Conquer Your Weakness; Conquer The World

At last! Serendipity strikes again. I found a case study of a theory that was brewing in my mind some years ago. Not a unique one, but certainly not ubiquitous. A theory which has been the force behind nearly all my endeavors the past two years. In order to maximize potential, one should overcome his greatest weakness. My Achilles’ heel consists of mathematical anxiety and public speaking. These faults can suppress my strength, eat away at my enthusiasm, and destroy my confidence when I least suspect it. When it happens, only a good night’s rest can abet the situation. After feeling bad one too many times, I honed in on my flaws and began attending philosophy cafés, started self-studying math, and frequently DuckDuckGo’d anything related to intelligence. Long story short, those decisions were of noticeable importance. But this post isn’t about me, but about the case study I’ve found, which confirmed my suspicions.

While listening to a Sam Harris podcast about the subject of a book: The Road to Character, the following quote immediately grabbed my attention:

“If you can major in the field you’re weakest in, that will build your character, and you will be able to conquer anything.”

The woman behind that philosophy is called Nellie Goldthwaite, a chemistry teacher at the Mount Holyoke Women Seminar. With my pirate hat equipped, I can copy paste some relevant paragraphs:

Today, teachers tend to look for their students’ intellectual strengths, so they can cultivate them. But a century ago, professors tended to look for their students’ moral weaknesses, so they could correct them. A Latin teacher, Esther Van Dieman, diagnosed Perkins’s laziness, her tendency to be too easy on herself. Van Dieman used Latin grammar the way a drill instructor might use forced marches, as an ordeal to cultivate industriousness. She forced Perkins to work, hour upon hour, on precise recitations of the Latin verb tenses. Perkins would burst into tears in frustration and boredom, but later expressed appreciation for the enforced discipline: “For the first time I became conscious of character.”

Perkins was interested in history and literature, and she floundered badly in chemistry. Nonetheless, her chemistry teacher, Nellie Goldthwaite, hounded her into majoring in chemistry. The idea was that if she was tough enough to major in her weakest subject, she’d be tough enough to handle whatever life threw at her. Goldthwaite urged Perkins to take the hardest courses even if it meant earning mediocre grades. Perkins took the challenge. Goldthwaite became her faculty adviser. Years later, Perkins told a student with the school’s alumnae quarterly, “The undergraduate mind should concentrate on the scientific courses, which temper the human spirit, harden and refine it, and make of it a tool with which one may tackle any kind of material.”

Mount Holyoke was the sort of school that leaves a permanent mark on its students. It did not see its role, as modern universities tend to, in purely Adam I cognitive terms. It was not there merely to teach people how to think. It was not there merely to help students question their assumptions. Instead, it successfully performed the broader role of college: helping teenagers become adults. It inculcated self-control. It helped its students discover new things to love. It took young women and ignited their moral passions by giving them a sense that humans are caught in a web of good and evil and that life is an epic struggle between these large forces. A dozen voices from across the institution told students that while those who lead flat and unremarkable lives may avoid struggle, a well-lived life involves throwing oneself into struggle, that large parts of the most worthy lives are spent upon the rack, testing moral courage and facing opposition and ridicule, and that those who pursue struggle end up being happier than those who pursue pleasure. Then it told them that the heroes in this struggle are not the self-aggrandizing souls who chase after glory; they are rather the heroes of renunciation, those who accept some arduous calling. Then it tried to cut down their idealism and make it permanent by criticizing mere flights of compassion and self-congratulatory sacrifice. It emphasized that performing service is not something you do out of the goodness of your heart but as a debt you are repaying for the gift of life. Then it gave them concrete ways to live this life of steady, heroic service. Over the decades, Mount Holyoke sent hundreds of women to missionary and service jobs in northwest Iran, Natal in southern Africa, and Maharashtra in western India. “Do what nobody else wants to do; go where nobody else wants to go,” the school’s founder, Mary Lyon, implored her students.

This book excerpt tells the story about Frances Perkins, however, the entire book revolves around people who applied the same principle: eradicate your weakness, and become the best version of yourself. Just in case you forgot, the underlying message has ‘growth mindset’ written all over it. This post needs no further explanation. There’s work to be done—on both our ends. Good luck!

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