Friday, 11 October 2013


Like every good storyteller, I saved the best for last. So do not be dismayed, here are the last four pointers you will need if you are going to triumph over education.  

 5. Familiarise yourself with old war stories
"It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

There is nothing new under the sun, and everything that will be has been before. This is not to say give up on whatever you are doing due to a lack of novelty. Rather it is to say that the underlying principles that govern or dictate any position you find yourself in are neither new nor are they unique to you. As humans we are hardwired to think the world revolves around us, notice that in a busy town centre some people are so inconsiderate to just cut across your path. However, from their point of view you were that inconsiderate person who almost cut across their path had they not quickened their steps. The same concepts apply when good things happen to you, obviously because you are amazing and bad things happen to you because life is so unfair and the whole world is against you.

I am sure you never had it this bad

In its totality, your life is unique, but the individual experiences that make up that life are not. However here is the silver lining to the dark cloud which is the commonness of your position; if there is nothing new under the sun then someone has already been where you are. This means two things:
  • This someone made it through the dark tunnel and is on the other side. If so they can advise and support you, offering useful hints on how to make it out of the tunnel yourself. 

  • This someone is still in the tunnel which is bad news for them but good news for you because you can learn what not to do, effectively learning from their mistakes.
Whichever way you look at it, taking the time to hear the old war stories from other students who are above you is always helpful. You are likely to face similar problems which you will then be able to solve in a fraction of the time it took them. 

6. Comrades in arms
"There are not more than five primary colors, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever be seen" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

So what about the experiences which your superiors in this fight to conquer education cannot help with? Or she has now moved back to Italy and started a new post-doc position which is just wonderful because this is when you could really use her help to calibrate that one machine in the lab which is prone to give false data? The answer to both questions is ‘happy hour’.

"It's all mineeeeeeeeee"

I don’t mean ‘happy hour’ when you drink away your sorrows. I mean ‘happy hour’ when you share your sorrows. Here the sense of camaraderie is essential but the alcohol is optional. This could happen in the pub, in the university hallways, at the canteen, in the library, behind your desk or even when you bump into old friends. It’s true, ‘misery loves company’, but this misery is prone to disappear once the talking begins and you realise you are not alone. Sometimes you come away with a new perspective which helps you appreciate your position and other times you come away with a new insight which helps you approach your work from a different angle. Simply put, always surround yourself with comrades who are trying to accomplish the same goals you are. Like King Arthur, you also need your knights of the round table if you are going to take down the Morgana that is education.

 7. Quality over quantity
"One hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skilful, subduing the others military without battle is the most skilful" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

I cannot count how many times I heard it said to me that there is a difference between working 'hard' and working 'wise', and believe me there is. It makes the difference between constantly hitting your head against a brick wall in the hopes of bringing the wall down (working hard), or investing in some dynamite to achieve the same goal (working wise). Let me paint another scenario; two guys walk into the woods to cut down trees with their brand new but rather blunt axes. Why is it blunt when it's brand new? Because they bought it from that dodgy guy who owns the corner store which always sells cheap stuff (every city has a guy like that, mine is called Dodgy Dave, if you are living on a student budget I advise you get to know yours).

You want it? He's got it.

So back to our guys in the woods, the first guy goes straight to work, picks a tree and starts hacking it down. He reasons he doesn't have much daylight left so although the axe is blunt he needs to do the best with what he has. He goes at that tree like a beast, non-stop till the job is done. The second guy reasons the same, but he spends time sharpening the axe and picking out a tree easy to fell. Now this story usually ends with the second guy finishing first but I believe there is greater lesson to be learnt here (I will come back to this on my next point). Nonetheless, you can be sure that only one guy is waking up with a sore back the next morning.

I will always advocate quality over quantity, but more often than not this requires one to invest more time. Quality over quantity refers to the product not the time spent on completing the product. In my undergraduate years, I could write a 3000 word essay overnight but my highest scoring essay was 1500 words in length and I had spent almost two weeks on it. The grade (quality) a piece of work receives can be predicted by the time (quantity) invested into it. So yes quality over quantity, but be prepared to spend time sifting through dirt to find that gem. 

8. Praise and ridicule are separated by success or failure
"Never venture, never win" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Now back to my two guys with the blunt axes from Dodgy Dave. Let’s assume it took the second guy forever to find a stone to sharpen his axe and then he chipped the blade while sharpening it so that by the time the sun set, he had only just started chopping down the tree. People will look at that and call him lazy because he tried to avoid all the handwork our first guy put in to get the job done. Better yet, imagine if Leonidas and his 300 men had failed on the first night to hold off the Persian army at the Hot gates. People will call him an incompetent king and rightly so.

What I am trying to say is this; thinking outside the box comes with a risk. If you succeed; you are hailed as an effective genius. if you fail; you are heckled as a lazy person who likes to cut corners. Be ready to deal with both outcomes. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

"Nobody does it like Leonidas"

Follow me on twitter @Tom_DAT

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