Bad students

In 1968, when William Jefferson Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he met a graduate student named Jeffrey Stamps at a party.Clinton promptly pulled out a black address book. “What are you doing here at Oxford, Jeff?” he asked.”

“I’m at Pembroke on a Fulbright,” Jeff replied. Clinton penned “Pembroke” into his book…

“Bill, why are you writing this down?” asked Stamps.

“I’m going into politics and plan to run for governor of Arkansas, and I’m keeping track of everyone I meet,” said Clinton.

As an undergraduate at Georgetown, the forty second president made it a nightly habit to record, on index cards, the names and vital information of every person whom he’d met that day.

Keith Ferrazzi, Never Eat Alone

My first reaction upon reading this: “Ha, what an odd dude, that Clinton.”

My second reaction, a moment later: So what the hell am I doing at parties, then? If I’m not there to learn about the people I meet, if I’m not curious about their histories, their perspectives, if I’m willing to let our conversation spill from my memory as soon as the food arrives, why am I there?

And if I am there to learn, how would I demonstrate that?

If a student doesn’t take any notes during a lecture, you can assume that they don’t care much about the class. Perhaps they have a supernatural memory, but it’s far more likely that they aren’t invested in the subject.

When we want to learn, we don’t leave it to chance. We pay attention, ask questions, take notes, review.

And yet, when it comes to the most important subject – the people around us – we leave it all to chance.

For a long time, this wasn’t a problem. We didn’t need to spend a great deal of effort learning about new people because until recently, we rarely met new people. Our social biology and behavioral norms are shaped by thousands of years living in tribes rarely larger than a few hundred. Our brains are only equipped to hold around 150 people in our heads. Odds are, your mental rolodex was full before you got to high school.

Social networks are useful to us because they help fill in the gaps. We meet somebody in the wild and then we get to know them on our iPhone. Their profiles are the notes we should have taken when we met them.

I used to remember people’s phone numbers, now my phone remembers them. It’s your birthday when Facebook tells me it’s your birthday.

Social networks, if we let them, will happily gobble the remainder of our mental representation of our friends.

Maybe that’s not a big deal. Perhaps outsourcing trivia like dates and facts to our phones allows us to focus on what’s really important. The test is open-book, says the student. Why take notes?

We take notes because there is a difference between passing the test and learning the subject. We take notes because we care.

We are bad students when it comes to connecting with people.

And what would a good student do? Pay attention, ask questions, take notes, review.