Rethinking Passion

You’ve almost certainly heard this before: Studying something you’re passionate about is the best way to ensure your success!

As an academic mentor for university students, I’ve proclaimed the merits of passion often.

It’s true that a passionate interest in your field of study makes university life, and then your career, a lot easier. The happiest people I know are the ones who find their work most meaningful. Advocating passion is also a way academic mentors encourage students to listen to themselves first when deciding on a program. You can welcome input from family, professors, and academic counselors, but the choice of what and where to study should ultimately be your own.

Passion is important, but living out your true passion is not always easy. First, you need to possess some natural ability to excel in your studies (and your work), no matter how much you love your university endeavours. And it’s not always popular to say this, but not everyone can do everything. Take me, for instance. What if I became passionate about a life as a ballet dancer? No matter how hard I might work on my leaps, my body is still more Belushi than Baryshnikov, so I’d be out of luck.

It can also be difficult to figure out what you’re passionate about. We’re pushed and pulled by countless forces as students, and that makes decisions tricky. For a while I thought I was passionate about becoming a psychiatrist. I had top grades in high school, and it just seemed like the thing to do to attend med school and then specialize. Next I set my mind on a professorship in Southeast Asian politics. I had two great MA supervisors who believed in me and the lure of opportunity blinded me to my general lack of interest in comparative politics. Part of me always knew I wanted to be a writer, but it took ages before the fog cleared and I could see my goal sharply. Until then, visions of status, wealth and opportunity drowned out my true dream. But opportunities are only truly opportunities if you actually want what they offer.

You should also keep in mind that passions change. Just because something captivated you for a year or two, doesn’t mean it won’t bore you later. After all, you’re not still wearing your Hootie and the Blowfish concert t-shirt, are you?

And remember that passions can develop over time. Even though right now studying psychology may be a distant second place compared to becoming an astronaut, don’t despair if you can’t shake that nasty case of motion sickness; psych could grow on you. (And who doesn’t like a multiple choice final?)

None of this necessarily means you shouldn’t pursue your passion when choosing what to study. It just means life is complex and a lot of factors contribute to your success and happiness.

If you find yourself trapped in a seemingly endless decision about what to study, sometimes you just need to take a leap of faith and pick a program and go for it. And one of the things you should take into account is your passion for a field of study. Just remember that passion isn’t everything. It’s a great start, but even passion must be examined carefully when you’re making important decisions about your future.

Conciseness

The best academic writing provides the most information with the fewest words. This is called being “concise.”

Think of being concise as eliminating unnecessary words.

Sometimes you do this naturally. You’d almost certainly never say this: “The sweater of Brenda is red.” [6 words]

Instead, you’d express the same idea more concisely: “Brenda’s sweater is red.” [4 words]

Although we all speak concisely at times, most writers could trim many words from their writing while preserving the meaning. Concise writing feels much sleeker and effective to readers.

But keep in mind that writing concisely means eliminating UNNECESSARY words. Writing concisely does not mean every sentence must be as short as possible. Sometimes extra words are useful. Here’s a great example. The most famous writing manual written in English is called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.  In Steven Pinker’s new book, The Sense of Style, Pinker quotes White, a student of Strunk’s, talking about Strunk’s lecture style. According to White, Strunk once, with great pomp and ceremony, iterated his perspective on conciseness:

“Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

It’s funny at first, because nothing seems less concise than saying the exact same thing three times. But I wouldn’t suggest leaving out a single syllable. None of those words are unnecessary, because they make his utterance, through their sheer humorous irony, unforgettable.

Building Relationships that Lead to Strong Reference Letters

Achieving high marks is one critical way success is measured at university, but it’s not the only important factor. One of your other most important goals is making a positive impression on your professors (and instructors). Strong letters of reference are invaluable, especially if you’re hoping to attend graduate school or at least keep the possibility of grad school open.

You can’t expect a stellar reference from a professor unless you have impressed him or her with your maturity and drive. A reference letter is the professor’s way of giving you a personal stamp of approval, and this must be earned. No professor is going to vouch for you to their counterparts at other universities, some of whom may be their friends or future colleagues, unless you deserve it.

Building a strong academic relationship with a professor is one of the best ways to enhance your chance of a glowing reference. They need to have a good sense of the sort of student and person you are before they’ll feel comfortable advertising you to other programs.

It’s a good idea to take more than one class with potential referees. This gives professors more time to develop an awareness of your skills and commitment. If there’s no chance to take a second or third class with a prof, consider joining an academic club they oversee, attending events they organize, or asking if they have volunteer research opportunities available. The better they know you, the better your chance of a reference.

