The student on the right was on a drug called Adderall. Upon taking the drug his brain was flooded with dopamine, causing him to feel extreme feelings of motivation and desire to accomplish things.
On the surface, Adderall seems like a miracle drug. If it has the capability to make us superhuman why don’t people take it all the time?
Because Adderall, like all drugs, causes the brain to respond to its effects. In response to repeated exposure to high levels of dopamine, our brains will become desensitized to its effects. This means over time, the student will have to take more and more of the drug to get the same effect. He’ll start with 10 milligrams, then have to take 20, and if he keeps abusing it, eventually have to take 30.
The student remains unaware of the hidden danger of Adderall. He is mostly concerned with the side effects while on the drug but he doesn’t know that it can affect him when he is off of it.
His brain is now so used to elevated levels of dopamine that it will no longer be able to experience his ordinary level of motivation, desire, and enjoyment. His baseline levels of motivation, desire, and enjoyment are now lower than they were before he took Adderall. He turned himself into superman only to experience the effects of kryptonite. On the spectrum of motivation he has now moved leftward, closer towards the rat.
The only hope he has is to stop taking the drug and patiently wait until his brain rewires back and regains its sensitivity to normal levels of dopamine. Over time, he can slowly move back up the spectrum to where he was initially. Only then will he be able to feel motivated and energized again.
Most of you reading this will have never taken Adderall. However, you may have still been desensitized to the effects of dopamine.
– Former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya.
The Alexa ranking is a metric of the most popular websites in the world. You’ll see that social media and pornography sites rank towards the top. Video games run on native applications, so they weren’t tracked on this list. But I’m willing to bet that if they were ranked, they’d enjoy the same status as social media and pornography.
These platforms are so popular because they intentionally give their users steady hits of dopamine.
Sean Parker, the Founding President of Facebook, recently admitted that Facebook was engineered to cause addiction. In his own words:
“That means that we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever … It’s a social validation feedback loop … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology … [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”
And it’s not just social media either. Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind games like World of Warcraft and Hearthstone, used techniques used in casinos to design the loot boxes in their new hit game Overwatch. Which means the teens playing the game are experiencing the same dopamine high that keeps adult gamblers hooked and shelling out money.
Dopamine is such a crucial component for success on the internet that companies are popping up in Silicon Valley to write code, specifically designed to cause dopamine release in their client’s apps. One such company even calls itself Dopamine Labs! (now called Boundless AI) To their credit, they stated that they work with clients that have a positive focus like education or fitness and they have also created an app called Space which helps reduce the addictive aspects of social media.
But the fact remains that tech companies have now become Big Tobacco. Their profit model is one built on getting their users as addicted as possible.
Over time their methods can cause us to become mindless zombies, being jerked like puppets. Be honest, we’ve all hit a point where we’ve watched several YouTube videos back to back, or caught ourselves scrolling through our news feeds before snapping out of it wondering…why am I doing this? Why can’t I stop doing this?
Beyond the vacant drooling expression we wear while mindlessly scrolling there is the compulsive urge, the borderline itch to check something, anything for that quick hit of dopamine. The tense waiting period between posting something and checking back nervously to see how many likes or retweets it’s getting. The need to refresh email just to see if anything popped up…even though it’s 2 am.
This is exactly what Chamath is talking about when he says “Dopamine driven feedback loops”. We are driven to perform these behaviors and chase their corresponding rewards, not through our conscious choice but through the release of the same neurotransmitter that drives all addictive behaviors whether cigarettes or crack cocaine.
Unlike the student on Adderall, users of these sites and apps get their dopamine in a steady stream. But steady streams can erode through sheer rock if given enough time. Likewise, these seemingly innocuous platforms can and will cause the same dopamine desensitizing effects in your brain.
That means if you’re a heavy user of certain areas of the internet, you’re slowly becoming less and less sensitive to the effects of dopamine. Over time, on the spectrum of motivation, you’re moving towards the left—closer to the rat that can’t reach out to grasp food.
Of course, you’ll never get to that point. Your brain’s functioning is still intact. It just won’t be able to perform at peak capacity. You’ll see the effects show up subtly in your daily life. The consistent procrastination on the work that matters. The decision to binge watch Netflix, when you know there are more worthwhile things you could be doing with life. The feeling that simple pleasures in the real world are dull and boring in comparison to what’s on your screens.
We all have a conscious awareness that something is off. That we have so much potential to do things in life but for some reason, the motivation to start doing these things, and keep doing these things seems to escape us. Occasionally motivation rises and lights a fire inside us. But it quickly sputters out and dies. The electric power of it that seems to surge daily in others is not to be found within us.
Before blaming our genetics, we should bring our attention to the hours we have wasted on the hamster wheel of social media, video watching, pornography, and video games. We thought that these things were merely harmless wastes of time but now we know that they’re not. They’re slowly leeching the life out of us. Our habits are slowly eroding and ruining our ability to create motivation for life in the real world. The desire to pursue the partner of our dreams, to cook a healthy meal and work out, or to create a great work of art has faded from our minds.
