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Monday, March 20, 2006

Catch Phrases And Eating Soup With A Knife

"Don't Eat Soup With A Knife" is my newest "catch phrase".

I'm a big fan of using "catch phrases" in my classes (a catch phrase is an easily remembered phrase that illustrates a recurring theme). For example, the first day of class, I teach them that the value of anything is based on "The Amount, Timing, and Risk Of Its Cash Flows." I repeat this so often, whenever I ask them what's the value of anything based on, they should automatically answer "The Amount, Timing, and Risk Of Its Cash Flows." Later on, when we cover present value, I amend this to "The Value Of Anything is The Present Value Of Its Cash Flows". This gets repeated so often, it ends up in the very front of their memories.

Today, I learned a new catch phrase to inflict on my students. It came from a Wall Street Journal article on a book titled "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife". The title came from a famous line of T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia: "To make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife."

Here's how I'll use it: Some of the techniques I try to teach students take a bit of effort to become comfortable with. As one example, consider a financial calculator: it takes a bit of time learning how to use the cash flow register to solve for the present value of an irregular stream of cash flows. However, there are some problems for which using the cash flow register allows the student to obtain a solution in about a third of the time it would take using any other solution method. Unfortunately, since it's not immediately easy, some students persist in solving a problem using any method other than the cash flow register.

I try to explaining how their way of solving the problem is less elegant and a lot more time consuming than using the cash flow register. Now, before I do that, I'll reinforce it by saying that their approach is "like trying to eat soup with a knife -- messy and slow". After hearing that repeatedly, with a bit of luck it'll sink in.

The phrase works in a lot of situations, so it'll probably become a mainstay in my classes.

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