Let’s start with why.

Although this is not really a book review, I did recently read this book. I found it entertaining, at times repetitive – Apple is the primary, exemplary case – and both inspiring and instructional. The final chapter touched my emotions in a way a management book rarely does. So why, then, would I blog about this here, for students aiming to improve their academic performance. The answer to that question is very simple.

Why are you in university? Let’s start with why. I am very confident in stating that if you examine the question: what am I doing day-to-day in my university life, you will quickly discover your why. Are you here it to learn new things? Are you here it to make new friends, meet new people? Are you here to plan your next vacation? Are you here to party?

Looking and your what you do gives great hints to why you have chosen to be in university. Now ask yourself another question: is your why aligned with the idea you have of yourself, four years from now?

If you take Simon’s concept (it goes too far for me to call it a theory, sorry Simon) and use the simple model he provides to organize your motivation, you may find that you see your actions, your behaviors and your decisions reflected in the mirror of WHY?

And there is nothing wrong with that – if the why is something that you can get behind. The interesting thing about balancing your life in university today with the purpose of university, which is preparing your to think and act in the future, is that a variety of why’s can apply. Your mission – if you choose to accept it – is to create that magnificent why that makes what you eventually do incredibly easy for you to stand by. Whether others agree or not.

(Hint: when you feel unsettled by your own explanation, its probably because you know you’re lying to yourself…)

Intuitively, you understand the purpose of university, yet in the clutter of temptations (sorry, opportunities to express yourself, meet new people, develop your skills) you may loose sight of why you do what you do. In my direct experience, students who excel have a very clear explanation of why they do what they do – also when it comes partying hard. It is when someone cannot explain why there are more parties than lectures in a week, that I get worried.

Watch the video and this weekend, start with why. It’ll make coming monday very interesting indeed!

Test anxiety

It is quite simple. Too much test anxiety inhibits your ability to exercise your intelligence. The good news is it is very malleable, hence you can decrease your test anxiety, thus increasing your ability to perform cognitive tasks – committing new information to memory and answering questions about what you have learnt.

Already primed to think in this direction whilst reading Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, it seems that your emotional brain (the pre-historic part of your brain) is extremely powerful and exerts a tremendous amount of influence over your ability to use your intelligence. Left unchecked, your emotional brain reigns supreme, thus inhibiting your cognitive performance. Not what you want when you are trying to do well in your studies.

Here is the good news. Your rational brain has the capacity to regulate your emotional responses; in fact, you can train this ability. Mastering (finally, I managed to slip that word in to a blog again!) your emotions can lead to improved control over impulses, which helps you develop the habits you need to cultivate to improve your study results.

One does not simply… excel in academia. It requires dedication and devotion; perhaps emotional mastery is the first step. And it is not even a university course.

Test anxiety is an emotion; fear. A very powerful emotion which primes your body for many things, but not for excellent cognitive performance. It is not that you are not intelligent, you are not letting your intelligence flourish when you let fear take command of your brain.

Study. Practice. Talk to your peers. Take a course in test taking. If you put some conscious effort into training, your test anxiety decreases and, yes, your test performance will increase.


The Basics

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingHave you ever heard about the paradox of failure? I sure had not until I read today’s article; then again it seems so common-sense; it is good that we have some academic proof.

Before you and I go into the details of this obvious paradox, together we shall look at one specific element in the psychology of motivation: the belief that your effort influences your performance.

This phenomenon may be granted any name, such as self-efficacy or academic control, and all though both and other, terms imply this element of the psychology of motivation, this simple wording is, I believe, at the core of it.

For example

In fact, this belief is one of the basics of motivation. When you believe something is possible for you to do, perhaps carrying a cup filled with water to the table without spilling any water, you, without a spare thought, act. You know, be it from experience, example or confidence that you are capable of performing this astonishing feat of agility, balance and control, and therefore you perform.

Yet, when the same glass is filled to the brim, your brisk walk quickly adapts to a careful trot. It is not that your confidence in your ability to complete the task is diminished, the factors influences the potential successful accomplishment of the task have simply changed. Yet your belief that with the appropriate effort (precautions) you can complete the task, does not hinder your performance, in fact, that very belief makes it possible.

