Some students love school, but the majority despise it. If you could wave a magic wand, wouldn’t you choose to enjoy school? I’ll tell you how to do exactly that.
In life, we usually have a binary system of describing activities: work or pleasure, study or fun, as if they were mutually exclusive. We implicitly describe studying or working as inherently not pleasurable and not fun. Chances are, you’re nodding your head in agreement right now. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Surely, there are some things that you find great pleasure in, that other people don’t seem to understand. Maybe you love running, which most people despise. Or perhaps you actually enjoy math, even when others cry “blasphemy!” This raises two questions: 1) why do some people enjoy activities that most deem unenjoyable, and 2) how can we create a reproducible and repeatable system to get students to enjoy school?
I was inspired to write this article after watching “How to Enjoy School” by John Fish. He suggests flow states as the path through which students should find enjoyment in school. I think there’s some truth there, and it’s definitely a good video, but I think it’s an incomplete picture.
The Magic of Flow
Being ‘in flow’ is a magical thing. You’re completely absorbed in what you are doing, and you lose your sense of space and time. It’s a very positive experience, but I feel it’s often overused in our vernacular. People often describe being in flow when, in reality, they’re just watering down the word.
Flow is a powerful experience. With school work, I have felt it occasionally while doing chemistry or physics practice problems, or while taking tests, but flow in schoolwork is not a common occurrence, and I’d argue that striving to make it a common occurrence isn’t a worthwhile pursuit.
Activities where I have experienced flow at much higher frequencies include racing my car and doing plastic surgery in the operating room. These two activities are much more readily applicable to the five elements that facilitate flow:
- Clearly Defined Goals
- Measuring Progress & Immediate Feedback
- Full Concentration
- Challenge & Skill Development Balance
Let’s break these down one by one.
1 | Clearly Defined Goals
One of the beautiful things in surgery is that you have a clearly defined goal before you ever enter the operating room. As a surgeon, you know what the diagnosis is, what procedure you’ll be doing, and the ideal anticipated outcome. As a race car driver, you’re either trying to shave seconds off your lap times during practice, or beat others on the track.
With school, it’s more nebulous. Is your goal to learn the information, or to get a good grade in the class?
2 | Measuring Progress & Immediate Feedback
Measuring progress in the operating room occurs in a stepwise manner. As your skills progress, error rate decreases, and consistency improves, you’re allowed to do more. First you retract during cases as a medical student, then you’re allowed to tie knots, then you suture and do closures, and then you’re able to open, meaning do the first incision, etc. On the race track, you can similarly measure your progress with segment times and see if your skills are trending in the right direction. In both instances, progress is easily measured and feedback is immediate.
With school, you may spend weeks studying for a large test or the MCAT, but the feedback, meaning your score, is delayed by days to weeks at minimum.
3 | Full Concentration
Part of the excitement of both operating and racing a car is that both demand your full attention. Failure to do so would be disastrous for the patient or could result in a dangerous crash on the race track.
With school, full concentration isn’t as strongly incentivized. How many times has your mind wandered while studying or taking a test? My point exactly.
4 | Challenge & Skill Development Balance
When learning to operate, you’re constantly being pushed slightly outside of your comfort zone, in that sweet spot balancing challenge with skill. With racing a car, there is a similar stepwise progression. In both instances, practicing your skills outside the operating room or off the race track allow you to take on larger challenges the next time you’re up to perform. You’re able to constantly and progressively increase the stakes to keep you fully engaged.
With school, sometimes classes feel far too easy, and at other times, far too difficult.
5 | Control
When operating or racing, you’re entirely in control. Proper preparation is rewarded handsomely, but the flip side is that with this level of control, a failure on your part can be disastrous to your patient or to other people on the race track.
With school, you have control over objective tests, like math and science. With others, such as history or English, a high level of subjective interpretation comes into play, and you better hope you’re on the teacher’s good side. Regardless, the stakes aren’t nearly as elevated in school, which works against entering a flow state.
How to Actually Enjoy School
If flow isn’t the answer, are we doomed to be miserable in school? I’d say no. If you currently don’t enjoy school but want to, keep reading.
