Different or differently?

Sometimes we get to choose what we do. But even when faced with an obligation that’s not our choice, we still get to choose how we do it.

It’s rare to experience all of these at once, but if you’re not:

Getting something worth doing done…
Changing someone or something for the better…
Learning, growing, or otherwise bettering yourself…
Making an impact that would make you missed if you stopped showing up…
Doing work you’re proud of…
Enjoying yourself…

Maybe it’s time to change things up?

When you reach that point, you might be able to pick a new commitment entirely. Or you can always change what you’re doing—and how you’re doing it—within that existing commitment.

If you’re feeling stuck, do something different, or do this thing differently.

Great mistakes

Some people don’t get to make mistakes. Pilots, heart surgeons, and skydivers—they need to get it right the first time, and every time after that. Those are not the people you ever want to tell you, “I’m going to try something new that might not work.”

But unless you’re facing potentially catastrophic consequences, you might be better off inviting mistakes than you are avoiding them.

Not the kind of mistake that happens because you just didn’t care or try enough. Those mistakes are harder to come back from. But the mistake that happened in spite of pairing good intent with equally good effort? As long as you extract the necessary learning from it, it’s hard to call that a bad mistake.

An essential element of greatness is the willingness to make great mistakes.

You are the “if”

Many students, particularly those with their hearts set on attending a college that turns away most of its applicants, are applying an if/then construct to their education and their future.

If I get in, then…

…all my hard work will have paid off.

…I’ll have a wonderful college experience.

…I’ll be successful in my career.

Three problems with the if/then approach:

1. It injects absurdly high pressure and stakes into the process.
2. It relies on a decision that the student doesn’t ultimately control.
3. It’s inherently flawed.

Data, studies, and anecdotal evidence have shown over and over again that students who attend highly selective colleges don’t necessarily enjoy better college experiences, emerge better educated, or prove to lead happier, more fulfilling, more successful lives than those who attend less famous schools. Giving any particular college that power means handing over almost all of your agency in your own future.

Some if/thens hold up. If you’re engaged in your education, if you’re curious, kind, and passionate, if you’re willing to take advantage of the staggering number of opportunities available to you at the right school (famous or not), then great things will happen to and for you.

But you, not your dream college, are the most important if.


It’s easy to feel motivated when the conditions are perfect, especially when there’s an encouraging outside voice cheering us on. But if you’re willing to bring your best effort only when you like the teacher, coach, boss, etc., you’re putting your motivation in someone else’s hands. And motivation is entirely too powerful an asset to hand over to anyone else.

The best motivation is always self-motivation.

“I did what I was asked to do”

There’s no shame in doing what you were asked to do. You can do a lot worse than being a compliant worker, colleague, teammate, etc. who can always be counted on to follow instructions.

But it’s not a role that’s likely to help you stand out.

If the best you bring is simply doing what you’re told, there’s a long line of people who will do exactly the same, and plenty of others who will do even more.

People who bring something extra—energy, insight, connection, etc.–and improve the experience for those around them.

People who make those around them better.

People who can find a way to solve the challenge other people haven’t solved yet.

People whose contributions and presence would be missed if they were gone.

People who can see what’s possible and rally others to that better future.

You don’t have to be in charge to be one of those people who find a way to bring more to what they’re doing rather than simply getting it done as instructed. For students looking for examples, here are two past posts, one describing five people you want to work with and another about a teenage part-time worker at a frozen yogurt shop who made himself indispensable as an employee.

You can do better than doing what you’re asked.

Five application management tips for parents

I spend a lot of time here reminding parents that your most important college-admissions-related job is to be the parent of your applicant. Love your student unconditionally. Remember that it’s all about them, not you. Cheer them on and don’t act like a lunatic on their behalf. During this stressful time, your kids need a parent who takes this job seriously.

But at some level, many parents are in fact managers of the college admissions process.

I hesitate to use the term “managers” because it can conjure up expectations that you’ll run the show—making every decision, tracking all the progress, and even hijacking the entire project from the student who needs to be driving it.

But it’s natural for a good parent to feel some sense of responsibility for their kid’s success. The cost of total college admissions failure, like missing all the deadlines or ending up with no colleges to attend, would be a lot to bear for both the student and parent. And much as great managers at work find ways to help their employees drive their own success without the manager being in the middle of it all the time, parents can strive to do the same thing with their college applicant in the house.

So here are a few management principles that can be applied productively for parents of college applicants.

1. Remind them of their strengths.
A great manager notices the unique strengths of each employee and then makes sure the employee both recognizes and deploys them well. Nobody knows your kids better than you do. But many people, not just teens, aren’t yet aware of those areas where they are at their best. So point them out. Have they always set high goals for themselves? Do they always seem to treat people well? Are they fearless about initiating new things, or able to meet new people easily, or so responsible that people look to them when the chips are down? This is the perfect time to not only point those strengths out, but also remind them that it’s these strengths that will make them successful at whatever college is lucky enough to get them.

2. Agree on expectations.
Does your teen know what you expect of them during this time? High expectations paired with unconditional love strike a good balance with kids. Do they know which parts of the process they’ll retain full responsibility for, and where they can expect help? Do they know how you define success? Have a conversation early about those expectations. And ask them about their own. How would they like this to go? What does success look like? What do they want to own and where do they feel they might need help? And as you have these conversations, please remember to keep the expectations focused on outcomes your teen can control. Progress, meeting deadlines, and communication with you are under their control. Admissions decisions are not.