The paradox

What, then, is this paradox of failure? I would carefully paraphrase it as the (proven) concept that in your studies, the belief that your effort produces results, coupled with a healthy dose of preoccupation with failure, leads to improved academic results.

You basically need to have some concept of failure to influence your performance in a positive manner. In fact, if you dismiss failure to easily, you hinder your performance significantly.

But you cannot escape the basics; the belief that you can is your guardian angel as it probably helps you balance your fears and confidence. And when the balance is struck, you are home free.

How do you stretch your ability, bring it to the next level? It begins with your belief that you can actually do. That you, through learning by doing, can improve your ability by stretching yourself a little bit at a time. When the conviction that you can is set firmly in your mind, your behavior follows suit; you keep putting in effort.

The next step is the ability to learn from feedback from your effort, and adapt your approach until you find one that gets you the result you want. Yet you and I will follow some old wisdom here – and take these basics one at a time.

It takes discipline to learn discipline?

The Student Achievement Program


We are what we repeatedly do… is an old saying attributed to Aristotle, yet is the summation of his ideas by the philosopher Will Durant. The wisdom hidden in these words has lasted through the ages. The habit of discipline is one which we have touched upon many times in this blog.

Accomplishment is the culmination of habits that are related to the realization of your ambition. The paradox lies in the habit of discipline; learning discipline requires discipline. And this simple statement of fact in itself points to the key to not only shaping habits which help you grow, but also in accomplishing any feat in life, be it in the arts, athletics or academics.

How do you learn to write? Certainly not by pondering the act of writing. No book was ever written through thoughts of authoring. Any book is the result of the act of writing, not the thought thereof. Not the pen, but the hand that wields it, puts words to paper.

How do you run a four minute mile? Again, all the thought about the act of running in no way conditions your body for the accomplishment of that feat. Putting on running shoes and running a mile, yard by yard, is what shapes a runner. Not the shoes, but the feet that wear them, take each step of the way.

How do you improve your mathematical ability? Merely thinking of the numbers and the rules which apply to them will not suffice. It is the time you spend solving problems and reflecting on the process of solving the problem which provides you with insights into the rules which govern mathematics. Not the method, but the mind that applies the method finds the solution.

The act of living. No matter what you do in life, it is the act of living which makes life worthwhile. It is as if you have received this marvelous gift named time, so use it to accomplish something that feels worthwhile to you.

Living is to apply yourself to life. To rejoice at the challenges you are presented with, and your ability to learn to overcome them – time and again. When you chose to apply yourself, you chose discipline. And discipline is a good thing, because it affords you freedom.

The only way to understand discipline is to make it a part of your life. Every day hold yourself accountable for what you set out to do. Discipline is not about making yourself right or wrong. Discipline concerns itself with findings ways for you conduct yourself in ways to further your abilities.

Discipline is a habit you learn. To master the habit of discipline, Aristotle’s words may serve as good advice, in any age:

“These virtues are formed by man in his doing the actions.”


Image credit: http://images.suite101.com/1998402_com_448pxarist.jpg

Who holds you accountable?

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingTake charge of your accomplishments in university.

How? Make yourself accountable to yourself.

What will you use as a benchmark when you reflect on the results you produce? In the end, the only thing that matters is your own standard. And you can set any standard you want for yourself. The question you want to ask yourself is this one:

“What standard can I set for myself that helps me unfold my own potential.” 

One of the things I believe is that living means growing. And growing means going from where you are to where you can be. This is easy to forget when you are good at something; being accomplished gives you positive feedback, from your activity and from your environment.

There is a reason that we are attracted to new things; it means you have learnt something new and wants to share that with us. That is why what you are good at today will only give you pleasure for as long as it is interesting to you. When the novelty wears off.

That is why learning and growing is so important. At what rate you learn and to which heights you grow are very much up to you. To set the best kind of standard for yourself, you think about your values. When you have a clear set of values in your life, they serve as tremendously powerful guides in your decision making.

In fact, when it comes to time management, your values help you stick to your priorities. In the end, when you hold yourself accountable, you know what served you and what did not when you reflect on your actions in relation to your values.

And your values are in fact a reflection of your standards for yourself. So there you have it. To take charge of your accomplishments in university, take some time to figure out your values. Then act accordingly, and your accomplishments will always ring true to your real self.

