The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College


College can define your future. You may learn useful skills to become a respected expert, or you may learn how to do the bare minimum you've been explicitly ordered to while being stunned at how much money you're spending. The choice is up to you how to use your time there.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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For that price, you should be sleeping on yeti-skin pillows stuffed with baby panda fur.

I've provided exam advice before. But waiting until exam time is what causes so many students to have problems in the first place. The most important lesson of third-level education is the same as that of being a new sewage worker: all this shit is now up to you, and it would be best not to drown. But while each class can impart important information, their organization in college can teach terrible lessons.

Binary Stress

My studies in university revealed that undergraduate life has only two seasons: Endless Relaxation and the Oshitberry Harvest.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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"Oh shit, they were lying about the endlessness!"

College culture coasts on the idea that everything is absolutely fine until it isn't. Exams exist as black holes, theoretical objects that seem to be insane distances away, but the closer you get to them the more terrible stresses you'll encounter, and absolutely everything will lead to those types of stresses.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), and R. Gendler (for the Hubble Heritage Team) Acknowledgment: J. GaBany

What happens when even Apollo fails under the pressure.

This single ultimate stress point leads to self-destructive behavior and nonsense, like cramming. You can't wedge an entire course into your head overnight. There's a reason you don't see neurosurgeons hunkered down outside the operating theater flipping through their textbooks. And their entire job is opening up someone's skull and just stuffing things in there. If anyone knew how to cram, it would be them. But when they get something wrong it means someone else is stupider.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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"Oh man, I knew this bit before coming in here."

Worse, this all-consuming examgularity creates a bullshit binary expectation for life: either everything is fine, or there's a problem and all possible efforts must be bent only to its solution. Real life doesn't work like that. Real life is made of ongoing problems, and if one unresolved issue stops you from relaxing, you might as well get started on your heart attack now.

Adopting a Stressona

I learned that any new scientific effect in an academic environment will create a monster, because I watch a lot of stupid movies. Binary stress' monster is the stressona. Yes, that is a bullshit portmanteau of "stress" and "persona." And, yes, that's the best it deserves, because it's a bullshit practice. Because exam stress affects everyone in the area at the same time, you end up with an immense echo chamber constantly confirming the idea that this is truly the end times.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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"Absolutely nothing on Earth is more important than our interpretation of this chapter's subtext."

Convince people that they're in an exceptional situation and many will cast aside every social convention that makes it possible for society to exist without detergents having to advertise how good they are at removing blood.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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"Our new Hemocleanse washes idiot-juice right out of your jacket elbows!"

Many first-year college-goers are just now working out how to deal with life as legally distinct adults. The first thing exam season teaches them is "problems suspend all normal behavior." The resulting panicked-herd instinct encourages more self-destructive behavior than aliens on a starship. They ramp the binary stress up to an entire mode of being. Students talk about late-night cramming, sleep deprivation, and time-saving-via-malnutrition, not as ways to destroy a healthy human body but as new strategies they're inventing and trying out.

Punting Problems

Several friends of mine work in academia, and they've heard more excuses than an alchemist's patron. Resulting in just as much wasted money and bullshit.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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"The nitric acid dissolved my homework. Also, you need to buy more nitric acid."

Some students put so much work into avoiding work that their excuses could probably qualify for independent American citizenship and at least two tax breaks. The rise of the machines won't be caused by a rogue military, but by a computer science student trying to program a computer to do his assignments for him.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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All this work is dedicated to getting an extra week, day, even an extra hour to work on the assignment. I knew one guy who would count on the time difference of a secretary getting back from lunch to finish filing applications. And he was staff. All of this extra work to avoid simply finishing what they can in the time they have. Which is a way, way more valuable skill in life than that week's assignment. And certain patterns of breathing.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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Getting shit done: so useful that banana-fiber smoothies should be an intellectual supplement.

Instead people learn to keep punting problems forward until the last possible moment. Creating a rolling avalanche of catastrophe to chase them through life. And if they trip just once -- they get sick, there's a family emergency, or their buddy Six-Pack-and-Netflix calls too often -- it all comes crashing down on them. Anyone who's worked in an office knows this pattern causes at least a quarter of all e-mail. "I'm asking you this because now I have an excuse not to proceed until you respond, which is why I didn't phone, because then you'd give me an answer immediately."

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College

Focusing on the Solution Instead of the Problem

Solving problems is good. It's not what problems are for, it's what we as a species are for. That's the whole point of our higher intelligence: deciding that something sucks and that it will now stop sucking, instead of scuttling along as a little leech for an entirely suck-based existence in the vague hope that your great-grandchildren might suck less.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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In which case they'll die. Which sucks as a result of not sucking, in evolution's cruelest irony.

