Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Five Ways to Transform from an "Accidental Student" to One Who Intentionally Excels!

Happy New Year, wonderful readers!

During the holiday break, I had three books by my bedside... all having to do with running and all by the same author. It may seem odd that I'm going to piggyback off of a running book for my first 2012 post, but who couldn't use a little invigoration to kick off our January?

I have not written much about my journey with fitness in this blog because that doesn't really have to do with student-prof communication, does it? You can read some backstory in this post I wrote several months ago called The 12 Most Unexpected Ways I Relate to My Students as a Back-of-the-Pack Runner.

Suffice it to say, one of the most challenging aspects of my life--weight and fitness--represents the part of my life I most relate to students and their struggles with motivation, striving for excellence and feelings of failure.

Sure, I get that poor grades are not the same as poor health. But just as much as students use education to break out of their circumstances and improve their lives, I battle to stave off a familial cycle of morbid obesity. I was on the path already; I plan to never darken it again!

While reading one of John "The Penguin" Bingham's books, The Accidental Athlete, I found it quite motivating for some of my personal goals. I kept seeing correlations between what it takes to overturn years of poor eating/fitness habits and what it takes to transform "accidental students" into intentionally successful ones!

Here are some of Bingham's themes that might help you in your educational journey. Of course, I'm adding a communication twist:

Lesson 1:  "Whatever my limitations were in terms of size or talent, they could be mitigated, if not eliminated by hard work."

Bingham was not a natural athlete and didn't take his first running step till age 43, when he found himself an obese, ill couch potato. Now, in his 60s, he's racked up countless marathons, albeit as a "back of the pack" (translation = slow) racer.

Not every student comes to college ingrained with superb grades and stellar academic ability. Heck, you could probably teach college if that were the case! But what you brought to college doesn't matter as much as a) what you do with what you do have; and b) your willingness to work hard and seek out those who can academically or emotionally support you.

Resolve to say this:  "I am willing to work hard to get what I want. I will build on my past successes, not let previous failures weigh me down, and seek out all available resources to get me to my next level of academic awesomeness!"

Lesson #2:  "I didn't know anything about being a runner. I was enthusiastic, and that was all that mattered." 

So many students come to college believing that they shouldn't need any help and should have all the answers. Then, students feel ashamed, lose faith in themselves, and want to give up. I so get this feeling when a previously easy run is suddenly very difficult for me, or when I compare myself to other runners who are faster than me (and that would constitute the majority of the running population... and even some of the walking population!). I curse my body and my family history, wondering why I ever started this craziness. I become angry when each step has to be such a damned challenge.

What are the main tools we need to succeed? Dedication to our goals and commitment to learn from those who know more than we do. After all, you can learn what you don't know. It's why you're in college, right? Having the enthusiasm (or at least the willingness) to dig through the process is just as important as how your college journey ends up.

Resolve to say this:  "I am not expected to have all the answers. Some subjects will come easily to me; others will be an uphill climb. What I can control is my own level of determination and my willingness to ask questions or seek out support when I need it."

Lesson #3:  "What binds us as competitors is far more powerful than what separates us by pace."

Bingham's theme in all of his books is that it doesn't matter if you're an ultra-runner, a sprinter, or a penguin runner (like me!), marathoning is a sport where everyone has the same prevailing goal:  To get to the finish line. Sure, some runners have lofty time goals; others just want to not get picked up by the paramedics. All are largely competing against themselves--and the front runners are mentally working to stay in the lead as much as the back-of-the-pack'ers are trying to finish or get a bit faster.

You may find that you frequently compare yourself to other students. You think everyone else in the class "gets it" and you're the only one confused. You hear about others' high grades and beat yourself up that you should have done better.

Remember:  Regardless of high or low grades, every student is running his/her individual academic race. You are all trying to get to the conclusion of the class--hopefully together--even though you'll get there in different ways. Regardless, you can support and learn from each other throughout the term. As you open up to your peers, you will likely find that their races aren't as effortless as they seem. 

