A Word to Future Academic Decathletes

I went in to visit and help out the Taylor AD team today, and I had come up with a sort of motivational speech for the occasion. I, however, was never actually called on to talk to them as a group, and thus, the speech ended up being unnecessary. Instead, it’ll reside here in my blog, half because I didn’t want it to go to waste, and half because I’m trying to fill in for an entry.

Forewarning: there’s some off-color humor, and a couple references that may not be entirely correct. Sorry for the messy nature of it, but that’s probably how I’d talk if I were giving a presentation to high school students.

Hi, I’m Kevin, as you probably know. And to be honest, I have some beef with AD.
Chances are that you are no more motivated than I was my junior year. You want to do well, but you don’t really want to study for it. You’re proud about how well you’ve done for how much work you’ve put into it.

Which is fine. Heck, you’ve worked harder than most people in this school. Out of the 1200-ish upperclassmen, you’re in the 1% who’ve cut it to be on Taylor AD team, which is one of 27 schools in the nation to have won the national championships. And we’ve done it twice.

But let’s be honest: that wasn’t actually either you or me. We’re recipients to expectations that we should be kicking butt, and things would be a lot easier if it weren’t that way. Equivalently, there’s an expectation that you should study. A lot. Shellum and Sweatnum worked their kids hard, to the point where the story goes that the kids who made the team never ever took an English test on time. And I’ve even been told that their students received chemical boosts to improve their focus. Okay, maybe I heard that from a very unreliable source, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they put their kids on crack to make them better. Just throwing that out there.

So I’m very sorry to say, but you’re not going to get drugs from Scott to do AD. Taylor still has too much pride to let the white trash take over like that. Go to Cinco if you want to do that.

Anyways, that means you guys are mostly on your own. So that doesn’t sound that hard. Study a lot and win a lot. But up till now, I’ve left one huge gap in talking to you. Allow me to digress.

I took a modern algebra class this last quarter at college, and it was the first proof-based math class I’ve ever taken. I had taken linear algebra my freshmen year, but that was a pretty high school class, as it was mostly focused on learning formulas and doing computation. I pretty thoroughly hated math after that class, but I convinced myself that it wouldn’t be fair for me to judge it so harshly without having taken a real college-level math class. As a summary, I took the class, got crushed by it, and now know I do not want to take another math class ever again.

But I’m okay with that, because I know I got crushed by a legit math class, and the class is one of two gateway classes into all math classes, and I had taken the hardest version of the class. And I learned a lot. I learned so much. One of the major parts of the class is to essentially write a section out of a textbook and learn how to do math writing, so we had to write our own proof for the Fundamental Theorem of Finite Abelian Groups. Don’t worry; I still don’t really know what that means either. What I did learn from constructing the proof, though, is that when explaining something and giving steps for something, you have to give the motivation for it before you start explaining, or else your audience doesn’t know what you’re getting at.

Which is how I wrap it back around into this speech that you’re now realizing is far more intense than you had originally thought it was going to be. But the point: the motivation. Yes, the motivation. I’m sure at some point, you’ve asked yourself, “Why am I doing this?” When I was at region, I had about 10 minutes of disillusionment with AD and began to question the purpose of the last half-year of my life. There are a lot of reasons the coaches might have given you as to why you want to study this. And there are a lot of things you’ve discovered while studying AD. Well, let me lay things straight for you.

First, Scott or Irish probably told you that AD looks good on a college app. That’s a terrible reason to do AD. Not only does that make you just as bad as any GPA whore, it doesn’t even really count. Some of you are probably seniors who didn’t do it your junior year, and to be honest, that means that AD doesn’t count for squat. You barely found out you actually made it on the team in time for college apps, and even state isn’t until after mid-semester reports. My college apps only said that I had made the AD team. There was no actual proof that I was a good AD student, battle-hardened in competition. So having that on there is probably about as valuable as saying that you’re treasurer of the anime club. Maybe the admissions officer will pat you on the head for that.

Second, maybe they talked about the scholarship money. There’s not THAT much money in it. If I did the math on how much I made hourly for my scholarship, I would estimate that I made about two or three dollars on the hour. Go work for HEB if you want money. They’ll pay you twice that much.

Third, maybe they told you that the subjects would be interesting. This one is a mixed bag. Changes are that they are not interesting. And even if they were, you probably aren’t excited about the subjects after reading the same 40-page packet the twentieth time.

