Ryan Krug on Isaac Newton and Introspection

Noodle Expert Ryan Krug explains why he thinks hiking in the wilderness can teach students more than international travel, how he changed course from mechanical engineering to test prep, and what he learned from failing a calculus exam.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I would go back in time and study alongside Sir Isaac Newton. Not only was Newton one of the most intelligent men to ever walk the earth, he was by all accounts crazy. His fascination with the confluence of religion and mathematics is what interests me. I would hope to learn more about where high-level math and science converge and diverge with religious ideology. No person made a greater contribution to the development of mathematics, and yet Newton spent the vast majority of his time studying the Bible and looking for proof that God and math were inseparable. I would probably leave the experience bewildered and confused, but the opportunity would be priceless.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

During a class I took in graduate school, a professor taught me to look inward when someone’s actions frustrated me. When people offended or aggravated me, I used to blame my reactions on the other people and project my agitation back on them. The advice I received made me realize that many of my strong negative reactions were actually a response to something I didn’t like within myself. Now, if someone’s actions rub me the wrong way, I try and look inward and understand a part of myself.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

While traveling to a new country and experiencing its culture can be a truly formative experience, I strongly recommend that every student spend at least a week hiking in the wilderness. I was fortunate enough to hike the Continental Divide shortly before attending college, and it shaped me more than any international travel ever did. Because of the increasing competition in college selection and career advancement, more and more students are sacrificing their connections with the present in order to better situate themselves for the future. Immersing yourself in nature will allow you to separate the critical from the superficial. You will return with an entirely different view on life, and you will be amazed at how much you will appreciate many of the things you took for granted.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

During my freshman year at Stanford, I decided to take the advanced calculus series. While I attended every class and completed the homework assignments, I never fully engaged in learning the material at a conceptual level. A week before the final, I started reviewing my notes and redoing all of the homework problems. While I was able to complete the vast majority of the problems, I began to realize that I didn't understand the concepts behind the calculations and procedures. I studied for well over 20 hours the final two days before the test and still received the worst score I would ever earn on a final exam. The experience taught me that understanding and mimicry are two different things. When a class is conceptually challenging, students must try to comprehend the theory behind the assignments. Not only will this impact success in the classroom, but it will also imprint an understanding that will last a lifetime.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I studied mechanical engineering while at Stanford, so I always expected to go into a field that required problem solving and design. While I had the opportunity to work on projects for IBM, BMW, and Yahoo, I never found a role that allowed me enough creative freedom. I built mindfish Prep with my fellow Stanford classmate, Bill Huston, because we wanted to change the way students prepared for standardized tests. We wanted to eliminate the A–Z approach offered by books and streamline the process through adaptive learning techniques. While test preparation is not the typical path for a design engineer, it has afforded me countless problem solving opportunities within both educational methodology and business strategy.

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