I spent the last two months studying full-time for the MCAT.
The MCAT is a 7-ish-hour test that all future doctors must take to gain acceptance to medical school. As you would expect, it’s pretty difficult. It is a critical thinking examination that requires a pretty comprehensive understanding of Biology, Physics, Psychology, and all of the Chemistries. Common wisdom says to study between three and six months and to fake your death so that friends and family don’t bug you for a while. It’s a major stressor for pre-meds.
But I actually kind of liked it. Let me explain.
Discipline is its own reward
“Discipline is wisdom and vice-versa.”
—M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist
To study for an exam like the MCAT, discipline is really important. (The AAMC recommends 500 hours of study.) The last two months were probably the most disciplined months of my life.
And for some reason that sounds terrible to people. But it was awesome. Sure, I had to say no to a few social engagements. Yeah, I had to figure out a system for waking up early every morning. And I got really good at using my daily planner.
But being single-minded in the pursuit of a single goal is a gift that I don’t think many people experience. Most of the time I am so scatter-brained that my life has little to no coherence or clarity. A gigantic goal like the MCAT forces a level of single-mindedness that brings clarity to life’s other priorities.
The concept of discipline conjures images of restriction and suffering. But the purpose of discipline is joy. Discipline is the practice of rejecting a lesser love for a greater love. And that’s hard. Sleeping-in is wonderful. But it pales in comparison to my love for learning. Netflix is great. But exercising makes my body a lot happier. My future medical career will never trump my desire to post on Facebook.
Those priorities are rarely clear without the pressure of an all-consuming task (like the MCAT). While I would never study for the MCAT for the sake of it (just like no one goes to war for its own sake), the effects of an all-consuming task bring a delightful level of clarity through the hard road of discipline.
Learning is its own reward
“Fun is just another word for learning.”
—Raph Koster, video game designer
My friends in college had this weird habit of memorizing things. They memorized quotes, Bible verses, statistics, poetry, jokes, and their fair share of lines from The Office. Naturally, I began to memorize things.
Apparently, that is another thing that sounds terrible to people. But the thing about memorizing is that it is totally natural if you like the topic. If you like football, you have naturally memorized hundreds of statistics. If you like music, you have memorized thousands of lyrics. If you’ve ever watched a movie more than 20 times, you’ve basically got it memorized.
And we love to do it! We love to recall truths about the topics we love the most. We love to engage with subjects and ideas that make us happy. We love to share our love for something by reciting a quote or statistic.
So the fact that I actually enjoyed learning Biology for the sake of learning Biology shouldn’t be weird. It is weird. But that’s only because we have a utilitarian concept of knowledge. To us, knowledge is only as good as it is useful. We distinguish between “stuff I can use” and “stuff I can just look up.” In this world, business always trumps philosophy. Engineering always trumps art. History always loses.
A utilitarian concept of knowledge is lame. Learning for the sake of learning is awesome. And if I do well on this test (scores out in a month), it will be because I enjoyed learning for the sake of learning, not because I “learned what I needed to learn.”
Confidence isn’t as natural as you think
“Confidence is preparation in action.”
—Ron Howard, director
Since college, I have been engaged in a vicious Nature-Nurture Debate with my friends Greg and Luke. I am strongly camped on the side of “Nurture” and they are both in the “Nature” camp. None of us are budging any time soon.
One of the areas where I might have been willing to budge was on the idea of self-confidence. Naturally, it just seems like some people have it and others don’t. It’s easy to believe that confidence is just a personality thing. A lot of psychology research is showing that personality is quite genetic.
But when it comes to the kind of confidence that actually matters in life, screw genetics.
Yeah, some people are naturally outgoing. Some are more comfortable “winging it.” But 99% of the time we witness someone exuding “natural” confidence, it is in a low-stakes situation. The confidence that really matters is in the face of high-risk situations. And that kind of confidence MUST be practiced. Our “natural” response to the situations that actually matter are not ones of confidence. You don’t naturally do well on the MCAT. You don’t naturally crush an interview. You don’t naturally become the best in your field.
We have to work for the confidence that matters.
Psychologist Meg Jay says it well:
“Confidence doesn’t come from the inside out. It moves from the outside in… Real confidence comes from mastery experiences, which are actual, lived moments of success, especially when things seem difficult. Whether we are talking about love or work, the confidence that overrides insecurity comes from experience. There is no other way.”
—The Defining Decade
Learning to be wrong
“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.”
My strategy for studying for the MCAT was to be wrong as many times as possible. This meant that I took a ton of practice tests and answered practice problems for fun. I even took a random General Chemistry Final that I found on The Google.
But there are two ways to be wrong:
- Admit that you were wrong and didn’t actually know what you thought you knew
- Pretend that you were actually right all along
The first way is the best way to be wrong. But the second way is how we are usually wrong; it eliminates the cognitive dissonance we feel after learning that we aren’t omniscient.
We all know that success is impossible without failure. We need help. We need correction. We need it re-explained. We need criticism. We need people to tell us what we don’t know we don’t know. But we can’t reap any of the benefits of failure if we can’t admit that are often wrong.
And after being wrong hundreds of times these last two months, I’ve learned that being wrong is kind of its own skill. It’s kind of like learning to fall off of a horse.
In closing, I will let CS Lewis explain—through the mouth of a fictional, talking horse—how one should properly fall off of a horse. I think that it sums up what it was like to study for the MCAT.
“In other words,” it continued, “you can’t ride. That’s a drawback. I’ll have to teach you as we go along. If you can’t ride, can you fall?”
“I suppose anyone can fall,” said Shasta.
“I mean can you fall and get up again without crying and mount again and fall again and yet not be afraid of falling?”
― C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy