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College only teaches you one thing — how to learn anything in a long weekend

April 13, 2020
College studying
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I was sitting in a seminar for admitted students, nervously waiting for the classroom to quiet down so I could listen to the professor start his lecture. As a high school senior, sitting in a college classroom for the first time was both exhilarating and intimidating at the same time. Then the professor walked in:

“Good morning, I teach physics, and a course on the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.”

Photo by Galen Crout on Unsplash

I was HOOKED. This is what college is all about, aliens! Then he said something that only later I realized impacted my life in profound ways, and I would practice constantly:

“The only thing college teaches you is how to learn anything in a long weekend”

I looked at my mom, who was mortified, and I was SOLD. I signed up to be a freshman at the University of Puget Sound and never looked back.

To this day, I struggle to remember any of the specific facts I learned in college. I can’t recite the periodic table off the top of my head and I can’t for the life of me remember the names of the Roman emperors. But every single weekend, and most weekdays, I’m constantly learning new things, and I’ve come to recognize three lessons in that statement.

College teaches you how to learn anything in a long weekend

This may sound hyperbolic, but it’s true. And by a long weekend, we’re talking something like Thursday to Sunday night. Now, this doesn’t mean you can become an expert on, for example, corporate financial deal structuring in a long weekend, but in reality, you don’t need to be an expert on everything all at once. To add my own nuance to the message:

College teaches you how to learn enough to get through your next week, in a long weekend

When I took my first job out of college, I was a pre-med biochemistry major that had just moved to Silicon Valley. After the struggles of finding a job as a new grad, I found myself working on the recruiting team at Box. I didn’t know the first thing about recruiting, or “sourcing” on the internet (finding candidates on Google, LinkedIn, etc.), but I spent my nights and weekends scouring the web for how-to types of information. And at the end of every weekend, I was ready to tackle a new week. Week-after-week I started to be better at my job and eventually I was great at my job and considered myself a recruiter.

If you can learn anything in a long weekend, then you can build the life and career you really want

I moved to Silicon Valley after graduating because I’d taken my first computer science class during my final semester in college and I wanted to be in software. I was a pre-med biochemistry major and fell in love with coding and algorithms. But since I was shortly sent out into the real world with no real computer science skills, I found the opportunity at Box. But I was determined to get into computer science, so alongside studying up on recruiting, I started to teach myself programming.

Not everything has to be learned in college, but in a long weekend at home
Photo by Dlanor S on Unsplash

Starting with HTML and CSS, and slowly moving into Python, Ruby, and a bunch of other random programming skills, I started to pick it up, and even started to teach myself statistics. I was reading all these articles about machine learning, and I was living in Silicon Valley in 2012 when the deep learning boom began again, so it was something I had to know more about.

I was terrible at first. It seemed like I would never be able to write software, but every weekend I ended up with another crappy website. And every new version was a little less crappy, and a little more like a real piece of software.

Eventually, I started to get pretty good at computer science and statistics so decided to get a bit bold, and I applied to PhD programs. To my delight, I was accepted to a bunch of programs and eventually earned my PhD in Quantitative Biomedical Sciences at Dartmouth, where I specialized in machine learning and deep learning in cancer genomics. Who knew?! I taught myself enough over many long weekends to qualify for a PhD program and then spent more hours than any grad student cares to admit teaching myself more and more along the way.

Learning anything in a long weekend is not just about facts and skills, but about a deep-seated sense of confidence that you can and will succeed

I work on problems every day that scare me. Often, the first time I start to tackle a new challenge I’m overwhelmed with the amount of work I need to do and new knowledge that I need to gain before I can solve a problem.

Every day, however, I keep learning, and learning, and learning, and by the end of every week and every long weekend, I’m ready to tackle the next week. Once you’ve done it a few times — and you have already done it plenty of times already — you recognize the success it breeds for you, it’s empowering.

The old adage goes:

You eat an elephant one bite at a time

It’s not, of course, actually about eating elephants. It’s all about tackling small projects and problems piece by piece. And when you realize that college is not for learning facts and random procedures, but for learning how to learn anything in a long weekend, piece by piece, you realize the true value.

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