Unlike the rat, we have hope. Our capacity to experience the effects of dopamine remains intact, giving us the opportunity to recover from our stupor. Through our own capacity for thought and action, we can move ourselves up the spectrum of motivation, past the normal version of ourselves and towards a state that transcends our preexisting notions of what we thought we were capable of. Towards all the hopes and dreams that we had hoped to achieve but never thought were possible. The rat never had a choice but we do. Do we stay on the wheel, or get off to seek rewards in the real world?
The rat study I mentioned came from Chapter 3: The Biology of Behavioral Addiction in Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and The Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter
When I mention Adderall use in this post, I am specifically referring to illicit use of the drug by those without legitimately diagnosed ADHD.
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Think of how easy it is to order something on Amazon. You click one button and two days later a package shows up on your doorstep. Now think of buying that same thing in store. You have to get in your car, sit in traffic, find parking, navigate the store, wait in line and then finally you get your package.
Great students are like Amazon. They’ve streamlined their lives so that the underlying process behind getting good grades has become as efficient as possible.
Bad students are like those who go to stores. They bumble around, waste massive amounts of time, feel stress and anxiety, and burn through valuable mental resources.
Since Amazon started in the 90’s they’ve invested countless hours in making their process as simple and efficient as possible. In the long run, this investment enabled them to cut costs and ship faster, reaping them billions of dollars in revenue as they outstripped their brick and mortar competitors.
As a student, you should make a similar investment. Each week, invest some time to save yourself hours in the long run, feel less stress and anxiety, and have more free time, all while getting better grades. You can do this by developing a productivity system.
This is the best book I have ever read on productivity. To be fair, it’s also the only book I’ve read on productivity, but that’s because it was so good I never felt the need to read another. I highly recommend you read Cal’s book as what I’m writing below is just a brief summary of the ideas I gained from the book and implemented into my own life.
The productivity system I use is built on three pillars:
3. Planning & Scheduling
You’d be surprised at how many students never write things down (yeah I was one). They try to remember dates, deadlines, and all the other things that they have to do that day or week. Doing this places unnecessary strain on your brains resources. You burn through glucose, overload your working memory, and generally feel overwhelmed.
You can free up all these resources just by writing things down. During your day, use a notebook and jot down everything that pops up. Get everything out of your head as quickly as possible. Once you have all this stuff written down, you have to separate the signal from the noise. You have to prioritize.
There’s a lie that we all tell ourselves:
“I’ll just get these things out of the way and then I can focus on the hard stuff.”
This is just another form of procrastination. The hard tasks on our list create subtle feelings of fear and discomfort because we’ll have to mentally exert ourselves to our limit. The easy tasks fall over like dominoes and give us brief feelings of satisfaction when we scratch them off our list. But the feelings are momentary and are quickly replaced by feelings of anxiety knowing that our hard stuff remains left undone. The weight of the physics problem set or the five page essay that we haven’t started stays in the back of our mind and never let’s us relax.
The other problem is that easy tasks still drain your brain’s fuel supply and leave your mind fatigued. Which means that by the time you get to your more difficult work, you’re much more likely to quit early, put it off for another day, or feel like your brain can’t handle the work.
You have to make it a practice to identify the most difficult work and start with that first. There will be a tremendous amount of initial resistance, but this will fade once you start and become immersed in the work. It’s a bit like taking a cold shower. You have to force yourself in and overcome that initial shock.
The upside to working this way is how you feel after. At the end of the day you’re rewarded with feelings of true accomplishment that come from doing meaningful work. You can now watch a movie or relax without feeling the guilt and anxiety that comes from knowing your procrastinating.
Planning & Scheduling
During my first semester I would work on a whim, meaning whenever I felt like it. The problem was that the only time I actually felt like working was when the test date began to closer and closer and I was forced to start or risk failing. This led to a flurry of activity near exams combined with long periods of low activity once these things were over.
This method, employed by most college students create a productivity curve that has sharp spikes and steep dips.
These sharp spikes and dips in activity create the frenzied feel associated with finals week and leads to a lot of students burning out.
The best advice I got in this regard was to treat my studies as a job. Treating college this way means you no longer have the luxury of putting in hours when you feel like it. You have to clock in a certain number of hours for class time and studying every single day. This flattens out your productivity curve and ensures that you never hit the “frenzy” zone or “sloth mode”.
To flatten the productivity curve you have to invest time in planning and scheduling. Every Sunday, take about an hour to prioritize all your work, and create consistent daily blocks of studying for the week ahead.
It helps to make a bare bones schedule for the semester and build on that. This schedule is a guideline for what every day will look like. You will have some weeks where you’ll have to change things around but for the most part this schedule should be as predictable and repetitive as possible.
