Find your personal “why”

During my ten years of daily posting, I’ve received a lot of well-intentioned but unsolicited blogging advice. And from running ads, to allowing comments, to writing headlines that were SEO-strategic, almost all of it ignored the reason I was blogging in the first place: I’ve enjoyed doing it.

Lesson #11 of my final 31 posts: Be clear with yourself about why you’re doing what you choose to do.

One of the reasons I’ve been able to keep blogging for so long is that I don’t measure it. I have thousands of loyal readers, but I’ve never paid regular attention to the number or tried any contorted plan to increase it. I don’t try to make money with it. I don’t have to check with anyone before I post. I don’t have to convince people to show up or to stay here. I realized early in the ten-year streak that I love writing this blog for the people who enjoy reading it. That’s why I do it. And anything that impedes my pursuit of that “why” isn’t worth embracing.

The cliché is true: there really are only so many hours in a day. And for any regular practice that takes your time and energy, it’s worth getting really clear about why you’re doing it. Maybe it’s because you have to, or you enjoy the comradery it brings, or you find the pursuit of getting better to be a thrilling practice. Maybe it’s just flat-out fun. Whatever the reason, finding your personal “why” for the things that you do can help you keep doing—or stop doing—it for the right reasons.

Unpredictable benefits

I’m still close friends with the first person I met at college. I met Craig the first day of our freshman year at UC Irvine when we moved into a dorm together. And yesterday, he forwarded me a social media post from our alma mater welcoming the class of 2023 to campus. Craig’s subject line to me: “30 years ago, this was us.”

Lesson #10 of my final 31 posts: Much of what you’ll find most valuable in college can’t be measured or predicted ahead of time.

I can’t say that I didn’t know that before I started blogging; I’d been telling families the same thing for years. But it’s become even more clear to me as one of the biggest benefits of my college experience has continued and even grown since I graduated.

In just the last ten years, I’ve gotten married. I’ve had two kids. I’ve celebrated selling and buying back a company. And I’ve experienced the first real personal loss of my life. Craig and my other closest friends from college have been there figuratively (and often literally) for all of it. To enjoy those relationships that began during our college years and continued as adults who are now on the edge of our fifties is like a recurring gift that my college keeps giving me.

I don’t think that anyone should attend college just to make friends (and I’m certain nobody should go into debt for that reason alone). But friendships are one of countless discoveries and potential benefits that await students at college but that can’t be predicted or evaluated like you can the size or location of the school. Those unpredictable rewards are one of the most important reasons why all of us at Collegewise preach that the most selective colleges don’t have the market cornered on wonderful college experiences.

Students and parents, as you progress through the college search and selection process, try to balance your astute research into the qualities you can evaluate with your resolute belief that some of the most enriching parts are there waiting to be discovered. The unpredictable benefits can impact your life as much or more than the degree will.

Craig’s son is now a senior in high school and a Collegewise student. We certainly couldn’t have predicted any of that when we moved into our tiny dorm room together 30 years ago, with no idea what was in store for us but excited to take the unpredictable journey.

Identify the controllable portion

My daily blogging streak began under personally and professionally trying circumstances.

In October 2009, Collegewise (and many of our families) had been hit hard by the recession. In less than ten months, we’d gone from being a thriving business to one struggling to keep our doors open. I knew that if we made it to the other side, the prospects of us reclaiming our footing and our customer base were certain—we’d always had a long line of delighted customers who were happy to refer us. But every day of that year felt like a personal fight to drag my sleepless self out of bed in the morning to face the day. I was running out of ideas, time, and money. And I was losing my confidence that we could weather the economic storm.

I still vividly remember sitting at my desk on October 12 of that year and making what became a ten-year decision: I would start blogging every day.

Not in the hope that it would solve our problems, and not as part of a complex marketing strategy that could somehow contribute to our business bottom line. It simply felt like something productive to do when I was running low on productive practices. Looking back, the decision was impetuous—it took me less than two minutes to make it. But I knew that no matter what happened, at the absolute minimum, I could end each day knowing that I’d made some kind of contribution I could feel good about, a small win every day at a time when the wins seemed few and far between.

