As a college professor, I’ve long been giving my students (what I hope is) useful advice. Here’s one of the best pieces of advice I know for doing well in college:

Rule 7

The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.

I found Rule 7 years ago in Learning by Heart, a book by the artist Corita Kent. It appeared in an informal list of rules, some funny, some serious, made by the students and faculty of a college art department. Rule 7 seems both funny and serious: a Zen-like joke, abolishing all the rules that precede and follow it, and a statement that’s absolutely true, for makers of art and for anyone engaged in learning. Note that Rule 7 doesn’t say that the only thing to do is work. Rather, the only necessary thing is work. The only way to catch on to things (or to make them happen, to change metaphors) is to put in the necessary time doing the work, whether that work is sketching, practicing scales, memorizing a declension, mapping out an argument, studying a timeline, making notes on an article, or looking up words in a poem.

Whoever thought up Rule 7 caught one of the key points of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: deeply-rewarding activities require a significant investment of time and effort before they show any return. In this respect, Rule 7 differs greatly from Nike’s more facile “Just do it.” Rule 7 acknowledges that learning involves some struggle, that matters may not be clear at first. If you’re just beginning Homer’s Iliad, you are likely to feel quite lost. You can’t “Just do it” when it comes to understanding an epic poem. But it’s easy to catch on if you give yourself a chance by putting in the work.

It makes me happy when students recognize the truth of Rule 7 and make it their own. My students (who get Rule 7 at the start of the semester) often say that the way to do well in my classes is to “do the work.” One of my wife’s students just reinvented Rule 7 on his own. Seeing her on campus, he announced with delight that he had finally figured out how to do well in college: “Do the work!” Nothing could be simpler, or more profound.

Michael Leddy teaches college English and has published widely as a poet and critic. He blogs at Orange Crate Art.

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