Asking “Who and/or what is this for?”

I’m writing this from 30,000 feet en-route to Louisville, KY, for the annual NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counseling) conference, attended by over 6,000 counseling and admissions professionals. But I’m not going there just to see what happens. I’ve got specific plans to make the most of my time. I’m presenting a session on Thursday, and I’ll be spending as much work and social time as I can with my 20 colleagues who will also be in attendance.

Sure, I’ll attend some other sessions. I’ll meet fellow professionals. And there will inevitably be some opportunities to learn or connect that I couldn’t have possibly planned for. But I know what I’m there for. I’m there to deliver the very best speech I can, and to connect with my colleagues (none of whom I get to see every workday as we’re spread all over the country). If I don’t do those things, I didn’t get the full personal, professional, or financial value for the trip.

And it’s not just me. Each of my colleagues in attendance has done their own examination of just exactly why they’re attending and what they hope to accomplish. Some are there to learn as much as possible from the sessions. Some are there to evaluate business opportunities. Some are there to connect with friends and former colleagues outside of Collegewise who make their life and work more enjoyable. But nobody goes just to go, or just to say they went.

We take this kind of intentionality seriously at Collegewise. Last month, my colleagues Allison and Arun, both of whom have attended this conference over a dozen times, held an internal webinar for the NACAC attendees. They laid out our collective goals and expectations. They reviewed some conference best practices. They explained the schedule of events we’re expected to attend and delineated those from the blocks of time when people could choose their own conference adventure.

To a person, and as a company, we’ve planned to make this conference a valuable use of our time and energy.

Lesson 15 of my final 31 posts: Start anything worth doing by asking, “Who and/or what is this for?”

This email you’re about to send, who and what is it for?

The meeting you just scheduled, who and what is it for?

The event you’re planning, the ad you’re running, the speech you’re giving, who and what is it for?

Don’t let yourself off the hook with an easy answer like, “Sharing information is what this speech is for.” If that’s your actual answer, you don’t need to call people into a room to give a speech. Write a memo instead. But when you get clear about who will be in the room, why you want to bring them there, and how you’ll know if the time was well spent, your speech gets a lot more focused and effective for you and for the attendees.

Neither I nor Collegewise as a company have always been so intentional around this conference. We used to send most of our counselors because it felt like the professionally responsible thing to do. But when we asked hard questions, it was pretty clear that some people enjoyed and benefitted from the conference a lot more than others did. Even those who found it worth their while did so through a combination of planning, intuition, and luck. And that’s not a good recipe for success if you apply it to a larger group.

I’m not suggesting that everything you do needs to achieve some sort of productive outcome to be worth doing. Your answer for your upcoming vacation might be, “This is vacation is for me and my family to spend as much time as we can together and to enjoy the spontaneity that comes from having no scheduled activities.” Guess what—the fact that you asked and answered the question just dramatically improved the chances that you’ll get exactly what you want from your time away.

Don’t do things just to do them or to say you did them. Your time, energy, and commitments are too important for that. Instead, decide ahead of time why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you’ll know if it was worth it. And one of the best ways to get there is to start by asking, “Who and/or what is this for?”