Start by scheduling your classes and then blocks for studying (minimum of 1 hour, max of 3) around them. Make sure you work in the same place everyday, preferably somewhere quiet and on campus like the library. In each scheduled study block, write a detailed description of what work you’re actually going to do.
Having a schedule saves mental resources from being diverted into trivial thoughts like “What am I doing today?” The other benefit is that the constant repetition helps your mind get into a groove which helps your new study habits become deeply ingrained.
The job market for engineers who can’t pass calculus, chemistry, or physics is, unsurprisingly, very small. This poses quite the problem for freshman students as these are the three courses most frequently failed.
The biggest mistake these students make is believing that working hard will lead to mastery of the material and good grades. Hard work is important, but hard work alone can never overcome a bad strategy. It would be hard work to chop down a tree with a knife. It’s also really stupid and would leave you tired and frustrated. It would be much smarter to change strategies and use an axe.
In my case, the axe came from a PhD student who was tutoring me. On our first day together he said:
“Dude you’re not stupid, you just have shitty fundamentals.”
He pointed out that most struggling STEM students have the same exact issue: they have poor fundamentals without knowing it and are trying to master high level material by using a “brute force” strategy. This leads to so many students getting frustrated, burning out, and dropping out of STEM.
So many students have poor fundamentals because all STEM fields, whether computer science, materials science engineering, or physics, are built upon mathematical ability. Unfortunately most American students grow up in a system that treats math like any other academic subject. In countries known for producing outstanding STEM students (China, India, Japan etc.), math is treated like a sport.
If you look at the rankings of math by country, it’s clear that the American approach has led to poor results while the Asian approach has proved extremely effective. American students are only ranked 38th in math out of 71 countries. The Asian countries dominate the top of the list.
The Asian system is so effective because it goes beyond treating math as just a set of ideas and instead emphasizes that mathematical ability is also like a motor skill. In these countries, students practice from the ground up all year round, just like an athlete or musician would. These methods are so successful that they have started to come to America, popularized in the Kumon Centers that are now springing up everywhere.
This repetition and practice of the fundamentals is so important because math, at least until early undergrad math, is a completely linear subject where every component is dependent on mastery of the previous component. Which means if you have a weakness in one area, the entire chain after will be screwed up. Most students who do poorly in math have a weakness in their chain that might have began in high school or as early as middle school. This creates a lack of mastery that grows over time.
That’s why by the time students get to college, a lot of them think they’re bad at math or the material is difficult. It’s not, they’re just missing mastery of all the essential skills. It would be a bit like trying to play the Moonlight Sonata without ever having learned your scales.
If you’re fundamentals are broken, no amount of effort in the world will help you pass any of the classes you’re trying to study for. What you need to do is go back and learn your skills from scratch. Here’s how I did it:
Master The Fundamentals
I swallowed my ego and started from the absolute basics. I went on Khan Academy and clicked on Basic Math, a topic they recommended for students between the ages of 4-6…
For the first time in my life, I was the smartest person in the room. While my peers were distracted with learning bowel control and digesting solid food, I was racing through challenges like recognizing circles, squares, and counting up to a 100. I delighted in crushing my competition.
All jokes aside, starting from scratch was really important. It allowed me to proceed in tiny increments and completely master each step which corrected all the weakness in my chain. I kept this up through basic arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. By the time I retook calculus, it didn’t feel that much harder than counting to a 100. With every subject that I had studied previously, I repeated the same process. Physics, and chemistry were much easier when I went back and learned them from scratch.
People at the highest level can often perform incredible feats of complexity while making it look easy. It’s because they’ve performed so many repetitions that their neural pathways have gotten extremely efficient at that activity. While I was learning subjects again from scratch and working my way back up to more complex material I made sure to perform a ridiculous number of repetitions and practice my skills every single day. Repetition isn’t exciting but it’s the only way to develop a serious level of skill.
For further evidence you can watch Sean Lee’s fantastic talk called How To Get A Job At The Big 4. He closes by admitting “guys I’m the dumbest one here, I was on academic probation, have a 2.8 GPA, and failed software engineering.” He emphasized that the reason he was able to work at Amazon and Facebook was because he simply practiced more than everyone else.
Note: Obviously I’m aware that you have to develop understanding for what you’re learning, otherwise repetition will lead to nowhere. What I have noticed however is that most students believe that the moment of understanding is the difficult step when in reality it’s the lack of fundamentals that later on creates perceived difficulty in understanding more advanced material.
“It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
Eventually you will hit a point in your career where the difficulty arises not from your lack of fundamentals but from the difficulty of the material itself. At this stage it’s necessary to abandon the way you learned to solve problems growing up. Throughout most of our schooling, we learned to solve problems quickly.
As you get older problems become hard. Hard problems require you to think intensely, slowly, and deeply for hours and maybe days. You’ll also have to take time to relax, step away from the problem, and come back repeatedly until you can solve it.
Students who are trained to be able to solve problems quickly, through no fault of their own, give up very quickly when they finally encounter hard questions and can’t find a solution within just a few minutes.
