking that same course. That was good enough for me for what my priorities were- it was the 85% solution. I took the complex and targeted approach combined with some resourcefulness, where the other kids took the “try harder” approach. Some of the kids tried really hard at what they were “supposed to do” and did better than me- they took the time and put in the effort to get as close to perfection (in that context) as possible. As you go up from 85%, you need to put in more and more time and effort to get each percent closer to perfection. I chose to settle for good enough. There are often ways to get to the 85% solution that take a lot less effort and less time, but for true mastery and perfection at something, I do believe that you need to start putting your 10,000 hours of deep practice in. With only so many hours available to you, choose wisely.

I find that the simple and tough approach often emphasizes small wins and the complex approach emphasizes the big wins- let's say that you're a young person looking to improve your financial situation- the simple and tough approach would be to stop buying $3 lattes every day and cutting out 50-cent grocery coupons- those will help, but it's a significant amount of effort for a relatively small return. You can continue trying harder and harder at saving more and more every day, but Ramit Sethi would suggest that you go for the big wins, like building up good credit so that you save thousands of dollars later when you make a major purchase like a car or a house- which is a big win. Similarly, you could send the same resume in to more and more different places- trying harder at the same thing- gaining a small win each additional time, or you could change your approach and do what Charlie Hoehn recommends- a big win.

The complex approach is usually "better" but as is the case with everything, make sure you choose the one that's the right fit for you.

A quicker solution to your financial issues would be to rob a bank or stop paying taxes- but you have to play within the hard-and-fast rules - I made sure that I played within the rules in school- but make sure you know that you don't have to play by the unwritten social-proof-reinforced rules.

Update: Here's an article from Seth Godin about this concept


  1. Yeah, people are always surprised when they find out the "good student" has quite a stash of Cliffs Notes. Of course it's more valuable to encounter the literature on your own terms and discover how it speaks to you, but that's not what school is really about, is it? ;)

  2. You started to get me all excited when you started ranting about how educators reward you for what *they* want.

    I respect that you took the high road and stayed away from that subject though.