What Court Reporting Students Can Learn from a Future Neurosurgeon

We placed an ad for rental of a small office in our suite that was answered by a Harvard Medical School student who needs a quiet place to study for his upcoming exam.  Our space is conveniently located close to his apartment and MGH.  He needs the office for three months, October through December, his examination falling on December 30th.  He is already quite accomplished, having previously earned a Master of Health Science degree from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health before deciding to go to medical school with the goal of eventually becoming a neurosurgeon.

I think everyone on our staff would agree that having him study in such close proximity to us is an eye-opening and inspiring experience.  We have had many enlightening conversations about his family, his past work history abroad in Tanzania and Afghanistan, his research, what led him to pursue a career in neurosurgery, and the intense competition he faces in trying to secure one of only a few coveted residency positions nationwide.

Gabriel Sneh
Harvard Medical student and future neurosurgeon, Gabriel Sneh.

His study routine is one for the record books.  His focus, dedication, and resoluteness are off the charts.  He spends just about every waking moment reviewing the minutiae of every system in the body and taking practice tests, never scoring below a 90.  He studies between 70 to 75 hours a week, even on weekends.  In three months, that will amount to almost 1,000 hours of study!  After he passes his exam, he has seven years of residency ahead of him.

During his limited breaks, he has patiently and completely answered our various medical questions, such as the difference between a punctured/collapsed lung; what a herniated incarceration is; and the various types of stages and grades of cancer.  (We considered it good practice for him!)  Further, as an aside, it has not gone unnoticed that he takes good care of himself.  He eats no sugar, processed foods, or gluten.  He gets his required rest.  His stamina is impressive as is his energy level.  I am sure these choices have factored into his success so far as well.

“How do you stay motivated with such a grueling road ahead of you?” 

This all got me to thinking about court reporting students.  I asked him the most obvious question:  “How do you stay motivated with such a grueling road ahead of you?”  He explained that, although his eye is always on the prize, he doesn’t look too far ahead.  Looking too far ahead can be overwhelming, so he sets an aggressive agenda for each day and does not waver from accomplishing his daily goal, which is answering about 250 to 300 test questions per day.  To become eligible for a neurosurgery residency, you need at least a score of 240 on the exam, a score he already knows he can attain.  He wants to do better because he knows he can.  He knows he is capable of learning much more, so he is pushing himself to excel.  His goal is to achieve the highest score ever recorded on the exam, and we think he just might do it.

So what can we learn from him?  Think about his rigorous studying philosophy and see how it can be incorporated into your personal practice regimen.  Could you realistically find more practice time in your day?  Do you set daily goals and do all you can to achieve them?  Do you push yourself to the limit, rejecting mediocrity and aiming for excellence?  Are you committed to making court reporting your life’s work and doing all you can to be the best court reporter you can be?  What better time than the upcoming New Year to adopt these standards as your own.

All of us will be sad to see “our” med student leave.  It has been an awesome experience getting a glimpse into his world and bearing witness to the enormous sacrifices that he is willing to make to reach his goal.  He is not only an exceptional student but also one of the finest human beings we have ever met.

Congratulations, Gabriel Sneh, on your accomplishments so far and all the very best as you continue your studies.

GOT GRIT?

Does writing on your steno machine come easily to you?  Are you passing tests fairly frequently and progressing ahead of schedule, well ahead of your peers?  If so, you are what I would consider a “natural” writer, and you are in the minority.  I know several reporters who breezed through school in as little as a year and a half.  One reporter I know passed her 260 Q&A before graduation.  Wow!

If you are one of the students in the majority, struggling to stay afloat day after day and fighting to stave off the feelings of self-doubt, you may find comfort in knowing that grit can sometimes be more important than raw talent.

I define “grit” as mental toughness, an intense resolve to succeed and the tenacity to focus and persevere despite the obstacles and distractions around you.  There are many examples of people who accomplished great things through sheer determination.  James Earl Jones overcame severe stuttering to become a famous actor;  Stephen King’s first novel was rejected thirty times, but he is now a prolific author whose books have sold over 350 million copies; and Walt Disney, despite having only an eighth-grade education and almost no formal art training, built an empire where dreams really do come true.

