Fun Is the Glue That Makes Everything Stick, Also the OCP
The OCP exam is a worthwhile investment, but that in itself doesn't make learning enjoyable or effective. You must work on your intrinsic motivation by making it fun.
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This is part two of my series on the OCP-17. In my first post, I explained why it’s still worthwhile to tackle the trick questions and arcane details of this exam. Each of us has our own sense of how much knowledge is good enough to get a job done, like writing Java code. The examiners at Oracle probably put the bar much higher than you. If you can’t somehow make the journey fun, you’re bound to give up. So, your motivation needs an upgrade, and you must put in the right practice. In this post, we will look at both.
Amateur Versus Professional Practice
Not all practice makes perfect. Poor practice doesn’t even make you proficient. It’s not the hours that count, although Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers claimed you need at least 10,000. This sweeping statement with its conveniently round number is questionable science, to say the least. Excellence itself is not a well-defined notion. People’s innate aptitudes are not created equal. Some are born geniuses. But most importantly, the hours you put in must be effective.
Amateur practice is fun, but sub-optimal. When amateur musicians pick up their instrument to learn a favorite tune, they play that tune from beginning to end, again and again until it sounds sort of okay. Professionals and serious amateurs don’t do that. They zoom in on the hard bits and massage these pain points until they stop hurting – in classical music, ten percent of the notes require ninety percent of your attention. In addition, they practice chords and scales. They record themselves and listen back. The goal of practice is focused improvement through continuous feedback. It’s hard work, aimed to ensure a performance that feels like second nature. Cry in the dojo, laugh on the battlefield, as the martial arts saying goes.
The Okay Point of Memory Athletes
The above touches on the "okay point," a concept I learned from Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein. In this enjoyable piece of participatory journalism, Foer went deep into the wonderful world of competitive memory and aced the American championships a year later. All the memory athletes he met (nearly all men – why’s that?) explained that their impressive feats came down to tricks already known to the ancient Greeks. The brain is terrible at remembering arbitrary data, like numbers or playing cards. It evolved to be great at pattern recognition and spatial mapping, so our hunter-gatherer ancestors could remember which mushrooms were tasty, under which tree they stashed them, and how to tell them apart from the similar-looking death cap.
Your brain can store vastly more random stuff than just your parents’ landline number. With the right technique, you too can memorize a shuffled deck of cards. But it takes a special personality to muster the motivation to do that, let alone pi to a thousand decimals. The acquisition of new knowledge stalls when you feel the job is done. Mental athletes set the bar crazy high and don’t care about utility. Me, I’m satisfied with a mediocre 3.14159.
Mediocrity has a disapproving ring to it, but we accept to be average at most things in life. That includes the niches in our chosen field of IT. There’s not enough time to be an all-around expert. But if you make a living as a software developer, don’t relegate the fundamentals of writing code to AI tooling. We’ve all been doing it, present company included. The friendly omniscient butler will turn out a wolf in sheep’s clothing as he lowers your human okay point. Let’s raise the bar uncomfortably high and find a way to turn the jar of dry oatmeal that is the exam requirements into a gourmet meal. In other words, let’s work on our motivation.
Neither Carrots Nor Sticks
Motivation can be extrinsic, intrinsic, or a mix of both. So|| rather than ^. Extrinsic motivations imply rewards and penalties, hopefully not too many of the latter. Many exams are a must-have. You’ll have heard of the infamous Knowledge exam that London cabbies must still take, Waze be damned. Security professionals cannot work for the military without up-to-date certifications. If you’re a full-time Java programmer, the OCP is a wise and worthwhile investment from a career development perspective, even if your employer doesn’t demand it. And if they do, that’s your motivation, right there.
But the promise of a promotion or the specter of dire consequences doesn’t make preparation any more enjoyable. It only adds to the pressure. It doesn’t raise your okay point because that indicates the level of your intrinsic motivation. When I play the piano, there are no external carrots or sticks. No audience or record producer is waiting for my rendition of Mozart’s piano sonata in A minor. I skip the presto movement entirely because it’s just too difficult. Only intrinsic motivation that makes the practice itself appealing can raise my okay point and motivate me to work harder.
If you love the effort itself more than the fruits of the effort, you have tapped into your intrinsic motivation. Take the memory champs again. There is no career benefit to be had from their pains. There’s no utility in memorizing your shopping list. It doesn’t even make you very popular, except in a very small elite. They loved the effort for its own sake. Their motivation was entirely intrinsic. My motivation to write for DZone is similar. Sure, I get some professional kudos and recognition, which is nice. But to be honest, that’s never sufficient motivation for my next article. I simply love the act of writing and the satisfaction of a job well done.
Professional growth is an important part of your motivation for the OCP, but that’s still extrinsic. You must add a touch of playfulness to make it stick. The rabbit keeps chewing until bellyful() is true or a NoMoreCarrotsException is thrown. That brings a smile to my face.
Fun Is the Glue That Makes Everything Stick
When something is challenging, utility doesn’t matter. Every pesky trick question answered correctly is a micro-victory. It gives off a little dopamine hit that is much more dignifying than a Facebook like. It’s more useful too, but let’s put cold utility on the back burner. What’s the point of learning pi to a thousand decimals? No more pointless than working long hours so you can buy fancy stuff without the time to enjoy it.
Fun is the glue that can make everything stick. My ready knowledge of song lyrics, standup comedy, and movie trivia is a Library of Congress compared to the flimsy volume that is left of my Latin and Greek vocabulary and grammar that I was forced to digest as a teenager for six years and eight hours a week. I hated every moment of it. My teachers were kind and certainly not sadists, but they embodied the old-fashioned notion that teaching is not supposed to be fun after kindergarten. That’s a colossal error and in complete denial of the playful nature of human beings, not only children.
Don’t make the same mistake. Don’t cram for the OCP unless you can make it fun. I realize I haven't given many practical examples in this post. I'll save those for next time because I'm still compiling them. Pun intended.
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