Behind the blog

I’ve been writing this blog every day since October 12, 2009. More than 3500 posts–in a row. And I’ve never missed a day.

I write every word myself, and I don’t take guest posts. I find both pressure and pride in owning every post myself.

I’ve never accepted any advertising. Any book or resource or expert that I tout here is based only on my own recommendation. Nobody can buy a mention on my blog.

I rely every day on the assistance of our managing editor at Collegewise, my friend and colleague, Mamie Cosentino. I am not a good copy editor when reviewing my own work, so before a post goes live, Mamie proofreads it and fixes my typos (when one slips through, it’s usually because I didn’t queue it in time for her careful review). But unless I write a sentence that’s incomprehensible, which happens occasionally, she leaves error-free writing untouched.

It will be a bittersweet day when I write my final post on October 12, 2019. I’ve invested hundreds and hundreds of hours in this blog. But it’s paid me back every day since I started. From the discipline to write every day, to the privilege of having a platform, to the joy of hearing from readers willing to share how one or many posts impacted them, I can’t imagine a practice that gives such a priceless return on a measurable investment.

There are plenty of worthy practices to consider trying. But for just about anyone, my advice would be the same: start a daily blog.

Freedom with responsibility

Today seems like the right day to remember two things:

The freedom to pursue a higher education at all is a gift that’s easy to take for granted.

That freedom also comes with a responsibility to value and appreciate the gift.

The opportunity to spend four years learning, growing, discovering your passions, having fun and preparing for a happy, successful life as an adult is a priceless one, but it will pass you by if you don’t do your part to extract the value. That’s a big responsibly, but one that’s worthy of the work and expense that propel your education.

You honor the freedom when you invite the responsibility.

Hard work in exchange for _________.

It feels good when you’re known as a hard worker. And with good reason. In just about any field, very few people are successful based on talent and luck alone. They do the hard work to get where they’ve arrived. That willingness to pair ambition with effort is also an important ingredient in developing a passion. It’s only through those consistent strides to get better that you discover the joy to be found in the pursuit of mastery.

But that doesn’t mean hard work is always good, especially if you’re treating the effort itself as the point of the exercise.

Too many working professionals will brag about their late nights and weekends spent working. They’ll respond to emails at all hours and remain attached to their phone, embracing these actions as part of what it takes to get ahead, as if the frenetic pace and absence of downtime are a sign of career success.

You see this at the high school level, too, with students who dutifully plow through classes, test prep, and a long list of activities, sacrificing their enjoyment and even health at the altar of hard work. But if you ask them about their favorite class or activity, or to describe what excites them about college, it’s as if they’ve been presented with a question that wasn’t on the study guide. They’re exerting effort for effort’s sake, without considering what all that effort is for.

They’ve laudably embraced the necessary work. But both the professionals and the high school students I’ve written about above are applying those efforts for the sake of the effort. They’re busy being busy.

I need to be clear here: I’m not suggesting that anyone should withhold effort unless there’s a guarantee of a successful result attached. But something needs to come of your effort other than the right to claim the effort itself. And those rewards can arrive in many different ways.

A cross country team that runs hard together all season and finishes fifth in the league finals can still look back on their season as an entirely worthwhile pursuit. The comradery built during the punishing workouts together is a reward. The pride in pursuing a sport as demanding as cross country is a reward. The sense of self-confidence, the learning around training and technique, and the health benefits–without the hard work, those team members wouldn’t have enjoyed any of the rewards. But the runners wouldn’t see or appreciate those if they found all the value in simply executing the hard work necessary to complete the season.

Wherever you’re exerting effort, it’s worth occasionally asking yourself exactly what’s being provided in return. It could be a tangible benefit, measurable success, a feeling, knowledge, connection, growth, experience, or even just fun.

But hard work in exchange only for the right to say you work hard? That doesn’t feel like a worthwhile exchange.

Pair learning with doing

Seth Godin’s recent post highlights the conflict we’ve created between learning and doing. Compulsory K-12 education involves a lot of learning without much doing.

“The thing we usually seek to label as ‘learning’ is actually more about ‘education’. It revolves around compliance, rankings and ‘will this be on the test?’… Being good at school is not the same as learning something.”

But college is a wonderful opportunity to both learn and do.

A student could major in business to learn about business. But college is also a place where you can intern at a business. You could run or even start a business, too. The more business you do, the more you’ll learn. The opportunities and even the assistance to do both will be available to you for four years.

You could study political science to learn it. But you could also volunteer on a campaign. You could run a campaign on campus. You could campaign for your own office within the student body. Pairing the learning with the doing will lead to the best results.

Psychology, computer programming, engineering, creative writing–whatever the area, if you approach your time in college as an opportunity to conflate learning and doing as equally important parts of your higher education, you’ll be far better positioned to take a fulfilling and successful next step after graduation.

