What’s their challenge around change?

To make improvements in any organization means to change it. To move (figuratively or literally) from one place to a different place. But when the potential for change hits people, they often get defensive and shut it down. The familiar is a comfortable place to be. And the unknown is easier to avoid if we can. That’s why, as this article out of MIT’s Sloan School of Management points out, there are three obstacles to producing change in an organization, each represented with a different type of objection.

1. “That’s not what my experience has shown.”
The first challenge is a resistance to new data or information. The quickest way for the naysayer to discount it is to claim that they have never personally experienced it.

2. “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
The second challenge is a resistance to change. The current way is familiar and comfortable. A new way is unfamiliar and scary. Best way to discount the new way? Entrench yourself in history and go with, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

3. “That will never work here.”
The third challenge is the barrier of “organizational uniqueness,” which appears to be a nice way of saying that your organization is just so much different, more innovative, and all-out better than others that what works for someone else couldn’t possibly work here.

Imagine what kind of change you could drive in your club, office, or other organization if you did just two things with these above statements: (1) Refuse to use them yourself, and (2) when someone in the organization uses one, remember where it’s coming from and try to speak to their challenge around change.

Self-explanations are the best explanations

I’ve written often that the surest way to learn any new material is to teach it back to an imaginary audience. The act of explaining something clearly and cogently activates a different part of your brain and is a lot more effective than passively reviewing or memorizing. Here’s more evidence–a study showing that self-explanation turns out to be more effective than teacher explanation, note-taking, and several other learning techniques.

Authoritative is not helicoptering

The title of Pamela Druckerman’s recent New York Times piece, “The Bad News About Helicopter Parenting: It Works,” will delight those parents who are running their children’s lives. But a closer read–and the referenced research–reveals that she’s not really talking about helicopter parenting.

From the article:

The most effective parents, according to the authors, are “authoritative.” They use reasoning to persuade kids to do things that are good for them. Instead of strict obedience, they emphasize adaptability, problem-solving and independence — skills that will help their offspring in future workplace situations that we can’t even imagine yet.

That’s not helicopter parenting. Helicopter parents don’t persuade their kids to do things that are good for them. They just jump in and do it for their kids. Or they make every decision leading up to the point where the parents are restrained from further involvement. A parent can’t descend into the orchestra pit and play the violin for their kid, but if they choose the instrument and decide on the lesson frequency and make every other decision around the role of this instrument in their kid’s life, that’s a helicopter parent. And it’s an entirely different parenting style than one in which the parent highlights the benefits of music in their child’s life.

The simple metric: Could your student do this for themselves? And if not, how can they stretch just a little beyond their current abilities so that you don’t do it all yourself? That will prevent your helicopter blades from whirring too close to your student.

Self zero-sums

The zero-sum approach dictates that for one side to win, the other must lose. There’s no win-win, no version of an agreement where both sides get some of what they want and still feel whole at the end. It’s all or nothing, one winner, one loser. If you sit down at the lunch table ahead of somebody else, it’s the difference between saying, “It’ll be a little tight, but we can both fit if I scoot over” and “Sorry, there’s no more room.”

Some high school students take a zero-sum approach to their college prep, only they are the only winner or loser.

If they study hard and get an A, they win. If they study hard and don’t get an A, they lose.

If their ACT score cracks 30, they win. If not, they lose.

Chosen as the lead for the school play? You win. Chosen as the understudy? You lose.

Swarthmore says yes = you win. Swarthmore says no = you lose.

Zero-sum makes life adversarial. And it’s even worse when you’re your own adversary.

This isn’t a post arguing that everyone should be dubbed a winner and that life should be full of participation trophies. I’m arguing that life—and college prep—cannot be so neatly divided into two distinct outcomes of winning and losing. Basketball and elections, yes, somebody has to win. But that’s not the way the world in general works, and it’s not a good posture to take in high school.

Naysayers will tell you this is soft thinking, that winners get ahead and that you need to best the competition lest you be left behind. That’s demonstrably untrue, by the way, but that doesn’t change the mind of someone with that worldview. If you’re in that camp, good luck with it. But please don’t blame what you’ve decided is the harsh reality of the world each time you come out in the loser’s bracket. The more you view life as a zero-sum competition, the more it will feel that way.

Your effort has value. Your contributions have value. And your learning, especially in those instances when things didn’t turn out as you’d hoped, has enormous value. Don’t discount or miss it entirely just because you perceive that you somehow lost.

When you really look at all the value you’re creating and receiving, it’s a lot less likely that you’ll calculate a self zero-sum.

The effort to save

While financial aid officers use formulas to determine a family’s financial need, they also retain a lot of latitude to make decisions that might go against their calculations. And one potentially important and often overlooked way to influence that decision is the degree to which a family has made an honest effort to save, regardless of the amount.

Financial aid officers believe that it is both the student’s and parent’s responsibility to pay for college to the degree that they are able. Any honest effort to save is a reflection that a family is taking that responsibility seriously, a signal that can positively influence the type and amount of the aid you receive. Flagrantly living beyond your means, especially when paired with an expectation that a college will somehow come through to make up the difference between the cost of college and what you can afford, sends a very different message and will elicit a very different reaction.

Every dollar you save for college is a dollar you don’t have to borrow or rely on a financial aid package to cover. That’s the numerical advantage. But don’t forget the other potential advantage, one that’s based less on numbers and more on your earnest effort to save.

Do them anyway

Students and their parents often lament the qualities, talents, and contributions that colleges won’t see during the application process. If only the college could see how nice you are to your younger siblings, the way people respond to you at the counter of your part-time job, the relationships you build or focus you maintain or genuine passion you carry for your hobby or interest—if only the college would look at those things, they’d see how much more I am than just a collection of grades and test scores.