1 | Measure Progress
We manage what we measure, and as humans we enjoy seeing progress. Have you ever tried losing fat or gaining muscle? In both instances, regularly measuring your progress, whether with pictures, a scale, or body fat calipers, is a key component of providing feedback and helping you stay motivated. It’s much more empowering to see the scale moving in the direction you want.
With school, you can measure your progress too. Some jump to the score they received on a test. However, no two tests are the same, and rather than measuring an absolute score, looking at percentiles would be more useful.
Let’s say you’re an average student, scoring around the 50th percentile. After reading Med School Insiders blog posts and implementing the study strategies I teach, you see your performance improving. On your next quiz or exam, maybe you’re hitting the 70th or 80th percentile, and it keeps moving up from there. That sort of progress is incredibly motivating and empowering to almost all the students I tutor.
2 | We Enjoy What We’re Good At
Going back to our earlier example of the runner that loves running or the student that loves math. Have you noticed that in both instances, they’re generally good runners or good at math? It’s no coincidence. We generally enjoy what we’re good at.
If you think you’re doomed because you’re not good at school, think again. Being good at school isn’t just dependent on factors out of your control. It’s much more dependent on the strategies and tactics you use. At Med School Insiders, we believe that any student can be exceptional with the right guidance and effort. Don’t believe me? Check out my Study Less, Study Smart video, viewed by over 1.3 million students, and peep the comments. I’m confident that if you follow the advice in that video, you’ll see immediate and drastic improvements in your own school performance.
3 | Embrace Competition
In today’s candy-ass climate where every kid gets a blue ribbon and a trophy for just participating, competition is vilified. But competition is a beautiful thing, and it’s incredibly important in helping you achieve your peak potential.
The value in competition isn’t about the focus of comparing yourself to others, but rather that it drives you to accomplish more than you thought possible. Have you ever tried racing someone on foot? You’ll go faster and farther than you thought possible, especially if it’s a close race, compared to if you were running on your own.
That being said, don’t be a gunner and bring other people down. The point of competition isn’t for you to do better than others, but for you to bring out the best in yourself. Being the stereotypical pre-med gunner and bringing down those around you to make yourself seem better is despicable, never excusable, and does the opposite of bringing out the best in yourself. Take pride in doing things the right way, and never take shortcuts or cut others down in the process.
4 | Make it Applicable
If you find a particular class boring or intolerable, consider this: it’s not the subject that’s the problem, but your perspective. One of the most powerful ways to motivate a student to become more interested in a subject is making it more applicable to something they care deeply about.
If you hate physics, try making it applicable to something you enjoy. Maybe that’s soccer, or racing cars, or planes. Guess what, physics is fundamental to how any of those function. If you hate history, extract the historical significance of something relatable to your daily life, like the architecture of buildings you regularly see on campus. Rather than just memorizing the facts, try to understand the perspectives and stories of the historical figures. If you’re struggling with biology, understand that the fundamentals are the basic building blocks from which you will build your medical knowledge that will allow you to be a future physician.
The End Goal: Autotelic Studying
Ultimately, if you can make school autotelic, you’ll be incredibly successful academically. An autotelic activity is one that isn’t a means to an end, but rather an end in and of itself. In other words, you enjoy the activity just for the sake of doing the activity.
When school becomes autotelic, you’ll become a weirdo like me. I studied for the MCAT with my two roommates during a summer in college. After taking the test, both lamented how they hated the experience, they were glad it’s over, and they never wanted to do that again. I almost felt embarrassed to say that I kind of enjoyed it. The amount of information we learned in such a short period of time was exhilarating. And it was more or less applicable to my future career as a physician.
Here’s the kicker: I scored quite well on my MCAT, better than both of my roommates. Was that because I enjoyed the process, or did I enjoy it because I scored well? Possibly a bit of both, but I’d argue those students who enjoy what they’re studying are going to outperform those who don’t, all else being equal. It’s simple — you try much harder at an activity when you actually enjoy said activity.
Once you make school autotelic, you’ve won the game. At that point, it’s a positive feedback loop. Because you enjoy the process of school, you work harder, which makes you better at it, which makes you enjoy it more. And so on and so forth.
What are some strategies you’ve used to make school more enjoyable? If you don’t find school enjoyable, tell me one new strategy you’re going to implement to make it more fun. I love hearing from you guys, so let me know with a comment down below.