Lesson 4: Follow Instructions
Did you buy some earplugs? If so,
insert them now. If you didn't buy them, skip
this lesson until you do. You must complete each
assignment before going on to the next
Follow instructions. This sounds easy enough. It
isn't. For some people, it's the key to most of their
academic problems. They read or hear one set of
instructions, but their teacher has given different
Some students deliberately ignore instructions. They
"wing it." They think they can scrape by, doing any old
thing they choose. They're wrong. But they refuse to
It doesn't matter how good a job you do if you do the
wrong job. You're going to get a bad grade.
Doing a job well begins with understanding exactly
what the job is.
Instructions are most important in life-and-death
situations. A military commander who cannot issue clear
orders is eventually going to lose battles. In fact, he is
unlikely ever to become a military commander over an entire
army or fleet of ships if he cannot issue clear,
During the American Civil War (1861-65), General
Ulysses S. Grant had a colonel on his staff. (English is
sometimes very weird. "Colonel" is pronounced "kernel," as
in corn.) The colonel was a dolt. (That's pronounced
exactly as it's spelled: dolt, as in "dummy.") Grant knew
this, which is why he kept him on his staff.
The colonel had one major responsibility: interpreting
Grant's orders for Grant. Grant would write an order and
hand it to the colonel. The colonel's job was to explain
this order in his own words to Grant. If he explained the
order wrong, Grant would re-write it. When, finally, the
colonel could explain accurately what Grant was really
telling his commanders to do, Grant would issue the order.
Grant knew his own limitations as a writer of commands. He
compensated for this by using his dim-witted colonel.
A professor may give poorly designed instructions once
in a while. But if you keep getting your assignments
confused, yet hardly anyone else in your class gets them
confused, and this happens in almost every class, you
should assume that your problem is you.
If there is one class in which you get instructions
right most of the time, pay closer attention to the reasons
why that class doesn't confuse you. Are you doing things
differently in that class? Is it the material in the
class, which just happens to be easier for you, or is what
you're doing in some way different?
A MATTER OF CONFIDENCE
There are athletes who get poor grades in their
academic subjects, yet they can follow a complicated
playbook to the letter. They pay attention to the coach
when he draws complex diagrams on the board. They learn to
follow what he is saying.
I probably couldn't follow these instructions. I know
I couldn't follow them well. That's because I'm not a
coach, and I was never an athlete. I just don't care
enough about the subject to follow all the lines and X's on
a blackboard. But everyone on the team can.
An athlete cares about doing well. He knows that he
has the physical ability to do well, if he can just master
the playbook and the charts. He is confident that he is
physically capable. He looks around him, and he knows that
he is intellectually as sharp as most of the other people
on the team. He has a positive mental attitude.
He wants to succeed. He is confident that he can
succeed. So, he memorizes all of the plays. He practices,
day after day. He studies the plays at home. Guess what?
He doesn't get kicked off the team. He comes back the next
year to play again. He probably becomes a leader after two
seasons, because he knows the system, follows the
instructions, and develops his skills. He learns how to
Then he walks into a math class or an English class,
and he chokes. He gets scared. He has no self-confidence.
He thinks he is going to fail. Maybe he will fail -- not
because he can't compete in that class, but because he
doesn't have the same determination to follow the
instructions and apply himself.
It's not that he is stupid. It's that he doesn't make
the connection between the basis of his success on the
playing field and the basis of success in the classroom.
I'm not saying that he's smart enough to pass physics.
I dropped out of physics in my third week. I know there
are some subjects that I just can't handle. I'm talking
about courses that everyone is required to take.
Any athlete who is smart enough to master a playbook
and charts on a blackboard has the mental ability to pass
any class that everyone is required to take. All he has to
do is apply himself in each class with the same dedication
that he brings into physical training.
What about you? Maybe you're not an athlete. Maybe
there is no area of your life in which you are a success.
You have no program of success in your life that you can
adapt to your academic world. If this is the case, then
you will have to change, beginning at ground zero. You
will have to adopt the mental outlook and training schedule
of a successful athlete. In your new life, there will be
the academic equivalent of playbooks and push-ups and wind
sprints and laps around the track.
Consider three questions:
What do you want to achieve?
How soon do you want to achieve it?
What are you willing to pay to achieve it?
Remember, there are no free lunches. Somebody has to
pay for your success. Maybe your family will pay some of
it. Maybe someone will pay a few dollars to buy you some
inexpensive tools of academic success. But the big
payments have to be made by you. Face the fact early: it's
up to you.
Start paying attention to instructions. That's where
to begin your program of self-improvement.
THINGS TO DO IN WEEK ONE
You take the following steps.
1. Make sure you know when every exam is
scheduled. Write this down.
2. Make sure you know when any papers are due.
Write this down.
3. Make sure you know exactly what your papers must
cover: topics, length, materials you must read,
and anything else that is required. Write this
To be 100% certain about all this, ask your professors
after class or before class. Write down the answers.
So, how serious are you? Only you can answer this.
Talk is cheap. Systematic actions are expensive. What
steps are you willing to take today to prove to yourself
that you are serious?
No matter how hard you try to do better work, if you
get the instructions wrong, it won't count. If you don't
pay attention from the very beginning, you will not see
Sure, you can make a mistake. Anyone can make a
mistake. You may occasionally read the instructions wrong.
Your goal here is to break a bad habit.
There is an old rule of research: "If you ask the
right question, you've already got most of the answer." It
is usually more important to ask the right question than to
discover the correct answer. A researcher who has come up
with the correct answer to a question that was not worth
asking has wasted his time. So, be as sure as you can that
you will be answering the question that has been asked.
From now on, pretend that you're General Grant's
colonel. Go to your professor, or raise your hand, even at
the beginning of an exam, and tell the teacher what you
think the question means. Unless it's a trick question --
which is not a wise technique for teachers to use with high
school students -- the professor will tell you if you
understand the question correctly or not. This is not the
same as providing the answer.
There are no free lunches. You must pay
It's a waste of time to do a good job on the wrong
assignment. Be sure you know what the assignment is.
To avoid confusion, write down the assignment.
Even if you aren't in doubt, write it down
anyway. Otherwise, you may forget.
If you aren't sure, ask.
If you are sure, but you have a long history of
getting your assignments confused, ask.
If you don't understand a question on an exam, raise
your hand and ask what the question means "such and
On one sheet of paper, before you
read Lesson 5 tomorrow, make a list of every
assignment for every course. Record the deadline
for each assignment. If you already have all
this information in one place, then verify it, so
that you don't skip anything by mistake. Write
Don't forget to lecture to the wall: one page,
PREVIEW OF TOMORROW'S LESSON: Organizing your time
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