People aren’t born smart. They become smart. And to become smart you need a well-defined set of skills. Here are some tips and resources for acquiring those skills.
If you can’t remember what you’re trying to learn, you’re not really learning. The secret to remembering is this: memory comes naturally once you understand what you’re trying to learn and organize it effectively in your mind. A valuable resource for getting the “filing cabinets” of your mind in good working order is Brian Walsh’s Unleashing Your Brilliance: Tools & Techniques to Achieve Personal, Professional & Academic Success .
If you want to amaze your friends with remembering faces, names, and numbers, look to the grand-daddy of memory training, Harry Lorayne. His How to Develop a Super-Power Memory is a classic. The problem with Harry Lorayne type memory courses (popularized more recently by Kevin Trudeau), is that they focus on mental tricks and gimmicks to memorize trivial stuff that really doesn’t make for a deep understanding of important subjects. In ancient times, without the help of teleprompters or PowerPoint presentations, speakers did need to memorize a lot of material verbatim and used various memory tricks to do so. But this has become less important in our day. Still, it’s worth knowing about these tricks to memory. For a thoughtful book on memory and forgetting by an academic psychologist, see Kenneth Higbee’s Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It.
Good scholars need to be good readers. But who is a good reader? Often when we think of “good readers,” we think of speed—good readers, so we’re told, can fly through material. But that’s not necessarily the case. Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University and noted historian before becoming U.S. president, was dyslexic, so it took him forever to read through material. There’s an old Saturday Night Live routine (season 3, episode 5, November 12, 1977) that parodies speed reading courses. Back in the 1970s, Evelyn Wood’s speed reading course was all the rage (it’s still being taught; and books on speed reading with “Evelyn Wood” in the title remain widely available). Here’s the SNL parody:
Evelyn Woodski Slow Reading Course
Announcer … Dan Aykroyd
Man … Garrett Morris
Woman … Jane Curtin
Surgeon … Bill Murray
… Ray Charles
Announcer V/O: [The following words rapidly appear on a blue screen as they are read by the fast-talking announcer:] This is the way you were taught to read, averaging hundreds or thousands of words per minute. [The words disappear and the following words gradually appear as they are read by the same announcer, very slowly:] This is … the way … you could … be reading … with the … EVELYN WOODSKI … slow … reading … course.
[Dissolve to a pipe-smoking man at a desk.]
Man: Sure, I was skeptical. I think everybody is. But, believe me, I can now read ten, maybe twelve times slower than before.
[Cut to a woman in an easy chair as she reads a book, running her index finger slowly along the text. Suddenly, she bursts out laughing.]
Woman: [serious, to the camera] I used to be a heavy speed reader and I never laughed when I read Mark Twain. But, now that I take my time, I find him very funny. Did you know that reading all the words in a story can help you understand the humor?
[Cut to a surgeon in full surgical garb, including mask and rubber gloves.]
Surgeon: I’m a brain surgeon and, uh, I used to just fly through these technical medical journals, you know? And I found I was makin’ a lot of mistakes in the operating room. And now, with the Evelyn Woodski slow reading course, I catch more o’ the important procedural stuff, you know? And I find I’m a better surgeon for it.
[Dissolve back to the blue screen.]
Announcer V/O: Yes, Evelyn Woodski can help you enjoy reading again. [suddenly loud, rapid] Whyreadlikethis?! [Text appears quickly on screen: “Why should you have to read like this?” – then disappears; the following words gradually appear as they are read by the same announcer, very slowly:] When … you … can … read … like this?
[Dissolve to Ray Charles, seated in easy chair, reading a book in Braille.]
Ray Charles: And there’s … Evelyn … Woodski’s … slow … reading …. course … for Braille. I used to … get … blisters … on my … fingers. [laughter and applause] Now … I just … sit … back and enjoy.
[Dissolve to graphic of a shelf of books with superimposed text reading: EVELYN WOODSKI SLOW READING COURSE 555-2972]
Announcer V/O: Evelyn Woodski slow reading course! Call 555-2972! Call now on this toll free number for your first … free … lesson.
SOURCE: SNL Transcripts
Psychologists have found that many people who take speed reading courses increase their reading speed for a short time but then fall right back to the plodding pace where they started. Part of increasing reading speed is simply breaking through one’s comfort zone and forcing yourself to move through material at a more rapid pace. Perhaps the biggest part of speed reading is knowing what NOT to read. Passing over material that is repetitious or that’s not central to your purpose in reading will help you to get through material quickly (many books could be condensed to a single chapter). Lots of speed reading is, as Stanford statistician Persi Diaconis says, “browsing.” Browsing can be an incredibly useful tool, in which you scan material that you don’t have time to read in depth but get the gist.
