Do less and obsess

Morten Hansen, management professor at UC Berkeley, just released his new book, Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve MoreThis clip of his interview with Dan Pink is just one minute long, but he shares one of the vital secrets he writes about in the book—top performers “do less and obsess.” They pick 2-3 things that matter most and hyper-focus on them. Interestingly, this is also one of the central hypotheses of study skills author Cal Newport’s book How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out).

Most high school students don’t have the luxury of picking just one thing to obsess about. But there’s a good chance you could do less. If you’ve got activities that aren’t paying you back with fun or learning, if you’re sprinting from commitment to commitment with no real time to dive in and make a real impact, if your description of your life begins and ends with “busy,” it’s probably time to make some room in your life to obsess about the things that matter most to you. And the first step towards this healthy obsession is to do less.

You can learn more on Hansen’s website about the book and about his work.

You first

Here’s another trait you’ll notice about students—and adults—who are successful at getting where they want to end up. They go first.

They don’t wait for someone to ask. They don’t wait until it’s broken, or someone’s upset, or until there’s just no option left but to finally do something. They just step up and go. First.

Raise your hand. Reach out. Offer to help. Volunteer. Fix or change or improve something. Step in. Take responsibility. Make the choice to go first before that choice is taken away.

You can call it showing initiative, being proactive, leading, etc. But it almost always boils down to just going first.

Best of all, anyone—from the A student to the C student—can do it.

You can even start today. Go first.

Time, attention, and care

We’re currently hiring for a number of open positions at Collegewise. And every time we do, we’re in the lucky position to receive dozens—often hundreds—of applications for each opening. Even after we delete those who clearly didn’t read the ad (many of whom appear to be applying for an entirely different job at a different company), we’re still left with far more qualified applicants than we can possibly hire. But no matter how big the volume of interest may be, we try as best we can to remember that behind each application is a real human being who sat down and took the time to show an interest in us.

Applying for a job can be a demoralizing experience for even the most qualified applicant. Often, companies don’t bother to respond or even acknowledge the application. And if communication arrives to share news that the applicant was not selected, it’s often impersonal, recycled messaging.

When people are reduced to electronic files that show up in an inbox, it’s easy to forget that there are human beings behind those PDFs. We think that if someone shows us the consideration of investing time and attention into an application, one that shows they were genuinely interested in our job and not just a job, we owe them not just a personal and thoughtful consideration, but a reply that reflects just that, no matter the outcome.

Seniors, as you receive your decisions from colleges, especially those who asked you to invest a lot of time and attention writing essays, securing letters of rec, interviewing, etc., you should know that while the communication may not be personal, the evaluation most certainly is. We have dozens of former admissions officers working at Collegewise who recount their time poring over every application, every letter of rec, every essay, just to make sure that each application was given a fair and thorough read. They tell us about the committee discussions, the (often heated) debates as they lobbied for their chosen admits, the joy they felt when a kid they knew deserved it got the nod, and the frustration of knowing that a student they were sold on would still be getting bad news.

Admissions decisions often don’t make sense to outsiders. People might tell you that it’s an arbitrary, almost random process. There’s some truth in the claim that admissions isn’t an exact science. But every admissions officer I’ve met or had the pleasure of working with was someone who took their job and their responsibility to applicants very seriously. The adults behind the decisions never forget that there are kids behind the applications.

It’s a personal and sometimes imperfect process. But you can almost certainly be sure that the people making the decisions are doing so with time, attention, and care.

Why present perfection?

I’ve often tried to remind students here that, even in the application eyes of the most selective colleges, perfection is not a realistic goal. Humans have weaknesses, flaws, and things in this world that we’re just flat out not good at. And even more importantly, acknowledging those imperfections is a lot more endearing than presenting a picture to the world—and to colleges—that’s just too perfect to be true.

This month’s edition of the Basecamp podcast tackles this very topic from the perspective of individuals, businesses, and even email communication. As they say in the introduction:

Imperfections are real, and people respond to real. Sometimes being genuine can count for a lot more than being perfect.

Here’s the link for those who’d like to listen.

Help them help you

There’s a great scene in the movie Jerry Maguire where sports agent Maguire, frustrated with his lone client’s stubborn refusal to take his advice, pleads, “Help me help you!”

The actors play the exchange comically, but there’s an underlying truth in Maguire’s message.

Most successful students get help on their way to college. Teachers, counselors, tutors—whomever you’re relying on to help you accomplish your goals and get where you want to go, remember that they can’t do it for you. You have to help them help you.

Some students sit back and passively hope the help will magically intervene. They wait for their counselor to seek them out to talk about college. They let their struggle in a particular class drag on and then ask for extra credit to raise their grade. They sit through their tutorial sessions but their mind is somewhere else.

But the students who lean into their help are doubling down on efforts to improve their situation. They seek out the help, they bring their attention and preparation to the exchange, and they embrace, rather than abdicate, responsibility for the outcome.

Best of all, the ability to make the most of your help isn’t dependent on your GPA, test scores, or your accolades on your resume. It’s a benefit that’s available to anyone willing to give enough to take advantage of it.

Ask for help, sure. Then do your part to help them help you.

Self-feedback first?

