From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The New Yorker and the World—Course Description (g)

[a] Middles RF
Click here for other sections of "The New Yorker and the World—Course Descriptions."
Description a          Description b          Description c        Description d          Description e           
Description f           Description g          Description h        Description i           Description j            
Click here for the two-part "embedded essay" on pacing our academic lives (posts "f" and "g" in this series).
Pacing 1          Pacing 2  

The first third of any long-term task (from studying The New Yorker to running a marathon) is all-important. That is probably pretty well established by now. If you read yesterday's post, it would not be surprising if you assumed that the "next third" of the race...or academic term...would be exactly the same distance as the first third, and would pretty much take care of itself. 


[b] Middling RF
This assumption is mistaken in just about every sense except the literal one. In a mid-1970s Minnesota high school cross-country race (three miles), the first third is just about exactly a mile long. The second "third" is, more-or-less, a mile-and-a-half. The last mile is about a half-mile.

Huh? What sense does that make?

Lots, unless you are beholden to narrow ideas about symmetry and proportion. Symmetry, shmymtery. Life is never, ever symmetrical. Please. Let's try again and re-set our discussion. The only thing that is symmetrical is the beginning, and we've already seen how difficult that can be.

This reminds me of my favorite story about the 1960s. I wish I remember who said it, because I then could give credit to one of the best insights into history and chronology ever made. It speaks directly to the non-proportional nature of life. The saying goes something like this (and I use quotation marks for effect rather than accuracy here): 

"Everyone knows that the 1960s lasted from 1967 until 1974."

Whoa! This is like imaginative historiography in China, when various historians would speak of the five-hundred years between sage kings (with any kind of dating ranging from 250 to 750 years...or so). Almost any literalist would say that the 1960s lasted from January 1, 1960 until December 31, 1969 (or, for a particular kind of calendrical purist, January 1, 1961 until December 31, 1970).

[c] Tired RF
Literal definitions don't amount to much for people who care about life's various and nuanced pacings. This is what is behind the "1960s" comment. The world of the Bay of Pigs is not anything like that of the Tet Offensive. What our commentator was saying, in essence, is that the way we now talk about the 1960s...starts at some point in 1967. Huge torrents of meaning rush from the broken dam of that idea. 

It says, more or less, that real life is not proportional, and I will be the first to say that this is what college courses are like. 

Not proportional. 

We have things called "midterm" exams or papers, and they may occur almost exactly at the halfway point. The reality (and we all know it) is that semesters are weighted one way or another. I would go so far as to say that it is not quite 1/3....2/3, and something more like 60-40 (or 40-60). In other words, courses are either forty percent "done" when the midterm "solstice occurs"...or sixty percent. They are either top heavy or bottom heavy. They rarely balance well on the ol' teeter-totter of life.

Could I put this differently? Maybe. Let's try this: we etch the future of our coursework in the "middle third" of every term. It is all-important, and by the time we hit the homestretch, much of the pattern will be etched onto the big grade sheet in the sky. The only real difference is how much of the term is left when "seventy percent" of it is over.

Huh? No, really this time. Huh?

Isn't seventy percent of the term over when, well...seventy percent of it is...over? This would be approximately Week Eleven, according to the mathematics of the academic calendar. The key to understanding this lies not in "doing the math," but rather in getting the most out of the "middle third" of the term. No matter where you thought this post was going, this is it.

We all need to pay attention to the middle...of everything. 

To use the cross-country team analogy I spoke of yesterday, the second mile is the key to everything. You need to run as hard as you can in the middle, because you will push your full potential (and, although this is not your main focus) most others will lag, squander, play video games, and lollygag. This is as true of academia as it is of the rolling green hills of autumnal cross-country races.

There is a "soft" point here (a flexible and interpretive one), as well as a hard and final point. Put simply, the "middle" can last anywhere from Mile One until Mile Two (this is actually quite rare) to Mile One until Mile...Almost Three. What we are getting at here, in other words, is that there is a big difference between the middle-game and the end-game. In chess, this is plays out differently in every game. The opening is almost always about one-third of the process. The middle and the "end" can vary enormously. 

[d] Thirds RF
Here is the point. Go hard in the middle, and don't cut the middle short. 

Extend it, and leave almost nothing until the end...because you will manage it, through force of pride and focus, right to the finish. This is what Mr. Metzke taught me during my high school cross-country workouts. Push hard in the middle, because almost everyone—this is sort of a human-nature thing—eases up a little bit between the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.

Don't be almost everyone.

