Judaism: Day 10 – The Four Types of Students

Yesterday, I wrote about the four types of temperaments as discussed in the Talmud. Today, we’ll look into the four types of students and how they stack up.

“There are four types of students:

a)    One who grasps quickly and forgets quickly, his gain is offset by his loss;

b)    One who grasps slowly and forgets slowly, his loss is offset by his gain;

c)     One who grasps quickly and forgets slowly, this is a good portion;

d)    One who grasps slowly and forgets quickly, this is a bad portion.”

In their commentary, the rabbis are referring to students who study Torah, which is a fundamentally good thing.

I mostly relate to Student “A.” In high school and college, I understood most of the material in my courses. With little effort, I was able to attain decent grades.

However, for some courses, that required more rigorous study and practice over time, I fell behind. I “forgot quickly.” I never picked up the good study habits of “one who grasps slowly,” which primarily consists of dedicated and consistent effort to understanding and practicing course material.

A few interesting points from the rabbis’ analysis:

1)   Intelligence, unlike piety, is a God-given gift. The rabbis acknowledge that it is impossible to become more intelligent.  Piety, on the other hand, is a matter of behavior.

2)   Effort and hard work trumps natural intelligence. The rabbis believe that all sincere efforts to study the Torah will be rewarded. In discussing Student A, they caution that this type of student, though intelligent, will rely too heavily on intelligence and not enough on effort, thus offsetting any advantages he has by being smart.

3)   When investing in students, think long term. The rabbis mentioned that when there are limited funds to support students’ Torah study, they should fund the student who grasps slowly and forgets slowly, as they will likely develop a more fundamental understanding of the Torah. In addition, efforts should be taken to sponsor students who come from poor families, as it’s likely their true potential is untapped.  The focus is on long-term returns.

4)   Even the most simple-minded benefit from studying Torah. When commenting on Student D, the rabbis admit that the student faces a major handicap. However, they believe the student should continue to study Torah as they will still benefit from their efforts.

5)   You should not compare yourself to your peers. The rabbis caution against being dismayed by your lack of progress as compared to others. You should only focus on your efforts.

In American culture, we tend to admire those with incredible natural abilities, those with some innate genius that explains their success.

I don’t think this is wrong per se; admiration is healthy.

However, it’s important to admire the correct traits in a successful person.

For example, we admire what Steve Jobs achieved, but do we take the time to appreciate the years and years of hard work he put into achieving success?

In his first few years out of high school, it looked like he was on the clear path to becoming a loser. He dropped out of college, took calligraphy classes, and spent some time in India. All the classic signs of someone destined for, at best, a life of mediocrity.

Between that period of his life and his death, he achieved initial success with Apple I, Apple 2, and the Macintosh. Had then had a series of product failures.  He was fired from his company. Started several other companies. Got to come back to Apple and then build it into what it is today.

There are a lot more ups and downs in his career than would think. However, his level of effort was constant. He was always working.

Was Steve Jobs naturally intelligent? Sure.

But that’s not really relevant to us. We can’t do much about our innate level of intelligence, but we can focus on our level of effort.

Due to new research, the pendulum is swinging back to a focus on “grit” and deliberate practice as means to achieve success.

The rabbis understood the importance of grit, thousands of years ago. They didn’t need social scientists and psychologists to conduct studies on professional athletes and top performers to figure out persistence and effort are more important than innate ability.

I’m beginning to think that all new social science and psychology research will only confirm what the ancients knew intuitively.