15 Things I Learned (or Re-Learned) about Life from Grad School

Noam LightstoneLife Lessons And Experiments Leave a Comment

Coming to the end of my Master’s I originally felt depressed, annoyed, and angry that I hadn’t done all that I originally set out to do. But thanks to some outside sources, I was told that the degree isn’t about getting the exact goal done, it’s more about the learning involved. You learn how to do research. But I learned much more than that. I learned about how I shoot myself in the foot, procrastinate, and ultimately fail to achieve my goals in ways that extend throughout my life.

Here are some of the things I learned, or re-learned, during my degree:


1. Fear of failure will kill you and stop you from moving forward

Fearing failure creates habits and behaviours that keep you stationary. Rejection and failure sucks. Change is hard. You are scared to look silly or wrong, but the faster you fail, the faster you can find a method or path that works. Everything else is just wasted time and energy! To prolong this, you may procrastinate, over-plan, over-research, and make excuses. You might also just freeze, and not do anything.

This can be applied in the context of relationships as well – rejection is actually a great ally in dating and with friends, as the faster you get to rejection the faster you find people who are really meant for you. If not, you could people please, but in the end become frustrated when people don’t like you for all the changes you’ve made for them. This can lead to some pretty ugly situations.


2. Start large projects early. Work on them at regular intervals

I started writing my thesis 8-9 months before it was due, as suggested by many post-grad students online. Best thing I ever did. I wrote at least one paragraph (30 minutes of work) a day, and the thesis came together very well. If I had left all the research to the last few months, I would have been screwed and overwhelmed. Set some goals, and do a tiny bit of something large every day, week, or some time interval that makes sense to save yourself stress, and to get that large project going!


3. Don’t read just to read – more information does not mean it’s good information

Academia is about information and literature review to either gain ideas from past work or see what’s missing in research, but it can just waste time. As Tim Ferriss says with his low information diet (see #9), information just for the sake of information is pointless. Get in the habit of asking if you will use the information for something immediate and important. If yes? Go. If not, drop it and don’t look back. The human mind can hardly remember anything from two hours ago unless put into use right away. Otherwise, you’re just wasting the limited mental space and energy you have.


4. You cannot do it alone

All work cannot be done in a vacuum. You need helpers, mentors… you need people. My acknowledgements section of my thesis is going to be super long, and that makes me happy. Previously I would never ask anyone for help, now I do my best to go as much as I can. If you can’t solve a problem yourself after clunking away, go ask someone. Chances are someone has already solved it, something similar, or can provide fresh insight which can set you in the right direction. They can do it faster and for whatever beliefs you have, trust me, as long as you are not a demanding asshole or take up all their time, people will be happy to help you.


5. Learn how to handle criticism – and know what is constructive versus destructive

As I discussed in my handling criticism article, it is a natural part of life. Learning to value and accept meaningful criticism will help strengthen you and turn you into a sharper person. Just watch that you are valuing criticism from the right people, and learn not to take it personally. The right people are trying to help you, not hurt you… even if you see a shitload of red text over your submitted paper :s


6. The importance of enjoying the process versus the light at the end of tunnel (chasing the carrot)

Life is a process… It’s about the journey, not the destination. If you keep chasing and chasing that goal but don’t enjoy the process it may point out that you might be in the wrong area, or you need to fundamentally examine why you are doing a certain task, activity, etc.

If you live like this, chasing something… you’ll always find you need more… What’s the next thing? Where’s the next goal? Where to go to next?

Why not enjoy what’s going on right now. Plan for the future, look towards a goal, but snap back and focus on what’s going on right in front of you, and enjoy learning as you go.


7. Meaningful versus meaningless work

In Tim Ferris’ book The Four Hour Work Week, he discusses how the standard eight hour day is arbitrary. Why not five, or ten? And as well, Parkinson’s Law. However much time you give yourself for a task… that’s how much you’ll take. You can have a five minute task to do but may stretch it out the entire day just to say you worked those eight hours, and fill the rest with organizing your e-mail, or cleaning your office, and so on… And you really need to ask yourself, are those tasks meaningful?

Focus on the key tasks that need to be accomplished, disregard the rest… You know when you’re pissing away time versus doing meaningful stuff. Usually, you are just procrastinating doing the meaningful stuff anyways.