But constant quizzes and course assignments exist in a state of "done" or "ohfuckleberry salad." Even without social pressures and basic fatigue, multiple courses are competing for each student's time. All demanding that the student get everything over and done with so that they can concentrate on other things. Which builds a preference for finding the solution instead of truly finding the problem. Online solutions, copying from others, searching through textbooks to transcribe something that looks about right -- the constant pressure drives many students to achieve deliverables instead of learning. And the instant they use a word like "deliverables," they've opted for the myna bird strategy of making the right noises instead of understanding things.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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Unfortunately, modern plumage isn't nearly as brightly colored.

I'm going to give you the greatest advice I ever received in college so you can combat this. And like all the best advice, I didn't listen to it at the time. Just like the person who gave it to me didn't listen to it when he heard it and then implored me to. So I'm going to pass it on to you in the hope the next generation does better.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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"You have learned nothing from our example."

Read chapter 24 of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The bit about the stuck screw. Obviously you should read the whole book if you can, but I'm not going to help much if I'm just adding to your reading list. But seriously, read that chapter. It's all about the importance of learning from the problem, taking the time and effort to upgrade yourself and your understanding through the act of solving it. Otherwise you're left bashing your head into something until you extract some vague result that can keep you going.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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"You have now learned the wrong thing from our example."

Doing the Bare Minimum

You're furthering your education to improve yourself, to become the best that you can. Just like all the thousands of other people doing the exact same courses. And this isn't a zero-cost game. If you're studying in the U.S., many universities are working to metastructure a new kind of super-precious ultradiamond with which to measure your total fees. Even if you're not currently part of America's attempt to turn students into pure debt, you're still spending years in college. Years that other people are spending getting on with work experience and seniority.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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"Remember when you made fun of my socks? You're on weekend morning shifts forever."

You want to get the best benefit from your time. So it's a shame students often feel pressured into doing the bare minimum to make the next arbitrary checkpoint. The most extreme example of this is being told, "We'll study sections 4, 5, 6.1, 6.2, and 6.5," and because of that the pages of 6.3 and 6.4 will never see the light of day. Sure, you probably don't have time to work them out to the same degree as the sections you know you'll be tested on, but are you going to spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks and then not even read them?

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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Especially since the only thing more expensive than university textbooks are those ultradiamonds.

Reading the whole book widens your understanding, makes new connections, and often makes you much happier about the sections you're assigned. Because those skipped sections are usually the "Here's what happens when we DON'T make all those handy simplifications."

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"This 1+1 stuff can really get out of hand."

Sure, there aren't marks for it, but so what? If you're not graded on that part of existence, it's suddenly not true or important? Are you guaranteed to never need it? Remember: you're not going to be looking for a job in "Knowing exactly and only the ENG 104 syllabus"; you're going to be an engineer or whatever, and the better you are at that subject the better things will work out for you.

Stress Makes Diamonds

Some courses claim exclusivity on the grounds of how hard they push their students. It's the poisonous idea that stress makes diamonds. While that's technically true, the platitude ignores how diamonds are created by being kept for years in pitch-black crushing pressure, and when they're brought out they're viciously carved into shape by experts and sold for profit.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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"Magnificent. Almost a whole term's tuition fees."

It also ignores diamond's tetrahedral covalent bonding. Most materials don't do that. Which is why stress makes diamonds but breaks almost everything else. That's why people need university courses before designing buildings and things in the first place. Stress is and has been the worst response to problems since those problems stopped being hungry bears. You stress something and, instead of absorbing impacts, the least touch can cause it to shatter.

The 6 Most Counterproductive Things You Learn in College
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"This was a bad idea!"

Far better to work on those academic ultradiamonds. Or the idea of using intelligence to make something smarter and better than before, instead of using a load of pressure and time to keep crushing material until someone else says it's OK. A student should be working to improve themselves instead of completing a checklist. Because education is the best idea our species ever had. And it's how we'll have even better ones in the future.

Learn even more with 7 Tips for Not Screwing Up College and 9 Lessons From the Greatest College Movie Ever.

Students should know how to avoid the worst social media disasters, and how to mix coffee cocktails for pure productivity power.

Luke has a website, tumbles, and responds to every single tweet.

And be sure to check out 6 Important Things Nobody Tells You About Grad School and 5 Math Equations That Change the Way You See the World.

This is wisdom, you damned college-bound whippersnappers. Click the Facebook 'share' button and bring it to the world.


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