Seniors, as you finalize your lists and begin taking your first application steps, consider how what you learn might bolster what you do in college. I’m not suggesting that you need to have identified a future career or even a major yet. But there is no better place than the right college campus to nurture your strengths, develop your interests, and satisfy your curiosities. And you’ll get more from the experience when you pair learning with doing.

For more on these topics, here are two past posts: (1) You can’t earn straight A’s in life, and (2) What can you actually Do?

Happier if you do

Dóra Guðmundsdóttir studies happiness and well-being at the population level. Her research uncovers how different groups within a country are faring and helps policymakers understand the needs of their citizens. And her work uncovered something interesting that might be a good lesson for both parents and students, as related in “What We Can Learn About Happiness from Iceland,” a recent piece in Greater Good Magazine:

“When we studied the effects of the banking system collapse in Iceland, we found that happiness among adolescents went up after the collapse, even though the happiness levels of adults went down. That’s because after the collapse, adults were working fewer hours, which meant parents had more time to spend with their adolescents. As it became easier for the adolescents to get emotional support from their parents, their happiness increased, even though working less may have resulted in a lower GDP [Gross Domestic Product] for the country.”

It’s worth mentioning that her research also found those who have trouble making ends meet have the lowest happiness score of all groups, so I don’t believe the intent of that insight is to encourage parents to ignore their jobs entirely to focus on their kids.

But what I found interesting was that there was no mention of parents having more time to manage homework, secure tutors, or drive other educational outcomes. They simply provided more “emotional support.” And while that support is undefined in this article, my guess would be that asking thoughtful questions, listening to the answers, and even just spending quality time together is a good start.

And teens, if your parents were to make themselves available to support you in ways that have nothing to do with preparing for the ACT, would you walk through that door? Will you give them more than the universal teen one-word answer? Will you actually tell them what’s on your mind, where you need advice, or what they could do to support you?

Research shows you’ll be happier if you do.

Mix up your meetings

Dr. Steven G. Rogelberg is a professor of organizational science, management, and psychology at UNC Charlotte and the author of The Surprising Science of Meetings. I’ll admit that when I first watched this short interview with Dan Pink, I initially dismissed Rogelberg’s three tips to make meetings more successful as being somewhere between impractical and silly. But I’ve since reconsidered and now realize that the overarching approach is one I agree with entirely. Just mix it up.

If your group has the same meeting on the same day and time in the same way every week, you’re sending a strong message: business as usual, same old thing, nothing to see here. How much good can we reasonably expect from that feeling? You’re a lot less likely to unlock original insight or new solutions to problems when every meeting is the same as the one before it and the one to come next.

Change the location. Ask people to write their proposals ahead of time. Serve interesting snacks. Act like a host and greet people. Have everyone stand. Schedule it for 48 minutes instead of an hour. Go around the room and ask everyone to share their highlight from the previous week. Do something different that surprises people, something that tells them this meeting won’t be the same as every other.

If it seems impractical or silly, I’d counter with this. Rogelberg says that there are 55 million meetings a day in the United States alone. How many of those attendees ever say, “That meeting was great!”?

You’ve got almost nothing to lose and the potential to gain a lot by mixing it up.

Round out the dish

One of the factors that increases anxiety around how to pay for college is this notion that the best way to get financial assistance is to find, apply for, and win scholarships. But that’s not where you’re most likely to find a financial boost.

When people talk about applying for scholarships, they’re usually referring to outside or private scholarships. These are little-known awards from private companies, foundations, community organizations, churches and other benefactors. But while there is money to be had from those sources, the largest percentage of scholarships comes from those provided by federal and state governments and from the colleges themselves. And the best way to access those funds is to apply to colleges where you have a very strong chance of admission, and to file the appropriate financial aid forms (which begins—and for many colleges, ends—with the FAFSA).

There’s nothing wrong with applying for outside scholarships. Every dollar in scholarships you win helps, and the more concerned you are about how to pay for college, the more important it is to seek all viable sources of assistance.

But those scholarships account for a very small slice of the overall financial aid pie. To focus all your efforts there would be like investing all your dessert making effort on the whipped cream. Whipped cream makes an excellent addition, but it can’t carry a dish alone.

Start by finding the colleges where your chances of admission are strong to certain. Then have your counselor vet the list. Follow each college’s instructions on applying for available aid. Submit your forms well before the deadlines. And throughout the process, apply for outside scholarships to round out the financial aid dish.

Left, right, left again

I’m currently engaged in a lesson with my four-year-old that every parent reader has taught their own kids—how to cross the street safely. We’ve practiced together under the safety of hands held: look left, look right, look left again. He’s pretty much got it down, but he still occasionally makes mistakes. So I’m letting him make them while keeping close watch within grabbing distance to prevent him from marching out into traffic.