You have to stay with a problem for much longer than you are currently. The best approach is to think deeply on the problem for some time and then take a break to do something relaxing.
I learned how to think deeply by watching a talk called called “Hammock Driven Development” given by the Rich Hickey who created the programming language Clojure.
He posted a question which I thought was profound:
“When was the last time you sat down and thought for an hour?”
When I really thought about it, I realized the answer was never, or at least not for several years. It seems from the moment I wake I am continuously engaged in some form of activity whether checking my phone, eating food, or chatting with someone with no real moment of deep and serious contemplation.
I started taking the time to sit down, and just think. Depending on the day, I thought deeply on a variety of topics in my life: past relationships, books I was reading, my goals, what I was learning, a problem I was trying to solve, code I was writing, etc.
I would then apply this method to problems I wanted to solve. I would think on them in an intense but relaxed way while examining them from multiple angles. I would never find the solution while thinking this way but I’d find that the answers would later spring up unbidden when I least expected them like in the shower or when I just woke up in the morning. This brings us to the next step:
In her fantastic book A Mind For Numbers, Barbara Oakley introduces two different modes of thinking: focused thinking and diffused thinking. Focused thinking is very similar to previous section. Diffused thinking however, is fairly radical and non intuitive because it doesn’t involve thinking it at all, at least not conscious thinking. Diffused thinking means taking your focus and attention elsewhere so that your subconscious mind can continue working on the problem.
Essentially, diffused thinking means relax. It means to go out for a run, hang out with your friends, or play tennis. Anything that is fun, relaxing, and takes your mind off of the problem that your trying to solve. Even though it doesn’t feel like you’re working, the back of your mind is still processing away at what you were thinking about earlier. Later on, you’ll find that the solution to your problem seems to spring out of nowhere.
A few weeks before I got to campus I sold my Xbox on ebay. Right after, I called my roommate and asked him to change my Facebook password. Once I was on campus, I kept up a strict set of habits: I would take notes by hand in class, keep my phone off while working, and do all my work in the library. I never touched my laptop in my dorm room.
At the time, I made these decisions because I was focused on being more productive. I had no clue that the rapid improvements I made that semester were because taking a break from gaming and social media had actually rewired my brain to work better.
By the end of the semester things were a lot different. My mind felt so focused and sharp that I could read through entire chapters of dense material without pause. Days and weeks later, I could recall the material with a memory that was much more vivid and corporeal than I ever recall having. When problem solving, I felt a level of precision and fluidness in my thinking that I didn’t know existed. With my new strategies for learning, calculus, chemistry, and physics fell like trees under a chain saw. These effects didn’t just affect my abilities, they affected my emotional state too. I mentioned earlier that I once found most academic subjects to be boring and dry. Now I found myself excitedly reading down the list of all the courses my university offered. Italian opera? Buddhism? Programming? I felt the urge to explore them all.
For the next semester, I made a decision that surprised everyone, including me. I dropped a class and instead signed up for Introduction To Java. Programming was something that I never thought I would be good at but I decided to give it a try.
After my first few lectures I was hooked. I decided to keep going down this track and signed up for Data Structures & Algorithms and after that OOP (Object Oriented Programming). I did so well that I got asked to be a TA for the course. I eventually ended up changing my major to computer science. Just a few years earlier, if you had told me that I had the abilities to be one of the better programmers at a school known for its CS program, I never would have believed you.
The difference was that now it didn’t feel like hard work. It wasn’t something I had to force myself to do. I was genuinely fascinated by the world and wanted to learn for the first time in a long time. The desire and drive that seemed to fuel other students now became something I possessed too.
I realized that this drive isn’t a magical quality that only some people have. As a species we would not have survived for so long and conquered the planet if most of us were walking around with sub par mental abilities and a lack of motivation. We’re actually wired to seek goals and conquer rewards. We’re hard coded to explore and understand the world around us. If you watch small children that’s exactly what they spend most of their day doing.
The only logical conclusion then is that there is something wrong with the modern world that we’re living in.
Our environment has transitioned from one conducive to deep thought and contemplation to one of relentless stimulation from social media, games, news, and pop culture. This environment sedates and and oppresses our natural drive, creativity, and cognitive abilities. It provides empty satisfaction that compels us to return due to its convenience and addictive nature. Each time we do so, we slowly erode the relentless drive that was necessary for all successful men and women before us.
This drive is inside us waiting to be reclaimed. All you have to do is make a decision. If you really care about succeeding as a student consider taking a break from social media for at least a month. Everything on there will be there when you get back. It’s the same pictures of Friday nights, vacations, and what people had for dinner. Your opportunity for academic success however, won’t always be there. Four years seems like a long time but it’s a rapidly closing window. You only get one shot at academic success. Take it seriously.