Rely on yourself

What is one of the greatest lessons university teaches you? Self reliance.

Self reliance is worth pursuing in life. We have a great way of learning about self reliance in our educational institutions. While you are a student at university you may set your own schedule, follow your fits and fests, and decide what will be a fulfilling university experience for you. And you can make it on your own.

The confidence that whatever challenge life throws your way, you can handle. The confidence to size up a challenge, physical, intellectual, emotional, and take action in spite of doubt, fear or embarrassment. Because it is the right thing to do. For you. Because you can. And you know you can.

Self reliance means that you, independent of the good opinion of other people, make choices which influence the course of your life. This does not mean that you neither search nor heed good advice. No, but it does mean that you trust your own judgement.

The only way to learn self reliance is by making choices, taking decisions, following through and accepting the consequences. This is the only way you learn from what cloth you are cut. And this is the only way for you to understand which decisions and actions bring you closer to actualizing what you have deep inside you.

Bravely dare and make mistakes. Foolish is the one who does not try because of what others may think. Breaking through the barriers and failing terribly, in the public eye or in private are excellent ways to learn. Be daring, go out on a limb – who knows, the response you get might surprise you. But if you never try…

In a sense, the university is a playground. With so many experiences you may enjoy, so many avenues you may pursue, making choices becomes important. The feedback in this system is ruthless; if you make enough choices that do not move you forward through the system, you will end up paying the price.

That is why it is important that along the way, you make sure you reflect on the choices you made, and the results you got because of your choices. This way you can think over choices you may make in the future and based on your experience, take decisions which work to your advantage.

A pleasurable conundrum. As you want to learn self reliance, you must venture out and experiment. Yet venturing out and experimenting requires some measure of self reliance to begin with. So it comes down to a simple starting point: do you believe you are capable of growing and developing your self reliance? Do you trust yourself to learn from mistakes and enjoy both the good and the bad experiences in life without regrets?

Have a little faith in yourself. I know you can grow, if only you remain open to learning. And the best teacher in your life will be you yourself. Trust yourself, and self reliance will follow. And there is no better time to learn this than while you are at university.




Book Review (2): Anthony Robbins – Unlimited Power

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning Studying

Tony Robbins

The beginning. I think this is a classic in the personal growth canon. And for me, it is the book that started me on this wonderful journey of exploring my deepest motivation and drive. Tony Robbins’ words in his book Unlimited Power, in his audioprograms Personal Power II and the Time of Your Life helped ne find resilience to adversity and hard times and inspired me to pursue my dreams and visions by building, shaping and honing my character. Therefore it seems good to start off this series of book reviews with this wonderful, original and insightful piece of writing from 1989.

This book was suggested to me by my housemate during my first year in university. He and I were both interested in personal development and he suggested I pick up Tony Robbins because he had found it insightful and entertaining. It was the first book I ordered online via the now famous Dutch Bol.com webshop, and I have reviewed and re-read it several times since 2003.

Before this happened, I had seen Tony Robbins on the infomercials with his Personal Power program; and I had dismissed his program because of that first introduction. All though I was engaged by his charisma and charm, his did not seem like a program I would be interested in because it was sold, with a discount and a bonus CD, through television. But my housemate’s opinion gave me enough confidence to, with my reservations, pick up this book and give it a shot.

A good story. Not only is the content of this book worthwhile and useful, it is also wrapped in a good story. A very important lesson in life for me has been that stories are what bind people together; the story of where we came from, of how we met, of where we are going, or of what we accomplished together. I have, through my work, met few people who do not enjoy a good story.

Not only are stories entertaining, they hold valuable lessons. And from the first page Tony takes you along in his story and he shares the lessons he learned throughout his life, in what I believe is a very open and honest way.

(Re)defining Power. What Tony does quickly is help you redefine power, your personal power to take charge of your life and make it work for you. And from that point in the book I was hooked. Could it be that I was able to turn my life into a fantastic voyage? How? What need I do to make it so?

All though the lessons are there, in the pages, there is no substitue for the school of life. Taking the lesson’s in this book to heart helped be push forward through life and pursue an unconventional career – but an extremely fulfilling life of engagement and inspiration. The seeds were planted when I read this book, but they only came to bloom two years later, when I needed to get in motion. Badly. In a hurry.

