Take What You Can
When I was younger, I wanted to understand everything that was taught to me in class. If the teacher presented it, I wanted to understand it. I was determined to get everything. This extended throughout my secondary and undergraduate education, where I made sure I could do everything that was asked of me.
For my master’s degree, I joined a theoretical physics program that is quite different than the norm. One of the hallmarks of the program is its quickness.
Classes are very short (they tend to be about a month long), which means a lot of content gets covered in a short period. Unlike some of the others, I did not have prior exposure to most of the content, so I was getting everything from scratch. This was great in terms of raw information being thrown at me, but it also meant I couldn’t absorb it all. There was just too much.
My younger self would have become frustrated. I would have resisted, working myself non-stop to understand everything that came up. I also would have been on the path to burnout.
At first, I tried to follow my usual route. It didn’t go well. The rapidity of the classes was too high to have time to sit down and absorb it all. So I quickly came to a decision: I wasn’t going to feel bad if I didn’t get everything. In fact, I would embrace the mindset of taking what I could from classes, and nothing more. If I only understood a few things from a lecture, that was okay. If I didn’t develop a precise understanding of all the topics over the course of the class, that was fine too. My goal was simple: understand a few things, and that’s it.
You might read this and think that it’s the attitude of someone who gave up. I would argue that it’s the attitude of someone who knows their limits. There’s no need to push yourself for the sake of your ego. Understanding a bunch of topics is great, but it can easily fall over into trying to understand too many things at once. At that point, you’re not helping yourself.
This mindset offered so much more freedom to me. It allowed me to see that I wasn’t a failure if I struggled to keep up with the rapid pace that new ideas were flung at me. Instead, I just had to do my best to absorb what I could, and move on with that.
I like to think of it as adopting a zen attitude. I don’t worry as much about only getting a few ideas. Actually, it helps me focus when I’m listening to a presentation or am in a class.
I have to admit that my particular situation does help. In my program, everything is pass/fail, so there’s no incentive to pretending you know everything for the sake of a good grade. I have the luxury of choosing a few ideas that interest me and try to understand those. It’s a privilege that I know exists for me.
But I think this way of operating is much closer to what you need to do outside of school. Having a little bit of knowledge of a lot of things is good, but being able to go deeper on a few topics is what really distinguishes you from others.
That’s why I don’t even pretend to myself that I’ll get all of the finer details from a course anymore. Instead, I simply take what I can, and am happy with that.