Even if the subjects were interesting, you’d hate them anyways because USAD stinks. If you haven’t realized already, the people who work at USAD are utterly incompetent. For example, my senior year was China. They failed at writing the packets. For one of the songs, they claimed that the performer of the piece was xibeifeng. If you don’t know Chinese, that translates to northwest wind, which was the name of the song. And they managed to use two different romanizations of Chinese in two different packets, so the same guy had two different names in two different packets, and if you didn’t know Chinese, you’d be none the smarter.

On the otherhand, maybe you know my good friend Willie. Very smart kid, love him to death. He’s studying at Rice right now, and his topic of interest? Doing economic development for green technologies in China. As a reminder, my senior year, the theme was china, and SQ was climatology, particularly climate change. So he’s basically turned AD into his life goal.

I’m going to tell you now, though, that he’s the exception. You’re going to study and study to memorize every fact, but the day after your last competition, it won’t matter ever again. I promise. Which is maybe the fourth point that the coaches tried to sell you on: that you’d learn something useful. Maybe you’ll remember it for a week. Or maybe a month. Or if you’re really hardcore, you’ll remember your stuff for a couple months, so you can help the octathlon kids. But you’re not going to remember most of it. I don’t remember most of what I learned. The method that USAD tests you ensures that most of what you do will be completely worthless, because facts are worthless. The dimensions of a piece of art hanging in a museum in Washington DC just really don’t matter that much in real life.

But they didn’t entirely lie to you. AD is an excellent 5.0 study hall.

So yeah, I have some beef with AD. AD sucks. It really does. And the coaches are looking to give me the cane right now for telling you all of this. But I promise it’s okay, because I didn’t come here to make you hate AD. I came here to make you hate AD, but realize that it’s absolutely worth your time.

You know, when I talk to my college friends, sometimes we talk about our high school days, and we were all over the place. Take my draw group, for example. 5 of my best friends. Most of us were mathletes, but we all had different priorities.

My friend Ben from LA went to a math and science magnet school, so he was legitimately good at math, such that he’s still good at math at Stanford.

My friend George from Oregon was a debator. One of those debators, such that he still talks about it from time to time.

My friend Jordan from Virginia is pretty messed up. First, I should note that you should under no circumstances watch Rudolph the Five-Legged Reindeer. But anyways, Jordan; to be honest, I don’t know what he did.

My friend Tom, from the scary side of LA, was the king of his high school. President of every club, a football player and a wrestler, and even on the AD team there.

My roommate RJ from quiet little Bedford, New Hampshire, was all about robotics, which I think his team won nationals for.

And me? Well, here at Taylor, my big things were band, cs, and AD. Band and CS I did seriously for 4 years. AD, I only really got into it my senior year. But when we talk over lunch about high school, I talk about AD.

Which doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was a lot more successful with CS, and that had far more apparent impact on my career path, as my major is very closely related to CS. Having thought about it a lot, though, I think I know a couple reasons.

First, speech. When I told you that you don’t learn anything useful in AD, I was 90% lying. Speech and impromptu was so good for me. Being able to speak off the cuff in an intelligent way is super-valuable. This last quarter, I had to take the 2nd of two classes in writing and rhetoric, and the second is focused on oral communication. We had to do a bunch of 2 minute presentations, and while some people had difficulty with them, I cruised through it. That’s all prep from AD impromptu. Maybe debate teaches you how to speak better, but AD was far more efficient than that.

Second, people. If the 8 other people on the team aren’t your best friends or worst enemies, they should be. You should be partying with these people all the time. I remember my junior year, I watched the AD team dissolve because of terrible team relationships and dynamics. Not every team is meant to jive perfectly. But you should absolutely know whether that’s the case or not. Studying for AD isn’t fun, but partying definitely is, so you should absolutely do that. The AD team from my senior year is actually putting some good thought into how we’re going to do our reunion later this break, and it should be excellent. I’m going to be meeting up with some of my best friends who I very much want to see even after parting with them for college. You can make some of the best friends in AD if you put the effort into it.

Third, study habits. If you’re on the AD team, chances are that you don’t have to work really hard for school. For those of you that this is true of, listen up. If it’s not, don’t worry about it, because you’re way ahead of us.