The starting point. Tony’s programs always start with your beliefs. Pick any program and you will first get a good review of what goes on in your inner world; in your mind and how that effects what materializes in the outside world; in your reality.

And it is simply true. When you learn and become the master of your mind, your thoughts, your urges, your needs, your emotions, you see the tremendous effect the way your mind works has on your life.

He speaks of how you can choose to respond to events in your life. This book confronts you with your ability to reflect upon yourself, and your life, and if you read it in the spirit in which it was written, there is tremendous power in the lessons on choosing your responses. You grow simply by planting the seeds of these thoughts in your brain.

Physiology. Tony talks about your physiology and how it affects your day to day state. But what he also does is constantly give you a way to apply what he speaks of; immediately and with results.

The force of his writing does not come from the words he puts on paper, but the action these words inspire. And by taking action as you read, you quickly find yourself making the words and lessons your own.

A great read. When you read this book by Tony Robbins, look back at my blog and you will see that many of the lessons in his book are reflected in some way in the writing here, nearly ten years after I first read his book.

Perhaps mixed with new ideas, different experiences and novel research, the principal lessons I have tried to convey to students can be found in the core of Tony Robbins’ philosophy of life, achievement, success and power. It is a timeless one that holds value for anyone who wants to learn from him.

Imagination in Education

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingSupposedly the young man in the picture once stated that “Logic takes you from A to B, imagination takes you anywhere.”  His name was Albert Einstein.

It is not the ability to know, to store knowledge, which makes you an intelligent human being. Hard drives are described as many things, but rarely as intelligent. Their ever increasing capacity to store is both their strength and their weakness.

If you currently are using a sizable harddrive, you may share the experience that because of this tremendous amount of information stuck on there – gigabyte upon gigabyte –  organization and retrieval become gargantuan tasks.

Whether they are stored on your hard drive as files or held in your brain as memories, the ability to connect those pieces of information is key to your intelligence. The ability to tell one strawberry from ten strawberries is a simple task; the ability to measure out the number of strawberries needed to make jam is one which requires you to piece together information about a variety of different things; from the necessary ingredients to the steps in preparing the jam.

This is why I agree with Sir Ken Robinson when he says that creativity has slowly been pushed out of the school system; where as it should be the cornerstone of any education.

If you do not know that you can build a ship, a house or a table with a hammer, why should we even provide you with that hammer?  You understand that there is more to intelligence and creativity than simply the ability to put the tool of knowledge to good use. It is the ability to make mistakes, to learn from these mistakes and to keep moving forward with determination that you can and will, in some way, some day, make a contribution.

An artist may draw a hundred pictures, simply to capture what she pursues in a single stroke. But she must draw those hundred pictures, steadfastly and undeterred. It is the search, to the find, which matters. It is that search that gives meaning to your endeavor.

Every day you have a choice. You may wake in the morning and go through the same routine. But today, after you have read this post, perhaps you can take a different look to your breakfast, lunch or dinner. Add some strawberries, kiwis or mangos to the mix. To because you particularly like them, but because they are colorful and different. Who knows, it might taste horrible, but for every time it tastes poorly, you may well discover something that tastes real good!

Let your imagination get the better of you sometimes. Everything it needs is right there inside of you. All you need to do is give it some space.

Photo credit: http://www.awesomestories.com/assets/albert-einstein-in-1912

Where is intelligence in your brain?

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingThe jury is out on that one. Not a real clue, all though there are some inclinations towards the prefrontal cortex. Where ever intelligence resides in the brain, and it might not be in one spot, interestingly enough it seems to be a rather complex aspect of the processes in our brain. Then again, nearly everything in neuroscience seems complex to the layman, right?

The fascinating thing about the leaps in neuroscience in the area of intelligence, at least to me, is that we might finally collect some hardcore scientific, well researched data which shows that you can learn. Your brain may have some more aptitude (a physiological difference between individuals) perhaps for some things rather than another, yet given the right system and approach, learning and applying complex cognitive skills may be a very possible accomplishment.