I feel like this comparatively easy experience is emblematic of the parenting struggle that persists through the teen years. He’s not ready to do this by himself. To send him out there on his own would be negligent. But at some point, he’ll simply have to learn to do this without me holding his hand (that’s why you never see seventh graders crossing the street connected to a parent). And the critical step towards getting there is to let him make mistakes, but without abandoning my watch until he’s learned the skill. The mistakes are part of the learning. And I have to let him make them.

This short video featuring Challenge Success’s Madeline Levine reminds parents of this lesson. If we’re constantly stepping in and handling challenges for our kids, they won’t learn how to handle challenges that inevitably arrive without us close by. She relates the story of a freshman on the Stanford campus who can’t remember where her first class is and decides to solve that problem by calling her mother. That’s not a joke—this kind of thing happens all the time these days, even with the most accomplished kids on the most selective colleges’ campuses.

There’s no playbook telling parents exactly when to step in or step out. But when in doubt, give them some guidance and let them try. If the cost of failure is minimal, let them fail. If not, stay literally or figurately close by, ready to step in, but only if absolutely necessary.

It’s our job to keep them safe, but also to help them develop into capable young adults. And they’ll be more prepared for any obstacle when instead of relying on our hands, they rely on that challenge’s version of left, right, left again.

Where interest meets action

Cal Newport wrote in How to Be a High School Superstar:

“When admissions officers say they’re looking for students who show ‘passion,’ what they really mean is that they’re looking for the type of student who would appeal to an NPR talk show producer. That is, a student who could sit down and chat about a topic for thirty minutes and hold an educated audience’s rapt attention.”

He’s not implying that you need to be an expert on your particular interest, or that successful students have the presentation skills to hold an audience’s attention. He means that a student who volunteered for two Saturdays at a blood drive because it would look good on their college applications will run out of interview material a lot faster than a student who spent an entire summer working in an ambulance as an emergency medical technician because they had a genuine interest in doing so. One has demonstrated a passion, the other has not.

I’ve written before that interests make you interesting. Real interests are backed by real actions to pursue them. Whatever yours are, from writing poetry, to learning about the stock market, to cooking, repairing computers, or playing hockey, your passions are wherever the interest is met with the most action. And those are the very passions that should be highlighted on your college applications.

Future fodder

Every Friday, we pose a lighthearted “social question” to all of our colleagues at Collegewise. From “What’s the best concert you’ve ever attended?” to “Got a snack that you’re addicted to?” to “What were you best known for during your college years?” the replies always lead to revelations and more than a few chuckles. Participation is entirely optional, but we regularly hear from a healthy contingent.

The responses to last week’s question–“What did you get in trouble for as a kid?”–were particularly enjoyable. I’ll share a few here:

Threw a house party in high school. Got a bit out of control and the cops came to shut it down. I was grounded for a month. Totally worth it.

Talking. Constantly. My dad had to establish an elaborate bribing system of “dad dollars” that he printed from our Gateway computer to incentivize me to stop talking in class and stay out of trouble.

Sass. My son is paying me back.

I tried to flush lots of things down the toilet, from my mom’s new markers to my sister’s Walkman.

Painted the neighbor’s brand-new racing green Jaguar red. There is a reason why I ended up in boarding school.

Whether it was simply pushing the boundaries of physical safety by climbing anything and everything, or refusing to eat dinner’s vegetables until falling asleep at the table, or reading late past the designated bedtime, every one of their answers hovered somewhere between harmless and hilarious.

But I’ll bet they didn’t all seem that way when they occurred.

It’s easy to laugh about minor and even semi-major youthful transgressions when both the youth and the transgression are part of the past. Today, these Collegewisers are happy, successful, and yes, responsible adults. To my knowledge, none of them are throwing house parties at their parents’ homes or flushing others’ personal belongings down the toilet (though a few still read way past their bedtimes). The people they are today aren’t reflective of peccadillos from the past.

Parents, if you could imagine your teen of today as a happy, successful, fulfilled adult (who still visits regularly), how would you feel about whatever behavior is frustrating you today?

Would the less-than-enthusiastic approach to standardized test prep still drive you crazy?

Would a C on the biology exam send you into a state of panic and a search for the best local tutor?

Would the room that could vie for inclusion on an episode of Hoarders seem quite so disrespectful (albeit still disgusting)?

I’m not advocating that we parents move from strict to entirely slack. Part of good parenting means setting appropriate boundaries. It means being OK with our kids not liking us when we enforce the consequences. And if the innocuous moves to the dangerous or even illegal, there very well might be no funny story to be found, today or tomorrow.

But—and I’m working, often unsuccessfully, to do this myself—what if we imagined how this could be replayed 5 or 10 or 25 years from now? Will that transgression today make for a good story and maybe a few laughs as you look back tomorrow?

If so, maybe we could treat these situations not as something that costs us frustration in the present, but instead as something that will repay us with a good story in the future.

We might find the trouble less troublesome when we treat it like future fodder.