Resilience Is a Skill

Joren emailed with a neat question. He explained that while he enjoyed his engineering curriculum, there were two classes he did not enjoy, required for his degree but irrelevant to his practical studies. Worse, they were lower level undergraduate classes when he was excelling at graduate level classes in electrical engineering. He asked

How do you stay motivated when you have subjects that are unrelated to your actual studies keeping you from getting your degree, and risk failing them and by doing so ruining your chance to get the degree you want?

I really enjoyed answering Joren.

Hello Joren,

You remind me of the story of a famous French mathematician, kicked out of his polytechnic for refusing to pass literature or history. He wrote an incredibly important proof but it took years for anyone to understand because he was terrible at writing. And he raised a glass to a toast which turned out to be sedition, went to prison, caught tuberculosis, insulted (or worse) his nurse, and was killed in a duel over that.

I'm sure you aren't that bad (that guy was a jerk). Maybe if he'd gotten out of his head and read some Dumas, he could have written his proof so people could understand it (also: The Three Musketeers is full of action sequences, useful in mathematical treatises). Maybe if he'd learned a little bit of history he wouldn't have died tragically young for failing to understand the nuances of the political situation.

Why would you need Organic Chemistry and Business Management? Well, if you whip out some ochem factoid in the future at a meeting, it will make you sound like a genius. "Your robot would be better with blah-de-blah lubrication due to the blahblahblah properties of something-carbonish." And Business Management? That's all sorts of useful with having your own company someday or with making sure that a company you work at is not dying, dumb, or doing illegal things. Also, it’s always good to understand where your paycheck comes from and how it gets to you.

I'm definitely of the school of thought that no knowledge is wasted and it comes up in strange ways, years after you expect.

But! That's not my advice to you at all.

See, the thing you are doing in college is figuring out how to learn. The easy, fun, and interesting classes are essentially a waste of your tuition dollars and time. Sorry, but you can/would learn those things on your own. These annoying, boring classes are key to your success. Because if you figure out how to become interested in the classes you don't like, you will do better in industry (or higher academics).

Actual tips for doing that? Well, it depends on what you don't like about the courses.

Organic Chemistry is a lot of memorization. Can you imagine building a game to help? I don't recommend building the game, it would be a time suck but what could you do to make it fun for a user? You may find there are already such games and that trying the games out is an effective way to put this information in your head.

Business Management is likely boring and tedious (wow, that encapsulates my experience with accounting). How would you teach this material to be less boring and tedious? Not necessarily gamification as suggested above but pedagogy: how to make this subject relevant to people who probably truly need it? How would you teach this to your kid brother? Or to a nice barista with dreams of owning a coffee shop?

Both of these are ways of getting good at a subject without trying learn the subject. Teaching something is harder than learning it but sometimes it is a lot more fun.

There are other options: maybe start a twitter feed (or use an existing one) to find one interesting factoid in every lecture/chapter/page for the classes you don't like. This path lets you consciously note that while the class is pointless, there is a little spark of interest occasionally.

(Be sure to tweet any errors in the book, not maliciously but because finding errors in books is an unbelievably awesome skill.)

Make little goals for yourself and absolutely sink to self-bribery to meet the goals: one peanut per page of reading, per question completed on homework, or per ten correctly answered flashcards.

If the teacher is awful and the material difficult (mmmm.... E&M, I still don't like you), try to find someone who can help you. Don't be afraid to ask another professor or TA. Another student may be willing to trade tutoring in a subject you excel in. Find a buddy in the class if you can and explain things to each other. Don't give up because the material hard. Consider an online open course, augment your lectures with someone who is better at explaining.

Don't get mad at the subject and don't get mad at the professor, that's counterproductive. Instead, find something positive (or at least mildly interesting) if you can. Try to accept that this is training to read poorly written datasheets (or math treatises).

You are gaining the very useful, relevant and real experience of pushing through that bit of boring, exhausting yuck to actually ship a product. You are building resilience as a skill.

Don't give up. You can do this. It will be worth it.

Best wishes,


PS It is ok to fail as long as you get up and do it again, properly this time.

PPS Galois. I can never remember his name, dang it. That guy was a jerk but his theory is taught in latter part of a good abstract algebra course or beginning graduate algebra. It can be used to show there is no general formula in terms of roots powers and coefficients for the solutions to a polynomial equation of degree five and above.