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My freshman year of college didn’t go as planned. I had come in with high hopes of starting my degree and becoming a mechanical engineer. I quickly found out however, that I was completely unprepared for the rigors of a tough college program. I was crushed by my first round of exams and had my aspirations of being an engineer all but fade completely.
That semester, I got a C in calculus, a C in chemistry, and nearly failed my engineering final. The only reason I didn’t was because the TA proctoring the exam was a close friend from high school. When he saw that I was the last one left and had an expression that bordered on panic, he gave me a few “hints” that allowed me to narrowly pass.
Now I look back on the experience and laugh, but at the time it was anything but funny. I remember feeling the mounting anxiety that came from seeing the other students complete the circuit with apparent ease and file out one by one until I was the last one remaining. By the end, I was feeling so panicked I could barely think. I left the lab shaking and feeling sick to my stomach. I had heard of test anxiety before, but this was my first time actually experiencing it. I never wanted to feel that way again.
I wish that could have been the end of my horrible day but it got worse from there. Leaving the lab, I saw a missed call from my dad. I knew he wanted to know how my finals went. I envisioned the conversation going something like this:
Like I predicted, the talk didn’t go well. I hung up and seriously started contemplating if I should drop out of engineering. I was terrified at the prospect of having another semester full of stress and anxiety like the one I just had. This semester, I had taken several general education requirements that were easy A’s and kept my GPA afloat. The upcoming semester, I wouldn’t have these to count on and if I went below a 2.5 I would be on academic probation.
Thankfully, my fears weren’t realized. Three years after my awful first semester, I graduated with an overall 3.72. In this post, I want to share everything I learned that helped me turn around my academic career.
Before I get into that, I want to share several problems I dealt with that semester because they seem to be shared by every struggling student.
Low Motivation & Desire
- It was hard to find the motivation to start doing work. I'd frequently procrastinate with Facebook, YouTube, or just doing stupid stuff with my roommates. I'd start working on papers maybe a few days days before they were due and start studying for tests just a few nights before. After feeling the stress and anxiety that came from trying to cram before exams I'd tell myself that next time would be different. Next time I'd start preparing way before my exam date. Despite this, I'd still find myself scrambling the week before finals or midterms.
- Nothing I was learning seemed to capture my interest. Every subject seemed boring and dry. I never felt like I had “passion” for anything.
Weak Focus, Attention, & Generally Poor Cognitive Abilities
- Mentally, I felt dull and slow. Trying to grasp calculus or physics felt like wading through a pool of mud.
- Reading was difficult. After just 20 minutes I’d feel the need for a break. And while I was reading, I’d feel like my mind was swimming. I would often get to the end of a paragraph to realize I had no clue what I just read. Reading this way led to very poor memory and recall of the material.
- I could never develop mastery over tough subjects like calculus or chemistry. Despite reading the textbook and doing practice problems, I’d still find myself unable to answer the tough questions on exams.
Declining Confidence In Myself
- I started to think that the kids who got A’s in hard classes were just geniuses.
- There were a few times I did muster up the effort to work hard. But despite spending hours studying, going to office hours, and getting tutored, I still couldn’t master the material. This convinced me that I wasn’t smart enough for a STEM major.
- I applied labels to myself e.g. “I’m not good at math,” “I’m not good at writing,” or “I’m not good at programming.”
All these issues led to me believing that I just wasn’t “wired” for being a good student. I thought that the students who had 4.0’s and got internships at great companies like Google, Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey just got lucky enough to be born highly intelligent and highly driven.
In short, I thought the difference between me and them was due to genetic factors outside my control.
After everything I’ve learned, I can say with utmost certainty that it isn’t true. The difference between me and the students who excelled was due to process. Meaning the differences in how they approached learning, how they managed their time, and how they viewed their own abilities, were what allowed them to excel.
The process that changed my academic career can be broken down into four steps:
4. Motivation (NoSurf Stuff)
Of these, the last step is the most crucial; without that inner motivation you will never have the drive and ability to execute the other three steps.
We already know that photoshopped and airbrushed images of women can create unrealistic ideas of beauty and perfection in society. These ideas, like skin being flawless or bodies being perfectly thin, can serve as metrics of comparison that can cause women to view themselves in a distorted way and lead to body dysmorphia.
Could a similar effect occur with students? For example, what would happen if students were exposed to a similar set of unrealistic ideas but directed at their mental abilities rather than their physical ones?
- People are naturally good at things
- People get good at things quickly
- It’s easy for some people but hard for others
It turns out we already are exposed. Here are just a few examples from modern media.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
This is the description of Harry’s first time on a broomstick:
“He mounted the broom and kicked hard against the ground and up, up he soared; air rushed through his hair, and his robes whipped out behind him – and in a rush of fierce joy he realized he’d found something he could do without being taught – this was easy, this was wonderful.”
When Qui-Gon asks for Anakin’s blood sample to be analyzed Obi-Wan responds:
“the reading is off the chart..over 20,000. Even Master Yoda doesn’t have a midichlorian count that high.”
