A wake-up call about sleep

From a recent article, “You’re not getting enough sleep–and it’s killing you.”

“‘The decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our wellness, even the safety and education of our children. It’s a silent sleep loss epidemic. It’s fast becoming one of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century.’ Walker, an expert in sleep at UC Berkeley and author of the best-selling book Why We Sleep, told a rapt TED audience on Thursday.”

On the question of worth

Any debate around the question “Are prestigious colleges worth it?” is likely to be dominated by worldviews. Some people, regardless of any data to the contrary, would find it nonsensical to suggest that attending Harvard doesn’t lead to inherently better outcomes for graduates. On the flip side, I’ve heard equally passionate arguments from happy and successful graduates of public schools famous only to those living in the school’s zip codes. Worth, especially when applied to colleges, is in the eye—and the worldview—of the beholder.

But if you’re interested in an unbiased blending of recent data with the appropriate acknowledgement of just how subjective the nature of worth can be, Brennan Bernard’s latest Forbes piece, “Elite Admission: what is college worth?” tackles both clearly and effectively.

Long positive from a brief negative

“I didn’t know.”

“I made a mistake.”

“I tried and failed.”

“I was wrong.”

“I apologize.”

For all but the most egregious transgressions, most statements like those refer to something that happened in a comparatively brief period of time. Maybe even in an instant.

But the learning, growth, and resilience that those moments serve up on the other side can last a lifetime.

If you’re dealing with a brief negative, do what it takes to turn it into a long positive.

Take time away

Sometimes, the best way to get unstuck from a project is to take some time away.

I’m traveling this week, and when doing so, I usually schedule a few posts ahead of time to go live on designated dates. It minimizes the potential risk of internet difficulties that can make it harder to write a post on the run. But one post in particular just didn’t feel right. The clarity of the messaging, the order of the paragraphs, the overall flow–none of it seemed to be coming together. So I forged ahead, saved a workable draft, and then took time away.

Because I’d started early enough, I had the luxury of coming back to the draft the next day with fresh eyes and renewed perspective. I moved a few sentences. Changed a few words. And everything fell into place. Five minutes (plus a previous night of sleep) was all it took.

Sometimes, sleeping on it works the other way—your fresh eyes the next day reveal that something you thought was good isn’t quite what it could be. I wrote about this method back in 2011, and still find it works today. But my experience this week was a timely reminder of just how much good time away can do.

The technology, connectivity, and ever-present buzzing of today’s world has left many of us trying to produce more with less time. But time is a critical ingredient for truly great work. A master craftsperson wants to build something right, not build it fast. An artisan baker can produce a great loaf of bread, but not without enough time to let the ingredients do their work. Athletes, thought leaders, writers, orators, scientists—they all may face deadlines or other real-world realities. But they also need and depend on time to prepare, create, and ultimately deliver work they’re proud of.

I’m a fan of deadlines. I think they motivate us to get started, to push through, and to ship instead of stalling. I’ve even written about the power of creating an artificial deadline to overcome inertia and get you moving. Sometimes sprinting is the antidote for too much standing still.

But if you’re constantly racing from one deadline to the next, and if you feel a pattern developing of repeatedly churning out work before it’s quite what you want it to be, consider building in more time to not work on the project.

Sometimes the surest path towards great work is to take time away from it.

To have ideas, don’t hold them

David Allen, author of the best-selling Getting Things Done, shared some of his best productivity tips during a recent episode of the Becoming Better podcast. You can read a summary here, or listen to the full episode here. My favorite takeaway:

Your head is for having ideas, not holding them. Our brains can only hold so much. The more tasks, to-do’s, deadlines, etc. that you store in your head, the more you’re depleting a finite resource, and the less brainpower you’ll have available for other more creative or challenging things. So just write it down. Appointments, assignments, dates and deadlines–anything at all that can be written down instead of committed to memory, get it out of your head and onto the calendar, page, or other system.

You might be able to free up time, energy, and intellectual power just by relying less on your memory.

Better vs. revolutionary

Since 1999, 44 classes of new Collegewise counselors have completed our college counselor training. And from former admissions officers from highly selective colleges, to former high school counselors, to working professionals switching careers and even recent college grads starting their very first job, we’ve graduated them all as fully fledged counselors capable of expertly guiding our students the Collegewise way. It’s a remarkable transformation to take place in just about 40 hours total. But that’s the magic of our counselor training. We prioritize it, we constantly improve it, and for 20 years, training has been one of the things Collegewise does best.

And starting this week, we’re blowing it up, starting over, and rebuilding our training program from scratch.

It’s not that we’ve been resting on our training laurels. Over the years, we’ve introduced new approaches, multiple trainers, and on-demand webinars, all in an effort to get better. But success has a funny way of constraining you over time. After building and iterating on our training for so long, we’ve gotten used to doing things a certain way. Too many elements are now so ingrained that it’s hard to imagine changing or doing away with them entirely. What worked so well yesterday has actually made it harder for us to innovate today. And we’re at the point where starting over actually feels pretty liberating.

Our company, our service, and the world have evolved a lot in the last 20 years. We’re a much larger company today, hiring and deploying counselors both domestically and internationally. There are more counseling subjects, scenarios, and challenges to cover. We have new technologies, in-house subject experts, and even a full-time filmmaker at our disposal now. To weave them into our existing model feels forced, like layering upgrade after upgrade on a product that was designed to do one thing and is now being asked to do another. Every product has a natural lifespan. And the best way to breathe new life into this product is to build a new one.

We’ve never seen any college counselor training that even comes close to the depth and breadth of ours. But we’ve finally reached a point where our training ideas, needs, and assets are bigger than incremental change can accommodate. Better is great. But we’re ready for revolutionary.