As a court reporting student, grit is what will propel you forward, one word per minute at a time.  Set your goals, put in as much quality practice as you can, and eschew excuses.  Do this every single day.  Remind yourself of what drew you to court reporting in the first place, and let that motivate you to dig in and press on.  It will be difficult and will require every ounce of self-discipline you have, but in the long run you will succeed.

Every working court reporter still relies on grit to make it out there.  Attorneys’ expectations are high.  There are many demands placed on them by their clients, and those demands get passed on to us.  It is our job to deliver.  The finest court reporters produce transcripts of the highest quality on time all the time no matter what.  They offer realtime services often under less-than-ideal conditions, multiple iPads at a time, some clients receiving live feeds in remote locations.  They produce daily copy of high-profile, high-stakes trials that go on for weeks.  Their raw realtime is projected on large screens in packed convention halls or on television screens across the nation, such as for the recent raucous presidential debates.  How much true grit does that take?

So cultivate your true grit!   It is never too late.  If you embrace it, it is a mindset that will take you to a higher level.   Just ask the majority of court reporters who were once in your shoes.  True grit got them through school, and true grit gets them through the most difficult and demanding of assignments as certified working professionals.

ARE YOU PRACTICING THE WRONG WAY?

I came upon this article by Adam Dachis.  In my opinion, it describes perfectly how you should go about your practice sessions and why.  He’s writing about piano practice, but this certainly applies to court reporters.  The bottom line:  Perfect practice makes perfect.  Stop practicing until you read this.  Teach yourself to practice the right way.  Take Mr. Dachis’s advice to heart and let his words guide you from this point forward.  Good luck and happy practicing!

How Muscle Memory Works and How It Affects Your Success

by Adam Dachis

Muscle memory is not a memory stored in your muscles, of course, but memories stored in your brain that are much like a cache of frequently enacted tasks for your muscles. It’s a form of procedural memory that can help you become very good at something through repetition, but in exactly the same way it can make you absolutely terrible at that same thing. Here’s why.

If you’re practicing a song on the piano over and over again, the idea is that you’ll continue to improve. “Practice makes perfect” can be an accurate phrase because the more you do something, you build up that procedural memory and your brain can quickly instruct your muscles to carry it out. That muscle memory doesn’t judge whether you’re doing good or bad, however, and so if you practice a song poorly for hours on end you’re going to be really good at making the same mistakes over and over again. This is not only bad because you’ve wasted your time learning to be bad or mediocre at a task and may see all this work as a failure, but because you didn’t necessarily have to fail at all. When you repeat mistakes again and again, you build a muscle memory with those mistakes. That makes those mistakes even harder to overcome later. This is one reason why the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is often true.

 

The key to building good muscle memories is to focus on the quality of the quantity. We’ve often heard, probably from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, that 10,000 hours is the magic number to make someone an expert. It’s likely that this is the case when you practice well, but if you carelessly build procedural memory over and over again you can just end up being really good at repeating your mistakes. When you practice, take it slow at first. Going back to learning to play a song on the piano, don’t rush to learn the entire thing. Break the song up into parts and concentrate on learning one part really well. Practice that section slowly until you’ve got it down, then speed it up little by little until you can play at full speed. More broadly, when you want to learn to do something well, break it into small parts and take each part slowly until you’re able to do it very well. Take breaks. Be patient. The more you rush the big picture, the more likely you’ll be to develop muscle memories that are difficult to reverse.

UNPLUG FOR BETTER RESULTS

I have been reading about the effect of social media on academic performance, and although some research shows no correlation between social media and student grades, most research shows that social media has a negative effect on student achievement.

Social media takes many forms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, texting, and YouTube.  It has certainly changed our lives in ways never imagined before.  It allows us to instantaneously keep in touch with family and friends, plan our social activities, and monitor the world around us.  Studies show that people visit these sites on a daily basis.  Everywhere you go, you see people “plugged in,” engrossed in the content on their electronic devices, oblivious to the world around them and sometimes even their companions.  I advocate keeping abreast of current events on your devices.  My comments are directed more towards using social media sites for entertainment and social purposes.

