The Red Pen Principle – Where Preparation Meets Execution

Who knew the ballpoint pen could create champions who excel under pressure?

We were never allowed to use this instrument in grade school. The teacher wouldn’t have it. Doing so meant trouble for me. “You are only to write in pencil!”, Mrs. Thomas would say. I didn’t earn the right to write with a pen yet. Because I, like all other kids, were not experts.

But writing in pen was so cool!

Cooler than the boring, old graphite pencil…

I’m currently in my twenties and you would hope I’m an expert in grade 3 math now.

I tutor math and science at the elementary and high school level. And for the younger students, I’ve adopted what I call, “The Red Pen Principle.”

The Red Pen Principle

I ask them, “Do you want to write in pen?” They often emphatically say, “YES!” I reply, “OK, are you ready to write in pen?” This question receives answers less predictable.

It’s a question that forces my students to judge their level of expertise on a given subject – usually, it’s math.

Some are all-in and believe they can do the work with no mistakes. Others are on the fence about it.

Some proceed to write with the comfort of a pencil only to get the answers right. And others deserve the pencil as I mark “x” all over their wrong answers.

You EARN the right to the pen!

When Should You Write in Pen

The glorified pen is bestowed unto my students when they consistently get math answers right.

Some math topics like fractions and long division are hard to grasp initially. They have to really earn the red pen with these. Other topics like identifying shapes not so much – cause who doesn’t know a square from a triangle?

But the red pen principle isn’t confined to grade school math.

It is a metaphorical principle to know when your preparation meets execution.

With the vast amounts of online information, it is tempting to stay in preparatory limbo. And because of this, there will always be more to learn. Always.

The information age is a tempting place to delay executing your dreams. You may feel like you’re making progress when all you might be doing is delaying your dreams by preparing too much to execute them. There is only so much delay before the time runs out.

Rather than staying in this state, the alternative is to see if you are ready by throwing yourself into the fire and acting. For my students, this means using the coveted red pen. For you, that means executing the tasks that move you closer to your goals.

Preparation is necessary to an extent. But all education is useless without taking the necessary action. So how do you know when you’re ready to act?

You don’t.

You just use the red pen and hope for the best…

The Result

Initially, you have no clue what the result would be.

For me, writing online is light years away from making me a decent income. I don’t know when more people will read my stuff and find it interesting. To that, all I can do is keep writing.

I pulled the cap off the pen, but I have yet to see if I am good enough.

Sometimes you use the red pen and you instantly make progress. My career as a tutor was like that. I didn’t know if I’d be good at it. But after 2 years in the game, I realized I deserved the red pen.

Preparation is necessary before partaking in something new like starting a business, and you’ll be sure to lose if you wing it. But be careful! Cause you never want to be in preparatory limbo.

Summary of the Red Pen Principle

I like to gauge my expertise and then act with the pen when the time is right.

I see my students as young as grade 1 thinking about how well they know a topic before doing the same thing.

And hopefully, in both our cases, no whiteout is needed.


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