If sleep forces us to consolidate our memories every day, the act of graduating initiates a more profound sleep. Today I’m confronted with the formidable task of sleeping on four years of academic work. I have two hours to reduce the material I’ve spent 2,184 hours of class time learning into three piles: the backpack (to reread), the binder (to reference), and the basket (to recycle).
But, wait. I didn’t actually spend 2,184 hours of class time on these readings, notes, and lecture slides. Be real, Jesse. I probably skipped over half of the actual class time required to generate all of this paper. So let’s not be too sentimental about it.
The truth is, some entire classes — 42 class-hours plus countless hours of work outside — get thrown straight into the basket pile with no due process or review. So what separates the lessons I’ll carry in my backpack forever from the ones that have already long been thrown into the wastebasket?
Analyzing the mountain of paper is instructive. There’s a strong correlation between the size of the pile and its chance of getting summarily trashed. Often, it turns out, professors have a certain self-consciousness about their classes, and it shows in how much paper they generate. Fifty-page lectures, hundreds of pages of readings, required note-taking, and so on. These forms of coercion amount to a way of saying “I’m important, pay attention to me. Or else.”
Now, I’m no coward with respect to reading. I love information. And a long reading is justified when it’s the sort of pithy text that tickles your consciousness with every turn of the page. So don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for ‘dumbing down’ school or reducing academic rigor.
But there’s a big difference between rigor that’s out to teach something and rigor that’s out to prove something.
Ideas that have made it into my backpack — the things that I will forever carry with me into every organization, and evangelize to every person I meet — are deceivingly simple. The Heath brothers would say that such ideas are ‘made to stick‘. Simple, unexpected, concrete, and empowering.
It goes beyond the stickiness of a few ideas, however. The classes worth remembering are often consummately so. There are entire bodies of knowledge I love and repeat constantly in my life. Shoutouts are due… to organizational behavior (MGMT 238 – Adam Grant), emerging economies (LGST 216 – Phil Nichols), and information strategy (OPIM 469 – Lorin Hitt and OPIM 666/210 – Eric Clemons). Their entire classes have made it into the backpack and the binder, and I will remember them for the rest of my life.
What these four professors did was extraordinary, and it ultimately amounts to bravery. A quality that I’d call “courageous distillation“. Looking at an overwhelming trove of knowledge in one’s subject area, and spending significant energy deciding what’s important, distilling it into memorable stories. And more importantly, having the courage to decide that, even if a textbook exists for the subject, most of it is actually not important, and won’t make it into students’ backpacks.
Unfortunately, that type of courage is almost entirely lacking in academic disciplines with texts. Somehow, having something bound with a shiny cover that others in the field use gives one license to lose all creativity. But teaching for actual learning will always be an art, and finding lessons worth remembering is a subtractive process.
Seems to me that the key to all of this is being willing to let go of some ego, and to actually make decisions — to let go of notions that every method and finding in one’s entire field of study deserves regurgitation, and find the messages at the core. So professors, if you’re listening, rewrite the textbooks, create classes that are uniquely your own, and rediscover the essence of what you’re teaching through students’ eyes. And do that over and over, every year. You might even learn something in the process.
These lessons aren’t limited to academia. As I move forward in my life, I need to constantly remind myself that not everything I do is important, and to be courageous enough that I’ll periodically re-evaluate my work and distill it further. I will never be afraid of empowering others to take my life’s work and do more with it than I had dreamed.
I’ll forever thank the nine professors whose class notes made it into the backpack and the binder. Beyond those few, I’m just glad that paper, like memory, is recyclable.