Programmer Richard Hendricks states the following: “The point is, I learned Ruby on Rails over a weekend when I was 17.”
Nathan the founder of a goliath company called BlueBook, wrote the company’s source code when he was only 13.
Once you start to notice these examples, you’ll find that nearly every form of media you’ve consumed since your youth has some notion of these ideas embedded in it.
I believe that these depictions of “natural talent” are harmful because they can contribute to creating a fixed mindset. The fixed mindset is a term coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. In her research, she has found that some students believe that intelligence is an immutable quality determined by their genetics, like height or eye color.
Students with fixed mindsets tend to believe that the smart, successful people in society, whether great students, programmers, athletes, or artists, were just fortunate enough to be born talented. They don’t entertain the notion that these people expended effort, were challenged, employed intelligent strategies, and had a process for years to acquire their ability.
Some students however had a growth mindset. These students believed that their abilities could be developed over time. In nearly every study conducted students with growth mindsets achieved higher scores, were more resilient to challenges, responded better to criticism, and bounced back quicker after failure.
In her Ted Talk, she references a few real world examples of students in classrooms that had growth mindset interventions.
Note: these studies were focused on elementary school children in historically neglected neighborhoods such as inner cities and Native American reservations, but I believe the same dramatic changes would occur regardless of the age or class status of the student.
1. South Bronx, New York
In one year, a classroom of fourth graders in the South Bronx became the number one fourth grade class on the New York State math test.
2. Native American Reservation Students, In Seattle Washington
In a year and a half, students from a Native American Reservation went from the bottom of the district to the top, outperforming affluent students who’s parents worked at Microsoft.
How I Developed A Growth Mindset
1. I Learned About Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.
I first encountered the concept of neuroplasticity from The Brain That Changes Itself, a fantastic book by Norman Doidge. As I dove in further into the subject, I encountered concrete evidence that areas in the brain responsible for human intelligence, like the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, could actually grow larger and develop more connections over time. It seemed that through the simple act of changing our habits or employing repetitive practice, we could rewire our neural pathways and make them more efficient.
This helped translate the growth mindset, which was somewhat of an abstract notion, into something tangible and concrete. I could literally look at brain scans and see people’s brains changing.
2. I Studied Successful People In The Real World
I took the time to study the habits of successful people in the real world who I looked up to.
Here are just a few examples:
- Nobel laureate Richard Feynman had an IQ of 124, which was well below the threshold of genius. His skill seems to have originated with an obsessive focus on repetition and practice. In one story, he calculated the integration tables in his textbooks by hand even though they were already done for him.
- Since an early age, Barack Obama woke up hours before school to study and review his notes.
- Mark Zuckerberg had private tutors in programming since he was six. I thought to myself that if I hadn’t been playing PlayStation since I was six maybe I could’ve been good at something too.
- Stephen Curry, now 2x MVP of the NBA, was not recruited by Division 1 schools.
- Tom Brady started his career as a fourth string quarterback when he entered the NFL. He hired a sports psychologist to help him develop mentally.
The more people I studied, the more my illusions of natural talent began to shatter. I realized that our false notions of talent arise from the fact that we only see snapshots of these people at their peak point of development. Without the corresponding backstory it creates the illusion that these people always had it easy. But once you the see the hours, the failure, and the rejection, it destroys the romantic notions we hold in our heads.
3. I Questioned Myself
I challenged the limiting beliefs I held about my intelligence and my abilities. I would repeatedly ask myself a series of simple questions in the form of Socratic dialogue. Here are a few examples:
- How do I know I have a low IQ?
- How do I know the students with high GPAs have high IQ’s?
- What if they had much different upbringings than I did?
- What if they had better strategies for learning than I do?
- How smart could I have been if, instead of watching TV and playing video games when I was young, I spent that time learning and practicing?
- What if the effects of good work habits compound over time to create an illusion of talent and genius?
- When I first started working out my arms shook benching just the bar. A few years later I was repping 225 with ease. What if a similar transformation like that could happen with my mind?
The rest of this post is continued here.
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On March 13th 2016, I placed a winning bid on a seven year old dumb phone from eBay.
At the time I had no idea that this one small action would mark the beginning of the rest of my life. But first, the back story.
Nearly two years ago from today, I was in the deepest stages of an internet addiction. It all started when my girlfriend at the time broke up with me. Saying I took it hard is an understatement: I was devastated.
Not knowing how to handle the situation, I started going on Reddit more often to take my mind off of things. One thing led to another and before you know it I’d gone from an hour a day of use to over five hours a day. I would lay in bed all day with my phone just scrolling. And scrolling. And scrolling.
The scary part was that even after succeeding in reigning in my depression and establishing a positive outlook about the future, I still couldn’t quit. I WANTED to quit. I burned with desire. I was trying my hardest. But nothing was working. I would have a few days of success and then it would be back to square one. I didn’t understand what was happening to me.