Do you want honest, useful feedback to help improve your performance, presentation, assignment, etc.? Not applause to tell you how great you are, but advice that will actually lead you to the outcome you’re hoping for? One way to get it might be to evaluate yourself first, and to be critical when you do.

This month’s issue of Wharton professor Adam Grant’s newsletter suggests that you preface your request for feedback by acknowledging your own strengths and weaknesses. It’s a technique he’s used with his students, and witnessed in one of the most successful executives in tech.

“I’ve watched Sheryl Sandberg [COO of Facebook] do this so effectively. As she became more senior in her career, she noticed that people were more reluctant to criticize her. So she started opening meetings by talking about what she was working on. A common one: ‘I know I can speak too much in meetings—please tell me if I am.’ Suddenly her colleagues felt safe giving that feedback, because she asked for it. And after the meeting, she followed up to get more feedback.”

Parent/student roles

Parents, as college decisions arrive for your applicant in the house, eliciting everything from jubilation to (temporary) despair, the single most important thing I can remind you is this:

It’s not happening to you. It’s happening to your student.

You may feel thrilled, upset, angry, confused, frustrated, etc. on their behalf. That’s completely normal considering you’ve spent the last 18 years raising this young person. And I would never recommend that a parent disengage or present as if they’re unaffected by any of the news.

But please remember your job during this potentially stressful time is to be the parent of a college applicant. To do that job effectively requires that you distinguish between two very different roles—the parent and the applicant.

To play your role well, you have to let your student play theirs.

On the value of internships

For students who may be considering pursuing an internship as a means of increasing experience, building a resume, or gaining a college admissions advantage, here are a few guidelines to help you make a good choice, and hopefully land a good opportunity.

1. Remember that your efforts to secure the internship are part of the learning.
Some of the most valuable internship learning takes place before you ever start the gig. How did you find the opportunity? What was the application and interview process like? How did you convince the organization you were worth taking an internship chance on? If you seek out, apply for, and secure an internship yourself, you’ll learn these lessons. If your parent or someone else does all the work and just tells you when and where to show up, you won’t. Don’t assume that fancy sounding internship you have handed to you is more impressive than a lesser known opportunity you found and secured yourself.

2. Get as close as you can to the product, service, or customer.
There is no shame in filing, sweeping floors, getting coffee, etc. But it’s even better if you can get an internship where your role is more central to what the organization does. One way to find those opportunities is to go where other interns don’t. Countless high school students try to get internships at hospitals or law firms. But how many search for opportunities at free clinics or legal aid centers that specifically work with disadvantaged populations? The tech giant in town probably won’t let you test the product before it ships. But the small upstart company down the road just might. A Collegewise student I worked with wanted to major in journalism, and rather than pursue an opportunity at the major newspaper everyone read, she went straight for her small town community paper where she went from fact-checking stories, to copy-editing, to penning her own weekly column in less than six months.

3. Consider creating your own internship.
An internship is usually a defined role an organization has planned for and made the decision to fill with an eager person. But just because an opportunity isn’t posted publicly doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t create one for the right candidate. Consider what you have to offer, find a place that might benefit, and pitch your services. Can you build websites? Fix computers? Translate Spanish and English? Proofread? Organize what’s disorganized? Research online? Make minor repairs? I promise you that there’s an organization nearby that would happily accept your services a few hours a week. Reach out, be specific about what you can do and how much time you’re willing to commit, and ask if they’ll give you a shot for two weeks to prove you can make a difference. Even if they say no, they’ll be impressed with your teenage gumption.

4. Use your opportunity as a springboard.
When you begin an internship, you’re an unproven commodity. Your job is to change that perception, and even better, to become someone the boss or team or organization just couldn’t live without. The best opportunities in the future come to those who make the most of their current opportunities. You may not intend on staying past your agreed upon tenure. But if you do the kind of work that invites more responsibility, more experience, and more trust, you’ll learn—and perhaps even earn—even more than you originally planned. Here’s a past post about how to thrive in a part-time job. I think it applies to just about any opportunity.

5. Do it for the right reasons.
There are a lot of good reasons to consider getting an internship. Here’s a bad one if it’s the only one—to put it on your college application. Yes, colleges will be impressed by real commitment, especially one that aligns with what I’ve advised above. But if you’re just doing it because you’ve heard that colleges look favorably on internships, and if you’d really rather be playing in a recreational softball league or working at an ice cream shop or taking self-defense classes, why turn away from what’s clearly a better fit for you? Internships aren’t more or less compelling to colleges than any other involvement that you care about, commit to, and make an impact on during your time there. If you get an internship that goes well, list it proudly on your application. But as you make decisions about how to spend your time, remember that just about every college would tell you that they don’t have a prescribed list of recommended activities. That leaves the door wide open for you to choose things you want to do, whether or not an internship makes that list.

A good time to start stopping?

Parents, will you be regularly doing any of these things for your high schooler this year?

  • Making key decisions about how they spend their time?
  • Arguing with the adults (teachers, counselors, coaches, etc.) in your student’s life?
  • Lobbying to get them what they want?
  • Checking (or even doing) their work for them?
  • Cleaning up any residue from their failures?
  • Securing their desired opportunities for them?

Now consider the same questions again–not whether you’ll do them this year, but whether you’ll do them forever.

If not forever, maybe this year is a good time to start stopping?