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How to go from Mediocre to Extraordinary?

  1. Jun 23, 2008 #1
    Hello all.

    Im pretty new to the physicsforums, but nonetheless am amazed at the extent of intellectual curiousity in this community.

    Anyway this is my question.

    At my high school I guess I am considered "elite" in Math, Science, History,..not english...I suck at that. I taught my self precalculus and did rather well in Cal BC.

    But when I come on to physicsforums or theartofproblemsolving I feel inadequate, below average, and sub par.

    It seems like every other kid is taking Quantam Physics and Complex Analysis by Sophomore year in High School.

    Not to mention the elegance and speediness some of the people here can solve problems I scratch my head over for a long time.

    My question to you all in short is how do you take the mediocre and transform it into the extraordinary.

    Relative to the degree of skill seen on physicsforums or theartofproblemsolving I am a mediocre physicist and mathematician.

    What can I do to take my skill to the next level and beyond?

    I know "practice makes perfect", but how?

    Do I just sit there starting on pg.1 of James Walkers' Physics and work may way through the entire book doing each and every single problem?

    Please help because this is personal dilemma thats been biting me for a long time.

    Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 23, 2008 #2
    Each person learns differently. You're idea may work, it can't hurt to sit down and read/work through problems. Working through problems is the best way to become familiar with how things work. Other than that, just think about things. I personally need to be able to visualize or conceptualize a problem. Once you learn to ask the right questions (to others or yourself) then you are much closer to solving the problems you are looking at.

    Also, note that most people here are well into university or a career, I don't think many have more than the most basic quantum physics in high school.
  4. Jun 23, 2008 #3


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    My best advice to the OP is to ask "why"? It is not enough to know how to solve problems, or to learn procedures that help you attack problems. If you want to excel, you have to learn to deconstruct problems and view them in a light that is conducive to understanding them. Many times, problems are poorly-posed and an "aha!" solution can be found only by posing them in terms that are more conducive to understanding the root issues. If you can do this, you will develop the essential skills necessary to become a troubleshooter and critical thinker.
  5. Jun 23, 2008 #4
    What is extraordinary?

    We don't remember Einstein or Feynman or any of those guys for learning basic physics and being able to solve intro physics problems quickly, or for learning math... We recognize them for moving beyond that and discovering new things!

    It's absolutely imperative to have a solid foundation of knowledge, of course, but I've met plenty of bright people who work on questions no other human has ever asked - if they get hung up on remembering some silly detail or are at a loss for solving a basic Newtonian mechanics problem, does that make them mediocre? Past high school, do we honor people for being good at something anyone could read in a book? (hint: I've never seen an adult spelling bee)
  6. Jun 23, 2008 #5
    Actually, there is an adult spelling bee, held annually in Long Beach, Calif.

    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 23, 2017
  7. Jun 23, 2008 #6
    I stand corrected! :rofl:
  8. Jun 23, 2008 #7
    Do I just sit there starting on pg.1 of James Walkers' Physics and work may way through the entire book doing each and every single problem?

    Once you finished that, go for Irodov or something else.
  9. Jun 23, 2008 #8


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    Hi Gerry,

    Don't worry about your perception of other people online or otherwise. There will always be those around who seem to do better, achieve more and with less effort. All you can really do is hone your own skills and improve yourself.

    I would argue that you don't need to work through EVERY problem of EVERY page of EVERY textbook - unless of course you really enjoy that. I think what's more important is that you find problems that you're curious about and projects that can give you the motivation to learn what it is you need to learn in order to solve them.
  10. Jun 23, 2008 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    I often feel the same way- all these other people come up with incredibly ingenious and elegant solutions to complex problems in a split second while I plod along.

    I don't think there is a single answer- other than don't feel inadequate for a second. Learn about subjects that interest you, and let yourself become lost in the material, roving from detail to detail (note that's different from letting yourself just get lost!). Return to subjects you think you understood, after some time has passed and your general level of knowledge has increased. Often, you will find something new. Over time, you will gain a coherent understanding of some region of science, and then it will be others that turn to you as an expert.