Some of the estimates I’ve seen of hours spent daily on social media are astonishing.  Studies have shown that students who spend an inordinate amount of time engaged in this activity have been found to have behaviors not conducive to high academic performance:  uncompleted homework, higher absentee rate, lack of sleep, lower attention span, even substance abuse.  All of this got me to thinking about court reporting students who are learning a skill that demands concentration, stamina, and accuracy.

With this valuable research in mind, it would be wise to honestly evaluate how much time you spend on social media and to make an effort to limit your time on these sites.  Although it is fun to keep in touch with family and friends, you may not realize just how much time you are spending doing so.  Even an hour spent on Facebook instead of practicing on your machine can be counterproductive.  An hour a day for seven days a week of missed practice time can really add up.  Avoid the temptation to veg out on social media where “just ten minutes” can turn into hours.

Good time management skills can help.  Keep to a strict practice regimen.  When practicing, your attention should be devoted to developing your skills, so all devices should be turned off.  Don’t be distracted with alerts, emails, and text messages.  If you have put in your solid practice time for the day and have more time on your hands, practice some more or engage in some other activity that will further your goal of becoming a reporter one day.

While we’re on the subject of social media, I want to provide a word of caution on consulting Facebook for answers to your questions.  Some advice is good, and some advice is bad.  I would encourage you instead to seek trusted advice from respected working reporters or ask NCRA for a virtual mentor.

In closing, the older court reporters working today, myself included, did not have social media distractions to contend with.  I personally feel that was to our advantage.  I would challenge all court reporting students to completely unplug for at least a month to devote more time to concentrated and uninterrupted practice and see what the results are at the end of the month.  You might be pleasantly surprised.

ROOTS AND WINGS

I recently heard this phrase at a life celebration of a beloved teacher of young children.  She opened a nursery school years ago where it was her mission to provide her students with roots and wings, and I thought it was a wonderful expression of her life’s work.

The same philosophy applies to all of you pursuing a career in court reporting.  Think of your education as forming the foundation, or roots, for your future success.  All the courses you are taking are preparing you for what lies ahead.  They are the tools you will call upon every day when you are on the job writing and then editing your work.

Your primary responsibility as a reporter is to produce a timely verbatim transcript using your best judgment and experience.  This skill set is constantly evolving.  A good reporter will learn something new with every assignment.  A good reporter, ever present and mindful, will be enriched from each experience.  Over time, these experiences will become part of an ever expanding repertoire from which you can draw.  The young root system that began in school, if nurtured, will mature and grow stronger.   It will be the foundation upon which to build an enduring and rewarding career.

Once in the working world, good reporters have the potential to spread their wings and become great reporters.  It doesn’t happen overnight — it is a deliberate process years in the making — but if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone and trust the solid roots beneath you, the rewards in store are many.

Great reporters constantly try to “up” their game, outdo their personal bests.  They have a strong work ethic which means that they meet their deadlines without fail.  Because of the deference they hold for the process, every matter is treated with respect and held in confidence.  They accommodate every client request to the best of their ability, paying attention to the smallest of details.  They take on the most arduous of assignments, even volunteer for them.  In short, they are the accomplished peers we all respect and the sought-after professionals whom lawyers can trust.

So make the most of your time in school.  Take this opportunity to challenge yourself to the max.  Set high expectations for yourself.  Cultivate your root system!  The roots you are putting in place now will allow you to spread your wings and become the very best reporter you can be.

OH, CHUTE!

I thought you would enjoy this story that happened to an esteemed colleague of mine, Ralph Simpson, when he competed in his third Massachusetts Speed Contest.

As a bit of background, the Massachusetts speed contests were instituted for the first time in 1975 and ran through 1979.  Ed Varallo prepared all five contests and dictated all of them.  The requirement for entering was that you had to have your Certificate of Merit.  The three legs were Literary at 210 wpm, Legal Opinion at 220 wpm, and Q&A at 270 wpm.  Back in those days, contestants had to manually type their takes, and there was a time limit for typing each leg.

