Persevering Through Difficulty

I am currently reading Seth Godin‘s book The Dip, in which he mentions that well-roundedness is not the secret to success, contrary to what we learn in school.

How often do you look for someone who is actually quite good at the things you don’t need her to do? How often do you hope that your accountant is a safe driver and a decent golfer?

Seth implores us to specialise — to get really good at something and learn ignore the rest if not ignoring it prevents us from being the best at something else. So far so good. But then a couple of paragraphs on he quotes an example from a test taking book that I think fails as a suitable analogy:

From a test-taking book: “Skim through the questions and answer the easiest ones first, skipping ones you don’t know immediately.” Bad advice. Superstars can’t skip the ones they don’t know. In fact, the people who are the best in the world specialize at getting really good at the questions they don’t know. The people who skip the hard questions are in the majority, but they are not in demand.

Using Seth’s own words, his advice is bad advice — life’s not like a test. In a test, every question is like a possible “specialisation” — you either know the answer or you don’t.

If you know the answer, you’re an expert, so do that question. If you don’t know the answer, you’re no expert, so you skip that question. After you’ve exhausted the questions in which you’re an expert at, you come back to those you’ve skipped and then do them.

Those who do well in tests are those who can answer the easy questions and the difficult ones. Persisting in trying to answer questions you have no clue about is not going to make you an expert. Learn how to tackle those questions after the test!

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