being “smart” is hard work

March 5, 2007

As an undergrad I had a Physics and Computer Science professor that made complex problems seem incredibly easy to solve when he explained how to work through them. You had to pay attention, but his explanations were always dead-on. Later, though, when I “[tried] to get to work” I would find that it wasn’t so easy on my own. For the longest time I thought it was hopeless. I struggled along, but thought I’d never “be able to really understand something like Physics.” You had to be “smart” to understand these things, you see; my professor was just “smart” and “smart” people just get away with this shit.

One day he asked the class to come up with a solution to a problem he had just talked about for half an hour (or something like that). When there was no response from the class he said something like “come on guys: this stuff wasn’t obvious to me when I was learning it either.” Simple as it seems, this has stuck with me for years now.

At that point I realized that he didn’t start out knowing how to do “this stuff” any more than anyone else. I started to wonder if maybe he worked out a few problems working as a Physicist at a particle accelerator after working his ass off for years getting a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics. Now it’s obvious to me that he worked hard for a long time to come to his understanding of what he teaches, but at the time it just wasn’t obvious.

No kidding, right?

And so how do you become an expert at anything? How do things become so damned easy for you that it makes others want to throw things?

You practice!

Once I realized this I started sticking with Physics. I reread those pages until it made sense and wrote out the problems even when they didn’t. I sat down, shut up, and worked through it. Amazingly enough, I learned how to do some Physics and more importantly, I learned how to focus for longer than three minutes. As a bonus I learned that when your head hurts from banging it on the wall you should stop banging your head on the wall. Someone has likely banged their head on that wall. Maybe you should talk to them. At a bare minimum you could find someone to bang heads on the wall with.

Hugh MacLoud says something similar about practicing and his “cartoons drawn on the back of business cards.” He says that if you want to go and make better cartoons on the back of business cards, go ahead. The idea isn’t valuable. He makes clear that what is valuable is that he’s drawn thousands (tens of thousands?) of those suckers. You wish you could draw like that? Why don’t you go draw on some business cards for a decade and see if it might “come natural” to you.

If you want to be able to do something so well that it seems trivial you’ve got to crank through the work. You’re not done yet. You probably haven’t even started. Get to work: it’s the most enjoyable part.



  1. Ohhhh wise extantproject! We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!

    No, but seriously, dude. Good post. I’m going to link to you! (Watch out, you might get some churchy pumpkin traffic.)

  2. Some years ago I read a similar comment by Patty Berg, the pro golfer. At a dinner party a newspaper reporter commented that he’d saw her hit a magnificent 9-iron shot that day in a tournament; he said I’d really like to be able to make a shot like that! She said, Oh, you can. Oh? he said, how?
    Patty Berg replied, Well, you get a bucket of balls, and you hit them all with your 9-iron. You keep practicing. You keep on hitting those chip shots until your hands bleed and you can’t take it any more. Then, tomorrow, you come out and you do the same thing. …. Pretty soon you’ll be able to make great chip shots too.


  3. I totally agree with your article, but sometimes it was frustrating for me to work very hard and not get the best results while some people did not work very hard and had very good results. I guess I still haven’t worked hard enough.

  4. There’s a tale told about many concert pianists, and it’s probably apocryphal, but the sentiment is true. It seems that $pianist was at a reception following the recital, and a woman came up to him and said, “Oh, $pianist, I would give my life to be able to play as well as you!” He smiled at her and replied, “But, madam, I did.”

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