Start at zero

Students, if you’re constantly feeling frantic, overscheduled, and just plain too busy, try using zero-based budgeting to allocate your expenses of time.

Traditional budgeting presumes that whatever you spent money on last quarter or last year belongs in your new budget. If you spent $500 last year on your cell phone bill, you assume that you’ll once again spend that same money, maybe even a little more, this year.

But zero-based budgeting starts from scratch. It forces you to scrutinize every proposed expense, both new and old. Is there a cheaper cell phone plan? Could you take steps to decrease the monthly cost? Do you even need a cell phone at all? Zero-based budgeting asks those questions. And starting at zero often leads to new, more informed decisions.

If you analyzed all your time expenditures, would they pass the zero-based budgeting scrutiny?

That time you spend reading and replying to comments on your social media?

The test-prep you’re doing again in the hopes of raising your score just a bit more?

That recurring club meeting you attend every Tuesday?

The twice-a-week trigonometry tutoring to boost you from your B+ to an A-?

Sometimes just asking the question leads to more efficient spending.

Remember, zero-based budgeting doesn’t presume or recommend the criteria to evaluate your expenses. It only requires that you re-examine and decide again. You might decide that the 45 minutes a day you spend watching YouTube videos is worth the expense because you enjoy it, because there’s no measuring or stress associated, or because you’re guaranteed to laugh or learn or just flat-out have fun. If so, it’s earned a place in your budget. But you don’t spend it again just because you’ve spent it before. It has to pass the scrutiny of zero-based budgeting first.

There really are only 24 hours in a day, and many of them are already spoken for. Sleeping, eating, attending school, homework–plenty of line items will be in your budget simply because you cannot take them out without consequences you can’t afford. But you get to decide how to allocate those expenditures of time that you do control. If you’re finding yourself spending that time simply because you’ve always spent if before, take a new approach and start at zero.

Back-to-school tips for parents and students

Parents, as your kids head back to school, consider investing 50 minutes listening to this interview with Denise Pope (senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success) about how to raise well-balanced kids who are engaged in their learning. If you’d prefer the bullet-point version, here are Challenge Success’s “Top Ten Back-to-School Tips to Help Your Child Thrive.”

And here’s a past post of mine, “Back to school: greatest hits edition,” with links to advice for parents, high school students, and college students.

On intellectual humility

Some of the most desirable traits a student can demonstrate during high school aren’t measured by a grade or test score. And in fact, some might even seem confusingly at odds with boosting college admissions candidacy. Intellectual humility is a prime example.

Students receive the message early in their high school careers that intellectual strength, achievement, and even mastery are what set you apart. Get top grades. Earn academic honors or awards. Secure strong letters of recommendation. This is how you show colleges that you’ve got the intellectual rigor to handle the workload. It feels incongruous to suggest that students should also be open and honest about what they don’t know, and that their awareness of those subjects or topics they don’t have a firm (or any) grasp on actually shows strength of mind, not a shortcoming of it.

But students, remember that colleges are institutions of higher learning. You’re there to expand, challenge, and nourish your mind. And much like the person who walks up to a buffet eager to feed their appetite, the student who walks into college eager to feed their mind is a lot more likely to take advantage of the boundless intellectual spread in front of them.

So don’t be afraid to demonstrate that humility. Ask questions in class. Seek further understanding beyond just earning a grade. Demonstrate in your college applications that your intellectual abilities don’t outpace your willingness to admit what you don’t know.

You can’t possibly know everything, and colleges don’t expect that of you. But a healthy dose of humility shows that you’re eager to use all those abilities in pursuit of knowledge you don’t currently have.

Here are two past posts of mine, here and here, on intellectual humility. And if you’d like some help developing this trait, Dan Pink just shared a two-minute video that might help.

The days are long, but the year is short

As a parent of two children under five, I’ve found that some advice I hear from other parents is sound in principle but difficult to follow in practice, especially when those with older children remind me:

“Enjoy every moment.”

“Soak it in. It all goes by so fast.”

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

They’re right, of course. There’s something special about that time in a parent’s life when you’re the center of your little one’s world, when their first instinct so frequently is to run, talk, or look to you for everything.