3. Ask them, “How often would you like me to check in with you about your progress?”
This one is important. A great manager knows that some people need a lot more direction, feedback, and opportunities to ask questions than others do. So they start by asking, “How often would you like me to check in with you about your progress?” Notice that the manager presumes those check-ins will happen, but they give the employee the choice about how often. If your teen responds, “Please just let me handle it,” consider agreeing with that proposal conditionally. Ask them to check in with you at well-defined intervals that you agree on. The goal of these interactions should be to make your student feel supported, not directed.

4. Recognize and praise great work.
Nobody likes working for a boss who only chimes in to tell an employee what they’ve done wrong. And everyone likes to feel recognized for praise-worthy work along the way. Frequent praise done well not only motivates people, it also helps them bring out even more of what’s already working. Here’s a past post with some advice on how to praise effectively.

5. Confront poor performance early, but not punitively.
If an employee struggles to meet the expectations, a great manager intervenes early, and does so from a place of concern. They don’t necessarily do so at the very first wisp of difficulty, but they don’t let a struggling employee languish, either. So if you see your teen struggling, or creeping too close to deadlines, or outright ignoring the work you agreed together they would do, have a direct but nurturing conversation. Tell them you’re worried, express your desire to help, but remain vigilant in your commitment to let them retain ownership of their process.

Also, Patrick O’Connor just reposted his wonderful recommendations on this topic. I believe they work nicely alongside mine, though Patrick’s also involve pizza, which is certainly a bonus.

When to ignore bad reviews

Some of the best-selling books of all time have hundreds of one-star reviews on Amazon. From classics like Don Quixote and A Tale of Two Cities to contemporary works like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code, they’ve sold copies into the hundreds of millions. But they’ve also got their fair share of one-star reviewers who just didn’t enjoy the work at all.

The lesson: if you show your writing to enough people, someone will tell you they don’t like it. It’s true for Miguel de Cervantes, Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowling, and Dan Brown. And it’s true for students writing college essays.

If you show your college essay to an English teacher, a counselor, or someone with experience working in a college admissions office, I’d take any constructive criticism seriously. Even best-selling authors take feedback from experienced editors who know how to improve even already good writing and storytelling.

But if you insist on shopping your essay around to as many people as you can in the hopes that just a little more feedback from a few more readers will help you improve it, at some point one of those readers will give you a bad review. One bad review is easy to shake off if you’re an author who’s sold 200 million books. But it’s not so easy when you’re a teenager who’s applying to college.

Students, if you want to show your essay to your parents, friends, neighbors, etc., please do. It’s your essay, after all. But be clear what you’re asking for.

It’s one thing to ask, “Would you read my college essay and tell me what you think?” It’s another thing entirely to ask, “I finished my college essay and I’m really happy with it. Would you like to read it?”

Listen to the constructive criticism when you’ve asked the right question of the right people. But for everyone else, you’re best off ignoring bad reviews.

Perceived risk

I’m not sure I could ever summon the bravery to run into a burning building to save a stranger. That’s why I could never be a firefighter. As much as that news would have devastated me at age four, I’m comfortable with it today. That kind of courage is wiring I don’t have.

But I’ve noticed that confidence doesn’t seem to work that way.

Confidence can be built up over time. Giving a presentation, counseling a student, even taking a standardized test–you can become more confident simply by exposing yourself to the situation often enough that it loses its fear factor.

But confidence can also be summoned by acting as if you already have it. If you repeatedly make the choice to behave like a confident person, eventually, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m not suggesting that any of us can or should become different people. We’re not supposed to walk through the world unfazed by anything at all.

But if you’re holding yourself back from doing something because you’re just not confident enough, what would it look like if you acted as if you were? Chances are, you’ll be scared in the moment. But you’ll emerge unscathed in the worst case and exhilarated in the best case. Do that over and over again, and eventually it will become part of your makeup. What once felt risky will become second nature.

Confidence won’t make running into a burning building less dangerous. But it can do wonders for mitigating perceived risk.

Why teens need play time, too

If you’re a parent for whom the phrase “play time” has a frivolous connotation when applied to your teen, this ten-minute interview with Denise Pope of Challenge Success and Sandra Russ, clinical child psychologist and professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University, might change your mind.

They’re not advocating that kids sacrifice their ambition and work ethic so they can goof off with their friends. But Pope and Russ do remind us that play time is linked to creativity, stress release, and interpersonal skills, all of which are crucial factors to success before, during, and after college.

The first minute

The last minute does something pretty extraordinary for people. It forces us to act.

The deadline is here. The paper is due. Auditions are today. Just one spot left. When time runs out, tomorrow isn’t an option. Today is all that’s left.

But while the last minute is great for getting us going, it usually hurts the work. And it always causes stress.

What if we reversed it and behaved that way at the beginning? Instead of waiting to act until there is no other option, we can choose to act when there are hundreds of options. Hurry at the beginning and then polish at the end.

Quality goes up and stress goes down when you start in the first minute.