Still, do those things anyway. Do them to the very best of your ability. It’s who you are, and you don’t need a college to tell you that they’re valuable.

Just because you don’t think a college will be able to appreciate the way you bring your special qualities to the world doesn’t make those qualities any less special. There’s plenty of comparison built into this process around how this grade or test score or award will stack up against the competition and be evaluated by your chosen colleges. No need to sully the pure parts of life with attempts to attach them to college applications.

There may not be a space to write “I’m my siblings’ favorite babysitter” on a college application, but the traits that make you good at one thing inevitably make you a better human. And better humans make more of an impact wherever they spend their time, and that includes activities that do—and those that do not—belong on a college application.

And besides, what’s the alternative? To stop being who you are just because colleges won’t evaluate it? That is never a good strategy, college admissions or otherwise.

If you have special talents, skills, or traits that you don’t believe can be measured on a college application, do them anyway. As long as you and others benefit in some way, the college admissions part will eventually take care of itself.

What are your ideas worth?

If you’re in a club, organization, or company, you’ve probably come across people who have lots of ideas. They’ve always got a suggestion about what the group should change, initiate, or roll out. And they often express those ideas with some version of, “We should…”

“We should do a different fundraiser this year—nobody likes selling candy bars.”

“We should recruit more people to join us. We’d get a lot more done.”

“We should do better training for our managers.”

Good ideas are valuable. If you’ve got them, you should share them, as an idea’s validity within an organization is often determined in part by how many others are willing to get behind it.

But please don’t mistake proposing the idea for a valuable contribution. The idea is the easier part. What’s harder and much more valuable is everything that happens next.

What are you willing to do to test that idea? What initiative will you show? What responsibility will you assume? What risk will you take with your time or energy or reputation?

An idea is only worth something if it creates a change. And for that to happen almost always requires someone championing it, someone who’s willing to assume responsibility for enrolling interested parties, pushing through the difficulties and the compromises, and successfully shipping an often not necessarily perfect but certainly good enough version.

An idea that never comes to life fades away. But one that comes to fruition can be evaluated, tweaked, and learned from.

So the next time you’re about to say, “We should____,” consider following it with, “And I’m willing to____ to make it happen.”

The more you’re willing to offer in the second piece, the more likely people will get excited about the first.

Distraction out, focus in

Imagine you’re struggling in a class, so you ask your teacher if you can get some extra help at lunch. Your teacher agrees, but when you arrive, ready to explain where you’re struggling, they say, “I’m just going to grade these papers. But keep talking.”

You sit down with your college interviewer who says, “Tell me a little bit about yourself while I review this proposal I have to submit at work later today.”

You’ve been struggling with a decision in your personal life and ask a friend for some advice. But while you’re explaining the situation, your friend is busy trying to create the perfect playlist, with each potential song requiring a 10-second sampling to test it as an appropriate choice.

Would you be annoyed? Would you feel like you were in fact not the focus of their attention? Would you be tempted to ask to reschedule to a time when they weren’t so distracted?

Now replace each of their distractions with “scrolling through their phone.” Does it feel any different? Probably not.

If you’re trying to have a meaningful interaction with someone—not necessarily one in which you need something, just one where conversation is intended to take place—put the phone away and silence it. Send a signal that tells the other person that right here, right now, this interaction is your priority.

When you replace your distractions with focus, you’re more likely to get a similar gesture in return.

You see what you look for

Families tend to see what they look for as they move their way through a student’s college preparation process.

If you look for perceived advantages others received that somehow hurt you, you’ll find them.

If you look for experiences that left you smarter, more mature, or otherwise better prepared for college, you’ll find them.

If you look for students who were shut out of their dream colleges in spite of their high achievements, you’ll find them.

If you look for a reason to believe that you’ve got a good shot at admission to a highly selective college regardless of what your counselor says, you’ll find it.

Depending on where you attend high school (and access to information today means you can find countless examples even beyond your own school’s walls), there are likely enough students preparing for, applying to, and receiving decisions from colleges that you can find an example to support whatever it is that you decide to look for. But that still doesn’t mean that you’re seeing reality.

If a family decides they don’t want to hear that Stanford is an unrealistic college option, they’ll eventually find a narrative that supports the outcome they want to believe. But that doesn’t necessarily change the admissions reality.

The good news is that we all get to choose what we look for. And if families look for evidence that healthy, balanced, happy kids not only emerge relatively unscathed from the college admissions process, but also end up at colleges where they thrive—even if the schools were not among their top choices—you’ll find those, too. In fact, you’ll find lots of them. That’s admissions reality.

How do you know if you’re looking for the right things? Evaluate the behaviors inspired by what you’re looking for.

Does your visible pattern of experiences that helped you learn and grow leave you feeling more likely to embrace challenges, and more confident about your college future?

Does your evidence that others are benefiting in ways that you do not result in you complaining and feeling less inspired to do those things that actually make you happy?

Does your belief that a dream school really is a realistic possibility prevent you from finding other less selective schools that interest you?

If you choose healthy and beneficial behaviors first, it will be easier to find the right stories to support them.

Giving kids agency

It’s a difficult balancing act for parents to help their kids develop the skills to be successful while simultaneously letting go enough to allow them to develop the agency to become capable young adults. If you’re a parent struggling with this challenge, give this 40-minute interview with author and former Stanford dean of freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims a listen. And if you’re unsure whether you’d benefit from the advice, the first minute alone might turn you around.