8. Micromanaging is a waste of energy – you can’t control everything – don’t strangle life

What you resist persists. Your ability to take bumps and curveballs in life and re-calculate your route to still achieve a goal will have a profound impact on your happiness. I was supposed to graduate in September. I found out I couldn’t and would have to stay an extra three to four months. For one day I was livid and got a stress migraine from refusing to accept this and because I had been busting my ass for two months prior to finish. But the day after I took care of the things I needed to to extend my stay in the city, accepting that this was what life gave me.

You can’t control everything and everyone… In fact, you can only control so much. The more you learn how to set limits on how much you can do during the day, the more you learn how to accept what life throws at you… the more life can actually happen.

You can’t control how people act, but you sure can control how you react to them and who you keep in your life.


9. Low information diet

This was first introduced as a term to me in Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Work Week (Yes, I know I’m quoting Tim and the book a lot, I found it incredibly useful… Just trying to share. So sue me!). In short, we are terrible at knowing what information will and will not be useful. The worst part about that? We only have so much brain power and space that can be filled. Again I repeat, get in the habit of asking yourself, “Can I use this for something immediate and important?”. If not, stop reading it.

Some other suggestions:

–         Block Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, etc. Have an hour or so of brain fart time a day to do it, or perhaps at lunch, but otherwise stay away. Or, accomplish some goals, then reward yourself with some time on the sites

–         Don’t read the news or magazines

–         Read only one non-fiction book and one fiction book at a time


10. Keep your reference frame centric, except for small glimpses

Everyone works, behaves, and is fundamentally different. This is what makes us so beautiful and complex as a species. Someone may be at work for eight hours, yet spend half of it pissing around or on Reddit. Another may work 12 hour days straight and only work three days a week. Some people have a day at work where they fly and get tons accomplished, others not. Some have it easy to do certain tasks, others don’t…

Doesn’t matter. Comparing yourself to others can only cause pain or ego inflation. While, yes, we’re human and we’ll do it from time to time to see how we’re fairing or if we’re a bit behind seeing what we can become, but it is unfair to ourselves to compare to others. Everyone has their own ways of working, neuroses, strengths, weaknesses, and things that make them human. We can only compare how we are doing on our goals, how we are performing compared to the past and so on.

Compare yourself to yourself, and stick to that except for tiny glimpses to the outside world.


11. Know thyself – work, procrastination, excuses

To know thyself is to know the enemy. Of course we don’t want to HATE ourselves, but sometimes we do have to fight lazy parts within us. How do you waste time? What excuses do you give instead of getting tasks done? When do you work best? The more you know, the better you’ll be able to face the challenges of life and get things done, while not getting swept up by your defences or self-sabotage.


12. Close your loops and break them down

“Loops” are tasks, projects, goals… Too many open loops will bog down your mind in continual “this is never done” worries. Finish what you start. Don’t start another thing unless absolutely necessary.

You may not want to close loops because the loops seem too large and daunting, so break them down into micro-tasks… Instead of saying “I need to clean my place”, say “I need to sweep the front hall”, then move on to “cleaning the bathroom mirror”… The completion of each small goal starts to snowball and you’ll want to keep going.

The more goals you complete, the happier you will be, and the more free time and mind space you have.


13. Multitasking is NOT a good thing… usually

Yes, writing a paper and letting laundry run in the background is fine. I’m talking about trying to solve a problem, answering an e-mail, planning an event for the night… all at the same time. Focus on one thing. Get it done. Move to the next. Your stress level will drop exponentially.


14. Stop incessantly checking your phone and e-mail

These things will constantly interrupt you. You do not need to answer people back instantaneously, what do you think happened when only letter mail was around? People can leave messages. You are busy. It’s OK.

Check your phone and e-mail a few times a day, or every few hours. Turn the notifications and sounds off on both. Get more things done.


15. Know when to quit

If something, as large as an overarching goal, to a method, is not working… stop. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Move on to another way of reaching the goal, or if the goal is not worth it anymore… Find a new goal.

There is no shame in quitting. In fact, quitting makes you smarter than those who struggle and never change or question what they are doing.

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