Letter to Students: Cliffs Notes for A Faster Brain

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Dear Kids,

Happy first day of school! I’ve got good news and bad news.

First the bad news: You are about to spend hundreds of hours learning a bunch of small, interconnected facts, most of which you will never, ever, ever use again. (Proof: ask your parents how to calculate the area of a rhombus. I rest my case.)

Now the good news: school is hugely, amazingly, life-changingly worthwhile. Here’s why: learning bunches of interconnected facts makes your brain faster and stronger. School is like a machine for improving your brain. But in order to improve it the most, it helps to know the basic rules of how that sucker works.

(Why don’t more schools spend time — a half-day, say — teaching kids the how their brains work? This state of affairs seems utterly crazy to me. Would you try to teach someone to drive a car without showing them the accelerator and steering wheel?)

So before you get started filling your brains with facts, here is a (very) brief user’s manual for your brain.

Rule 1: Feel the Burn

If you want strong, fast muscles, do you:

  • A)   do nothing and wait for your muscles to get strong
  • B)    Go to the store, buy bags of marshmallows and lift them over and over
  • C)   Go to the gym and work out until your muscles burn

Congratulations for picking C) – because here’s the deal: your brain works exactly like your muscles. To get stronger and faster, you have to push yourself right to the edge of your ability, until you feel the burn — which in this case is that spot where you make mistakes.

This is not easy. It feels uncomfortable – sort of like lifting a heavy weight. But it’s how you’re built. Struggle is not optional – it’s a requirement.

  • Do: Be willing to make mistakes, fix them, reach again. Mistakes aren’t verdicts – they’re navigation points for the next try.
  • Don’t: Sit back and let information flow over you like a warm, comfortable bath.  This feels good, and it’s an absolutely terrible way to learn.

Rule 2: Repetition is Underrated. (Repetition is Underrated.) Also, Repetition is Underrated.

When it comes to learning, there is nothing (repeat: nothing!) you can do that is more powerful than repetition. The reasons are complicated, but boil down to this: intense repetition makes the wires of your brain work faster. A LOT faster.

  • Do: Picture the wires of your brain working faster and faster with each rep.
  • Don’t: Think of repetition as drudgery. It’s not like doing boring chores. It’s a lot closer to installing high-speed broadband.

Rule 3: Steal From the Best

Look, I know your teacher and parents tell you that you are special and unique, but the truth is, you aren’t the first person in the history of the world to do math, music, art, or sports. In short, it’s not about you. When you encounter a problem, look to others. Find the people who do it well, and copy how they study, how they listen, how they take notes. Rip them off. Steal their habits, figure out the way they think, break into their vault. Your brain is built to mimic.

  • Do: Keep a list of useful habits you’d like to steal.
  • Don’t: Take defeat too personally. (Same with success, for that matter.)

In sum, making your brain fast and strong is all about doing the three R’s: Reach, Repeat, and Rob the Banks.

Good luck!

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