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home | College for Under $15,000 | Lesson 4: Follow Instructions

Lesson 4: Follow Instructions

Gary North, Ph.D.
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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 lesson.

Lesson 4


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 instructions.

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 change.

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, unambiguous orders.

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 succeed.

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.


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 down.

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 much improvement.

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 the price.

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 such."


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 down everything.

Don't forget to lecture to the wall: one page, one book.

PREVIEW OF TOMORROW'S LESSON: Organizing your time

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