Nate Soares, (Soares 2015)



Related: Play to win


Say you’re a college student, and you have a paper due. The quality of the paper will depend upon the amount of effort you put in. We’ll say that you know the project pretty well: you can get an A with only moderate effort, and with significant effort you could produce something much better than the usual A-grade paper.

The education environment implicitly attempts to convince students that their preferences point ever rightward along this line. Parents and teachers say things like “you should put in your best effort,” and they heap shame upon people who don’t strive to push ever rightward along the quality line.

People generally react to this coercion in one of two ways. The first group (the “slackers”) rejects the implication that quality=preferences. These are the people who don’t care about the class, who complain constantly about the useless pointless work they have to do, who half-ass the assignment and turn in something that either barely passes or fails entirely. […]

The second group (the “tryers”) are the ones who accept the premise that quality=preferences, and strive ever rightwards on the quality line. […]

Society has spent a lot of time conditioning us to think of the tryers as better than the slackers. Being a tryer is a virtue. Slackers are missing the point of education; why are they even there? The tryers are going to go places, the slackers will never amount to anything.

But in fact, both groups are doing it wrong.

If you want to be highly effective, remember what you’re fighting for.

And, spoiler alert, you aren’t fighting for “write a high-quality paper.” That would be a pretty silly thing to fight for.

What is your goal in taking this class? Perhaps you’re doing it thanks to a combination of social pressure (your parents said to), social inertia (everybody else goes to college), and a vague belief that this is the path towards a good job and a comfortable life. Or perhaps you’re there because you want good grades so you can acquire lots of money and power which you will use to fight dragons. Or perhaps you’re there out of a genuine thirst for knowledge. But no matter why you’re there, your reason for being there will pick out a single target point on the quality line. Your goal, then, is to hit that quality target — no higher, no lower.

Your preferences are not “move rightward on the quality line.” Your preferences are to hit the quality target with minimum effort.

If you’re trying to pass the class, then pass it with minimum effort. Anything else is wasted motion.

If you’re trying to ace the class, then ace it with minimum effort. Anything else is wasted motion.

If you’re trying to learn the material to the fullest, then mine the assignment for all its knowledge, and don’t fret about your grade. Anything else is wasted motion.

If you’re trying to do achieve some combination of good grades (for signalling purposes), respect (for social reasons), and knowledge (for various effects), then pinpoint the minimum quality target that gets a good grade, impresses the teacher, and allows you to learn the material, and hit that as efficiently as you can. Anything more is wasted motion.



Soares, Nate. 2015. “Half-Assing It with Everything You’ve Got.” Minding Our Way.