As Mr. Metzke told it, we needed to fight human nature, and to feel that our effort was much harder in the second mile of a three mile race than during that nice, evenly-paced (if it goes well) first mile. He stressed that we would find a way to make the last mile "work," and we learned how awful that could be in our "5 x 1 mile @ 5:15*" interval workouts. As I mentioned yesterday, miles four and five of those workouts taught me a powerful lesson about finishing with as much integrity (I use this word in several meanings of the term here) as possible, even if it meant throwing up in the bushes just past the finish line. The only way to make the whole effort possible, though, was to push the middle. As I have indicated, this was often not very pretty.
*Five iterations of one mile at a 5:15 per mile pace, with some rest in-between.

Let's concentrate on that for a moment. The middle. Puking in the bushes is not exactly a palatable talking point, even though it does speak to pushing one's limits in ways that hug the borderline between constructive and destructive. I urge everyone to err on the side of constructive (please hear me), but not to go "too easy." 

So, if you think hard about it, the middle is the key to everything in the world...sort of. In the most obvious sense (from chess to academics and on to distance running and politics), the middle makes all of the difference. Just ask John Kerry about that. The way Mr. Metzke taught it, we needed to run the same pace as the first mile, but it would hurt much, much more. We didn't fully understand this at first, but those "5 x 1 mile" interval workouts taught us everything we could possibly wish to know about pain in the middle and torture at the end. Thankfully, academic work is not quite so horrible, but the effort levels are almost exact equivalents...and your room will be quite a mess by the end of the semester.

[e] Middle RF
Here is how I would put it (and this example parallels everything from baseball "middle relief" to the international figure-skating short program. You see, you can't win a competition in the middle. There is no way—with the exception of blowouts so monumental that they are well-nigh inconceivable—to win a competition in the middle. Indeed, the only places in which this is even remotely possible are sports such as football and "soccer," as well as some local elections. For the most part, though, the middle is the difference between being in a position to win (or lose). I would go so far as to say that (given an nice, evenly-paced opening and the assumption of a gruesome, exhausting finish), the middle bears the difference between victory and defeat. Compete hard in the middle, and you will be in good shape for the rush to the end. 

Where doesn't this work? Trick question. It works everywhere.

Let's review. A good middle cannot be effective without a very solid beginning. This often requires holding back (in chess or marathoning, for example) and positioning oneself for a hard push at the right moment. The "middle" will hurt (in various ways) far more than the first part. This is the result, if done well, of both increased effort and demonstrable effectiveness. When I ran the Faribault Invitational back in the storied past of Minnesota prep harrier competition, I sought to pass the mile marker in about 5:15 (5:12 would do), and then pretty much exhaust my resources during the next mile and a half.

In other words, the "second third" was just about forty-five percent of the distance, and left me with at least a perception of >10% of my reserves for the push to the finish

Huh? (we're getting a lot of that today, aren't we?). That doesn't sound very proportional does it?

[f] Swim-bike-run Middle RF
No, it's not, and that is the whole point. The "middle" pretty much uses up all of your resources, and it lasts well past the point that more literal-minded observers would call "two-thirds." No, the "middle" hurts all of the way to the point where you gear up for a final push to the end. It hurts "bad," and it often isn't very pretty. In the context of academics, it means keeping the pace from Week Five until (in the context of fall term) Thanksgiving Break. Then it requires (with a merciful stretch of relaxation that other exertions do not provide) a push to the end that makes the difference between good and great

None of it is possible without a tremendous middle...which is not possible without a well-paced and disciplined beginning. Is this beginning to make sense? I hope so. It is all of a piece, but it won't work unless you think about it in segments. Let's review, and we'll finish this little interlude tomorrow. 

          [1] Begin with serious effort, but hold back, so as not to exhaust your potential. 
          [2] Push hard (it will feel more difficult than the stopwatch "says") in the middle.
          [3] Extend the "middle" as long as you possibly can...
          [4] ...and then start your finishing kick not too far from the finish line.

Tomorrow, we'll discuss just what this strange "middle" really means in the context of academic work, and wrap up (for now) this series of "Course Description" posts. We'll save the exhausting finish for a later date, but I hope that I have made clear that the key to doing well lies in pacing the first third, exerting the "middle," and pretending that the "middle" is about half again as long as it should be. 

Make sense? Good. Let's take a (Thanksgiving) break, of sorts, and return to the end of the middle...tomorrow. 

***  ***
Click here for other sections of "The New Yorker and the World—Course Descriptions."
Description a          Description b          Description c        Description d          Description e           
Description f           Description g          Description h        Description i           Description j            
Click here for the two-part "embedded essay" on pacing our academic lives (posts "f" and "g" in this series).
Pacing 1          Pacing 2     

No comments:

Post a Comment