This week, I’ll be holing up in a conference room with Allison, Arun, and Frank—the same team that built our College Counseling Master Class together. We’ll ask and try to answer big questions. What is this training for? Who is it for? What is crucial to our success? How will we know if it works? We’ll fill blank whiteboards. We’ll discuss and debate. And if history and this team are any indication, we’ll eventually emerge with a plan to build something innovative, exciting, and worthy of becoming part of Collegewise. We’re eager to get started, and I’ll share updates on our progress as we make it.

Monday morning Q & A

Cathy asks:

“My son is dyslexic and it has hindered him from taking honors classes. He has a diagnosis and an IEP. Is it better to let colleges know about this or not? Maybe an essay topic?”

Great question, Cathy. Here’s my past post, “Five college planning tips for students with learning disabilities.” You’ll see that tip #5 recommends that students share their story with colleges. But I also mention the essay is only one way to share that information.

I make the distinction because the single most important ingredient in crafting an effective college essay is to let students write what they want to write about. Yes, there’s plenty of room for good advice from counselors, English teachers, and other experts who likely know more about admissions and/or essays than a 17-year-old student does. But you want to avoid a scenario where strategy overtakes the student’s choice.

Is your son proud of the efforts he’s made to overcome his learning difference? Does he feel it defines him in some small or large way? Is it important to him that colleges understand that slice of his life? If so, that’s a topic worth considering. But if not, let him choose something he’d be excited to write about. And use the other pieces and parts of the application to share the facts of his LD history.

So yes, I think he should make colleges aware of the challenge he’s faced in his academics. It’s important for them to understand as much of the entire picture as the application will allow. But I’d let him make the choice of where to do it, and how much to share.

Thanks for your question, Cathy.

I’ll answer another one next week. You can submit yours for consideration here.

Change your status meeting’s status

Before you call yet another regular meeting for everyone in your group to share the status of their work, give this 2016 post, “Status meetings are the scourge,” by Basecamp’s Jason Fried a read. There’s some great advice to reduce the number of hours wasted on updating everyone, whether or not you employ their product as his team does. You may still meet together regularly, but he might make you rethink the status of your status meeting.

Fewer teams, similar goals

Last month, I shared my surprisingly pleasant experience cancelling my DocuSign subscription. They made it so easy and painless that it actually left me more likely to recommend them. I had a very different experience with SiriusXM last week, one that I think anyone running a business–or progressing through the college application process–could potentially learn from.

I had two SiriusXM subscriptions—one streaming, and one for a car that my wife and I recently sold. I went to the website, logged into my account, and found all sorts of options to upgrade, but nothing to cancel. So I hopped on the customer service chat, shared what and why I wanted to cancel my former car’s subscription, and spent the next five minutes being reassured that the customer service rep was collecting all the necessary info to help me.

And then she revealed that they have a “special team specifically trained to help with these requests” (I swear I am not making this up) and that I needed to call a 1-800 number to access them.

I was so frustrated that I asked for a supervisor and explained that if they couldn’t make this easier, I’d just end my 14-year run as a SiriusXM customer entirely. The supervisor showed up and took care of everything. But it still left me rankled.

It’s clear that Sirius has gone out of their way to make it difficult for customers to cancel. A team of people in a room made that decision. But then the poor team of customer service reps has to work with that policy to the inevitable frustration of the customer. So you’ve got three teams—management, customer service reps, and customers–and none of them are working together to their mutual benefit.

What outcome does that serve? Does Sirius actually retain more subscribers just by making it harder for them to leave? And even if that works, is it a good long-term strategy?

Imagine if management had told their reps:

“Our desired outcome is to make our customers happy and likely to refer our service to their friends. Your job is to drive those outcomes. Within certain limits that we’ll make clear, whatever you need to do to leave customers better off than when they arrived to you, please do. We trust you.”

Now the three teams are combined and working as one towards a goal where everyone gets what they want. Customers are happy, the reps are making them feel that way, and management sees their subscriber counts rising.

There’s nothing wrong with relying on multiple teams to handle disparate responsibilities. But sometimes that division is unnecessary and counterproductive.

The cast, understudies, lighting techs, and set designers for the school play can act as four distinct teams who care more about their own roles than they do supporting each other for the greater good. Or they can cheer each other on and share mutual pride in their distinct contributions to the shared goal of putting on a great performance.

Students, parents, and counselors can act as three distinct teams, where parents drive the process without listening to advice, counselors struggle to impose some order, and students disengage from listening to anyone. Or they can acknowledge that they each have an important role to play in helping the student land at the right college.

Colleges can hand down edicts to the admissions office to drive application numbers up and admit rates down all in an effort to raise their US News rankings. Or they can spend more time, money, and energy attracting kids who are most likely to gratefully accept an offer of admission and subsequently thrive on campus.

If strife, chaos, or other detriments are plaguing your group or project, take a look at the number of teams in play and the respective roles they’re playing. You might restore some order, good will, and good outcomes with fewer teams when they’re focused on similar goals.

Need some summer plans?

Students, I hope your summer plans include ample time to recharge, have fun, and enjoy the summer-related benefits that come with still being a teenager. But chances are you don’t want to let your mind and body atrophy completely under a haze of sleeping in and watching YouTube. So if you’re looking for suggestions of ways to spend a summer that’s both enjoyable and productive, here are a few resources that might help.

Here’s my past post sharing 50 ways to spend your summer.

Here’s another identifying three benefits of holding a part-time job, a post with some tips to help land one, and one more to help you thrive once you’re hired.

And here’s our free Collegewise Summer Planning Guide 2019, free to read and share.