Lesson #9 of my final 31 posts: During stressful times, focus on what you can control.

Much of the stress we feel is caused by circumstances we can’t control. Finances, health, family dynamics, work–when we’re confronted with difficult challenges without easy solutions, we lose our sense of agency over our own lives. And it’s precisely during those times when we need to recognize which parts of our situation are actually in our control, no matter how small, and then relentlessly focus there.

When we were in the throes of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, there was very little I could control. Other than making sure we kept taking care of our customers and continued to speak at any high school or community organization who invited me, I could only control how to spend the rest of my time. I’m not sure I realized it at the time, but in the face of an enormous problem, blogging was a way to grasp a tiny portion that was still in my control.

One of the reasons that the college admissions process has become so stressful for so many families is that they choose to focus on the outcomes that aren’t in their control. You can’t control that another student got picked for the lead in the school play. You can’t control that your SAT score didn’t go up as much as you’d hoped, or that you didn’t get an “A” in AP English, or that Swarthmore denied your admission.

You can absolutely control your effort and attention in pursuit of those outcomes. And you should maximize that control to align with the goals you’ve set for yourself. But you can’t control the outcomes themselves. And the more time you spend trying to worry or will your way into desirable endings that you don’t ultimately get to decide, the more stress you’re going to feel.

I’ve written frequently about this concept of focusing on what you can control during your journey to college–you can find a few past posts here, here, here, and here. If the college admissions process is feeling a lot more anxiety-inducing than it is enjoyable for your family, I encourage you to read them. I’ve found that one of the very best ways to bring some relief during a stressful time in your life is to find the controllable portion and then take control of it.

Focus is a secret weapon

 

Cal Newport is a professor at Georgetown who earned his PhD in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. He’s also the author of six books about how to be successful in high school, college, and a career. And in his recent blog post, he explains that while it’s common for computer programmers to write code that allows computers to perform multiple functions (he calls these “threads”) simultaneously, the human brain operates much differently.

From the “Our Brains Are Not Multi-Threaded:”

“Something I’ve noticed is that many modern knowledge workers approach their work like a multi-threaded computer program. They’ve agreed to many, many different projects, investigations, queries and small tasks, and attempt, each day, to keep advancing them all in parallel by turning their attention rapidly from one to another — replying to an email here, dashing off a quick message there, and so on — like a CPU dividing its cycles between different pieces of code…This is all to say that the closer I look at the evidence regarding how our brains function, the more I’m convinced that we’re designed to be single-threaded, working on things one at a time, waiting to reach a natural stopping point before moving on to what’s next.”

Lesson #7 of my final 31 posts: The best way to produce great work consistently is to eliminate distractions and focus intensely on the job at hand.

“Multi-tasking” has long enjoyed a positive connotation, as if someone who chooses to do multiple things at once is somehow smarter, harder working, more effective, etc.

But the truth is that you produce much better work—and more of it—when you focus intensely on the job at hand and do so without distractions. Newport’s own work and many other research studies have shown that our brains simply aren’t wired to handle multiple inputs at once. Yes, we have the ability to multi-task if we want to. Sometimes we have to do it (if my wife and I didn’t multi-task in the morning we would never get ourselves and our two young kids out the door on time). But when you’re studying, writing, researching, or doing any other work that requires real thinking, asking your brain to do more than one thing is like asking your body to juggle while you jog.

To get the real benefits, you can’t just turn your focus on—you’ve also got to turn your distractions off. Your phone, email, all the literal bells and whistles are like sirens luring your focus away from the work and towards distraction. If you don’t shut them down (even just temporarily so you can get 30-60 minutes of uninterrupted work time), they’ll inevitably interrupt you just when you’re getting into your flow.

If you’re looking to produce better work (or get better grades) in less time, intense focus is a secret weapon. And it’s available to anyone willing to use it.

Here’s a past post sharing Newport’s simple formula for producing high-quality work, another post from Newport on how to apply your focus to studying, and a final one from Eric Barker with four tips from research to help you stop checking your phone.

Work is personal for the person doing the work

For counselors and admissions professionals attending the NACAC conference in Louisville next week, I’ll be presenting the following session on Thursday and would love to say hello in person.