The Student Achievement Program Education Learning StudyingGoing out on a limb here, but if your brain functions are trainable to a certain extent, then you can learn to read, understand, think and comprehend at ever increasing levels. Oh wait,… you already knew that; that’s how you learned to read and consciously think in the first place!

So, perhaps Malcolm Gladwell was onto something in his awesome read called Outliers, when he iterates that 10.000 hours is what it takes to become an expert. Perhaps becoming an expert learner is simply a result or adequate training and coaching.

Woah woah, wait a minute! You might think at this moment; I have spent most of my life in school – at least 10 years of my entire life I’ve been in classrooms from morning till afternoon. And doing homework besides. That means I am an expert learner by this standard.

Well, maybe you are an expert class sitter, or summarizer. But have you consciously trained your brain to learn? To take in the new, connect to the known and to create the novel? Exactly.

Where learning is easy when we are young, when it becomes challenges sometimes we tune out. It has nothing to do with cognitive ability (which, I remind you is perhaps malleable), but rather with your ability to manage yourself, your attention, your focus, your emotions.

So, even though IQ tests of all sorts may be indicative of some processes in your brain, don’t be fooled by their determinations. As soon as anything or anyone tries to categorize you, a healthy thing to say is I don’t believe that for one second.

We are just discovering the wonders of the brain and all its capacity, and one of the things I am curious to find out is how long we will stubbornly believe that intelligence is, rather than made.

The reading myth – busted

The Student Achievement ProgramYou are not a filing cabinet! An interesting, brief article today. Even though the results were somewhat surprising, when I connect it to everything else I think I know about learning, here is what I think:

Depending on how you are tested, the way you study influences the test result, making learning a different matter entirely from academic performance.

If you are interested in learning and understanding, then spending time organizing and connecting information in your brain is the most effective strategy you can follow.

Your brain simply is not a library in which you can shelf books in order, to retrieve them in alphabetical order. Rather, it is a vast network of content like the internet and you can access most of this information by linking from one piece to another.

If you want to learn, to remember, and to apply what you have learned, putting information into a context you create matters. Relating new knowledge to which you already know is key, but you can only do this upon reflection (whether you reflect while you read or (right) after you finish reading, depends on your personal style).

We have already talked about deep processing and on using your brain’s strengths; in a way these are organization strategies. I think we have been drilled to think that organization  is synonymous to hierarchy. It isn’t.

The Student Achievement ProgramTrunks and leafs. If you were to sum up the parts of a tree, would you start at the bottom and work your way up; hierarchically from roots to crown? Or does an image of a tree come to mind from which you can associate the different parts you know (squirrel nests included!)? I bet its the second; because that is the easiest way for us to think. Why mind mapping is such a great tool to use when you study? It’s a summary in a language your mind understands.

Organization means putting things into your mind in such a way that you access the information and put it to good use. Regurgitating the the names and years of rule of Roman Emperors is not a useful feat of memory in every day life. But if you are trying to understand how the debauchery of Roman Emperors, or people in power in general, is related to the demise of an empire, perhaps being able to associate your way to a name such as Caligula, and examples of his excesses, can aid you in illustrating your case.

(We’ll talk more about metaphors and why they are so useful in learning at another time…)

To save time tomorrow, you have to spend some time today. Put your mind to work; learning is not like watching t.v., ok?! You don’t laugh when cued and switch to the next channel when you get bored. Be involved and take some time to work with your brain and pick any, but at least 2, of the following things to do when learning:

  • paraphrase what you read in your own words
  • ask yourself: What do I know about this topic already?
  • answer questions about the material after reading it
  • make mini mind maps of key terms and their descriptors
  • aggregate those mini maps into a large map outlining the main topics
  • build your framework of understanding, connecting what you know about the topic

Just remember: learning is not reading. Reading is a first step in learning. And now that you know what the other person thinks about something, find out what you think about it. 

Afterthought. As I changed the title to the blog to: Reading Myth – Busted, a thought crossed my mind, and I really want to share it.

We have all met someone who seemingly did not read all the material thoroughly, yet simply could reason her way to an answer. Could it be that this person had actually mastered the organisation of new information in such a way that she could quickly associate what she read to what she knew and therefore seemed to spend less time learning, when in fact, the learning was almost automatic? Just a thought….