Thinking About Thinking - 2016


Speak the SAT Fluenty

By Balaji Prasad

“The perfect is the enemy of the good"
- Voltaire

The word “fluency" comes from the same root as “flow". If you are fluent, you flow. “Flowing" is not an abstract phenomenon; it happens within a specific context and includes specific things. You and a “thing", together, are in a state of flow. When this is taken to its maximum, the separateness between the thing and you dissolves. We see many instances of such flow. With an expert musician, for example, it is hard to tell where the musician ends and the instrument begins; the instrument is an extension of the musician's body.

Can we all flow? I think so. But can everyone flow with everything? Probably not. When you constantly interact with the thing you are looking to gain expertise in, you move toward the kind of flow that we have been speaking about. This takes time and repetition. Some, like Malcolm Gladwell, a well-known explorer of these kinds of things, suggest that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice to achieve the level of performance that we are speaking of here. So are the rest of us who can't put in this kind of effort doomed to mediocrity? Not necessarily, I say.

From zero to something better

There is no need to frame accomplishment in a binary manner. Performance lies on a continuum all the way from incompetence to hyper-competence. Most of us can aspire to levels of performance in many things that could be considered pretty darned good!

How can we achieve a degree of fluency that is sufficient to help us “shine" in the day-to-day pursuits that matter to us? It may be simpler than we might imagine. Let's say you want to be a “great" singer, rather than the average singer you are right now? As long as you define what it means to be great, this may be something that can be accomplished. Could you, for instance, practice a single song - one that you already are familiar with - and do it over and over and over? The odds are good that you may be considered at least a “good" singer when you deliver this particular song, after this kind of focused “training".

You can do even more, and engage a coach to gain feedback and additional tips to push your performance to greater heights.

So it is possible to tease out some zip through repetition and hard work, and some more, by tapping into experts. In addition to these tactics, by also narrowing the scope of the task, you set yourself up to be “great" within a well-defined but smaller part of the whole.

Better is better only if it matters

We can improve our competence at many things. But all things are not created equal. The Guinness Book of World Records is full of weird accomplishments. For example, Chad Fell of the USA has the distinction of being recorded in this book as someone who blew a bubblegum bubble with a diameter of 20 inches without using his hands. I'm willing to bet a stick of bubble gum that most of the readers of this article do not aspire to the same degree of supremacy over bubble gum!

It must matter. To you. Whatever “it" is. For some, it is to be a better singer. Others may wish to be better at managing people in their work environments. In my coaching, I get to engage with those who aspire to be better at the SAT (or its cousin, the ACT). That is certainly something that matters to students aspiring to the colleges of their choice, since it is something that matters to the people that will evaluate their college applications. To focus on what matters, it is often necessary to defocus from the things that do not matter. This is harder than it appears. We all have multiple aspirations and objectives, all competing with the same scarce resources – ourselves. Effort needs to be channelized to the right things. For the student who seeks to go to a great college, this may mean giving up some video game time … at least temporarily.

You become better if it is smaller

For someone not familiar with the SAT, it can be a bit overwhelming. It is fair to see the test as a challenge, because it is! The testing agency – The College Board – looks to challenge students to bring out their best in reading, writing and math skills, as they pit their skills against the test, and against their competitors in this test.

Things can be big if viewed in totality. But totality is not important. Relevance is. The math, reading and writing sections of the SAT are no exception. We are not talking about the entire spectrum of math! Nor, are we looking to high-schoolers to have the writing skills of a Shakespeare, or the reading skills of a Nobel laureate. We just need to zoom in on the specific aspects of math, reading and writing that are tested. The College Board specifies these quite clearly. If one grasps these specifications, the scope of the challenge becomes smaller, and thereby more achievable.

Become one with what you do

When you and the thing you do blend together, time stops. Things move smoothly, swiftly, in harmony. Blending things together in a seamless manner requires that the two things have the ability to integrate with each other, much like how complementary jigsaw puzzle pieces do. It is not that one piece does more than the other; they both need to be “made" for each other. Similarly, you and the things you do need to be made for each other. And that is the crux of the whole thing. Our brains and bodies have only so much capacity. Also, at any given point in our lives, some capabilities are more advanced than others. Being in touch with our capacity and capabilities allows us to prioritize objectives better, and define tasks to be in line. We are then able to co-design" ourselves with the thing we need to interact with.

Design, based on your capabilities and capacity

My SAT students come with many pre-existing capabilities, and the same kinds of capacity constraints that most people have. When these capabilities are aligned with the scope and thrust of the SAT test, the test-taker and the test flow together better. Being aware of capacity limitations enables approaches that are practical, and which use scarce mental resources wisely. Flow can be designed. Yes.