Engaging and Delighting your Staff
 Thursday, Sep 26 3:15 p.m. – 4:15 p.m.
Location: Ballroom C (Career Hub)

Since founding Collegewise over 20 years ago, the single thing I’m most proud of is the people who call our company their professional home. They’re smart, interesting, and exceptionally talented. They find so many ways to add value here beyond just doing their jobs (which they do very well). They’re constantly reaching out to help colleagues, initiating new projects, taking responsibility and deflecting credit. Each day, they leave work a little better than they found it.

I’ve had people from schools and companies observe our remarkable Collegewise colleagues and ask me: “How do you motivate them?” The real answer is that we don’t motivate them. We hire people who were already motivated before they arrived here.

But we have consciously made an important choice—we view and treat each employee as an individual person. Not a number. Not an asset. Not a resource to be deployed in a way that best helps us. But a unique individual with talents that, when paired with the right opportunity, can help them discover their potential.

We don’t get it right all the time. We make mistakes. But I think our remarkable assembling of people here is proof that we’re doing something right for them and for us. And in this session, I’d like to share a little bit about how we do that.

My session takes place right after the opening speaker on Thursday. I hope I’ll see you there.

Lesson #7 of my final 31 posts: Work is personal for the person doing the work.

“It’s not personal—it’s just business.”

I don’t buy it. If there’s a human being involved, it’s personal.

If someone is laid off due to budget cuts, it’s the person, not a business, who has to go look for another job. If you abruptly cancel a project a team has been working on for months, it’s those people, not the business, who feel the casual disregard of all the work that will never come to fruition. If you treat an employee like one replaceable part in a much larger business machine, expect that they’ll treat the job as a replaceable function to be tossed aside as soon as a better offer comes long.

Of course it’s personal. It’s always personal for the person doing the work. Instead of running away from that truth, why not run towards it? Treat people like the individual human beings they are, with unique strengths, talents, goals, and challenges. Help them learn and grow. Show them that their opinions matter. Demonstrate your care for them as a person, not as someone just filling a role.

When you make work more personal, you get the best from the person doing the work. And that’s good for both the person and the business.

Learning by doing is underrated

I’ve always considered myself a good writer. I was raised by an English teacher who gave me good genes and good examples. I majored in English in college. I’ve used my writing to open doors, to get access to opportunities, and to rally the groups I was part of or leading. Ten years ago, if you’d asked me to name something I felt I was good at, writing would have been at or near the top of the list.

But when I go back and read any of my oldest blog posts, many of them make me wince. Too many words. Too long to get to the point. Too many sentences that should have been more tightly edited. I don’t even recognize the writer who penned many of those entries a few thousand posts ago.

Since starting this blog, I’ve never taken a writing (or blogging) class. I’ve never reached out to a successful blogger and asked for writing advice. I’ve never taken steps to learn how to get better at this. I just wrote. Every single day, at least one entry a day, for ten years.

I’m not implying that my little blog entries are channeling anything Hemingway-esque. Every day, I read authors and bloggers whose writing is much better than mine. And I suspect the posts I’m writing today would make me cringe ten years from now if I kept this practice up.

But while I’ve got plenty of room left to get better, nothing has ever made the demonstrable writing difference like simply writing every day has. Done regularly over time, incremental improvements begin to add up.

Lesson #6 of my final 31 posts: Learning by doing is underrated.

One of the many advantages of the technologically infused world we live in is that the obstacles on the path to actually doing something have been lessened or outright removed.

If you want to write for an audience, you don’t need a book proposal or an agent or a publisher. Blogs, shareable PDFs, email newsletters–they are all there waiting. You can start writing without going through a gatekeeper.

If you want to be a leader, you don’t need to get elected to a leadership position. Find a cause or goal that other people care about, stand up, and offer to lead them towards the place you all want to go.

If you want to learn how to play guitar or paint with watercolors or restore a vintage Chevy truck, the internet has all the lessons you need to get started almost immediately.

