Thursday, May 25, 2017

Difficult vs. Complicated: Don't Get it Twisted!

So I'm in a real, honest-to-goodness work lull right now.  I've got exactly 1 class that I'm teaching at the moment, and exactly one student that I'm tutoring.  Yes, this feels weird.

For the last few years, I've been doing that whole Gig Economy thing.  I've been tutoring, adjunct teaching, doing my Reserve drills, and then slowly but surely building a dividend income stream alongside those other incomes.  This whole state of being sort of came about accidentally/incidentally, as the 'side gigs' were originally intended to support a main effort involving a business that I started in b-school.  (Looking back, it's easy to see that I was "all thrust and no vector" but hey, sometimes lessons need to be learned the hard way).  If you add up all my income sources, it basically comes out to be pretty much what you'd expect from someone a couple years out of an MBA program.  On the bright side, it's been more independent...on the not-so-bright side, it's led to the state of 'perma-work' that I've described in some of the sporadic blog posts from that period.  If you currently hold a full-time, salaried, steady job with benefits and vacation time, then becoming a Gig Economy perma-worker is just about the LAST thing I would ever wish upon you. As my friend Rick would say, it's "no way to run a railroad."

I don't want to jinx anything but it looks like I *might* be starting something more traditionally full-time (and salaried!) in the near future, final details pending.  That means I'll put those reindeer games behind me...I'll miss some parts of that at times, but I'll also enjoy not taking the 9:45 p.m. train from North Station each night (really? Yes, really), and it'll be better on the family front, too.

Now that I've caught you up on all that, I want to share just one observation (more will be forthcoming) that I learned over the past 4+ years as a GMAT tutor:  Many answers in life are difficult, but not complicated.  But many people don't *want* difficulty, so they fall back on 'complicated' as a crutch.  

Let me explain:  I can tell you exactly what you need to do in order to get a great GMAT score. Believe me, believe me, believe me, believe me -- this, I know.   Of course, there's a bit more to it, but in a nutshell, there's a huge body of material that you need to work your way through, and you need to closely examine every single error you make.  You can't just casually brush mistakes off under the guise of 'yeah, yeah, yeah, that's what I meant to say' after seeing the right answer, and you can't just dismiss all your mistakes as 'careless.' You need to painstakingly do this, and your process needs to be repetitive to the point that it almost physically hurts.  You need to determine what it was that you missed in the statement, what math rule you didn't know, or what strategy you didn't employ in order to tighten the wiring between here and there.  And then you need to make that flashcard, and review it so many times that you curse it, and that you curse my name for making you do it.

Simple enough, right?  No.

Here's the rub:  That process absolutely sucks.  It's a huge pain.  EVERYONE nods along during our first session together and earnestly tells me they're quaffing my Kool-Aid, but NOT everyone really does.  Those who embrace it?  770s, 740s, 750s, name it, my students have scored it.  My proudest 'jump' ever came from an international student who started sub-500 but wound up with a 660 through a combination of equal parts brainpower and willpower.  Not every story, however, ended with the Rocky theme music playing, along with text messages that had twenty exclamation points following each short sentence.

So when it went wrong, what went wrong?  Most people don't want to do things that completely suck. As Kevin Hart would say, "Everybody wants to be famous...nobody wants to do the work."  

Maybe that's obvious, though -- what male ever made it through adolescence without a behind-the-woodshed talk about work ethic from Dad?  Maybe saying that people avoid hard things is like saying water is wet.  A slightly more interesting spin on it, methinks, is this:  Sometimes, as a way of shirking away from the World of Difficult, people seek solace in ComplicatedLand.  In other words, to specifically avoid doing something difficult, we convince ourselves that some clever way forward -- if only revealed to us -- would get us to the desired pot of gold, sans the sturm und drang along the way.

"But isn't there something you can do...with data?  I mean, can't you analyze one of my practice tests and then just tell me what I need to do, and then I can just ace this thing?"

"No, actually.  All I can analyze from your test is what you did well, and what you missed.  As for the things you missed, I can show you the very best ways to turn those 0s to 1s, so to speak.  And I can't predict exactly what you'll see on GameDay -- no one can.  So you need to cover ALL of the Official Guide material -- I can't just cherry pick 30 out of the 300 problems and tell you, in good faith, to *just* study those. I'll help you unpack each miss, and as we systematically do that -- rinse, repeat -- you'll continually get better."