    There's plenty of people around who claim mastery of a subject when in fact all they can do is parrot someone else's work. Yes, it seems impressive. But that is not the kind of skill required to support oneself in research.

    Most of the people on this forum are always learning something new. Something new to me may have been known for 60 years, which can lead to snotty comments- specifically, reviewer's comments. Try to emulate a scholarly approach, find your own path, and you will do just fine.
  11. Jun 23, 2008 #10


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    I've been in the business of trying to learn physics for a few years now, and if there's one thing I found out about learning, it's that you learn least when you're comparing yourself to others. Go at your own pace, learn what you're interested in, think about what you want to think about.
  12. Jun 24, 2008 #11
    Please keep in mind that there are a *lot* more levels of mediocre than of extraordinary. Colleges are filled with kids who were "elite" in high school, grad schools are filled with kids who were "elite" in college, and faculty are filled with kids who were "elite" in grad school, and so on.

    Everyone eventually finds themselves in a room where they know less about the subject at hand than everyone else.
  13. Jun 24, 2008 #12
    Very few high school students are in any sort of really advanced physics classes. If they get to calc-based intro physics they're academically outstanding and in a great school.

    Perhaps your perception of the educational/experience/age level of the people here is skewed? If you count from IB physics in high school forward to this past academic year, I have either LEARNED or TAUGHT physics for sixteen years, and I was heavily interested in it well before I first took a formal class dedicated to it.

    And there are others here who have a lot more experience than I do.
  14. Jun 24, 2008 #13

    Vanadium 50

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    Be careful not to confuse opportunity with achievement.
  15. Jun 24, 2008 #14


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    turn left at partying and sleeping, and head straight for hard work and paying attention.
  16. Jun 24, 2008 #15
    I would say mathwonks advice is the best yet. No bingedrinking and staying up late not studying.

    Besides I would like to add some of my knowledge.

    1. Exercise regularly, you will get extra energy from this, besides from a fit body. I would recommend 5 days a week for those that are aiming at the absolute top. Decide on what you are concentrating on (likes the most), like three times running and two times strength exercises and the like or vice versa.

    2. SPEND A LOT OF TIME with your subjects and books/problems. I am talking about getting a girlfriend here, but it's the books that you obviously love to hate.

    3. Get a goal that you are aiming for, in 5 and 10 years time. What will you do? What will you have done? What are you wearing? How are you situated? This is a kind of mental training that I believe people/scientists should do more often.

    I would maybe give more tips, but let's not hijack the thread anymore than necessary. :)
  17. Jun 24, 2008 #16
    Every morning after making love for the fourth or fifth time, you should run five miles (if you are feeling lazy, of course). After that it should be about 6:00 in the morning. You should unravel a new scroll of papyrus for the day, take out your quill pen and begin to write new, original proofs (in latin, naturally). Do this for about eight hours and then rest. In the afternoon you should conduct groundbreaking physics experiments in your laboratory for about four or five hours before retiring for the night. Repeat. That's what the kids who have been taking quantum physics and complex analysis during their sophomore year of high school have been doing for centuries. It's well documented in Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia.

    In all honesty, just try your best day after day and the rest will come.
  18. Jun 24, 2008 #17
    I highly doubt a sophmore in highschool is doing quantum physics. In fact a sophmore in university is probably only taking their first intro to quantum course. You have to realize that a lot of people on this form are out of university and have bachelours or even PhD's in physic so I wouldn't be worried if I didn't understand all the different threads.
  19. Jun 24, 2008 #18
    thanks guys for the advice

    btw...I may have gone a bit too far when I talked about the sopohomores taking quantum physics, but if you guys have ever been on the artofproblemsolving.com

    there are kids taking complex analysis by sophomore year in high school. They did Calc BC in like 7th grade. Their pretty ridiculous over there.
  20. Jun 24, 2008 #19
    oh and yes I do exercise regularly, but its almost counterproductive for me. Once Im done with my weight lifting workout Im shot and sitting down with a physics book becomes awefully hard. Thats why I try and do my studying before I touch a weight or else Im screwed.
  21. Jun 25, 2008 #20
    Look, I think most people who take more than required physics coursework and required math coursework are already doing pretty well with regard to intelligence.