Then the fear set in. Fear that there was something wrong with me. Fear that I wasn’t going to be able to overcome this. Fear that this was what the rest of my life was going to look like. In desperation I started researching internet addiction online. The first place I turned to was my homepage which was, you guessed it: Reddit.
I still vividly remember the moment I typed “internet addiction” into the search box and saw NoSurf for the first time. The subreddit had just over 3,000 subscribers and was averaging about one post a week. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Here were a few thousand other people just like me. I was not alone.
I started devouring NoSurf related content. I read through every submission and comment on the entire subreddit. I read The Shallows twice from cover to cover. The more I read and understood what had happened to my brain, the more I grew inspired to try harder. I knew the stakes were high, and that gaining control over my internet use was critically important for my lasting health and happiness.
I accepted that I was going to have to step even further outside of my comfort zone than I already had.
You see I thought I’d tried it all. I had tried uninstalling apps on my smartphone. I had tried removing wifi access. I had tried different blocker apps. But I always found myself back on my smartphone. One thing I hadn’t tried, however, was getting rid of my smartphone altogether…
I saw a front page post made by a guy asking if anyone had ever used a dumbphone, and one of the commenters mentioned that they had great success with a pre-owned Blackberry. I decided it was now or never.
Off to eBay I went on a quest to find my very own dumbphone. I finally settled on a 2009 Blackberry Curve 9360. It could make calls, had a keyboard for texting, had email capability, and technically had a browser but it was something you would never ever dream of using in a million years. Reddit took over two minutes to load a page and the weird thumb scrolling cursor was awful to use. It was perfect for me.
I paid $9 for the phone and then $2 on Amazon for a replacement battery. One week later I was on my way to the wireless shack, 2009 BlackBerry in my left hand, and my iPhone 5 in my right.
15 minutes later I was opening the door of the store and walking up to the counter. It was my turn next and I mentally prepared myself with answers to any questions I might get asked.
When the guy asked me how he could help me, I told him that I’m here to downgrade from my iPhone 5 to the BlackBerry Curve 9360. He started laughing. I started laughing. The coworkers came over to see what all of the fuss was about. He asked me if I was sure I didn’t have the order mixed up and that I wasn’t trying to go FROM the BlackBerry TO the iPhone. More laughing ensued. I said I was sure, and the wireless shack worker got to work.
While he worked the worker told me that swapping phone service onto a new phone was free and that I could back anytime I wanted to register my iPhone again free of charge.
15 minutes later I walked out and had a hilarious realization. I had NO IDEA how to get home. I used the GPS on my iPhone to get to the shack and now that my iPhone was cut off, I was out of luck. I somehow made it home using the highway signs and the first thing I did was buy a dedicated GPS unit.
The first few weeks were fascinating. Some of my friends and family thought it was a great idea, some thought I was nuts, and some were oddly resistant to the idea, even after I explained why I was doing this.
Previously Reddit was my go to for long bus rides as a way to pass the time. Now it was Texas Hold ‘Em and Brick Breaker, the only two things you can do on a BlackBerry for entertainment. However, that got boring very quickly.
I started to just sit and BE during my bus rides and when I would wait in lines. Sometimes I would think, sometimes I would practice mindfulness.
As the days and weeks went on it was fascinating to see how pretty soon this became my new “normal,” and how I started looking at all of the faces basked in blue light as “strange.”
I started noticing how many people would spend lecture time browsing Reddit instead of paying attention to lectures they had paid a ton of money for.
I started noticing how my friends would pick up their phones the second there was a lull in the conversation. Facebook, Instagram, or SnapChat would be fired up and they would sign out of the real world for a few minutes before coming back while I waited.
I started noticing how everything had to be shared on a SnapChat story. The second something cool happened all of the phones would be pulled out and people would look at the event through their screens and miss it with their eyes.
It wasn’t long before I made the connection that I used to behave in the exact same way as everyone else, just that I couldn’t grasp how weird it all was until I took a giant step back by switching to a dumb phone.
Fast forward a few months and believe it or not I was back to a smartphone, but not of my own choice. My family had switched to a family plan with a different service provider and this meant my blackberry was no longer compatible. The plan came with four free smartphones and out of curiosity, I decided to try the smartphone out for a while before ordering another compatible BlackBerry.
I was overjoyed by what I found. The time away from my smartphone completely changed my relationship with the phone. I was able to use it normally again as a tool that enhanced my life, rather than as something altogether different that took away from it.
The numerous months away from my smartphone literally rewired my brain and made me able to once again own one without it sucking away hours and hours of my life. I’m obviously still very cautious given that I used to have an issue with the internet. I don’t have social media on my phone, I don’t have any games on my phone, and I don’t even use the browser on my phone. Just things like GPS, email, banking, and productivity tools.
But truthfully, it comes more from a place of realizing I don’t need to be constantly connected rather than from a place of being afraid I could get addicted one day again. Unplugging for all of those months I owned a blackberry taught me that life was just as good, if not actually better, without all of the extra frills on my phone I used to believe I couldn’t live without.
