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by Oliver DeMille
There is an old saying about effective studying that goes something like this: “know it backwards and forwards.” This idiom teaches an important truth, especially to modern readers. At first glance, it is obvious that reading deeply as opposed shallow skimming is more likely to net more knowledge and wisdom. At a deeper level, reading original sources is more conducive to quality education than settling for textbook-style summaries.
But “knowing it backwards and forwards” now has even more meaning to me. In fact, we could call this a new way to read.
I was skimming articles online when it hit me. I was researching background information for a chapter I was writing, and I wanted to know what others had already written on the topic. This is a common process for most writers, and it entails poring through mass amounts of information—often in a limited time frame. In such cases, the modern skill of surfing or browsing one’s reading is invaluable.
But depth is needed to make it stick.
To be skilled at skimming, the reader must shift back and forth, shallowly surfing one moment and then the next instant, without notice or guidelines, detecting something important and stopping to read with critical depth and applicational thinking. She must simultaneously analyze the content—its accuracy, relevance, application, etc.—and begin to couch it all in the juice of creative possibilities. All of this happens in split seconds – not as part of a plan but as the simple process of real reading.
In most cases the more a person does this, the better she gets at it. And the more she knows about a given topic or field of knowledge, the better she is at reading about it. This is why in Leadership Education we emphasize lots of discussion about what is read. People who discuss much of what they read with others naturally begin to read differently because their brains get in the habit of preparing for future conversations in multi-layered ways each time they read something.
On this day, however, I was reading on a new topic, and I was moving more slowly than usual. With so much information to skim, I was soon bored and eventually began wondering if this was a good use of my time. Maybe this topic is best left to the experts, I justified. Maybe I should stop and go get a sandwich.
I had hit this type of roadblock many times over the years, so I asked the key question:
Is this a time where I need to change my focus to something more inspiring?
Is it a case where I need to better inspire myself to push through and learn something hard but important?
My gut told me that I needed this, so I moved on to the next question:
How can I best inspire myself to keep working on this even though it is boring and frustrating?
Usually, the answer to this question is found in the text itself.
In my young adult years, when I was enthralled with history, political philosophy and biographies, and didn’t want to read literature, my mentor assigned Les Miserables. It was hard at first, but I kept reading. My mentor told me to smell the book—put it right up to my nose and smell the paper and ink.
Smell it? “Yes, smell it,” he said. “Then go read the last paragraph of the book and see how it makes you feel. And whenever you get bogged down and want to quit, randomly skip to a page far ahead in the book and read a paragraph or two. Keep doing this until you get interested, then immediately stop reading and go back to your real place in the book and read on.” I did it, smelling and all, and it worked. By the time I was done with this transformational book, I was forever hooked on great literature.
The text changed me.
Another example: When I found the math classics (including Nichomachus, Descartes and especially Newton’s Principia Mathematica) difficult, I stopped reading and told myself that somehow the text could inspire me. I spent nearly an hour looking through the texts for something inspiring, then I noticed a diagram with numbers arranged on the page in the shape of a triangle. I had an “a ha” moment, and begin studying the arrangement of the numbers. Not the equations, not the mathematical functions, not the proofs. I ignored the problems and the answers. Instead, I went on a quest to understand numbers and shapes. I got so interested that I spent the better part of two years studying the topic. When I finally got back to reading what the authors wrote and working on the math problems, I was in love with math and the whole thing was now fun.
The text had changed me.
I experienced this in various ways over time, but I won’t outline it all here. Suffice it to say that when I decided to push through my reading on the new topic, I knew that somehow the way to inspire myself was right there in the text. I scanned the articles looking for an epiphany, but nothing seemed to click.
Still no Eureka.
This is taking too long.
There were no numbers in the shape of triangles, no footnote that seemed odd and captured my attention, no reference to something I knew that triggered a new way of seeing things, and the last paragraph of every article left me increasingly less interested in reading more.
Then, quite by accident, something strange happened. I had read the last paragraph of an article (boring) and was about to turn the page when something caught my eye. It was a name in the second-to-last paragraph. I thought I recognized the name, but it turned out to be the same name for a different person who was an expert in a totally different field (who knew there were so many Hamiltons writing things?). But it got me to go back and read the paragraph.
Somehow, the momentum carried me and I read the third-to-last paragraph and then the fourth-to-last, and so on. I just kept reading. Like Newton’s laws of motion, I read the whole article backwards. Actually, I read the words in each paragraph in the normal order, but I read the paragraphs from the last right back to the first. It was fascinating. Weird, but interesting.
