How Studying Chemistry Messed Up My Reading Speed

How Studying Chemistry Messed Up My Reading Speed – The Trap of “Perfect”

When I grew up I loved reading and writing. I still do. But there was a funny kink that happened when Chemistry messed up my reading speed.

In ninth grade, I joined our editorial team for our school’s magazine. I lived in Germany then. We called it “Nasowas.” It is an expression of surprise when someone tells you something you didn’t expect.

I got into it and often contributed a third of the content, some 30 pages every quarter. I loved writing about everything. Funny things at school. Short stories. Articles explaining complex things in simpler terms. I wrote a two-article series on how to use an abacus after my Latin teacher brought one back from a trip to Japan. LOL

Reading was another passion. I would lie on my bed and devour books. My mom would periodically kick me out of the house so I would do something else. Then I started to study chemistry at the university. We didn’t have to read many books each semester. Most times we’d have one big book per subject. These books were so heavy if you hit some with on of them it would really hurt. Not that you should do that anyway.

Reading these books was very different from most of the reading I had done before. I often had to read the same passage several times, stop to think about the content, even derive equations, and memorize what I had read. Sure, some of the books I had read before were about science, too – but they were not so dense. Life as a chemistry student didn’t leave me with time to read other things.

Years later I noticed: My reading speed was so much slower than it used to be as a kid. Was I still agonizing over capturing every single letter as I was reading? I think the answer was yes.

I made some efforts to speed up my reading again. At one point I even bought a speedreading course from a late-night TV commercial (I never completed that program, by the way). After a while of reading more, I was able to read faster again.

What is the moral of the story here?

I surmise this is a story about getting it “right”. You miss a letter in an equation or a chemical formula and the whole thing is either wrong or means something different.

But we can train ourselves to apply different levels of precision depending on what is appropriate.

A few years ago I worked with a client that employed a bunch of Ph.D.s. Their training, like mine, had led them to tackle everything they were doing with the utmost precision. As a result, most of their work was proceeding at a glacial pace.

I offered a metaphor from my woodworking passion: When you are making fine furniture, you need to cut your lumber with great precision. A tolerance of 1/32″ or more likely 1/16″ is appropriate. But when you are doing carpentry jobs such tight tolerances make no sense. Cutting to within a 1/4″ is fine. If you insisted on fine woodworking levels of precision the house would never get built. This is inappropriate “perfectionism” which becomes the enemy of completion.

With it, the impact the completed work could have is also lost or at least delayed.

I’m Curious

Where are you applying the appropriate level of precision? Where might the precision be too high? Which project is delayed by perfectionism creeping in?

P.S.: I appreciate you commenting and sharing this Brilliance Nugget with others. Thank you!

Stephie Althouse

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