"Yeah, yeah, right...I can just look the answers up myself...but back to my question -- can't you just tell me exactly what I need to study in order to go north of 700?   What you're describing doesn't sound very efficient, or personalized to me."

"Well, yes, and no.  You need to know this huge body of material..." And so it begins anew.

I imagine this to be no different from a patient, thirty pounds overweight, who goes to see his doctor.

"Hey Doc...whaddaya got?  I'm trying to lose a few.  What can I do?"

"Well, have you considered exercising more?  Taking the stairs instead of the elevator?  Walking to your office from a different T station?  What about just going from two donuts to one in the morning, or starting your day by eating a banana instead?"

"Whoa,, no, that's not what I meant.  I mean, all those years of medical school, all those years in practice, and all you've got is 'diet and exercise.'  That's what got you all that sheepskin on your wall, doc?  C'mon...can't you figure out what's up with my glands, and just prescribe something for it?  Can't you just give me something topical to apply to my stomach that will give me washboard abs after a few weeks?"

Here, the doctor's initial Rx -- more exercise, healthier diet -- is not only time-honored, but it's essentially 'free' and it's more effective than literally any medication under the Sun.  But it's difficult. It requires sacrifice...and lifestyle changes.  Someone not ready to do either of those things can either: a) come to grips with that and try to find a way past it [by the way, the answer is incrementalism!! And I could, and probably will, write entire post(s) on that topic later on] or b) spurn it entirely, opting instead to believe in something much more complicated but far less difficult (some sort of advanced scientific solution that delivers the same solution, minus the burden on the patient).

I would suspect that much of this applies to nearly any common life goal.  Look at, for instance, people's New Year's Resolutions -- learning a new language, reading the Great Works canon, writing a novel, losing weight, learning how to play a new instrument, gaining new tech skills, improving their Army Physical Fitness Test two-mile run time, staying in touch with relatives, etc.  All of those goals are only met with a considerable level of difficulty, but are any of them really that complicated? 


Jon and Kate said...

This is a great post.

I think one of the signs you're in ComplicatedLand is that you are constantly making excuses and rationalizations. I see this in LA all the time. The question I'm asked the most is "how do you become a screenwriter?" And before I respond, person says, "It's all about the connections, right?" The truth is it's not. It's much more DIFFICULT -- consistently produce really good work over the course of 2-3 years and I guarantee you you will succeed. But that's not an easy thing to do. It involves making sacrifices. It involves really honestly looking at your skills and failures. Connections are actually the easy part. The difficult thing is getting your butt in the chair for hours a day while working a day job you can't stand while everyone in your life is hushingly or overtly questioning your choices.

The other thing about CompLand is that everyone is blaming something or someone. The system. The rich kids. The patriarchy. Etc etc. Those things are all real barriers for entry, but they all fall down when someone is willing to work with The Difficult.

The New Englander said...

Yes! And I love how the people answer their own question before you can even respond -- to the person doing that, it's somehow way more cognitively comforting to think "connections" must somehow be the answer, as if the relative quality of a creative endeavor like a screenplay were a mere afterthought.

Grinding something out against all odds, at the cost of everything that's being sacrificed in the short-term, is a prospect that, well, sucks. It's a journey to the center of the World of Difficult, which is neither a nice place to visit nor somewhere you'd want to live. In CompLand, nothing is really hard, but you have to know the magic formulas and secret handshakes. Once armed with THOSE, you can magically just have all the rainbows and lollipops, minus the 18-hour work days.

I also like the point about barriers. In nearly any endeavor, some people will have to work harder than others. I once wanted to be a basketball star. Had I grown to be 6'10"? Sure would've been a lot easier. But that's not enough of an excuse...there are plenty of people my height or shorter who make it to NCAAs or even the NBA. I'm sure with dieting there are some people who really *do* eat whatever they want, never work out, but somehow stay rail-thin. But instead of focusing on *those* people, someone who honestly and earnestly wants to shed 10 might consider cooling it w/the talk about glands and hormones and magic pills (complicated stuff) and try that whole stairs-instead-of-elevator approach (difficult yet straightforward, and certainly uncomfortable).