As I read, I quickly warmed up to what I was learning. Somehow, by separating the subject into a bunch of factoids without the precedents and buildups from the author, I found myself deeply interested. The jargon of expertise was gone, the monotone “Beuller Beuller Beuller” voice disappeared and the content of the article jumped off the page. I was learning, questioning, taking notes in my binder, and penciling in question marks in the margins with hopes that the answer would be found in earlier paragraphs.
When I finished researching for the day, I had dinner and family time then got ready for bed. Before sleeping, I noticed the works of John Adams sitting next to my bed. Just for fun, I picked it up and started reading from the end. I read into the night. I’ve read this book at least five times before, and it is all marked up with different colors of ink (black, blue, red, green, and pencil to mark the different times through it—which is how I know I’ve read it five times), but this time I made more notes than ever before (I woke up my daughter Eliza to ask for a colored pen, and she sleepily gave me an orange one).
The book came alive for me, again. It was like a whole new book. Each paragraph had so much to teach, and reading the conclusions before the evidence was fascinating. It’s hard to explain, but reading things backwards can be very inspiring.
I find it especially valuable in two situations: 1) reading something that feels boring, and 2) reading non-fiction classics that I’ve already read several times before. (Note that I haven’t found this method very helpful with fiction works. Eliza stared at me in amazement when I shared this gem with her. Then she shook her head and said, emphatically, “Duh!”)
This is certainly a new way of reading, at least for me. Maybe it’s old hat for you, but if not you might want to give it a try—especially if you feel the need to push through on something that is difficult for you to read.
I’ve been using this now for over a year, and it still works. One day at lunch with a friend, Orrin Woodward, I was reading an article he had written, and he noticed that I read it all the way through and then read it again backwards. He asked me what I was doing, and I said, “I learn more from things when I read them forward and backward.”
I hadn’t realized until that moment that I was following the advice of an old adage in the English language. Maybe we can learn a lot more from the old ways.
In any case, I hope you’ll give it a try. I loved what it did for my scripture study, which brought up another thought: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” If it works for you, great. If not, remember that the way to inspire yourself to study something, especially something challenging, is often (for me, so far, always) right there in the text itself.
We just have to spend enough time and effort to let the classics do their magic.
If you liked this article, you might enjoy, “How to Read a Book” by Oliver DeMille and Brad Bolon >>
by Oliver & Rachel DeMille
In the Flow
Most of us have experienced times when learning just flowed, when it felt so right—and we seemed to be magnets of ideas and questions and knowledge. This is a normal state of learning when one is truly inspired. And it need not be a rare, spontaneous or haphazard occurrence. It can be the common state of studying, virtually day in and day out.
This does happen regularly when students are actively discovering, developing and polishing their deep areas of genius. When this occurs, they feel passionate, dedicated and excited about studying.
Schools have long tried to duplicate this for every student, but even Anne of Green Gables or John Keating (Robin Williams’ role in Dead Poet’s Society) could only reach some of their students. As soon as this type of great teaching is institutionally systematized, structured and enforced, it is fundamentally altered and essentially disappears. No U.S. president can “fix” education, no law can systematize inspiration, and no amount of funding, policy or resources can structure passion. Let us say again:
No president can fix education, no law can systematize inspiration, and no amount of funding, policy or resources can structure passion.
Great education defies structure because it is always (always!) individualized, personalized, interactive, nimble, responsive and inspired. The same great mentor will urge Student A to read and Student B to stop reading. The same great mentor will counsel Student A to read today and not to read tomorrow. Any institutionalization of inspiration loses its inspiration. Truly great learning is a miracle every time.
All the system can really do is set up the environment for predictable and consistent miracles, as Maria Montessori taught.[i] This includes establishing school buildings, providing budgets for schools, outlining general policies that ensure safety, and hiring principals and teachers (or presidents and professors at the college level) with proven passion and ability to inspire. These are the things the system can do.
But beyond this list, great education can only happen if certain “sparks” fire, and they will only fire predictably and consistently if parents and teachers understand and master their transformational role—and this only if they are left unfettered in order to carry it out. We recognize this phenomenon in coaching sports, theater and debate, for example; but we too seldom apply it to teaching math, science, literature and history, etc.
The irony here is rich. The educational system—from the professorial pools and expert theorists to superintendents and school boards, from principals to teachers to Congress, and from think tanks to educational lobbies—seeks a quantifiable, measurable system, while year after year parents, students, teachers and observers leave frustrated that schools so often fail to deliver that spark, that flow, that light that defies virtually all types of measurement.
We want something we can detect and observe, but can’t objectively measure, and we use objective measures that consistently extinguish the spark.