But it’s not always easy to embrace that lesson when you’re in the middle of it. You’re tired. You’re frazzled. Some days you might even yearn for the older and less dependent age to come in the future. It’s natural to miss the concept of me-time and free-time that seems to have gone by the wayside since your kids arrived.

Intellectually, I understand the day will come when I’ll want to travel back in parental time to where I am right now. But as much as I know I should make every effort to enjoy this time, there are plenty of days when I feel like I’m experiencing the throes of parenting rather than the joy of it.

If you have a student who will soon be applying to college, you’re likely experiencing something similar.

The college admissions process has a way of distorting what’s really important. That one grade, that one test score, the pressure and anxiety and confusion that surrounds the process–it’s perfectly natural to feel like you’re in survival mode, just battening down the home hatches until the application storm passes later next spring.

But much like the early years of parenting, a focus on just getting through it can ruin the opportunity to actually enjoy a time that won’t be coming back.

One year from now, your senior will likely be departing for college, with all the tectonic family shifts that come with it. Do you want to look back on the next 12 months as one long march filled with anxiety, project management, head-butting and hand-wringing? Or would you rather take a breath and relish this time as your young adult prepares to leave the nest?

The same sense of longing you feel looking back at their younger years can be channeled into joy while looking forward to their future years. Raising a mature, capable, responsible adult who’s ready to go to college is a pride-worthy achievement for a parent. Why not enjoy it? Why not soak up the opportunity to watch your once dependent child take some of their most important independent steps? And most importantly, why not embrace the lessons you might impart on a new parent like me and make every effort to appreciate this as the remarkable time that it is?

Put a different way: How many days are left until your teen departs for college? You don’t need to calculate the answer to embrace the lesson.

The days may be long, but trust me, this year will feel short.

Scorekeeping

In my life before Collegewise, I worked for a test preparation company that, while preparing students for standardized tests, was also an outspoken critic of the exams. As the CEO used to say, “We judge a test by the behavior it inspires.” I’ve never met a student who was more intelligent, curious, kind, thoughtful, or interesting just as a result of preparing for and taking the SAT. But I’ve met plenty who were spending far too much time, energy, money and mental energy, often at the expense of their happiness and available free time. The SAT is a bad test because the behavior it inspires is not particularly inspiring.

You can also evaluate the behavior inspired by just about any kind of scorekeeping.

For example, I’ve noticed that some students do an awful lot of keeping score during the high school years. Ask them what they’ve been up to, or what their favorite class is, or what they’re most proud of, and the answer will involve a comparison to another student.

Not just what grade they earned, but how their performance stacked up against the rest of the class. Not just the pride in their accomplishment, but why the comparison to the competition makes the goal so notable. “Compared to what or whom?” is always implied.

If scorekeeping helps you do your best work, great. Some people are motivated by the framing of comparison. But for most of us, the constant measurement against others only begets more measurement, not better work or better feelings.

There’s plenty of scorekeeping and measurement imposed on high school students these days without adding more of it into your life. If the scores you’re keeping aren’t inspiring behaviors that bring out the best in you, maybe it’s time to consider a different measure?

What can you do without asking?

If you decided to surprise your family tomorrow morning by cooking breakfast, my guess is that you wouldn’t need to ask for permission first. Even if you burn the toast beyond recognition, it’s hard to get angry with someone for doing something so nice. The thought and the resulting generous action are what count.

If you’re looking for more responsibility, more credit, more ways to stand out, etc., look at the ways you’re spending your time and ask, “What could I do without asking?” Not a selfish act that only benefits you, but a generous one that benefits everyone involved.

There’s no long line of competition to beat, no selection process, no need to get picked for this kind of contribution. All you have to do is see a need or opportunity and then show up.

Your summer class, your part-time job, your martial arts class, your workout with the cross country team–if you make a habit of trying to give more, chances are you’ll start getting a lot more back in return.

Sometimes the best opportunities are those things you can do without asking.

Beginning anew

One of the best things about New Year’s Day is the feeling of renewal. It’s a fresh start, a year full of possibility, a chance to press the reset button and really do things right. Let the New Year’s Resolutions begin.