    To compare yourself to people who are probably members of the Triple Nine Society is self-defeating, unless you happen to be a member of the Promethius Society. Google it.

    If you look at the educational background of a good sample of professors, industry researchers, Nobel Prize winners, and famous scientists, you will find intelligence, curiosity, and drive--but you probably won't find many who took complex analysis in the 10th grade.
  22. Jun 26, 2008 #21
    Gerry73191: After you exercise, eat something. believe me it will do you wonders. Or maybe Coffee. But most of all water, because if you take your cardio seriously, you will probably need a good litre, or maybe two afterwards.

    Monster: To actually go from mediocre to extraordinary (I would myself use the word excellent, but potato, potatoe etc) demands a lot of people. You need a lot of small contingency plans, constantly exposeing your weaknesses to problems that really matter for your grades*, and creative input like dreams, goals and passion.

    Simply "do your best and the rest will follow" is actually the most used phrase in the book. It doesn't mean anything, and really, it's always fun to see those people realize that your "best" isn't good enough sometimes, sometimes you must break your boundaries and aim for a higher level than the one you're currently at.

    In certain parts of the world, some people like their mediocre eventless lives, with the house, the spouse, dog, 1.79 children, a mortgage and probably two volvos in the driveway. You shouldn't be so full of scorn for the people that do not wish that life for themselves.

    I personally thinks it's alright if somebody is ok with a mediocre existance, but not on a humanist level, it's on the egoist level.

    * For example if you're lousy at computational physics, confront this weakness and test yourself. Take a course in it and prepare for everything plus put in the hours.

    Besides, I say it like Sartre, hell is other people. In Sweden people get jealous at people with dreams, ambition and the drive. They try their hardest to bring the go-getters down. But I believe they exist in every country in the world, although in different concentrations.
  23. Jun 26, 2008 #22
    The thing that you need to understand about *most* of the people on AoPS is that they have been put into a mindset of problem solving from a very young age.

    I mean most of those kids have been doing math competitions from like 4th grade on MOEM -> MathCounts -> AMC 10 -> AMC 12 -> AIME -> USAMO -> Etc..., with the help of instructors, coaches, and math clubs. Do you have access to all of the above? Not many people do...

    Those kids are not all genus's they have just had a lot more practice than you.

    As everyone else has stated, don't worry about others. Just do what interests you.
  24. Jun 26, 2008 #23
    Passion, Hard Work, Self-Confidence...these are a few of my favorite things.

    There is nothing impressive about successful people with good opportunities.

    I am impressed by people who make themselves great by rising above whatever else is around them. On a world wide scale, that's what progress is.
  25. Jun 26, 2008 #24
    Fearless, I like the suggestions. I was terrible at E&M the first time through, but mechanics came very easily to me. So, I took more E&M in grad school, and completed a thesis project in E&M.

    Some people thought I was fairly insane to do this, but it was the right thing to do for me.
  26. Jun 26, 2008 #25
    ks_physicist: It's a bout of insanity to do stuff like that. But the right kind of insanity they say brink on the genious side of things. :wink: Besides it isn't dangerous to anyone to actually try to do stuff that is really really hard for oneself but also very rewarding.

    I usually think about phenomena like this, why should I run down the hill, it would be more efficient training to run up the hill, or even run up stairs.

    I've given this some thought and the introductory Quantum physics course I will be taking in a few months got this obligatory project. I am thinking about doing the programming project, because I am not that good in programming and also try the very hard extras you can do in this project. I suck at computational physics at the moment, but I am very interested to get very good at it. Therefore, run UP the hill and not down.

    There are a few advantages to this, I will reinforce my discipline and mental stamina, I will get better at stuff I am not that good in, at the same time doing very interesting things.
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