Now I don’t want to make getting a dumb phone out to be some magic pill that instantly solved all of my problems. I continued to struggle in other areas and took a ton of other drastic measures during this time that also contributed to my NoSurf success. Example: I removed home wifi access on my laptop on more than one occasion so that I could only use wifi at the library.
The significance of the BlackBerry is that it represents the first giant step I took out of my comfort zone. THAT is the true takeaway or secret if you will. The willingness to step out of my comfort zone and to partake in relentless, creative experimentation to see what worked for me on my NoSurf journey.
And now to fast forward to the present day…
It’s been over two years since I’ve discovered NoSurf and I have a ton to show for it. My mind is clear and healthy. I’m happy and fulfilled. I waste zero time. I’ve developed a ridiculous work ethic. I have an incredible woman I’m honored to call my girlfriend. I have a blue belt in Brazillian Jiu Jitsu that I received after more than a year of hard work/discipline. I’ve achieved laser like focus and become an incredible software engineer (way better than I ever thought I could become).
I don’t say any of this to brag or gloat. I would describe myself as humble and actually shy away from attention over accomplishments. I only share them with you with the hope that it can inspire you and help show you whats possible with a lot of hard work, persistence, and time devoted to NoSurf.
I would like to take this time in closing to share some brief words with anyone who is committed to pursuing their very own NoSurf journey:
It is important to understand that you will try and fail. You will get frustrated and you will feel like giving up. But it’s all part of the process.
With each passing day your brain grows healthier. Your focus sharpens. Your
I don’t believe anyone achieves anything worthwhile with only one foot in and the other out. You’ve got to give it your all. This means embracing discomfort and inconvenience even when it isn’t the easy or normal thing to do.
It’s not easy to switch from an iPhone to a 7 year old BlackBerry. It’s not easy to deactivate social media. It’s not easy to set up web filtering. It’s not easy to rely on the library for wifi access.
And that is the whole point. If it were easy it wouldn’t be worth posting about. A story of adventure in which the characters reach their destination in the first chapter wouldn’t be worth reading.
The difficulty involved in an achievement is the very thing that gives the achievement meaning. The struggle and the numerous failures are what make me proud to share this story with you today, and makes me overjoyed for every success story I see posted by fellow NoSurfers.
This story was submitted by one of our members, stdin_stdout_stderr.
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Note: I recommend reading this on desktop as this article has some very large images of the installation process.
K9 is a web blocker that I found really helpful in controlling my internet use. It’s powerful, flexible, impossible to circumvent and best of all, completely free.
The one downside is that it can be somewhat confusing to set up so I’ve decided to walk you through the process. I’m also going to make a video on setting it up so if you’re still confused after reading this, you might want to check out the video.
Note: K9 only works on Windows & Mac.
Step 1: Sign Up & Download K9
Go to the K9 website and where it says “Download for” select Windows or Mac.
Enter the required details and click “Request License”.
Step 2: Install & Create A Password
Check your email for the license and download link. Click the download link. Once the setup files download hit install and enter your license key.
It’s also going to ask for you to enter an Administrator password. Do not use a password you can easily remember. I highly recommend creating a strong, difficult to remember password.
Copy and paste this password into a text file on your PC for now, you’re going to need it for some of the steps.
Step 3: Enter K9 Setup
Here’s where it gets confusing. Sometimes on windows if you run the K9 app nothing happens. You can still access the setup page directly by opening your brower and entering 127.0.0.1:2372 into your address bar.This should take you to the K9 welcome page.
If you’re on mac you might have to enable K9 in the securities option in settings before running the program.
Once you’re at the welcome screen click “setup” and enter your password.
Step 4: Create Your Custom Filter
On the left, select the “Web Categories to Block” tab. As you can see there are several presets and also an option to make your own custom filter. I recommend going with a custom filter and checking the minimum number of filters you need to prevent excess browsing.
As an example, if you’re a person who has issues moderating GIFS/Memes, news sites, shopping online, and social media sites you might check:
- Open Image/Media
- Social Network
Play around with filters until you find what works for you.
Now go back to the options on the left and select “Blocking Effects . Uncheck“Show Admin Options” and “Show HTTPS Blocks”. Leaving these enabled can allow you to circumvent K9 if you really wanted.
Step 5: Send Your Password Into The Future
The only way to truly make K9 impossible to overcome is to not have access to your password. One way you can do this is send an email with your password to someone you can trust to look over it.
The other option is to use an email service that allows you to send an email to yourself at a future date.
Just enter you password and select a date in the future. In the beginning, I recommend setting it for just a few days so you can see if there’s anything you should change in your settings.
Don’t forget to delete the password from where you saved it.
I realized that to make this system completely impossible to circumvent you should make a new email to sign up for K9 with. Then also give that password to someone or email it to yourself in the future. Otherwise you can just hit “forgot” password and have the ability to reset it via email.
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