Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Only Skill I Possess

The Only Skill I Possess

For obvious reasons, today is such a wonderful day for me. But I must not be too distracted from my work as I have an important week coming up. Time for me to get back to "match fitness".

When I was a student, I always prepared for exams as if I was a sportsman following a strict training program that would allow me to peak at the right time. In the university, I wasn't the type who paid attention in class. I found lectures extremely boring and wasn't very good at taking notes.

There were also too many other intellectual distractions for me: even though I was an engineering student, I was equally interested in the humanities. I spent most of my time in the library reading poetry and history, because I felt the subconscious need to balance the "overdose" of technical subjects in my course. They only problem was when it came to exam time, I had to struggle desperately to catch on my coursework.

Usually one month before the final exams, I would chart out a "training program" that would allow me to digest the entire year's engineering course within a couple of weeks. But first, I had to make sure that I had a complete set of lecture notes for all the subjects. The few girl students (there were not many in our engineering class) who sit at the front rows usually had the neatest and most detailed notes. During exam season, photocopies of their notes were in great demand.

But lecture notes alone were not sufficient. They were just good indicators of what the lecturers emphasized in their courses. To thoroughly grasp all the subjects, I had to immerse myself completely in them. And that meant camping for the entire month in the library.

I found that the best way to study was to make my own notes. It was a very laborious process that required a lot of cross-referencing. But you gain two important things out of this exercise: One, the process of making notes help you to remember and puts your mind in a "seek mode". In this mode, the mind is constantly probing, questioning and comparing. That is the key to understanding any subject.

A subject that initially appeared like a daunting wasteland of incomprehensible facts suddenly transformed itself into a landscape with distinctive characteristics. Slowly but surely the terrain is absorbed into both your conscious and subconscious mind. Once you know the "landscape" of the subject, remembering becomes relatively easy.

Secondly, the notes you make serve as good memory joggers or checklists which you can quickly scan through the night before the exam. Hence such notes should not be too detailed or lengthy. Details should have been digested already in the one month run-up to the exam. The eve of the important day itself is for one to go through the entire checklist and "cache" all the important facts in one's short-term memory.

Using this technique, I successfully navigated through my four years in college. So even now, whenever I'm preparing for important technical presentations, I still use the same technique. And because I cover many diverse fields in my line of work, I normally have to make sure that a couple of days before the presentation, I immerse myself completely in the nuances of the subject matter at hand. I stop reading any extraneous things and stick to a mono-subject diet.

Sometimes you don't have the luxury of "a couple of days" to prepare. But luckily my years of self-training have taught me how to instinctively grasp the overall idea and concept of any subject very quickly. It's like setting up a Christmas tree: the important thing is to get the tree (concepts) properly and firmly placed first. And then the decorating ornaments (details) can come in later.

Again and again, I realized that the most important skill I learnt from my student days is the ability to pick up a subject very quickly. Sometimes I feel, that is the only skill I have. And that skill alone has saved me on countless occassions throughout my working life.

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