Great education is not about institutions or bureaucratic policy. It is about individuals, one by one, becoming who they really are. Always.
There is a place where this kind of one-on-one mentoring in an environment of personalization, deep caring and quality is the most natural thing of all. The word for this place is “home,” or “family.”
As much as our nation would like a quick, by-the-numbers fix, a system-wide change in education won’t solve the problem. Anything systematic changes can do to improve the environment is welcome, of course; but they will not fix education. This will happen only when parents do their work. Parents who are deeply in touch with their children and youth, who meet with them regularly in mentor meetings and discuss the students’ hopes, dreams, fears, goals and passions, are, in effect, Student Whisperers.
They know what their children and youth are thinking, and they listen long and carefully enough to understand what their children and youth need. Not just in general terms, but in personalized terms, now, today, this week, this month. This is challenging work, the work of parents guiding and empowering their children’s education.
Force, Manipulation or Inspiration
Students can, of course, be forced to perform by progressive and technologically-leveraged means; or they can be convinced/manipulated more deeply and in higher numbers. This is what the system can do. And the result will be more educational mediocrity, and a failure to realize true potential. Unless the family is put back squarely as the center of education, the education debate will continue without much progress—as it has for many decades already.
For students to truly thrive, to consistently reach for excellence, they need to fall passionately in love with studying. To do this, they must be on the road to discovering, developing and polishing their deep inner genius. This is always individual
While it is true that the System cannot deliver this (because it is a system), there is one thing that can predictably, consistently and effectively deliver large percentages of students passionately studying hard, long and with enthusiasm that lasts.
This one thing is great mentoring. And nobody can fulfill this role better than caring, committed and actively involved parents. Great mentors understand what the students are seeking, what they deeply and completely want, and how they can get it. Great mentors understand this even when the students don’t.
This is not haphazard or strictly metaphysical. It is duplicable and learnable. Great parents and great mentors follow, knowingly or naturally, the Student Whisperer’s Creed.
The Student Whisperer’s Creed
- Great mentors believe in freedom—in the world and in one’s personal education.
- Great mentors believe in individualizing the process and content of each student’s learning.
- Great mentors believe that each student has a unique and vital mission in life.
- Great mentors believe that each student has untapped genius, with the seeds of what is needed for his/her personal mission(s).
- Great mentors believe that most personal missions benefit from a superb, broad, deep, leadership education in the greatest books and works of mankind.
- Great mentors believe that students learn more and better when they are inspired and intrinsically motivated than when they are compelled by external requirements.
- Great mentors believe that one of the most powerful means of inspiration is example.
- Great mentors set an example of rigorous, passionate study and lifelong learning.
- Great mentors exemplify seeking truth and searching out principles in many worldviews, ideas, sources and perspectives, and comparing them with the principles taught in their own core books and beliefs.
- Great mentors exemplify pushing themselves outside of their own comfort zone and consistently expanding their breadth and depth of knowledge and skills.
- Great mentors set an example and encourage students to learn from all mentors—authors, teachers, innovators, artists, thinkers, scientists, classmates, spiritual insights, and any other enlightening source.
- Great mentors foster a culture of friendship and cooperation. Mentors genuinely like their students, and they know their students will teach them and friends/classmates much of what is learned. Great parents who are mentors are consistently open and learning from their children.
- Great mentors use many tools to inspire and create an environment of learning, including group discussion, readings, writing, lecture, simulations, field experience, personal coaching, refinement of talents and skills, visiting speakers, assignments, small group tutorials, projects, etc. They feel successful when students leave their meetings (or classrooms) and passionately study with self-starting enthusiasm and rigorous tenacity. Parents who are great mentors don’t leave all this to the schools, but get involved in some or all of these environments of learning.
- Great mentors seek and revere quality, and therefore do not orient themselves by rote conformity or other arbitrary measures. They know that simple, inspired study is the surest path to excellence in learning.
- Great mentors acknowledge the working of higher principles and inspiration, and operate in harmony with them in a process that literally changes the world—building leaders for all walks of life who will greatly impact the future of family, prosperity and freedom.
- To all these, great mentors add their own personal style, gifts, interests, specialties and areas of passion and enthusiasm. They truly pass on a little bit of their best selves to every student they serve. Parents especially help their children in this way.
These are the things that can be codified and applied. Those who follow them become the greatest of mentors: Student Whisperers. Parents are the most natural, and often the best Student Whisperers. And every parent can do this.
