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Career Advice from Polonius: To Thine Own Self be True

“To thine own self be true.” This advice comes from Polonius who is giving advice to his son in Act I, scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 

Polonius says: “This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Let’s focus on the first part. 

One of the dreams of education is to customize teaching to the specific learning style(s) of individual students. This was a hot topic when I was in graduate school.

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Around 50 years ago. 

Some day, your grandchildren or your great-grandchildren may be the beneficiaries of learning experiences that are individualized to their specific styles. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but it could happen. It isn’t only a question of research on what various styles are and how to present material that resonates with these various styles. There is also the question of priorities and dollars and personnel. 

But meanwhile, here’s the good news. You don’t have to wait for another 50 years of research and a reshuffling of priorities so folx spend more money on education and less on, let’s say, cosmetics and professional sports. As I say, don’t hold your breath.

But let’s get back to the good news. The good news is that you can discover for yourself how to maximize your own learning as well as what your particular talents are. 

One cautionary note: Don’t be a jerk about it. If you’re in a group dealing with grief, don’t say, “Well, I learn best if a subject is reduced to a few hundred polynomial formulae. So, let’s start right there. Let’s reduce grief to three dimensions. Later, of course, we can do a proper multidimensional scaling exercise to determine the optimal number of dimensions.”

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No. Don’t say that. Of course, you’re free to suggest that approach, but chances are, in this situation, and in most realistic group situations, you will be treated to information in the same manner as many others who have different styles from yours.

However, in many situations, you are, far and away the main important stakeholder. You can use your knowledge of how things work for you in order to strategize and plan how you will learn about things. You can organize and arrange your work so you’ll be more productive. 

Here’s a trivial example. I have learned that my eyes have a wisdom of their own. If, for instance, I’m going out for a walk around the garden to take some pictures of the sunset on the flowers, I grab my stuff and find myself turning and staring at the hat-rack on the way out the door. When I was younger, I would ignore this. But what I have learned is that my eyes are really good at knowing what to look at. So, even if I’m in a hurry, I take a moment to reflect on why my eyes are looking there. And, then, it comes to me. I’ll do better if I wear a brimmed hat to keep the sun out of my eyes while I look at my iPhone.

By paying attention to this little quirk, I’ve saved myself a lot of grief over the years; e.g., not left the house without my wallet, etc.

Here’s another example. I’m very good at seeing “patterns” emerge from a small number of examples or when there is considerable noise involved. This serves me well as my hearing diminishes because I can use top-down processing. Generally, but not always, I understand what people are saying. If I try to listen to a foreign language tape that is only isolated audio words, I have no hope of knowing what they are saying. “Key” “Tee”, “Pea”, sound exactly the same.

Seeing patterns easily is generally a nice capacity. However, I’m horrible at finding my own typos immediately after I write something. I actually “see” what I meant to type. A week later, I’m pretty good at catching the errors. If I had more patience, I would wait a week to proofread for every blog post, but being patient isn’t a strength either. I do go back over old posts occasionally and fix the typos (which I never saw at the time). 

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When I go to the movies — remember when we used to go to movies? — anyway, if I went to a comedy, I was very likely to laugh too soon. I “hear” the punchline two lines earlier than it actually occurs. There’s no benefit to my laughing early! But that’s when the punchline hits me. I do keep it soft so as not to disturb the others in the audience. On the other hand, I’m pretty good at “discovering” the playing patterns of my tennis opponents and anticipating what they are going to do. Naturally, I don’t always guess right, but I do way better than chance.

I bring up these examples to illustrate a generality; that most of these individual differences have an upside and a downside. Mainly, learning about my own styles and capacities is something I learned well after leaving high school. That makes sense. In school — or at least, the schools I went to — everybody got the same instruction in the same way almost all the time. But as an adult, you often have a lot of control over your own timing, flow of information, etc. I think it’s worth your while to look back at your experience and discover what you have difficulty with, what you’re OK at and what you are exceptionally good at. When you have a choice, use the approach you’re really good at. 


More background on “knowing yourself”