Lessons from my Dad - Can't Expect Others to Fail
I am remembering things about my Dad by writing them here. I will share a story where my Dad used one line to change my approach to studying that changing my future forever.
I hope you will learn a little about my Dad, how he shaped my future so concisely and a lot about me.
This will take you less than five minutes to read.
I finished my first semester of university and I went from being one of the top marks in all of my high school to being average in my classes in university.
This was a shock.
I had plans of entering in the most elite engineering specialization in my university, computer engineering co-operative. They only took 50 people from a class of over 500 or something per year.
The way the university decides who got into which specializations were by demand and applicant’s grade point average. The top averages of the ones that applied got in until filling the quota. Simple.
My average after that first semester put me far off from getting into my desired specialization. Even if I had perfect marks the second semester, I would not make last year’s cut off, not a good sign.
I was telling my Dad about my situation and my approach to studying in university over high school. The university uses a curved grading system, that I didn’t have in high school. In high school, I did all the work and still got the top mark. Everyone could get the top mark. There were no limits.
For university, I took a different appraoch as I had more courses and more independence as I was away from home. With a curve, I didn’t feel that I needed to do much more work to achieve stellar results.
I wanted to maximize my return on investment, by hoping that I got a little more correct than everyone else on a test I would “ride the curve” to a great grade. All the while, still have time to hang out with my new friends.
My Dad heard this thinking then told me:
To get the best grade, you can’t expect everyone in the class to fail.
When my Dad told me that, I was thinking: Dad, you don’t understand. I just have to get a bit better than everyone else, there’s a curve to the grades, not like high school.
I thought a bit more before responding.
I realized he was right. I was hoping for everyone else to fail with my strategy.
The real question: with a class size over 500 people, was anyone actually failing?
From my first semester, the answer was: unequivocal no.
Back to Basics
I realized that I had to revamp my strategy. My pride was hurting but I still had a semester left to make up for my average first semester. My mom told me:
You need to know the book because the book won’t know you.
That’s when I went back to the books. I took the winter break and set a desk up in the basement to be distraction free, no TV, no comics … (hmm, distractions then are so different than now.)
Breaking Bad Habit
A bad habit I picked up from the first semester was I only did the bare minimum. Did the homework and memorized the homework for the tests.
Well, this time I loaded up on doing the homework and related concepts. I would still memorize the homework for tests. I would go above and beyond by covering the chapters the lectures covered and did those as practice.
I believe university homework always felt insane, especially going from high school and taking a course load of six courses a semester. Well, the homework for math the second semester was insanely hard. How did I know?
The math department had a rule that any of their masters’ student would be available to help with homework to anyone that asked.
After attempting the homework, I went to the floor with the masters’ students and asked for help. The homework perplexed them. They had no idea how to solve the questions. Even they had to pull our their answer sheet (which they were all supplied with!) and used it to help me.
Think about this: a person dedicated to math for the last four years of their life needs to consult the answer sheet for homework of a second semester math course.
That’s when I knew the homework was insane. I got the homework “done” (thanks to masters students) and instead of lounging around, I went back to doing exercises from the book.
When the math mid-term came, my game plan was to memorize all the homework and master all the concepts from the text book by doing them.
I still remember the day the results came back. The average for any test for my classes were in the 75% range. I got my test and saw an 80%.
Ugh - just average, again. What did I miss?? Is this strategy not paying off?
When the professors announced the class average, they prefaced it with: this was a total shock to them. The math average for all of engineering was 40%, our class had a bit higher at 50%.
I got 80% on a test where the average was 50%?? Where I doubled the average for the whole engineering class!? Basically, most of the engineering class failed?!
This. Changed. Everything.
Not only did I do everything to do my best, but everyone did fail.
If I took the approach from the first semester, I would be “average” and failed with everyone else.
Instead, this approach pushed me to my best, even when everyone else failed.
The math homework for the second semester was insane because the homework author was part of the math quiz team. He made our homework from his question set, which were for super math nerds (even more than math masters’ students!)
That semester did work out to a near perfect semester for me. That spring was magical. I still remember walking the halls then writing this story.
I didn’t get into the elite specialization I wanted, but I got into a choice that’s highly related: electrical engineering co-operative. This led me to more adventures and probably my destiny.
My father saw right through my first semester strategy and with one line blew the strategy to bits.
Sometimes, I really wonder what my life would be if my Dad did not say that one line…