Ralph still vividly remembers the tension he felt in anticipation of the start of the contests.  “I had the feeling that words were being fired at me like a machine gun and any hesitation could be fatal.  It required all the concentration I could bring.  Each five-minute take seemed to go on forever, and you just had to hang on.”

Ralph won the contest in 1975 with an average overall score of 99.59 and won again in 1976 with an average overall score of 98.15.  Incidentally, in 1976 he was the only reporter who qualified on the Q&A; in other words, he was the only reporter to score with 95% accuracy or better on that leg.  Two trophies in two years!

In his third contest in 1977, Ralph came in first on the Literary leg with a 99.52 score.  He also came in first on the Legal Opinion leg with a 99.27 score.  Although he came in with a fantastic score of 99.33 on the Q&A leg, with an overall test score average of 99.37, he came in second overall.  The trophy went to Jonathan Young that year, another Boston great.

So what tripped Ralph up on the Q&A leg that year?   He transcribed “chute” when it should have been “shoot.”  He only made nine total errors on the Q&A leg, but he made this particular error six times, which cost him his third trophy.  In retrospect, he said that “chute” didn’t even jump out at him as being an error during his transcription.

Being the good sport that he is, Ralph still finds it “amusing” that this happened to him, and he has taken some ribbing for his blunder over the years.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t take away from his great accomplishments as a speed contest champion or as a reporter of over four decades.

Ralph went on to compete in the remaining two contests, in 1978 and 1979, and had an honorable third-place showing in each.  He remains a wealth of information and a sought-after resource when we need advice and wisdom, which is just about every day.  Ralph has been with this firm for 46 years!

Thank you, Ralph, for this walk down memory lane!

Do Yourself a Favor: Stay in School

Whether or not to stay in court reporting school can pose a serious dilemma.  Perhaps you are wrestling with this very decision.  I know that many students, feeling the pressure of mounting debt, are tempted to jump into the working world sooner than they really should.  If this is something you are considering, I would urge you, if at all possible, to stay in school and graduate from your program before you take on any assignments. The longer you stay in school and adhere to a disciplined practice regimen, the better your chances for success.  Continuing your studies will be money well spent in the end.

Starting out as a working reporter is very difficult.  There is a steep learning curve.  Getting down every word will tax your stamina and concentration.  There will be days when you will be expected to work without a break; when you will have witnesses who mumble all day; and when the testimony contains more acronyms than words.  As if all these things weren’t enough, there are other on-the-job duties that you will be responsible for.  It’s a lot of pressure for a young reporter.  To complicate things, some of the people you will encounter may not be pleasant, as the nature of litigation is confrontational and emotions can run high.  The bottom line is that the lawyers will be expecting a verbatim record, and it is your job to produce it.

If you leave school and go to work too early, you are putting the one professional thing you own at risk:  your reputation.  Your good name has value, and you must do all you can to protect it.  Every transcript you prepare reflects on you.  It would be a shame to have a tarnished reputation before you even get your career off the ground.

If you wait to finish your education, you will have more practice under your belt and more resources at your disposal to improve your skills.  It is much easier to push for speed when you are already in the studying mode.  If you are working, you will be busy editing your transcripts, and finding time to spend on speed-building will be more difficult.  It is counterproductive to report when you are struggling to keep up and dropping too much; and when your writing is messy and full of holes, not only will you run the risk of not being able to read back when called upon, but you will be spending an excessive amount of time editing.  Furthermore, and most importantly, always relying on audio rather than your skills to get the job done is a huge hindrance and not the way to advance your career.  This cannot be emphasized enough.

Producing a verbatim transcript is an important responsibility.  Real people, businesses, and concerns are affected.  Your transcript will be examined and dissected by attorneys on all sides, their clients, and possibly experts.  Do yourself a favor and don’t work until you have graduated and interned with a reputable professional.  Although some states do not require certification to work, the ideal scenario would be to have a certification under your belt before you report.  This will cement your professional position, boost your confidence, and make you more desirable to an employer.

The benefits of staying in school far outweigh the “benefits” of leaving early.  To quote Aristotle, “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.”