Perspective on class helps with happiness

Last semester I took three senior-level CS courses. In one, I learned about the math behind why computers and algorithms can work. In another, I learned about the fundamental value of information and how machines can use this to spot patterns. And in the last, I learned about the math needed to recreate real-world physics in computer simulations.

Oh, and I also took freshman chemistry. Guess which one I got a B in?

When I was a freshman, that would’ve had me freaking out. All-night cram sessions in the library, weekly trips to the professors office hours, the works. But, honestly, after six semesters here, I knew I hadn’t put my all into the class, and I was fine with that. Don’t get me wrong, chemistry’s a fascinating subject, but the likelihood of me using any of it in my professional career was about as close to zero as it gets.

In other words, I just had a bit more perspective on what was important. I knew what was likely to make a difference in my life and what wasn’t, and prioritized things accordingly. And if something came up, be it a cool project in another class I wanted to spend more time on, or just a midnight run to Waffle House, I let my chemistry work take the hit.

Even given all that, though, I was still determined to beat it. I refused to let my one non-senior class be my one B that semester. The night before the final, I knew what I had to do. I was ready to buckle down, study hard and make my final push through the class. I grabbed my notes, old labs and textbook. I opened my laptop to practice problems online.  I had my calculator and practice tests ready to go.

I plopped down on the couch and proceeded to ignore them all. Did I mention that was also the night that bin Laden was killed in Pakistan?

Rather than studying, like I was “supposed to,” I watched three and a half hours of news coverage on CNN and texted, chatted and talked with friends as we were all watching a historic moment unfold. I didn’t regret a second of it. Sometimes you just have to admit that real life is way cooler than anything in a textbook.

A friend of mine at Georgetown summed it up quite nicely when she posted a picture of the crowd celebrating in front of the White House with the caption, “Some things are just more important than law school finals.”

Major life events seem to have a habit of happening when I have work I should really be doing. Two of my best friends, for example, got engaged last fall the night before a major midterm in a class I was struggling in. According to my average in the class, I should have spent that entire night frantically cramming formulas and laws into my brain. Instead, I took a few hours off to frantically hug and celebrate with my friends. Did my grade reflect that gap in my studying? You bet. I believe that was my second-lowest test average in four years here, and that was far and away the worst I’d ever performed in a class. But, did I regret it? Not one bit.

An oft-quoted John Lennon quote is that “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” My philosophy has been to treat this as, “Life is what you do when you should be studying.”

Don’t get me wrong: study, for crying out loud. I’d be a complete hypocrite if I didn’t point out that I’m a tot bookworm. Just don’t let it get in the way of opportunities for random shenanigans when they present themselves.

Who knows? It might work out for the best, anyhow. One of the best tech talks I ever attended I only went to so I could procrastinate from programming for an assignment. I ended up learning more about agile software engineering practices from that one two-hour talk than I did from an entire class dedicated to the topic.

Like I said in my last editorial, at the end of the day, employers are looking for more than just a number on your transcript, and you won’t have much more than that if you don’t have the perspective to realize that there are better things to do than study for class.

So. Skip a class. Look at a project and go, “Eh, that’ll do.” Stop studying for a test an hour before you normally would. In the long run, it won’t matter one bit whether you get out of here with a 3.4 instead of a 3.45.

Instead, start an organization. Spend a weekend hacking together a phone app with your roommates. Listen to a TED talk you don’t really have time for. Who knows, you might actually learn something and, at the very least, will have a story to tell.