Resolve to say this:  (To a fellow student or two): "I'm having a challenge with what we're learning right now. You seem to know what's going on. Would you be willing to take a few minutes after class and let me ask you some questions?" Or, "I would really love another set of eyes on this paper. Would you be willing to take a look at it for me? I'd be glad to do the same for you."

(And to your prof): "I am really struggling with what we're working on right now. I'm concerned that everyone else in the class gets it and I'm going to fall behind. Can I meet with you to ask some specific questions? Or, would you be willing to go over this in class again?"

Lesson #4:  "There is something about trying to get faster that can change you. There's something about finding out where the limits are that can make you defy those limits." 

When I completed my first 1/2 marathon in 2006, I was at a 19-minute mile (I walked). Now, as a "runner", my pace is anywhere between an 10:30 - 12:30 minute mile (and could be 13:00 - 14:00 with lots of hills or long distances), depending on the day, my physical condition, my mood, planetary alignment, etc.

So many times, I tell myself that I cannot move my larger running body any faster, that it's not scientifically possible to move mass at quick speeds, that I'm just too damned tired, that my family history just won't allow it... etc., etc. But it's only those messages that have the capacity to hold me back.

The reality is that I had two PR's in the past week, shaving 6 seconds off a 5 mile run and 12 seconds off a 3 mile run. And, really, in my "active" period of five years now (and birth of a second child where I gained and re-lost 70 lbs), my pace has quickened considerably: 19:00 down to 12:00-ish is an accomplishment! I did not reach this point alone. I relied on a pivotal running/fitness "mentor" (unofficial, not a hired coach, but someone who cares) to see possibilities that I couldn't see for myself, and many other running buddies and their motivation and knowledge.

I know that students plague themselves with all sorts of negative mental messages:
-"I wasn't a good writer in high school, so I'm probably not going to do well writing papers in college."
-"Research is really hard. Finding good sources takes a lot of time."
-"I am not strong in math, so College Algebra is going to be terrible for me."
-"I failed my mid-term and I probably can't bring my grade up."
-"Maybe I'm not smart enough to be in college."

What if none of those messages are actually true?

What if you can become a strong writer with coaching and guidance?

What if you can turn around a failing grade with additional help and more proactive communication with your professor?

What if your younger self's math brain is not the same as your adult math brain and you actually find it fun to tackle problems?

Are you ready to find out where your limits are and push past them? (Psst... the answer is "Yes!).

Resolve to say this:  "I am willing to see just how well I can do in college. I am ready to embrace the areas where I excel and work through what's difficult for me. I will share my fears/concerns/thoughts (rational or irrational) with others who believe in me (that includes your prof!) so they can help me to see greater things for myself than I believe are possible."

I could totally keep going with Bingham's nuggets of wisdom, but I want to invite you to share nuggets of your own. Here were two phrases that I didn't include in the above list: 

1) The glamour of the sport belongs to runners at the front of the pack, but the glory belongs to any one of us.
2) You can be beaten and not be defeated.

Based on your experiences as a current student, or a past student (anywhere, anytime!), how do you see one of these statements relating to college success?

I look so forward to our continued discussions as the year progresses!

I appreciate every one of you who read this blog so very much.


  1. Lesson #3: "What binds us as competitors is far more powerful than what separates us by pace."

    The points you make in these paragraphs under this heading are why I love college. My classmates and I aren't competing against each other; at the very least, we each run the race by ourselves, and at best, we help each other in the race (by studying together, sharing notes, etc.).

  2. Michael Perlman,

    Thank you so much for your comment! I felt the same way as a non-traditional student in college. I was just trying to get through my plan and do the best that I could. I see so many students comparing themselves to others, but it's an inappropriate reference point, right? Everyone comes into college with their own unique backgrounds, so, while they may have the same starting line, their "training" is likely very individual!

    I really appreciated your thoughts! Best wishes to you this term!