A favorite teacher of mine from high school once told our science class that we should always prepare for our tests. That if we covered it all the content, understood the concepts and how to apply them, and still failed then that’s actually ok. But to not prepare, which is how most of us operated at the time, was unacceptable because we’d already placed a limit on how well we could ever hope to perform.
The concept and his words really stuck with me. In the moment and forever since. Preparation is paramount and if you’re aren’t willing to prepare properly then why do whatever it is that you’re doing? It is a kind of mise en place for life. Just as the French cooking method instructs, before one cooks a meal they measure out and organise everything needed. French cuisine can be complex requiring many tools and ingredients, to mise en place might be the only way to get through making something even seemingly simply like a mousse au chocolat which requires multiple acts of wizardry to complete.
Years after that very teacher spoke to me and my classmates I found myself working as a science teacher next to him. I thought I’d share how impactful his words were and are on me. He didn’t remember saying them at all. Dismissing them as something he made up on the spot just to get a bunch of teenage boys to take their studying more seriously. Isn’t it funny how an offhand statement can alter the very way someone thinks about their life and the way they approach living?
Far from a South African high school science classroom and on an masters exchange program at an Italian university another side statement has landed like an atomic bomb. In a course on video game design the professor shared a short video clip from the GDC, Game Developers Conference, about some meta guidelines for game development. It is titled You’re doing it wrong and I recommend watching it even if you barely have a passing interest in how games are designed.
After the video ended the professor quickly commented that if at the end of the course we felt tired and exhausted we’re doing it wrong. That if it takes away from our lives and we don’t enjoy it we’re doing it wrong. And that no course we do at university and perhaps nothing in life should end in such a way because then we’re probably doing it wrong.
Wait, what? Why has no one ever said this to me before?
I’ve been doing it wrong.
So much of my undergraduate degree was agony. Most of my masters has been pure misery. The first semester was unrelenting. Social events were skipped under the weight of feeling I had to work to get things done. The end result? Lacklustre performance and with more regrets than happy memories.
I definitely did it wrong.
For months I’ve been anxious about settling on a thesis topic and more recently finding accommodation in a new city that is an unforgiving sellers’ market so bad I’ve tried to bribe a landlord with wine and more money just to allow me to be her tenant. So many pains that need not have been so.
It is easier with hindsight to see how something could’ve been done better. We have the benefit of learned information whereas in the moment the information is usually imperfect, inaccurate, and far from complete. But to recognise something as being much harder or unpleasant than it should be, I think, is an excellent method for at least improving the process. Everyone says a masters degree is hard and it shouldn’t be easy. But that doesn’t mean it should be painful, anxiety inducing or soul destroying. It also actually doesn’t mean it should be hard, perhaps a lot of people have been doing it wrong.
Tim Ferriss, a famous life hacker, self experimenter, and author, says in his podcasts that he often asks himself, “What would this look like if it were easy?” It’s a simple technique for revealing that we are often complicit in making life hard for ourselves. This too has stuck with me and I often ask myself but I don’t think I allowed myself the right to re-evaluate my entire paradigm as to whether I was just totally wrong.
My class in videogame design is supposed to be fun. It’s about video games after all. Even when they’re fiendishly difficult we still play them for hours at a time. If I don’t think I’ll enjoy a game I won’t even consider trying it. It is a high bar but fitting somehow that in a class I wasn’t supposed to take, in an exchange program I shouldn’t be on, in country I never dreamed of living in, I now understand that I’ve been doing it wrong. You might be too.