This is the great choice of education, and every family must make The Choice either: 1) to settle for whatever education is offered, 2) to push for higher excellence in whatever education is offered, or 3) to dig deep and become truly great parent leaders who go beyond what is offered. Note that such leadership means doing more at times, and also doing less when the time is right. The key, educationally, is to help the child or youth continually feel the spark of great learning.
The better the educational leadership of parents, the more “sparks” will ignite during each day of study. The better the quality of parental leadership, the more students will passionately and consistently study long, hard, and effectively. The better the quality, the more our youth will discover and embrace their life’s mission. The better the quality, the more genius will be loosed on our world. The better the quality, the more we will see society fix its problems and overcome its challenges.
It all depends on Student Whispering. More specifically, it all depends on truly great parenting.
But how? What exactly do parents need to do to go beyond what is offered and provide truly great educational opportunities and mentoring to their children? How do they make the Choice, and what exactly is it?
First, it is essential to clarify that great education is achieved mostly by the student. Students must accomplish most of the deep studying, thinking, pondering, memorizing, debating, practicing and learning.
But, second, the choice to engage long, hard and effective studying is nearly always sparked by…something. That something is often a dedicated parent considering the educational needs of a child or youth and seeking a way to make sure that these needs are fulfilled.
Not every action taken by such parents is effective, but parents who keep taking such actions will see amazing educational results in the lives of their youth. This is the family choice in education. To see just how simple it is for parents to make this choice and lead the education of their children to higher levels of quality and success, take a few moments and complete the following mini-workshop:
- Think of the best teacher you ever had. Was it Mrs. Cox in the third grade? Or Mr. Smolen in high school? Was it a coach? Your mom? A church leader? A counselor at camp? Was it a character in a book? Or a certain author? A friend? A great composer, actor, singer or musical group?Again, what teacher most inspired you to greatness in your life? What teacher helped you decide to become your best? Write down the names that come to mind.
- Once you have your best teacher in mind, consider this: What made him/her/it the greatest teacher in your life? Was she interested in you? Was he demanding? Did she see great things in you that you didn’t realize you had? Was he caring, or empowering? Did she trust you? Did he move you deeply and passionately and make you want to be great? Write down the thoughts and experiences, characteristics and events that most inspired and impacted you.
- Now, with the examples of such great teachers in mind, consider each of your children. Put the name of each child at the top of a blank piece of paper. On the first page, with one name at the top, answer the following question: What are the top 3 things you can do right now or in the days or weeks just ahead to be a better parent to this child or youth? Personalize your answers to this child, and write down your answers. Then, ask yourself what is the number one thing this child needs right now. Again, write your answer.
Now repeat this exercise for each of your children.
Great mentoring makes all the difference. How are you increasing your capacity as a mentor?
[i] See Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind.
by Oliver DeMille
It’s election year in the United States, and the ongoing debates, primary battles and jabs between candidates are dominating the news. In all of this, it’s helpful to remember that elections can teach us a lot about mentoring.
I’m not talking about the admittedly negative things. Too often elections in whatever nation around the world emphasize shallow ideology—whether it is conservative versus liberal, Left versus Right, labor versus capital, interventionist versus isolationist, etc., etc. The pundits argue and candidates on all sides hurl too much vitriol, exaggeration and negativity.
But there are some positive things about elections, and these teach us valuable lessons. For example, while in U.S. presidential elections most conservatives vote for the Republican candidate and the majority of progressives vote for the Democratic nominee, there is wisdom in the fact that the rest of the citizens actually decide the election based not on politics but on who they think will be the best leader.
The Leadership Thing
The “leadership thing” swayed the elections in 1980 (Reagan over Carter), 1984 (Reagan over Mondale), 1988 (Bush over Dukakis), 1992 (Clinton over Bush), 1996 (Clinton over Dole), 2000 (Bush over Gore), 2004 (Bush over Kerry), 2008 (Obama over McCain).
In each case, the electorate picked the person who seemed the most like the archetypical “leader.” Again, most people on the Left and Right support their party’s candidate, but the overall electorate backs the individual it thinks is most likely to be a good leader.
Likewise, good mentoring is, in large part, more leadership than ideology. Setting the example, focusing on “You, not Them,” quality weekly and monthly mentor meetings, “Inspire, not Require,” effective Family Executive Councils, “Structure Time, not Content,” emphasizing “Quality, not Conformity,” and making the studies “Simple, not Complex”—these are all issues of leadership. Whatever curriculum you use, these keys of leadership are essential to delivering a truly great education.
Add classics to this (like candidates standing up for the core principles of freedom—the things that really matter), and you take education to a place of real depth.
What do Great Leaders Do?
In the book Multipliers, Liz Wiseman teaches that great leaders do the following: 1) look f