It’s also a great idea to drop in on a professor’s office hours and ask a question or two. I suggest doing this at least once or twice every term with every professor, and perhaps once or twice more if you are hoping they will give you a reference. Attending office hours demonstrates your willingness to take extra time to do well in a class. It’s also a perfect opportunity for professors to connect your name with your face. When you chat with your profs, you’re also encouraging a psychological process called the “mere exposure effect.” Put simply, we tend to like things and people more the more we encounter them.

Of course, finding opportunities to make an impression on a prof only makes sense if you’re working hard to make it a good impression. You want them to perceive you as a hard-working, eager, motivated, mature student. This means you need to:

1] Attend all of their classes.

2] Arrive on time for class.

3] Be prepared for class. Read everything they assign and take notes that include your thoughts on the material. That way you’ll be ready to ask meaningful questions and engage effectively in class discussions. It’s also a good idea to read at least a little of the optional reading. Optional reading is truly optional, but showing you’ve reading some of it alerts a prof to the energy you’re putting into class.

4] Never do the “bare minimum.” Make sure your assignments highlight your research, communication and critical thinking skills. Don’t submit anything until it demonstrates your abilities fully. Professors know when students are putting in a solid effort and when they’re not, and you know which side of that spectrum you need to be on if you’re hoping for a reference.

5] Always be respectful. This means NEVER talk in class, NEVER look at your cellphone, and NEVER do anything on your computer except for taking class notes. Professors notice these things and they consider them rude and disrespectful. How do you feel about people who’ve disrespected you? You’re not likely to want to use your valuable time to write a letter saying how great they are, are you?

And by the way, if you think your masterful acting abilities will convince your prof that you’re diligently recording notes on your laptop when you’re really buying shoes on Amazon, you’re wrong. It’s totally easy to know when people are following the lecture and when they’re not. If you don’t believe me, try it. Stand at the front of class one day and see just how obvious it is when someone isn’t paying attention.

6] Demonstrate your brilliance and passion. Speak up, share your ideas and push your thinking on every topic to the highest level possible. And if you don’t know something important to the discussion, learn it.

Following all of these strategies doesn’t guarantee you a set of amazing reference letters, but it will give you your best chance of securing the references you need to make your applications competitive.

My Favorite Ambiguity

My previous post highlighted the importance of avoiding ambiguity in your communication.

[Notice that above I could have said, “My previous post was about….”  Instead, I replaced “was about” with one descriptive and powerful word: “highlighted.”]

I want to share my all-time favorite ambiguity. A classmate of mine in university wrote this in a creative non-fiction assignment. He was writing about the interaction between a friend of his and the friend’s mentor. Here’s what he wrote:

“He said, ‘Thank you very much, professor,’ and stroked his beard.”

Can you detect the ambiguity?

It makes me laugh every time. Readers don’t know whether the student was stroking his own beard or the professor’s beard!

I probably don’t need to write a future post explaining that it is not appropriate to express gratitude to a professor by stroking his beard.

Avoiding Ambiguity

It takes a long time to become a great academic writer. But there are a number of key writing strategies you can use to begin improving your writing immediately.

Avoiding ambiguity is one of these valuable strategies. Writing is ambiguous if it has more than one possible interpretation. This possibility of different understandings of what you’ve written means your writing is unclear. And unclear writing is bad writing; the whole point of academic writing is to present ideas as clearly as possible.

Here’s a simple example of ambiguity: Fred went shopping with John. He bought a new coat.

It’s easy to see, right? It’s unclear who the word “he” in the second sentence refers to. It could be Fred or John.

Here’s a slightly trickier example: He examined many studies of African economies and found them to be severely flawed.

Can you see the ambiguity? We don’t know what was flawed. Was it the African economies or the studies of African economies? This sentence would be very frustrating for readers, because without understanding this sentence they would worry that they’re not understanding the rest of the article. Of course they could perhaps figure out the meaning based on the context of the paragraph, but you don’t want your readers to have to search for clues about your meaning. They’re likely instead just to stop reading.

Here’s another ambiguity: I was studying international security in Southeast Asia.

This one actually appeared in a first draft of something I wrote. The ambiguity is subtle in this one. But notice that this sentence could be the answer to two different inquiries.

First, one might ask, “What were you studying?”

You might respond, “I was studying [the topic] international security in Southeast Asia.” In other words, you were studying about how Southeast Asian nations try amongst themselves (internationally) to maintain security. Note that you could have been studying this topic anywhere.

Or, someone might have asked, “What were you studying and where you studying?”

Then your answer would be, “I was studying [the topic] international security [while I was living] in Southeast Asia.”

