Unfamiliar Territory

Janice Murabayashi, Academic Dean
On a recent flight I read an interview with Tim Ferriss, author most recently of "Tribe of Mentors: Short Advice from the Best in the World." I wasn't expecting much but kept reading because I was on an airplane... (I know you know this feeling!) Buried in the standard interview questions and answers, Ferriss said something that stood out to me so much that I wrote it down:
"...Type A personalities have generally competed -- through academics and perhaps the first few years on the job -- in arenas where the constraints and goals and outcomes are very well-defined, so putting in more effort very often yields better results. It's horsepower in, results out. But when you start to look at crafting your life in a more personalized, unique, unconventional way, nearly all the rules are negotiable."
Our setting is full of students (and adults) who might be labeled "Type A," and who regardless of "type" have successfully employed the "horsepower in, results out" approach, so this made me pause. In this economy and in light of the focus societally on personal happiness and fulfillment, what Ferris wrote rings true -- the approach that works well for the first part of one's life may be entirely unsuited for the next.
In a real-life version of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (sometimes also known as the frequency or recency illusion), once I came upon this insight, I started seeing variations of it everywhere!
Here's what Andrew Flemming, co-inventor of the SmartBroom, used in the sport of curling, said: "It’s sometimes tough to convince an athlete that what they’re doing is maybe not the best, because they feel like they’re working really, really hard,” Flemming said. “And it’s probably true that they’re working really, really hard. But they might also be wasting a lot of energy." In other words, the "horsepower in" approach isn't always appropriate.
Likewise, the title of this recent article echoes this theme: "Just Working Harder Won't Get You Ahead. Working Smarter Will."
One of the situations that I've witnessed students and even adults struggle with is the cognitive dissonance that occurs when an approach that has worked well up to that point suddenly seems to fail. An example from a school setting is the student who has successfully worked hard and intentionally encountering a class where effort and determination don't seem to yield proportionate results. The natural reaction in such a situation is to look outward: "I'm working hard and my hard work has always paid off, so the only explanation for this is that the teacher is terrible/hates me" or "... this subject stinks."
Sound familiar?
While it's possible that the teacher could tweak something or that the subject is unusually challenging, it's also possible that the teacher's different methods or expectations are pedagogically and developmentally sound, or that the nature of the subject requires a different approach than the student is accustomed to.  
It's common, for example, for students to believe that a well-organized lecture delivered by a charismatic or polished presenter is a better source of learning for them than a different, more active approach. Recent research shows, though, that even when students felt they learned more through lectures, they actually learned more through active learning techniques.  
A student's frustration and bewilderment in a new situation is understandable, as is the desire to look outward for an explanation. But it's also important for students to evaluate the situation accurately so that they can take appropriate action. Understanding that some of their discomfort may be due to the fact that they've become accustomed to one way of doing or looking at things can help them broaden their thinking. Realizing that their teachers are taking a particular approach in order to expand their skills can help them develop the patience to adjust and the empowerment to ask for help. Remembering that the unfamiliar is unpleasant for everyone can help them cut themselves a little slack instead of expecting near-perfection.  
The willingness and ability to work hard is important in school and life -- as are adaptability, self-awareness and patience.  
THE BISHOP’S SCHOOL     7607 La Jolla Boulevard     La Jolla, CA 92037     (858) 459-4021
The Bishop’s School is an independent, coeducational college-preparatory day school for students in grades six through twelve who live throughout San Diego County. Founded in 1909, the School is affiliated with the Episcopal church.