A lot of what I do is… quite frankly… not very good. To put it differently, almost everything I do fails to meet my quality standards. So I am constantly fighting to do better.

It is not perfectionism. Perfectionism is the refusal to do anything unless it meets your high standards. To put it differently, perfectionism is synonymous with a lack of humility. It is a belief that flawed results are below you.

Let me be blunt: perfectionists are self-centered pretentious pricks.

People who work hard are typically motivated by either their performance (i.e., they want to look good) or their mastery (i.e., they like being good at their craft). Most of us pursue a mix of different goals.

It would seem like performance goals are harmless. What is wrong with wanting to get good grades in school, or having a good salary? Nothing is wrong with these goals, except that they can backfire.

  • Performance-oriented people often develop performance-avoidance goals: they want to avoid looking bad.

    When I was a student at the University of Toronto, many competitive students looked for the easiest classes they could find. If you focus on looking good, you will avoid challenges where you might look bad.

    A professional suffering from performance-avoidance goals may avoid taking on risky projects or jobs. Scientists preoccupied by their performance will often avoid challenging projects, preferring to follow the same tracks over decades. A programmer worried about looking bad might avoid trying out a new programming language.

    In short, performance-avoidance goals may limit your ambition.

    Performance-avoidance goals may also lead you to focus narrowly. Why waste time learning about calligraphy when you could practice for your calculus test?

    You effectively narrow down your life to whatever is most boring or safest.

  • Performance goals are hard on morale. At some point, you will fail. Maybe you wanted to enter this highly competitive school, or you wanted to get this prestigious job… and instead you will have to be satisfied with less than you hoped for.

    It is almost unavoidable because there will always be pressure to set the bar higher, and higher.

    People with performance goals are more likely to crash.

    I have never been to South Korea, but I hear that kids kill themselves over bad results at school. That is one extreme. Most crashes are not so intense or visible… but they are common nevertheless. They sometimes take unexplained forms.

    A favorite example of mine is mathematics. I genuinely believe that the overwhelming majority of the population can be good at mathematics. Of course, not everyone starts on an equal footing, and some people need to work harder. But mathematics is fun. All young kids like mathematics. What turn people away from mathematics is the fear of failure.

I believe we should be especially carefully about setting performance goals for kids. It is especially damaging for kids to limit their ambition, play it safe and burn out. You want kids who are unafraid to try their luck at many things… you want kids to have high morale.

What is the alternative to performance goals? You can focus on growing your skills, mostly forgetting about performance. Ignore selective venues. Forget about beating others… avoid competition if you can… Focus all your attention on doing better and more interesting work.

People who are obsessive about honing their skills are never boring. They also tend to be generous. If your goal is to get better… you have no reason not to help others… especially if it can serve as an excuse to improve your own skills further.

Burning out is less likely when you are focused on mastery… maybe because setbacks are much less likely.

Some will object that performance and competition matter a great deal. If you are a martial art expert and someone is trying to kill you, focusing on improving your skills might not be optimal. But throughout most of your life, you will not be in grave danger. You can afford a few bad grades. You can afford to be passed on for promotion. The truth is that if you are really good at what you do, you will probably do ok most of time without ever having to compete. Oh! And you will probably become a more interesting person.

Today, kids left and right carry the label of some learning disability. Instead of telling kids that they are dumb or lazy, we narrow it down to some problem. It is clearly progress on the face of it. However, when I see that, in some schools, over 10% of all kids have received some kind of disability label by the time they graduate… I worry.

There might be some hubris at work. Do the experts know as much as they claim to know?

A favorite pet peeve of mine is the importance we put on grades as predictors of success. I have spent a great deal of time reviewing graduate students for scholarships in national competitions. I had a nearly perfect GPA myself. I was expecting the undergraduate GPA of students to be strongly correlated with the success at the doctoral level. What I found time and time again was that the correlation was weaker than I expected. Students who do very well as undergraduates often fail to shine as graduate students, and students who disappoint as undergraduates can sometimes do remarkably well as PhD students.

Given a choice, schools should prefer students students who got better GPAs. However, I would abstain from predicting the performance of a given student in graduate school given his GPA.

It is not that grades and tests do not matter, it is that we should use caution and humility when interpreting them. It is relatively easy to make statistical predictions, but it is very hard to translate these statistical predictions into reliable individual predictions.

In my opinion, the greatest mathematician of all times was probably Galois. Coming out of nowhere, he created a deep, useful and engaging mathematical theory that is still, today, viewed as highly original. You are using technology directly derived from Galois’ work today, even though he died in 1832 when he was 20 years old. However, we find that teachers regularly complained about Galois’ uneven results, lack of application, and so on. It seems that he could not focus for long on what his teachers wanted him to do. He was a pain as a student.

This is not uncommon, Gurdon, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medecine, was similarly a difficult student:

“His work has been far from satisfactory… he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way… I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous, if he can’t learn simple Biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a Specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time on his part, and of those who have to teach him.” (source)

Everyone should use caution when judging others, but I believe that educators should be especially careful. They may not understand nearly as much as they think about the mind of their students.

