Although we have to study hard, we must use the correct methods of studying, too; otherwise we only do things halfway, wasting time and effort. What are some correct methods? First, we should calm our mind and clarify our purpose. Purpose is the mind's steering wheel while the mind drives our purpose. If our perspectives are erroneous, then our direction tilts. Once our direction slants, regardless of how diligent we may be, we will never reach our destination. So the first and most essential task in studying is to establish a purpose. If you have a purpose, and then you begin to study incessantly, you are "studying as if a stiff." If you don't want to study like a stiff, you should learn some other methods. What are some good methods? A common saying goes, "It breaks if too taut; it unravels if too sluggish; you arrive at mastery when you're neither too uptight nor too slow." This is easier said than done. We have a hard time deciphering and adjusting our tension and speed.
In general, we ought to allot more than sufficient time within our plans while strictly observe the schedule when we carry out our plans. That is to say, do not give yourself too much pressure thinking about the results before you even start studying. One knows one's own standing and quality. You must first understand yourself and not compare yourself with others. You only die from frustration if you compare yourself with others. Consequently, you only denigrate your work without helping yourself a bit.
Once you have settled on an aspiration and a goal, you can then set up several short-term objectives within the long-term goal. You give yourself enough time to study, taking one step at a time as you gradually move closer to your target. Never be overly ambitious that you try to fly before you've even learned to crawl or take one step for every three. When you force yourself that way, you become breathless and have to abandon your work. You end up with nothing but a complete loss of confidence. For example, suppose you want to become an authority on physics. What you can do is to establish and follow through on short-term objectives for yourself during your years in elementary school, junior high school, high school, university and graduate school. Within each short-term objective you may further map out short-range targets, such as reading so many physics articles in a week, doing so many small-scaled experiments in a month, or acquiring so much new information on physics in a year.
The broader your goal, the easier it is to obtain it. You will have less pressure and distractions that way, thus boldly move forward. As your plan unfolds, you may become an elementary or secondary school teacher, or a university professor for the sake of livelihood or interest. You may also find a relevant research job. You do not want to stray off of your target and start selling flowers, promoting insurance, or working in other unrelated fields. If you do that, it's more difficult to become an expert in your field. Having wasted some time, you may have to backtrack; nonetheless your success remains uncertain.
Edison, the American inventor of the light bulb, was an especially curious child who loved to experiment. Once, Edison saw some hens hatching chicks. For the sake of research, he sat on some eggs for a day in full attention. Precisely because he behaved in this manner so frequently, everyone laughed at how stupid he appeared. Edison's schoolteacher thought he was an idiot too. His mother, on the other hand, thought teaching methods in typical schools were inappropriate for her son. She taught Edison at home, providing him with plenty of opportunities to think and analyze freely, to experiment and to invent. When Edison grew up, he invented more and more gadgets that also became increasingly practical. He became the greatest inventor of contemporary times because of his focus on his goal and tirelessness.
Once Edison was hungry during experimentation, so he went to boil an egg. After what seemed a suitable amount of cooking time, Edison lifted the lid and saw his watch in the cooker whereas an egg was still on the table! On his wedding day, the couple drove by the laboratory. Edison got off the car and entered the lab. It was already dark by the time he finished his experiments, yet he found his poor bride, tired and hungry, still waiting for him in the car!
Of course, we're not encouraging you to imitate Edison. However, you should realize that the happiest part of studying is when you concentrate until you understand and everything clicks for you. A couple of lines in the
Discourse on the Roots of Vegetables were obviously articulated by veterans, "When your study fathoms the true meaning in a book, you have transcended the barriers of language. When your spirit has meshed with the object of your observation, you are no longer attached to phenomena." Studying requires full concentration; "metal and stone will break apart if you're sincere enough." You must study thoroughly and investigate deeply. "The faults of others can be used to attack one's own faults." Once the work becomes second nature to you, you will easily master your subject; once you become an expert in one subject, you become an expert in all subjects. Also, you must be flexible while studying. If you know it then you know it; if you don't know it then you don't know it. If you pretend to know when you don't, others will refuse to teach you. You will have lost an opportunity to truly understand. Therefore you must avoid biting off more than you can chew and pretending to be a specialist. You're being greedy when you try to swallow a large chunk all at once. Avoid being greedy for quantity or speed; otherwise by analogy you'll lose your life to a sudden illness. You're being lazy when you play a charlatan. If you're too lazy to memorize or think, then by analogy a slowly spreading virus will nibble away your pillar of support. Throughout the history of the world, no greedy or lazy person has been completely successful.
Therefore, while studying you must balance relaxation and discipline, and always ask questions. Once you have a question, you should think, ask and make sure you understand. Do not readily toss your doubt aside and give up just as you're about to cross the finish line. If you take words at their surface and never doubt, you fail to understand, as if reading lifeless books. Reading lifeless books or reading like a stiff—either way it's dead reading. Even an erudite expert in rites and scholarship such as Confucius still "enters the grand temple and inquires about everything." One should "get to the bottom of the wok until it breaks; even then one still pursues with yet another question, inquiring about the purchase place of the wok." Therefore, some busybodies joked, "Who says that Confucius knows about manners? How can someone who understands manners ask questions endlessly?" Nonetheless, Confucius maintained his typical attitude: "If you know it then you know it; if you don't know it then you don't." This cautious and humble attitude exemplifies someone who truly understands manners. We ought to emulate Confucius' serious attitude toward learning and his matter-of-fact spirit!
Editor's Note: The following four lines were accidentally omitted from issue 326 (July 1997).
Greet your elders promptly,
And take your leave slowly.
Answer questions respectfully,
And don't let your eyes dart around.
Please accept our apologies for the oversight.