I’m fairly confident most of you don’t work hard on school, and believe it across all 3 levels. A kids? You made the team because you don’t have to study for school, and decided to devote some of the time you slack off during on AD. C kids? If you studied for school, you wouldn’t be a C kid. Chances are that you don’t think school is worth your time. Which is debatable. In some ways, I admire you guys, because you were smart enough to not spend your time on educationally worthless pursuits. Regardless, you’re probably pretty lazy. B kids? You have the best chance of being hard workers, but probably not.

So I say this from experience: my study habits in high school sucked. When I think back to how productive I was during those years compared to now, I’m thoroughly unimpressed. I think, in some ways, AD was my chance to prove that I wasn’t a slacker, and that I was just as capable of studying hard as anyone else.

And to be honest, maybe you don’t need it to prepare for college. I’ve talked to some of my friends who insist that college is easier and less work than high school, that they slack off even more than they did here at Taylor. So maybe it won’t matter. That, however, isn’t me. If I hadn’t improved my study habits, I’d definitely be in dire straits right now. And I realize that part of that was just a kick in the pants in going to college, but I still believe that AD helped to psyche me up to be able to sit silently for hours, just reading and reading.

So those are all things I discovered that were great things that came out of AD. But none of those were why I really went for it, why I harassed my teammates to study, why I got working for DemiDec. When I think back, I only decided to really do AD at the beginning of the summer before my senior year, long before I realized all the things I’ve told you so far. It just kind of came to me that this was my chance to actually be successful at AD, and that it should become my biggest priority. And I think it was the chance of failure and the knowledge that I completely controlled what happened that motivated me so strongly.

When I thought about my other activities, I had never really failed. When I went up for region band, my sophomore year, there were no expectations for me, though I lucked out when one of the tubas had to back out. And I knew I would make it the next year, and again my senior year. I could’ve gone for state or something, but I knew there were a couple tubas in my region who I could never beat. In marching band, I mattered as much as any other student; individually, not very much. In CS, my team had been very successful very early, but unfortunately, the ceiling in that arena is pretty low.

Which is not at all the case with AD. I knew from my junior year that I could do very poorly. I also knew, though, that there’s no clear advantage for one person over another. Natural talent didn’t matter nearly as much as in band, and the ability to grasp clear, algorithmic thinking didn’t matter either. AD is 100% about working at it, and it was my choice that I should.

Because I don’t think I had ever committed myself to seeing something through like that. I had been fortunate in my other pursuits to have been successful enough early that I could largely depend on that to carry me through. But AD was a legitimate challenge that I had to overcome.

So that’s about all I have for my schpeel. Chances are, you haven’t had the same foolish motivation that I did, and in some ways, I hope you don’t, because I very well could’ve been owned by putting all my stock in AD. So I absolutely recommend that you study hard for the next three months, because I promise you, if you actually dedicate yourself to it, you will absolutely be proud of yourself for it.

2 thoughts on “A Word to Future Academic Decathletes”

  1. I found this tremendously insightful.

    ‘So I’m very sorry to say, but you’re not going to get drugs from Scott to do AD. Taylor still has too much pride to let the white trash take over like that. Go to Cinco if you want to do that.’
    I actually laughed out loud imagining you say that as Mrs. Scott looked bewildered and Mrs. Irish’s mouth dropped open.

    ‘Maybe debate teaches you how to speak better, but AD was far more efficient than that.’
    We’ve talked about this before. I’m going to have to disagree with you there… but you’ve my debate vs. AD rant a million times if you’ve heard it once.

  2. Round of applause.
    I wish you’d been able to say that speech. I fully agree. Except I realized it too late. Those decathletes have a great opportunity ahead of them if they take advantage of it.

    And for the record, I definitely remember more from Octathlon in grade 9 than Decathlon in grade 10, and I have no idea why that is. I think China was really of no interest to me, whereas Renaissance was amazing. So I definitely think it depends on the subject matter.

    And the friends are awesome! 🙂 I still remember Hans delegating us girls around in the kitchen, only to find out later that he had hardly cracked an egg in his life. And Willie’s comment about cooking: “It’s just like chemistry, isn’t it? With the materials and procedure?” Ah good times. I wish we had AD in Canada. Then again, I think this years topic would rub wrong too often. 😛

    Have you ever heard of St. John’s College? Or the Great Books Curriculum? It looks like heaven on earth (especially for someone like Austin). Anyway, that was completely random, but I’d like to discuss it at our reunion.

    And I’ll have your letter.
    (Sorry this commment was so long.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.