Doing what we think is the minimum necessary is more difficult than being fully committed

A couple of years ago, I committed to giving a series of lectures (a sort of mini-course) on measure theory at the Universidad de El Salvador. Not a big deal except for two challenges. (1) Teaching at a primarily undergraduate institution, we don’t have a course on measure theory, so I haven’t ever taught a formal course in the subject. (2) I had to give these lectures in Spanish; my Spanish is fluent, but communicating mathematics, especially a challenging topic like measure theory, in Spanish is definitely much more difficult than carrying on an everyday conversation.

About a month before the lectures were to begin, I began thinking about what I would prepare to make sure that I survived the experience. I basically began thinking about what would be the minimum amount of work required so that the lectures would not be a complete disaster. I thought about lecturing straight out of a book without writing lecture notes. I thought about providing problem sets in English so that I wouldn’t have to be challenged writing exercises in Spanish. I focused on making sure that I would not do any extra work and still not embarrass myself. Anyway, the endeavor was stressful and very psychologically challenging.

After a few days of approaching the preparation in this way, I changed my complete approach: I decided that I was going to do all the work and preparation necessary so as to deliver the absolute best set of lectures of my entire life.

As soon as I made that attitude shift, the stress went away and everything seemed to become easy. I was no longer hampered by the mindset that I was not going to do an iota more work than what was necessary to “get away” with something mediocre. I was no longer upset about writing and rewriting lecture notes and exercises in Spanish or working on something for a few hours which in the end I decided not to use. I no longer considered the endeavor a time sink. I was only interested in doing my absolute best. This was refreshingly liberating and so much easier than trying to do something half-ass. I worked on the lectures very hard for the next few weeks and during the time that I was delivering them, but doing so felt so easy. The task was no longer complicated.

Experiencing the refreshing and liberating feelings that came about because of going full-steam into a project/endeavor was a valuable lesson that I was not expecting. I reflected on this and remembered that there have been other times in my life when I have been very busy and tired, but also very happy because I was pouring my heart and soul into something. I also remembered some unhappy times when I was just trying to do the minimum to get through something.

In retrospect, what happened is not all that surprising given my experience as an educator. Indeed, I have had students (as I am sure many of us have) who spend hours and hours figuring out how to get away with doing the minimum on an assignment or studying the absolute minimum to get a “C” in a class or finding solutions to exercises on the Internet. They usually end up wasting a lot of psychological and emotional energy trying to “game the system” and not doing very well whether it be on an assignment or a class. Whereas the students that are diligent and aim high for an “A” in every class, usually end up being the ones that have the best attitude and seem more content.

Another (albeit somewhat tangential example) is what some folks do with parking tickets. It’s happened to most of us, that p.o.’ed feeling when we come back to our car and see that envelope on the windshield. We are so upset with the citation that we say to ourselves, “I am not going to pay this until the very last day possible. The city is not getting my money any earlier than necessary.” We then put the ticket on a counter or desk in our house and get upset and stressed for 3-4 weeks every time we look at it. I’ve learned to simply PAY THE DARN TICKET as soon as I get home. That way, I am upset for a few minutes, mail in the fine, and then I am done with it. I don’t have to look at the upsetting envelope for 3-4 weeks. Think about it, the city doesn’t care when it gets your money. In other words, going “all in” in the simple task of paying a parking fine, ends up reducing stress and making me more content.

In summary, since my experience preparing those measure theory lectures, whenever I commit to doing something, whether it be something minor or something truly important, I try to approach it with the attitude that I am going to give it my absolute best. It really is emotionally and psychologically easier that approaching the endeavor with the “what is the absolute minimum that I can do to survive this.”

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1 Response to Doing what we think is the minimum necessary is more difficult than being fully committed

  1. Avatar Erika says:

    Something definitely worth sharing not just with my students but also my 14 yr. old son. We have all gone through similar situations but many of us never make the connection. Thank you!

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