If you want to make films, don’t start by strategizing how to get a job as a production assistant in the entertainment industry someday. Just grab a camera (even your phone will do) and start making films. Do those films entertain your friends and family? Does anybody want to share them with others? If you put them on YouTube, do viewers show up, view, and share them? If the answer is “no,” make different films. Shoot from different angles. Write different scripts or provide different direction or try a new approach until something resonates with an audience. The curve might feel steep. But the learning and the subsequent strides will be significant.

Whatever it is that interests you, there are fewer barriers than ever before to getting started. And one of the best ways to learn something is to actually do the thing you want to learn.

Nobody gets there alone

Through college and my 25 years since becoming an official adult with a full-time job, almost everyone I’ve met or known who achieved significant, sustained success simultaneously helped a lot of other people along the way.

Whether it was pitching in to help with a project, acting as a mentor, deflecting credit, or even just offering occasional advice, if there’s a long line of people who can say about you, “You really helped me in a way that made a difference,” you’ll almost certainly have achieved a level of success you can be proud of.

I don’t necessarily mean that you should cast aside personal or professional ambition in the name of helping others. But you can be simultaneously wildly ambitious and unrelentingly helpful. In fact, those instincts harmonize together.

Lesson #5 of my final 31 posts: Nobody gets there alone.

Whatever your goals or definition of success, your chances of getting where you want to go will almost certainly involve others at times, maybe even frequently. The teacher who gives you extra help. The teammate who pushes you in practice. The colleague who steps in to help when you’re in the work weeds. We all need other people to occasionally be the wind at our backs.

And the more regularly you’ve helped others get to where they want to go, the more people you’ll have standing by at the ready when you need someone to help you along your own way.

Here’s a past post with more on this topic.

Reversing the sleep deprivation trend

A new study from the Journal of Community Health shows that the number of adults sleeping less than six hours each night has risen from 30% in 2010 to 35% in 2018. UC Berkeley neuroscience professor Matthew Walker, a sleep expert, tweeted in response to the study, “This is unsustainable chronic sleep deprivation for maintaining human health.” And the physical and mental side effects for teens similarly sleep deprived are even worse.

Lesson #4 of my final 31 posts: Lack of sleep is a dangerous practice that makes you miserable today and also shortens your life tomorrow.

This is something I did not understand ten years ago. I’d always carried some pride as someone who could sleep 5-6 hours a night and seemingly function just fine. I’d reserve focused effort to get a good night’s sleep for occasions that merited it, like a big presentation or event the following day.

But since I’ve started writing this blog and consequently had to find interesting things to write about for parents and teens, I’ve consistently come across articles, studies, and, most notably, this book that have completely changed my perspective. Regular good sleep is imperative to good physical and mental health. It deserves to be prioritized and protected. This is not an opinion. It’s science. And it’s one of those areas where our society is trending in the wrong direction. It’s time to reverse the trend, especially with teens.

If you want to have more energy, perform better at school or work, reach your potential, be happier, healthier and live a longer life, make a full night’s sleep (which Walker defines as at least 8 hours) a regular priority.

What are you noticing?

In 2007, I took a leap and checked an item off of my life’s bucket list: I entered a stand-up comedy competition.

To be clear, there was no audition. All you had to do to enter the contest was 1) have a working pulse and 2) write your name on a sign-up sheet. But I went for it. My friends all showed up to support me at the big show. And over the next four weeks, I actually managed to progress several rounds before the far more talented comedians went on to the finals.

I loved being on stage and making people laugh. But here’s what I didn’t love: spending all day every day asking, “Could that be funny?”

Stand-up comics are always looking for material. Is that funny? Could it be funny? How could I turn this thing I just thought or saw or experienced into something funny? That’s the job. It’s what a good comedian does. But I didn’t enjoy examining everything in my life through the lens of what was or might be funny. I found it exhausting. And it took away from my ability to notice and appreciate things that were more important to me.

Daily blogging inspired a similar behavior with a very different result.

Since beginning this blog ten years ago, at least once a day, I have to notice something that might be helpful or interesting enough to write about it. I can’t even begin to calculate how many hours I’ve spent over the last ten years noticing and consequently sharing information that intrigues me. Some days what I share is a lot more important or profound than other days. But the daily practice is one that’s made me a better observer, thinker, communicator, student, parent, and colleague. It’s why daily blogging is as selfish an act as it may also be a generous one. I get plenty out of this practice, too.