Some people just seem to have a gift for reading quickly, being able to grasp entire sentences or even paragraphs at one time, instantly extracting their meaning. Howard Berg falls in this category. He is regarded as the world’s fastest reader. He claims to be able to read tens of thousands of words per minute and offers a widely advertised reading course. Another popular course in this vein is the SpeedLearning program. It’s certainly worth trying them and seeing if they help you. True speed readers, who are approaching a thousand words a minute read without subvocalizing (i.e., without sounding out the words in one’s mind). If you can read without subvocalizing, you are on your way to greater reading speed.
But the bottom line in reading is always comprehension. If you’re flying past thousands of words a minute and don’t understand those words, you’re getting nowhere. For this reason, our favorite work here at Super Scholar on the subject of reading is not one that stresses speed but rather one that stresses comprehension: How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. With patience and effort, carefully studying and applying the advice in this classic reference work will turn you into a great reader, regardless of your reading speed in wpm (= words per minute).
By the way, if you read just 30 pages a day, you’ll get through the entire 54 volumes of the Great Books of the Western World, edited by Mortimer Adler and John Maynard Hutchins, in under three years. Slow and steady will allow you to read an enormous amount of material. Just cutting out an hour of television a day and devoting it instead to sustained reading can turn you into a scholar.
Writing is an essential part of scholarship. Some great scholars have been terrible writers—the strength of their ideas carried them to the top even though their writing style was abysmal. But these are the exceptions. Clarity and precision of expression can only help you as a scholar. Every writer needs to have read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. To this Super Scholar would add two very practical books on writing: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and William Stott’s Write to the Point. Finally, every writer, professional or not, would profit enormously from having a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. The latter is an incomparable reference work on all aspects of going from thought to word to printed page.
Writing isn’t just about filling up a pages with text. It’s also about persuasion. Scholars are not just in the business of thinking up great ideas. They also have to sell them. Indeed, you are selling yourself and your ideas when you apply to college, graduate school, your first teaching position, and especially when you’re trying to get tenure. For this reason critical thinking and rhetorical skills are indispensable to the scholar’s craft. A great book on rhetoric is Edward Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. Besides dealing with the basics of rhetoric, it is filled with very helpful advice for the budding writer. Especially useful is Corbett’s suggestion that if you really want to improve your writing, take some great writer and copy a one or several paragraphs by him/her that particularly strike you and do it over and over again BY HAND. Don’t just type them out but write them out in cursive. That way the writer’s style seeps into your very being.
Another useful book on formulating persuasive arguments in your writing is Nancey Murphy’s Reasoning and Rhetoric in Religion. Don’t let the title fool you. Although the book draws many of its examples from philosophy and religion, the lessons on argumentation that it lays out are universal in scope. Also useful here would be a good book on critical thinking of the sort taught in a first or second year college philosophy course. Gary Jason’s Critical Thinking: Developing an Effective Worldview is quite good but overpriced.
Among the worst fears that people have is public speaking. Yet as a scholar, you will be called on to discuss your ideas. Public speaking is therefore part of the scholarly life. Here are some books we at Super Scholar have found valuable in this regard. Dale Carnegie’s How to Develop Self-Confidence And Influence People By Public Speaking is a classic. If you want actual practice in public speaking, Toastmasters International operates thousands of clubs to give members experience in the art of listening and speaking.
Plenty of books and courses exist on speaking and on organizing presentations. A useful general purpose book is Richard Zeoli’s The 7 Principles of Public Speaking: Proven Methods of PR Professional. Though aimed more at a business setting, it is still useful in general. Get to the Point: How to Say What You Mean and Get What You Want by Andrew D. Gilman and Karen E. Berg contains useful advice about the relative merits of going with and without PowerPoint (projected images can distract the audience from the speaker).
Many scholars end up becoming full-time teachers. For the art of teaching we recommend Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do and Howard Hendricks’ Teaching to Change Lives: Seven Proven Ways to Make Your Teaching Come Alive. The most effective means we know of dealing with speaking phobia is Emotional Freedom Technique (abbreviated EFT). For EFT as it applies to phobias and blockages, see the relevant chapters in Ron Ball’s Freedom at Your Fingertips: Get Rapid Physical and Emotional Relief with the Breakthrough System of Tapping.
