The past couple years – I have been unsuccessful.
Me, I’ve always been above-average, and some would even say exceptional. I have always had high hopes from myself and so has everyone around me. This is because I did often bring back exceptional results. But somewhere along the line, I got overconfident, arrogant – and stopped practising.
Always, I used to get Gold, in all the math contests that I did. But continuous success made me too arrogant, self-centred and made me feel superior. So somewhere along the line – I stopped practising, stopped trying to improve, and lived in exultant pride for a year. I didn’t have to try at all, not work hard at all, but still – I got Gold.
But early last year, I finally got a taste of failure. Failure hit me, hard. When I moved schools, there came a set of new olympiads, and when I realised that I can no longer get Gold in a grade 6 olympiad with Grade 4 knowledge, I fell into a pit. One that I still haven’t got out of.
Suddenly I was no longer exceptional, no longer the best. And instead of motivating me, this pushed me back. I got demotivated, reduced, discouraged, depressed, even.
For 1 and a half years I kept falling into this pit. I got into a vicious cycle – I achieve poorly in a test and my self-confidence breaks and lowers, I achieve poorly, and my mental strength weakens. I kept riding this vicious cycle until my self-confidence was comparable to an 80-year-old about to race Usain Bolt.
Then I read the book Mindset, the book mindset, taught me about the psychological stages of mind we’re all on. Either the growth mindset – or the fixed mindset. The book quoted of examples that described exactly the pit I’d fallen into – and from the same height. I realised that I was one of the too many people who thought with the fixed mindset. People with a fixed Mindset believe that their basic qualities, like their intelligence, are fixed traits. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.
And I can tell you, it was never that I was unable to work hard. I was scared to.
I was scared that I would work hard and then fail. Even though I was failing anyway, I was scared to work hard for the fear of failing. That sounds really dumb, but it is psychologically true.
However, reading that book changed my whole outlook. I changed my perspective and my mindset to the growth mindset. I worked crazy hard then. I must have done an entirety of 300 hours of practice between now and then. And I saw some improvement.
Living the nightmare
This point is where most stories get all cheery, but my story is a little different. After all my practice, I saw great improvement. But while I was practising. On the actual test, a completely different story played out. If I would get a 99/100 on a practice test, I would get below 50 on the real test. My dad told me that this was because of my performance anxiety. I am too pressured to do well on a certain test after the previous failures, and doing a test with that much pressure caused me to make careless errors.
This is literally the worst fear of a person in a fixed mindset. A person that I was. I was living and experiencing my worst fear.
On a competitive math test that I recently did. I noticed that I knew how to every single question. I could solve every question in half the time given and get near perfect scores on all of the practice that I did. The questions on this test ranged in difficulty, with 1 being the easiest and 25 being crazy hard.
On this test, I noticed that I got all of the difficult questions – the ones you’re not expected to solve, correct. but the first 10 – the easiest ones of all, wrong. On this test, I made so many careless errors that my total dropped 32 points. 32! The score I should have achieved was 120, instead, I got 88.
On the easy questions and I made simple division mistakes, stupid mistakes on counting and logic. But I got the questions with formulas and complex algebra correct.
Why was this? Because I was not focussed, not focussed while I was doing the test, pressured while I was doing the test and not completely there in the moment.
From the past 2 years, I have learned a lot. One of these things is that I had been working very hard, but only hard. While I should have been working hard and working smart. I should not only have spent my time learning new formulas but spent it on training my mind to be focussed enough to use those formulas on test day.
I realised that I all this time, I’ve been working hard, but not working smart. When working smart is what really matters on the day.
Working smart is what really matters on the day.