There’s a serious deficiency in a lot of student advice. It seems like everyone is always going off about Cornell notes or flashcards (wink-wink) or some other studying technique, but very few people talk about something equally as important: your studying mindset.
The Importance of Mindset
Mindset, as I see it, is the aggregate of someone’s thoughts and approach to something. It’s as important as any hacks or method, both in and out of the classroom. I’ve experienced this first hand: I’ve been training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for two years and recently my coach (a black belt of 10 years) asked me to spar with him. Reluctantly, I agreed. In the first round, he absolutely wiped the floor with me, as expected. He was obviously way better, but that wasn’t the whole story: I knew he was better than me so I just expected to lose and didn’t give it my all. He took advantage of that and blew through my half-hearted defenses. I chose to be helpless and it showed.
For the second round, I decided to let those thoughts go. I figured that expecting to lose was only going to hurt me, so why not try something else. Then a little lightbulb went off: Why don’t I pretend to be a black belt? To act as if I really know what I’m doing and bring my A-game? I would only lose if he beat me, not because I rolled over. So I tightened up my game, gave it my all, and in the end . . . he still got me. But I gave him a hell of a fight, much better than my first round. My skill jump from round one to round two was staggering.
I didn’t learn any new techniques or change my strategy. All I did was change my mindset into something I call “black belt mentality.” It’s the studying mindset of anyone who wants to do really well, a master striving towards excellence. You could also call it a “mastery” mindset or an “excellence” mindset, whatever works. At its core, it’s the mental space for giving it your all to what’s important, constantly striving to do better, and, most important, holding your efforts to high (though not impossible) standards. It’s embodying and imitating your concept of a master.
After my sparring match, I fell in love with this idea and it changed how I approached my academics.
- When it mattered, I really gave it my all. Any time a test or paper was on the horizon, I did everything in my power to do my absolute best. I started early. I made detailed plans. I talked with my professors about how I should study or what I should write about. I thought hard about what the graders were looking for and how I could provide that. If I thought there was a better way to do things, I did it that way. I had to cut some corners, especially on some smaller assignments, but when the time came I always gave it my 100% best.
- I tried to improve constantly. I went to office hours to go over feedback for my assignments. I set aside time every day to think about how I was working and what I could be doing better. I made a commitment to change what I was doing any time I got a meh grade back. I was on the lookout to improve.
- I held myself to a high standard. I set my expectations very high for my grades and my work as a whole. To be clear, I wasn’t striving for total perfection. So long as I got an A, I was happy. Anything better was just gravy. But this was a tough bar to hit. If I ever got an 89 back, I wanted to figure out what went wrong and what I could do differently. It was exhausting, but doing anything worthwhile or impressive is going to be tough.
Those are some of the basic ways I cultivated a black belt mentality. There were many other small ways this studying mindset came out, but the overall mastery perspective is way more important than any single action.
Before moving on, I want to be ultra-clear about what I’m talking about: I’m not advocating for perfectionism, wasting your time, or killing yourself over your work. There should be a point at which you say, “this is really good; any more time I spend on it will only have marginal benefits.” Expecting perfection is the road to burnout. Any real master understands that burnout is a threat and should be taken into consideration. It’s also important to know when to cut corners. If you have two massive projects due the same week, spend more time on the more important one. And if you have other assignments, you may have to mail them in and that’s fine. Do your best to not cut corners, but prioritize your efforts. Take your studies seriously, take yourself seriously, but take care of yourself, too.
Adopting a Mastery Studying Mindset
I have a little confession to make . . . having a black belt mentality is really not one of my strong suits. I have a tendency to cut corners, even when things matter. My worst offense is probably essays; my writing usually has some spelling errors because I don’t read my work enough times. Not a great sign for an aspiring writer. I’m not sloppy, but I could be better at meeting my own expectations. To that end, I’ve been experimenting with ways of strengthening this mastery studying mindset that I think is so important. Here’s what’s worked:
- Changing my view of myself. I made a conscious decision to approach my work in a more serious way and hold higher standards for myself. It’s been a slow process, but I’m changing the narrative in my head from “I can be a bit sloppy” to “I hold my work to a very high standard.” I also have tried viewing myself more as someone who is constantly pushing themselves to improve in their work. Again, I’m not seeking perfection on every single thing and I’m not dumping hours into assignments that don’t matter. What I am doing is giving my absolute best to everything that matters, and then raising that bar slowly over time.
- What would a top student do? I ask myself this question whenever I’m unsure of how to proceed. For my history of philosophy written final, I didn’t jump in head first but asked myself “how would a really good philosophy student write this?” I figured they would read the essay prompt, go back through the readings, take notes, make an outline of their response, and run it by their TAs. I did just that and it worked great! Find out what you want to be (for me, a top student) and embody that image.
- Journal about having a black belt mentality. A mindset is really just a collection of your thoughts over time. If you want to change your studying mindset, you have to change how you think, and there’s no better way than writing. So every day, I take a few minutes and journal about 1) what the idea of black belt mentality and mastery as a whole means to me, 2) how I already embody these ideas, and 3) how I can do a better job. It usually doesn’t take me more than three minutes, but the effects are impressive. It’s amazing what a little journaling can do. Below you can read an unedited entry from earlier this year during finals season. I never thought I would be sharing it publicly, so it’s very unpolished.
That’s it. There’s really not that much more I can recommend. Adopting a studying mindset is not like doing a task—it’s a continuous process that you just have to stick with over time. In the end, nothing I say here will change your outlook. How you approach your work or anything else in your life is up to you. I can only recommend you take a mastery mindset if you’re shooting high.
To read about more study tips, make sure to check out my other blog posts here!