Do What You Value, Not What You Want
My wife grew up in Paris, and French is her first language. Her English is excellent though, and we communicate with each other primarily in English.
Every year, we spend a couple of weeks in Paris visiting her family and friends. Some of her family and most of her friends do not speak English well or even at all.
Because I really want to have good relationships with my wife’s family and because I eventually want to be able to speak with my wife fluently in her native language, I take French lessons twice a week.
At this point, I would consider myself conversationally functional but not yet fluent. I generally do well in one-on-one conversations, but put me in a group where people are making jokes or there are multiple conversations happening around the table, and I rapidly become lost.
I find studying a language to be a slow, laborious process. I misunderstand things that people say. I forget whether words are masculine or feminine and often guess incorrectly when I speak. I forget how to say words that I know I have known in the past. There are a couple of grammatical concepts that I understand theoretically, but I struggle to integrate them when I speak. I sometimes make the same mistake again after my French teacher has previously corrected me on the exact same mistake.
Sometimes, I enjoy my French lessons. I genuinely enjoy learning and being challenged. I consider my French teacher to be excellent. Other times though, I have to admit that I find studying French and taking lesson after lesson to be frustratingly slow. I often wonder if I will ever become as good at French as I would like to be. I have so much more to learn to become truly fluent that I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Occasionally, when I utterly fail to communicate the nuance of something that I want to communicate, I feel childish and silly. As someone who found graduate-level engineering math courses easy, I find it humbling to realize how long it takes me to learn a new language.
I imagine that many of my students studying for the SAT and ACT have similar feelings about their ACT or SAT test preparations as I do about learning French.
I sometimes hear my students make comments such as:
“I knew how to do that. I don’t know why I missed it again.”
“I know I learned this before, but I forget.”
“I don’t even understand what this question is asking.”
If learning a new language is difficult and often frustrating for me, why do I do it? Certainly, I would often prefer to go for a walk or read a book (in English) or spend time with my wife (talking in English) than study French.
If studying for the SAT or ACT is difficult, laborious, and frustrating, why do my students do it? I imagine that many of them would prefer to hang out with their friends, play video games, watch TV, or do sports.
My answer as to why I choose to study French is that even though there might be things that I want to do more in a given moment, I value learning French more than I do following my present-moment wants. I value having a good relationship with my wife’s family. I value being able to communicate with them. I value being able to communicate with my wife in her native language. I value being socially functional when we make our annual trip to Paris. By choosing to spend time studying French, I am placing more value on all of these reasons than I am in doing what I might whimsically want to do from moment to moment.
The vast majority of my students do all of the homework that I assign them and work very hard to prepare for the SAT or ACT. Whether they are explicitly aware of this or not, the reason that they choose to spend time studying rather than to do something more enjoyable and easier in-the-moment is because they too value something more highly than their present-moment, whimsical wants. What it is that they value highly differs greatly between students. Some want to have a specific career, such as becoming a medical doctor. Some want choice and freedom. Some want prestige. Some feel competitive. Some want to make a lot of money. Some want to have a positive impact in the world and want to prepare themselves for such work.
Regardless of what my students value, I find that it is those who are most able to make choices based upon what they value rather than their present-moment wants who improve the most and do the best on the ACT and SAT.
Of course, it is also extremely important to spend time with those we care about, socialize, and do the things that we enjoy, but I believe that doing these because we value them and are intentionally choosing to do them creates a richer, more balanced life than following our whimsical wants of the present moment.
In fact, I believe that consistently choosing to act in alignment with what one values rather than reacting to moment-to-moment desires is a key not only to improving and succeeding on the ACT and SAT, but also to living a rich and rewarding life.
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