Educational Mithridatism

Some things that you need to do are a lot like arsenic. These are activities that you know you should do, but the act of doing them simply drives you mad and feels like they are killing you. Playing scales in music is a great example of this. You sit down to study guitar and you know you should do about 30 minutes of scales, but the mindless repetitive motion and pointless sound drives you to boredom. You want to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan now! Fuck these scales!

You sit down to do these mindless, boring, stupid, pointless, annoying, exercises with no immediate value and all you see before you is a massive plate of arsenic. You want to do it now! How can playing the same scale over and over possibly help?! Now now now! Ugh, this is so boring. And then you stop before the arsenic kills you, but when you try to do what you really want you fail. You stop playing scales and then sit down to play your favorite song and can’t, then you get frustrated and give up. Fuck the guitar! It’s stupid!

Many people who react this way to practice end up only ever attempting the things they can do naturally, which is really not many things for most humans. If you can’t get immediate results without practice you give up and come up with crazy excuses about why it’s stupid. Even worse, maybe you’re the kind of person who sets insanely unrealistic goals (like learning all of Steve Vai’s repertoire in one month) so that when you fail at it you can save face and say it was just too hard. Well of course it is, if you’re incredibly unrealistic and don’t want to practice.

In my books I have exercises that are like this. Things like making a deck of flash cards to memorize all the keywords in a language are exactly the kind of arsenic infected repetition that drives people nuts. Typing the cd command 20 times to learn how to use it also seems useless and repetitive. The reason I have these exercises is they’re a quicker way to get language proficiency than if you just banged your head on coding samples for hours on end. A little bit of rote memorization has this magical quality of removing a main blocker to learning to use a language: symbol and word recognition. Rather than write code and constantly have to stop to know what a word is, you already have that word primed in your memory and simply need to learn to apply it.

However, enjoying arsenic activities is not normal. It’s a myth that there’s a small percentage of people who just can’t sit still and the rest of the world are perfect little angels who can do exactly as told and mindlessly write their names a million times to learn penmanship. It’s bullshit. Everyone has some tolerance level for boring shit, it’s just yours is probably lower than others, but nobody except a few people with some forms of atypical neurology can sit for 12 hours and do the same thing for no reason. Not at first anyway. This takes training.

I believe that the root of this belief in mindless repetition being a good character trait comes from America’s puritanical history. You got into heaven by getting up early and working hard in the fields until you died of tuberculosis or famine. If you worked hard enough you’d have enough money to buy your way into heaven, so lazy people just went to hell. This interesting bit of history is also why bohemians seem to think that memorization creates boring robots who will never have a creative actualized soul. Bohemians are simply reacting to the puritanical bullshit, but in the process inventing their own bullshit.

It’s important for learning and personal growth that you learn to tolerate rote education, but that only learning with rote methods will also hold you back. The killer combination in education is when you use rote training for basic building block skills, and then apply them to creative problems to learn how to use them. The world of programming is loaded with people who have memorized every square inch of manuals and standards, but who couldn’t code their way out of a lego castle, never producing a single piece of software of any substance. There’s also a crazy number of painters who do nothing but conceptualize all day and have no idea why their paintings keep cracking and can’t make a cup look like a cup. What you want is to be neither of those people by being both of them at the same time.

For me this is just second nature by now. I can sit down and play scales on the guitar for hours, or draw the same thing over and over to prefect a technique, or do flash cards to learn a new language. But, I’ve trained myself to turn off the heaving desperate anguish that flares up when I do them. I didn’t naturally have this ability to practice basic skills for hours. I built my tolerance to it just like arsenic.

I’m going to call this practice Educational Mithridatism, after the king Mithridates VI who was famous for having slowly increased the amount of poison he could tolerate so he couldn’t be poisoned. Apparently his mother poisoned his father, which is definitely going to make someone crazy enough to eat poison every day. Whether it’s true or not, there is some evidence that humans can build a tolerance to arsenic and other natural poisons. For this essay, let’s just assume that you can do it, and I’m using it as an analogy.