Lesson #3 of my final 31 posts: What you choose to notice every day influences your behavior.

We all have near limitless information streaming our way every day. But our brains have limited resources. We can’t take in everything around us and parcel out attention equally. We get to choose what we notice. And those choices have very real consequences. They can make us feel happier, more informed, more relaxed, more fortunate, etc., or they can make us resentful, over-invested in things that don’t matter, anxious, less fortunate, etc.

Not everyone has the luxury to ignore what might be difficult in their lives, especially if they’re experiencing real hardship. But we all get to make choices throughout the day about what’s worth paying attention to. And those choices have side effects. If you want to change the side effects, change what you’re choosing to notice.

It’s worth checking in regularly and asking yourself: (1) What am I choosing to notice every day, and (2) is that practice making my life better, or worse?

Tips for using our Common App Guide

Yesterday, we released the 2019-20 version of our annual Collegewise Guide to the Common Application—it’s available here for free to anyone who wants it. But without the necessary context, more guidance and instruction can often increase rather than relieve stress. So for students, parents, and counselors, here are some suggestions to help you make the most of the advice we’ve shared inside.

Students

If you haven’t started your Common App, keep our guide handy and consult it as you progress through your application. It will be like having an expert over your shoulder to help you get it right the first time.

If you’ve already finished your Common App and have moved onto the revising and editing stage, use our guide to do a line-by-line review before you submit.

And if you’re happy with your overall application but just want some advice around a particular section or two, our guide can probably help you.

Parents

Kids should always complete their own college applications even if a parent will review them. But if you’re a parent and the official application reviewer in the household, our guide can help you assess where your student might need to do some additional application work before submitting. And more importantly, it will also give you a sense of which sections are strong enough as-is, which brings a great opportunity to give your student some boost-inducing praise.

High school counselors

  • New to counseling and to the Common App? Spend an hour with our guide and you’ll transform from rookie to expert.
  • If you’re an experienced counselor who’d like to brush up on your Common App knowledge, our guide will help you rediscover your expertise.
  • Do your students come to you with questions about the Common App? Keep a link to, or an actual copy of, our guide nearby and use it whenever you need a second opinion.
  • Share it with colleagues, teachers, and students.
  • Post the link on your website or in your student newsletters.

Independent counselors

  • Our guide will teach you exactly what to look for when reviewing your students’ Common Applications.
  • Share the link with your students for them to use at home while they complete their applications.
  • Our guide makes a great training tool when bringing new partners or employees up to application speed.

Continuing on my promise to spend my final month posting one lesson learned during this ten-year blogging streak, here’s day #2 of 31:

Good enough is “Good. Enough.”

We were really proud of version 1.0 of our Common App guide when we released it in 2011. But it wasn’t perfect. It looked like an amateur designed it (which was accurate—I was the designer). There were sections where we could have gone into more detail. The images could have been clearer. We probably could have shortened the overall length with additional editing. But we’d already spent dozens and dozens of hours creating the guide from scratch, then refining and revising. It already did everything we needed it to do. And to hold onto it even longer in the quest for perfection would have doomed us to an inevitable loop of changes that had long since left improvements behind. Once it was good enough, we released it. It was: Good. Enough.

“Good enough” can mean a haphazard, lazy excuse to release something unworthy of your time and effort. But used effectively, it can also help you push through the unsubstantiated fear that people won’t like what you’ve made unless you make it perfect. “Perfect” is a mirage. You can chase it but you won’t grasp it. It lets you off the hook of finishing. It starts as a laudable goal but eventually morphs into an excuse disguised as drive.

It doesn’t matter how good, great, or perfect something is if nobody gets to see, use, or benefit from it. Good enough won’t let you off the hook like perfect will. Embracing good enough helps you get the project out the door.

Our original guide wasn’t perfect, and neither were any of the subsequent ones. But each gets better than the last. We’re happy with good enough. And thankfully, plenty of others seem to be too.

If you want to produce better work (or college applications), try freeing yourself from the quest for perfect. Then work like crazy until you hit “Good. Enough.”