In many schools, a fifth of all boys are prescribed Amphetamine-related drugs because they have been diagnosed with an attention deficit. But these pills are not intelligence-in-a-bottle. To put it differently, taking Adderall may not make you smarter at all:

Although there is a perception among students that stimulant medication may improve academic performance, studies in adults without ADHD suggest that stimulants do not promote learning and may in fact impair performance in tasks that require adaptation, flexibility, and planning. Stimulant-induced improvements in cognition in individuals without ADHD were mainly evident in those with low cognitive performance, suggesting that stimulants may be more effective at correcting deficits rather than enhancing academic performance. (Nugent and Smart, 2014)

To be clearer, with psychostimulants, you might do better at basic arithmetic if you cannot normally do arithmetic, but you could do worse at higher level tasks.

The problem is that students diagnosed with ADHD have commonly other learning disabilities. And it might be these other disabilities that are helped by drugs:

The efficacy of psychostimulants was documented on specific areas of achievement for the ADHD+ [ADHD with learning disabilities] group, but this review did not support the administration of psychostimulants for students with ADHD- [ADHD without learning disabilities]. (Zentall et al., 2013)

There is a larger issue… what do kids think of these drugs? Many teenagers do not like them, at all:

Overall, adolescents reported very low satisfaction with stimulant medication. (Pelham et al., 2013)

I should be clear that I am pro-medication. If we do find intelligence-in-a-bottle, I want the first bottle. If taking amphetamines makes you better at what you care about, then please take it.

I am concerned however that these pills might just be the system pushing the blame on the biology of students. Imagine if the movie industry decided that people who cannot enjoy their movies should take pills instead?

My impression is that schools are unable to face the truth: they are boring and unpleasant to a lot of students.

As a kid, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. I failed kindergarten and was put in a special class. This came about because I would not learn my phone number, or to count up to ten. Throughout my primary education, I refused to learn my multiplication tables. Yet I went on to get a PhD. I am pretty confident that I do not, nor did I ever have, a crippling cognitive defect. Yet I fear that I young version of myself would be prescribed pills today.

If my life depended on it, I could listen to a teacher for 50 minutes without losing a word. I could memorize long tables of numbers. But as a kid, I refused to do it because it is boring and unnecessary.

As a middle-age tenured professors with dozens of published research papers I can say with confidence that rote memorization of the multiplication tables would have been useless to me. I think it is, at best, of a very limited use to a very limited number of people…

Now, there are kids that simply cannot learn to read or to multiply because they have a disability. It seems that drugs can help them. They should certainly take them. But if your little boy cannot be bothered to do rote memorization or other boring school-related tasks, is having him take pills the real solution? Is it fair to force generations of kids to do boring unpaid work because we say so?

There were things that I really disliked as a student. Rote memorization was one of them. Another was the lecture. Even to this day, I cannot listen to most lectures without getting bored in the first 5 minutes. I think I might even be an extremist in this respect: in college, I skipped most of my lectures, or just attended them to know when the assignments and exams were. I then worked on my own at the library, or with close friends.

Simply put, even in college, the ability to listen to boring people for extended periods of time is not a necessary skill. Rote memorization is also not very important: it might help you on some tests, but you are not going to win a Nobel prize by taking tests.

I also hated the always-on social component of school. You are always with lots of other people you barely know. I find this very distracting and exhausting. Say what you will, I believe that human beings are geared toward working within a small tribe. Classrooms far exceed the size of a tribe. How natural is it to be forced into a oversized tribe?

Some will reply that school is not meant to be pleasant. It should be boring. But why? Where is the evidence that forcefully boring young people is necessary? Where is the evidence that rote memorization makes you smarter? What is the real purpose here?

Credit: Greg Linden pointed us to this New York Times article on AHDH.

Scientific research is fundamentally about learning, about trial and error. Luck and unplanned interactions are a central part of it. Thus research cannot be planned and managed like, say, teaching duties or a Walmart store. If you could manage it, then it would not be research.

Research is usually greedy, in the sense of a greedy algorithm. At each point in time, you try to take the next best move, without knowing anything about the future. Maybe working on this new cloud computing algorithm will open the door to fame and fortune. Maybe you will meet a brilliant student next week who has great ideas on how to advance the field. Or maybe it is a dead end, maybe the problem has already been solved by a famous California professor last year. Typically, you do not know.

If you work hard and you are extremely clever, you might be able to make better guesses. But very, very few researchers can foresee the future 5 or 10 years ahead. Even Einstein got stuck in dead ends.

Fernando Pereira is a leading computer scientist and an ACM Fellow who works at Google. He describes his view of research in similar terms:

Most successful projects I know, and certainly all that I have been involved in (…) started bottom-up, with zero to minor management involvement, and grew through repeated successful interactions with their environment. Pretty much like all the successful projects I’ve been involved in both in academia and industry.

However, much of research today is supposedly based on 5-year plans and funded by the government. The sort of plans that Soviet Russia liked so much. It should come to no surprise as Soviet Russia literally invented our government-sponsored research model. It is worth repeating that it is an absurd model, as Pereira puts it:

(…) in government-funded work I had to go through the ritual of pretending to know where the proposed work would get to in several years before doing the actual experiments. Which over time, as competition for funding increased, became the self-contradictory process of claiming the work was novel and required new funding to carry out while having already enough results to convince reviewers that the project was a sure thing.

It is fascinating how we have a hard time dealing with the fact that R&D is in fact nothing else but bricolage done by smart people.

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