How do smart students study?

In secondary school, I had a friend who was one of the laziest students I've seen. During class, he'll either be sleeping, writing a diary or reading a book, whilst paying no attention whatsoever to the lecturer or content taught in class. He wasn't a "closet mugger" too (a contemporary term to define those who appear lazy but study hard behind closed doors) and unsurprisingly did poorly in standardized tests. As a friend, I dutifully urged him to study hard because our school has an over-excessive focus on academics. He never listened, continuing with his flippant attitude.

We soon parted ways after graduation, and gradually lost contact.

A few years till today, I was browsing through LinkedIn and chanced across his profile. Having preconceived notions about his current life based on my past interactions with him, I honestly thought he would have transferred to poly or started to work since Singapore's cookie-cutter academic system evidently wasn't for him. Imagine my surprise when I saw his credentials "Studying Law in Stanford University" – a prestigious course that only the cream of the crop can enter!

I contacted him, asking him how he has been all these years, and expressed my curiosity at how he managed to cope with academics in Junior College despite doing poorly in secondary school. After all, you don't only need good grades to get into law – you needed stellar grades, coupled with a glamorous co-curricular record. I wasn't sure if he had the former pre-requisite though, given his laissez-faire attitude towards his studies.

It turns out that he did fulfill all his requirements, including the need of a perfect score during A levels. So how did he do it? How did he convince himself to stop being lazy, and start catching up on his studies?

He confessed to me that he had this dream of becoming a lawyer from an early age, but never really saw the usefulness of the syllabus he was studying – Singapore is well known for its science-oriented studies instead of the humanities. During his free time in secondary school, he'd spend most of his time reading books on law and legislation, philosophy and making notes on what he had learnt. Showing me his notebook compiling all that he had written, I was awed by a sight of him I've never seen before – diligence. However, once he realized the need for perfect grades as a pre-requisite for his dream course, he placed more focus onto his studies, working diligently to rebuild his weak foundations.

It made me realize the bitter truth, that hardworking people don't necessarily get ahead in life, while lazy people aren't usually who you make them up to be. In my school, many of the hardworking students spent most of their school days working their socks off, but ended up not knowing what they wanted to do in the future. They were ambivalent, chose a course they weren't really interested in, and soon lost motivation to continue climbing up the corporate ladder in a workplace they didn't like.

My friend, conversely, was lazy because he already knew what he wanted to do in the future. Everything he did was geared towards preparing himself for it, and he avoided work which he didn't see a need to complete – a distraction that causes him to detract from his ultimate goal. By setting his priorities right from an early onset, it makes him appear lazy and indolent to others who are working twice as hard, but lacking the knowledge on what they want to do with all that they have learnt.

People are lazy when they don't prioritize what they are doing. They procrastinate, do other things they are more interested in, and only come back to the task when it becomes urgent, or they finally see a need to get it done. My friend only saw law studies as his priority early on, but after realizing the need for stellar grades, began placing his other subjects as top priority. Everything he did was geared towards fulfilling his dream.

And that's what a smart worker does.

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