The reason I like this analogy for doing things you must, but dread, is it frames the activity correctly. It is perfectly normal for you to hate boring repetitive things. People who like doing boring shit are not magically better moral individuals than you are. They are just different, and I bet if you asked them they’d say they wish they were more “creative” (which has it’s own self-defeating attitude I’ll write about next). If you have a hard time sitting down and practicing, then don’t beat yourself up. Admit that you hate it, that it feels like poison, it’s going to kill you, and take the challenge and build your tolerance.

How To Do It

You now want to train your tolerance for arsenic. Arsenic isn’t really the best word since it’s not clear you can actually build a tolerance to it, so I’ll say you want to practice Educational Mithridatism (EM). This will require you exposing yourself to what you hate, and slowly and methodically build a tolerance to it. This will require exposure and effort, but I have a way that may help you do it.

Purpose: The very first thing is you have to figure out what benefit you will get out of this activity if you can tolerate it. The core of the problem is people who sit down to practice something seem to have no ability to see how it will benefit them. Even worse they don’t believe others when told what the purpose is. To begin, you need to clearly write down what the point is, and what you’ll get out of it. Practicing scales will make it easier to play the music you like. Learning to draw spheres makes it possible to render other spherical objects. Learning the keywords to a language makes it easier to read and write code. Before you begin the activity, review the benefits and hold that fixed in your mind.

Baseline Tolerance: Next you’ll want to have some way to track how long you’re able to tolerate this activity. Get a stopwatch or use your phone, sit down to do the activity, and the second you feel your rage rise up in your chest, stop. Even if it’s just 2 seconds. Stop the watch, and write that down in some kind of log book. Just a little moleskin will work for this log book, but I also like the Uncalendar, but whatever you do keep it simple.

Building Tolerance: Once you have your baseline, even if it’s just 2 seconds, you can then start to build your tolerance. Set a timer for that amount of time, plus “a little more”. I say that vaguely because if it really is 2 seconds then you’ll need to probably try for 10 seconds or more. If it’s 5 minutes then shoot for 6 minutes. The purpose is to set the timer, then do the activity and not pay attention to the timer until it goes off. Then tell yourself if you really made it or if you need to attempt that time again. Keep trying to reach this time limit until you can do it successfully, recording each time you attempted. Once you can reach that time, then kick up a bit more, again maybe 10% or a bit more.

Take Breaks: Take a break for about 5-10 minutes between each attempt. If you don’t take a break then you won’t be recharging your resolve for the next attempt. Force yourself to take a break no matter what.

Make A Leap: Once you’re slowly inching your tolerance up in very measured ways you’ll want to attempt a leap. You may be ready to double your time or more without realizing it. Either switch to a stop watch and just go for as long as you can then record how long it was, or set the timer for double or triple what you can handle. Track how long you really did it during these leaps and then try to set that as your new level. If you fail at a leap, don’t worry, just go back to slowly building it up.

Test Your Goal: After you do these sessions for a while you’ll want to apply your training and see if it’s working. It most likely won’t have any impact for a while, but one day you’ll try your goal activity and suddenly it’s way easier. At a certain point you may even be able to just stop doing your tolerance building training and switch to simply doing your goal activity as your training. For example, if you’re forcing yourself to memorize C language keywords, and one day reading C code is suddenly very easy, then you probably don’t need to memorize the keywords anymore. Just start coding in C as much as possible. Goal accomplished.

Don’t Over Do It: The last note is to actually treat this like arsenic and don’t over do it. You can easily push yourself too hard and burn yourself out, or if it’s a physical activity, harm your body. The reason is you start tracking yourself and then you get excited that it’s working, so you decide to go for it and actually you are totally not ready. Instead, build it in small doses, and when doing the arsenic activity feels natural you know you’re ready to try something challenging.

Hopefully this little essay helps out people who wish they could just sit down and practice something they despise but know they need. The key is that you aren’t a less moral or stupid person because you can’t focus. You’re just someone who never learned how to do it and need to train yourself. It could take years, but if it’s important to you, then this is how you do it.

One thought on “Educational Mithridatism

  1. I really liked this post, it gives a bit more insight into your mentality of the “hard way” part of your books. It might even be useful to include a bit of an explanation like this in the preface of the books, because even though I sort of understood this concept, I still was hesitant to follow along. Like I definitely didn’t make flash cards or anything like that. But I might have with a bit more insight into why you were telling me to make flash cards.

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