Scholars need facility with numbers. Some scholars such as mathematicians, physicists, and engineers tend to score high on the math portions of standardized tests and have fewer problems dealing with numbers. Other scholars, often on the humanities side, prefer to have as little to do with numbers as possible. But numbers are a part of life, so we better learn to live with them. Numbers are often abused. Joseph Stalin once remarked that paper doesn’t care what’s written on it. Likewise, numbers don’t care what you do with them. Consequently, they are easily abused. John Paulos’ Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics, and Peter Olofsson’s Probabilities: The Numbers That Rule our Lives are very useful in keeping numbers from being used to deceive us [links].
It’s also useful to hone your arithmetic skills. Often when confronted with the supposed outcome of a calculation, it’s good to do what engineers call a “sanity check”—are the numbers even in the right ball park? If, for instance, you compute a probability of 5.7, you know you went radically wrong somewhere because probabilities are always numbers between zero and one. There are lots of useful resources for developing your basic arithmetic skills. One of our favorites is The Trachtenberg Speed System of Basic Mathematics by Jakow Trachtenberg. Trachtenberg, a Ukrainian engineer, developed methods for high-speed arithmetical calculations while in a Nazi concentration camp (he did this as a way of keeping his sanity). Numerous spin-offs have been published since. One that’s useful for younger students is the Brainetics.
Empathy is about connecting with people. It is about understanding and tracking other people’s emotions. Aristotle stressed the desire of people to know. But people are not just about knowing. They are also about feeling. We are not just cognitive animals but also social animals, and feelings drive most of our social interactions. That’s why many scholars are regarded as nerds or geeks—they are seen as reducing everything to knowledge, to pure intellectualism, forgetting about the feeling element in people. The classic study on empathy was by the towering British economist Adam Smith. Before his great work on economics, The Wealth of Nations, he wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Both books bear careful study to this day.
Smith’s ideas about empathy and moral sentiments have been updated. Today these tend to be identified with “people skills” or “emotional intelligence.” Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ has become a modern classic in this regard. Some scholars think they can bank entirely on mental horsepower, running circles intellectually around their peers. But scholarship is itself a social enterprise. Princeton University mathematicians, for instance, hold an afternoon tea where faculty and graduate students meet informally. Some of the best work in mathematics at Princeton (and Princeton has for decades now had the strongest mathematics faculty in the world) gets done at these social gatherings.
People’s emotional lives tend not to follow strict logical principles. People are not just rational utility optimizers. Instead, they are full of twists and quirks. Two good books for understanding these quirks come from the behavioral economics literature: Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Human interactions also have a dark side, as when the culture of rational discourse breaks down, so that instead of resolving our differences with civility and reason, we engage in power plays. Michel Foucault wrote much on this. Perhaps the best popular book on the power plays that infect human relations is Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. Useful here also is Robert Ringer’s classic Winning through Intimidation, subsequently retitled To Be or Not to Be Intimidated? That Is the Question. This book, despite appearances to the contrary, is not about how to intimidate others but rather about how to prevent others from intimidating you, thereby keeping people from illegitimately exerting power against you. Ringer’s “leap frog principle” epitomizes his approach.
Scholars who pride themselves on being geeks or nerds are not doing themselves any favors. To be the best scholar you can be means being able to work with others. It means putting less of a premium on being a freak and more of a premium on getting along. Empathy is the key.
The word “scholar” comes from the Greek word for leisure. Being a scholar means having the leisure time to engage in intellectual pursuits rather than in other forms of labor. It follows that, as a scholar, time is your most valuable asset. How you make use of your time is therefore critical to your productivity as a scholar. In America we tend to waste an inordinate amount of time. The television is on in most homes 6 hours a day. We look for unproductive ways to fill the day.
The best book for remorselessly cutting out the time-wasters from your life is the out-of-print How to Use Your Time to Get Things Done by Edwin Feldman, first published in 1968. Many books have followed in its train, many going under the heading of “time-management.” A popular more recent book here is Time Management from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Taking Control of Your Schedule—and Your Life by Julie Morgenstern. Time-management is about productivity. The most popular book on productivity in the last two decades is Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Though addressed to businessmen and women, it offers much sound advice on how scholars need to use their time.
At Super Scholar, we boil time management down to two principles: (1) Do the hard thing first. (2) Make it a habit to fill up the small empty moments with something productive. The hard things tend to be the most important things, so doing them first gets our priorities straight. Slothful as humans tend to be, we prefer to do the easy thing first. Let the easy thing be the reward for first doing the hard thing. As for filling empty moments, have a book to read or a note pad to scribble on when you’re waiting at a bus stop or in an office. Turn off the television and radio. If driving, listen to an audio book relevant to your work. Amazon Kindle’s text-to-speech feature is quite good, even capturing certain cadences in reading [link].
Time-management is ultimately about avoiding distractions.