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How can I improve myself when it's difficult to find better people to be around and when being around better people doesn't really seem to help?
October 21, 2012 2:19 PM   Subscribe

How can I improve myself when it's difficult to find better people to be around and when being around better people doesn't really seem to help?

So a common idea is that in order to improve oneself you should hang around people smarter than yourself (always be the dumbest guy in the room).

I've tried to follow this idea as closely as possible but given my current situation (research, compsci) I find that I'm more or less matched with my peers and so it's hard to get better. When I do get the chance to work with people much better than myself (usually in collaborations -- in this case for the last 3 months) I find that while their insights are poignant, useful and understandable, my own level of thinking doesn't really seem to become better. It's frustrating me and I would really like to be able to improve myself but I'm not sure how to proceed from here.

So what other techniques would you recommend for self-improvement when hanging around better people doesn't seem to be rubbing off on me?
posted by gadha to Education (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Find a coach and work with them regularly.
posted by humanfont at 2:22 PM on October 21, 2012


Improving yourself by osmosis just doesn't work.

To improve yourself, you need to come up with a goal, then figure out how to reach that goal, then actually start doing what it takes to reach the goal.

Having knowledgeable peers can help you in that when you need specific guidance, they can often steer you in the right direction more effectively than Google can; but at the same time, you'll often learn more by trying to find the right answer on Google than you will if someone just hands it to you ("Let's see, deleting duplicate rows in SQL... row_number, identity columns, oh cool, you can use a CTE for that?"

But mostly, have goals (and realistic ones at that); break those goals down into bite-sized chunks; then tackle them one at a time.
posted by pla at 2:33 PM on October 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


As pla says its about setting goals.

Example: when I first decided I was going to do a post-graduate degree in Film Studies I subscribed to Lovefilm (the UK equivalent of Netflix as was) and worked my way through one or two of the canonical lists of films, introduced myself to silent cinema, international cinema before my baseline at that point which was the 90s and educated myself on what was out there at least before attending college.

I'm now slowly working through the top 250 in the recent Sight and Sound Magazine poll. This will take a while.

I've just spent the summer working my way through all of Shakespeare's plays. I have a crazy scheme of reading Oxford World Classics in a particular edition when I see them in charity shops. I'm visiting all of the Liverpool Biennial festival venues in numerical order. I have an ongoing project to visit all of the museums and art galleries in the North West of the England.

It's whatever interests you. I'm trying to finish of the finite projects this year so I can move on to something else. I'm thinking about something music related. The Beatles back catalogue perhaps, or Bob Dylan. Madonna. All three, I'm not sure. Oh and I forgot, I'm also randomly listening my way through all the cover discs from BBC Music Magazine.
posted by feelinglistless at 2:53 PM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


You say your own level of thinking doesn't seem to become better. It is possible you are improving but can't tell. This is a notoriously difficult thing to self-assess. You might try looking for some means to objectively measure your performance which you can periodically repeat. Or you might try looking for some evidence of whether or not you have really changed and if so how and how much.
posted by Michele in California at 2:54 PM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Hang around" (read) books/papers written by the best people, and practice/study until you know the material.
posted by sninctown at 3:14 PM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Two strategies:
1. Ask for feedback. This could be general ("Do you think there are areas I should be working on to be a better researcher/ coder/ team player/ writer?"), or it could be very focused ("I'd like to improve my chances of getting this paper accepted to this conference. What do you think it needs?", "I'd like to be more efficient in my use of time. How do you balance X, Y , and Z tasks?", "Would you read this for me and tell me if the writing is clear?")

2. Use others' work as an example. For example, if you want to write better code, take a look at their code (with permission of course). This is most helpful if you first figure out in your own head, How would I have done this? Then look at what they did, and see how it's different. Perhaps they have a better overall approach, and even if not, there may be smaller elements that help and that you wouldn't have thought of.

This also works for interpersonal skills. Think about a colleague you admire. What about him/her do you admire? Whatever you identify, break it down as far as you can, and then figure out how you can start to do that thing or why it's difficult for you to do that thing now. (E.g. She is pleasant to work with. Ok, in what way is she pleasant to work with? She works hard, finishes tasks on time, maintains an even keel, never snaps at others. So pick one of these you most want to get better on, say, not snapping at people. Why do you snap at people? What conditions set you off? And so on.)
posted by pompelmo at 3:21 PM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh and read a left wing broadsheet newspaper every day, as much as possible. The Guardian or The New York Times. Also watch loads of television documentaries from the BBC. Listen to BBC Radio 4's In Our Time (the whole archive is on their website) and documentaries. Expanding your mind in some areas always helps in others.
posted by feelinglistless at 3:39 PM on October 21, 2012


What is it that you care about that is motivating you to this? Intention (and action) don't mean much when they aren't backed by an underlying care. Is it a specific social, economic, or academic goal? Is it related to a life philosophy? Is it a general sense that there is something about your current circumstance you want to move beyond?

There is no right answer here. Just spend some time articulating (even better write it down) what you care about. Do that same exercise once every day or two for a couple weeks. You'll notice it changes and evolves. That's fine! Don't self-censor, just observe.

Once you have that understanding, start to experiment with ways to pursue those cares. That is when having a group who are farther on the journey around you can really help.
posted by meinvt at 3:53 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


It doesn't work by osmosis, as pla says. What I recommend is conscious practice (I only learned the term recently but it's something that's worked for me for a long time). This means you find the areas where you're weak, or specific things you want to become better at, and then practice them.

People who are better than you are can help you with this because you can see where they're strong and you're weak. Maybe you've been fighting hard to apply a particular algorithm to a problem, and your brilliant classmate says "Why don't we try this other one instead?" and it's much better. Then you know that the thing you need to work on is selecting the right algorithm: maybe you don't have a large enough repertoire of tricks, or don't understand how they scale, or need to consciously take time at the early in a project to think about which algorithm would be best rather than just taking the first one that seems likely. But THAT is what the more-skilled friend can help you with, is showing you how it could be done better.

Then you need to go do the work of becoming able, yourself, to do it better. It takes time and practice. But finding the specific skills you're missing and practicing those is a lot better than just repeating the same things you're already able to do.
posted by Lady Li at 3:59 PM on October 21, 2012


Caveat: I'm a Politics major so I know only a bit about research and nothing about CompSci...but...here's what I think anyway:

Lady Li makes a good point - we often learn from more skilled people by learning best practise from them. But if those more skilled people are not available to learn from, I think you can still improve by developing your own critical thinking skills. Look at your past work and see if you can find any trends amongst your mistakes; think of the characteristics of an ideal finished product and critically assess if yours matches up, and if not, how it could be improved? Find examples of really great work, work which you admire, and ask yourself what are the differences between your work and theirs. Putting your work aside for a few days (if you have the time) and then returning to it can help you get this kind of insight, as can asking a friend.

Are you competitive in nature? Could you also improve yourself by setting yourself small challenges, like saying you will complete your work 20% faster, or 20% more accurately, or using fewer lines, or cutting out any unnecessary repetition?

Perhaps you could also ask your supervisor for any extension material they could give you, or ask for an extra demanding project to increase the level of challenge in your work?
posted by EatMyHat at 10:38 PM on October 21, 2012


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