Organic Chemistry inspired me, once

While I’m talking about mastery, new perspectives and healthcare, here is an essay I wrote about my Organic Chemistry class a year ago. I wrote this after my final exam, upon realizing, that I was again, doing the same things I always enjoy – mastering new skills, and finding new ways to see things.

Practicing Orgo

I teared up. the morning after my organic chemistry final. My study
partner thought I was just releasing the stress.

That wasn’t it. I missed Orgo.

I had been looking through my workbooks, at all of the carefully
thought out reaction diagrams my partner and I wrote together. I found
lists of tips to think about before tackling a reaction problem, which
my workshop leader Kathleen — a formally trained musician — wrote
out for us. These lists reminded me of the outlines my piano teacher
and I wrote out in my practice notebooks, when I set out to master the
Tchaikovsky piano concerto in b-flat minor. These checklists freed my
mind, to achieve an intuitively elegant performance in the face of a
really challenging piece – or problem.

Eventually, I learned that solving Orgo problems involved reaching in
my mind for familiar patterns to deal with unfamiliar ones, practicing
the movements of electrons with my pen, like a pianist rehearsing that
triple octave leap. What had seemed complex and unreachable would
suddenly become quite simple, even pleasurable if I calmed my mind and
slowly practiced these seeming unnatural movements.

It seemed to me that Kathleen, and the other workshop leaders, were
part of our professor’s determined plan to teach with the very
refined, high standards of a master teacher. I was a new apprentice to
Orgo, a practice that I could take into other parts of life. Will I
always remember why a carbon attacks the carbonyl in a particular
reaction? I don’t know. But I’ll remember how to figure it out.

In high school, I trained to audition for music schools in New York
City, and Orgo reminded me of when I first started out. It took
immense amounts of time, carefully scheduled and pieced together.
Every free moment was potential practice, or study, time. Two hours
before my hospital research job, which was – in turn — two hours
before my full-time publishing job, I found the time to study; before
5AM. Just like I used to practice for two hours, before going to
school. I found that limiting study to an hour at a time improved my
endurance and ability to retain material. I developed electronic
flashcards on my iPhone. I wrote those “Kathleen points” regularly in
front of my orgo problems, like I did for my concertos. I trained
brain “muscles” I didn’t even know existed.

I remember now, as a high school pianist striving to get into
Juilliard, that these hours didn’t seem like work then. It was a time
of discipline that led to inspiration. That was the case with Orgo,
too. For the final exam, the students were asked to write reference
sheets that documented all of the reactions we had learned. Looking at
the sheet, I realized that what had seemed so impossible, I now took
for granted. It put me in awe.

I also found acceptance. In the end, I did not get into Juilliard, nor
did I get an A in Orgo. In fact, I was lucky to get a B.  But I fell
in love with the perseverance, the discipline. I found that I could
develop a research study at a hospital that could eventually get
published in a medical journal with that same perseverance, love, and
discipline. That I could compete in the national triathlon
championships. Music and Orgo proved to me that in striving, you not
only achieve, but find the higher things in life, if you work at them
with love, discipline, and an openness to discovery, and often, with
others who are striving for the same things.

About Minda Aguhob, M.Ed.

Minda Aguhob has always been passionate about the effective use of technology, advocacy, and rigorous research to develop innovative processes that improve performance. Based in San Francisco, California, Minda is leading Peakfoqus ( a company that's designing digital health solutions rooted in research and advocacy.
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