The same sentence could have had these two very different meanings. Before I fixed that sentence, my readers wouldn’t have known whether I was telling them my study topic or my study topic and where I was living at the time. That lack of clarity would have been frustrating for readers.

Once you start watching for ambiguities, your writing will improve instantly. You may not catch every ambiguity, but each one you catch and edit will make your writing clearer and more convincing.

New Year’s Resolutions

Maria Popova has compiled one of the cleverest lists of New Year’s resolutions I’ve seen, using ideas from some of history’s great thinkers.

You may not agree with all fifteen resolutions, but you’ll definitely find some of them intriguing. Four of my favourites are:

1] Make your life wide rather than long

2] Cultivate a growth mindset

3] Think rather than know

4] Master critical thinking

Pay special attention to “Cultivating a growth mindset.” It’s an example of what I wrote about in my previous post–how thinking the right things can be just as important as doing the right things.

The Power of Ideas

Many of my blog posts will focus on tips and strategies for achieving success at university, things you can do. Another group of posts will explore ideas or perspectives, things you should think in order to succeed.

Some students find it hard to see the value in learning specific things to think. They only want to know actions they can take, like how to read a text effectively or how to maximize study impact (see future posts). Actions are important. But ideas are extremely powerful, too.

Everything you think is an idea. You become comfortable with your ideas over time. They seem to become part of you, and new ideas can feel strange or even trivial. But on the quest for success you must be open to new ways of thinking. Our ideas, our perspectives on life, shape our entire existence.

Imagine that your TV falls off the shelf and smashes and you can’t afford a new one.

If you focus on all the sit-coms and awards shows you’ll miss and all those cozy nights on the sofa binge-watching mysteries, you’re bound to be upset and frustrated. But imagine, on the other hand, convincing yourself to see your destroyed TV as an opportunity. Maybe the extra free time will give you a chance to develop new skills or hobbies, or finally get outside and do that forest hike you’ve been planning. Or, perhaps the TV accident motivates you to find a better job so you can afford the things you want.

With the first mindset, when you’re focused on the demise of your beloved TV, you’re sad and angry. With the second, more positive frame of mind, you’re excited about making a change. The reality is the same; the TV is still broken. The difference is how you think about your situation.

Ideas matter!

Changing the way you think is one of the surest paths to increased success in your studies. Stay tuned for much more on this.

Embracing Challenge (East and West)

Developing the proper mindset toward challenge is one of the most important paths to success as a student.

If you expect your study life to be easy, you’ll never live up to your potential. But you need to remember that excessive struggle and stress can also derail success. As with so many things in life, the key is finding the balance that works for you.

The most effective level of challenge is different for every individual, but understanding how challenge is viewed in your culture can help you explore this critical element of university life.

Alix Spiegel has written about cultural perspectives on challenge in the Mind/Shift blog at kqed.org. She says, “The way you conceptualize the act of struggling with something profoundly affects your actual behavior.” And, as Spiegel explains:

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

Spiegel points out a general difference between Eastern and Western cultures. In the West, we tend to envision educational struggle as revealing a lack of ability. Students often want to avoid challenge because it may reveal their limits. Eastern cultures, on the other hand, widely perceive struggle as a good thing, a sign of emotional strength and dedication. .

There are counterexamples to these general perspectives, but they often hold true, and so they impact students who are entering a new educational culture.

My advice is to learn to embrace challenge and struggle. A lot of research indicates that this is the best way to succeed in university life. I’ll introduce you to some of these ideas in a future post.

Meet Your University Mentor—Part One

Hello! Welcome to University Mentor!

My name is Mitchell Gray and I’m your new academic mentor.

I’m going to do everything I can to help you succeed in your studies. For example:

1] I’ll share tips and strategies for studying and goal-setting. (Things like avoiding time-killing procrastination!)

2] I’ll show you research results that will help you understand how to learn and how to conquer your classes. (Did you know that reading your text again and again is one of the worst ways to study?)

3] I’ll tell you about my successes (and failures) and what you can learn from them. (I’ve dropped out of one university and won the award at another for top graduating student in the social sciences. I learned a lot from both experiences.)

4] I’ll help you enhance your writing and communication skills so you can make the most of your great ideas. (Mastering well-organized, concise and clear communication opens the doors to academic programs and great jobs!)

I’ve worked with university students for seven years now at the University of British Columbia, including hundreds of international students. The ideas you’ll find at University Mentor are the innovative and evidence-supported techniques I’ve been using to help students build the skills they need to excel in their current studies and increase their chances of acceptance into future programs.

I’m excited to be part of your path to success. Welcome to University Mentor!