The power of preparation pays for students

February 18, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

What is a young student to do when they are faced with frequent reminders that another exam will be given and that their future could be affected by how they score?

Largely, it depends on the person and the way they approach the test. This is the conclusion of Andrew Robinson, who has authored, “Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs.” He gives us a close look at how 10 recognized geniuses achieved success in their chosen fields in the arts and sciences. In doing so, he also gives important clues that will be of service to many who may not be geniuses.

It will be necessary to fully understand the factors that combine to make each of us the unique persons that we are so that we can realistically contemplate plans for our lives. The three factors that matter most are: our inherited capabilities, our environmental influences and our unique experiences. As we mature and look ahead, a clear and honest assessment of these elements would be wise.

As we study the lives of such gifted people, we must look for useful values, ideas, tools and knowledge that are applicable to our own quest for focus, direction and meaning in life. Each of the 10 persons had assets and circumstances that gave them an edge in their struggle for success. Each also had obstacles to overcome — some of which were very serious. Several were born in very modest homes, had strained relationships with their parents and were plagued by physical and psychological disabilities.

Amid this huge and variant stockpile of interesting information is an insightful analysis of how human beings go about creative activity. Bombarded as we are, with sensations and experiences, how do we bring order into such crowded minds? While teachers and parents might have experiential and intuitive clues that help them to solve problems, the struggling student does not yet have that advantage.

In 1926, Graham Wallas authored, “The Art of Thought,” in which he proposed that creative people are successful in discovery and invention by following this pattern: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. Accordingly, creative people must begin their journey with a period of preparation. This includes all of the usual means of intellectual enrichment and background support. I call this our “a perceptive mass.” Incubation (to sit upon or brood upon) brings to bear our conscious and unconscious powers of sorting and arranging all of the information we gather. Illumination happens when “we get it” and a flash of insight takes place. While this event appears to be sudden, it is in fact the end result of a long process of hard study.

This process seldom, if ever, admits of short cuts. To make this point obvious, the author spends a complete chapter on “The Ten-Year Rule.” The research shows an almost invariant pattern of sustained effort spanning 10 years for Albert Einstein to create the Special Theory of Relativity. This was true also in the case of Charles Darwin in producing “The Origin of Species.” The other eight geniuses studied also experienced the 10-year preparation rule.

The lesson to be drawn from this is almost certainly obvious to parents and educators. But, until it is fully internalized by students, they might not take this hard reality into account. Their immediate project or paper might require a day, a week or a month of proper preparation, but this is only a prelude to more stringent demands of preparation to follow as the projects and papers become more complicated.

Some may be tempted to suppose that too much is being made of the first of these stages of creativity. This emphasis was intended to avoid the temptations common to youth such as continuing to speed while driving on the hope there will be no negative consequences for their actions. All students must develop the habit of sustained preparation if they have hopes of success in future advancement.

The foregoing thinking is supported by bits of wisdom from the past. An ancient Greek writer was emphatic: “Before the gates of Excellence the high gods have placed sweat.” Thomas Edison was equally strong, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” Students who are nervous about how they will do on the next test or written assignment cannot depend on luck. Early in their educational careers they will notice that the harder they work, the more luck they will have. Illumination is not likely without first enduring the rigors of preparation.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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