A new school year is a similar opportunity, for both students and parents.

The school year has a definitive beginning and end. It begins with a transition and ends with another one, a nine-month cycle with a beginning, much like the start of the calendar year, that is the perfect opportunity to start anew.

Nine months from now, what would you like to be able to say about this school year? What would make you feel happy, proud, successful, etc.?

Parents, same question. In your role as the parent of a teenager who also plans to attend college, what would you like to be able to say about the way you played that role this year? What would make you feel proud? But careful not to choose a goal that’s tied to your student’s achievement. “Help my teen improve her grades this year” is about your student. “Focus more on my daughter’s effort than I do on the outcomes” is a goal about you.

No school year ever goes perfectly for everyone involved. But you can make conscious choices to do more of what worked for you last year, and less of what did not.

The beginning of a new school year is the perfect time to begin anew.

It was 20 years ago today…

It’s a day of nostalgia and excitement for me, as it was exactly 20 years ago that I officially started a little business called Collegewise. I knew I had the knowledge to help families make more informed college planning decisions, but that’s as far as the vision went at the time. The birth of Collegewise was really just the official filing of the DBA (“Doing Business As”) paperwork with the County Clerk’s office so that I wouldn’t be violating any city ordinances if someone actually paid me to help them. Three days later, I had my first official meeting with a family. I drove to their house to meet in their living room as I did for most of my meetings during the first year of business. The computer I’d ordered was still en route, so I wrote and printed their enrollment contract at Kinko’s that same morning. At the time, my little business was a start-up in every sense.

What an exciting, fulfilling, life-changing journey the 20 years since that day have been.

As this 20-year mark approached, I’ve enjoyed reminiscing, traveling back in my mind to the smaller milestones along the way that meant so much at the time. Our first student to receive a college acceptance. Our first office. The first employee who agreed to join me. Our first counselor training. Our first invitation to speak at a conference. Our first company holiday party, website, newsletter, additional location, and the first blog entry—each felt so big at the time, and each is now a small but special chapter in the 20-year tale.

Publishing our first book. Selling Collegewise to Princeton Review. Buying it back two years later. Our first appearances on major network news. Expanding across the country and the world. As Collegewise got bigger, as we kept filling our ranks with idiosyncratic miracle workers who shared their personal brand of best work with us, our collective successes seemed to grow, too.

Like any part of life’s journey, not all of the memories are happy ones. The two weeks in August 2005 when our building’s management refused to fix the air conditioner and our office turned into a sauna. The time a beloved co-worker decided it was time to move on. The 2009 recession when we almost lost everything we’d worked so hard to build. Stress, sleepless nights, doubts—they’ve all crept in at different points. No business, family, or college is perfect.

But 20 years later, when I look at everything that matters most to me in my life, almost all of it connects to Collegewise in some way. Many of my closest friends have come up through the Collegewise ranks. My mentor who first encouraged me to become an independent college counselor works alongside me here today. A co-worker even introduced me to the woman I’d one day marry and start a family with. When I look at our two sons and the life we share together today, I see the Collegewise roots in all of it. As much as I’ve given to Collegewise, it—and those who’ve joined us along the way—have always given even more back.

The Collegewise of today is so much more than just me embarking solo on an undefined adventure. Every day I come to work with colleagues who inspire me, who want to build the company they’d choose to hire (and work for), and who leave work every day a little better off than they found it. They bring so much care, attention, pride, generosity, and joy to their work, and they make life better for their customers, their co-workers, and their company. What a privilege to call this my job, and them my colleagues.

After 20 years, Collegewise is no longer a start-up; we’re a stay-up. And as is the case with any success, we didn’t get here alone. So to the customers who’ve trusted us, the co-workers who’ve shared your best work with us, the fans who’ve referred us, the friends and family members who’ve supported us, and everyone else who’s been part of this journey, thank you. Greatness is never built with mediocre parts, so however small or large your chapter in our 20-year story may be, I so appreciate the role you’ve played.

And happy 20th birthday to Collegewise, the company that’s changed so much for so many, especially me. I can’t wait to see what you have in store next.

Intentionality

Zingerman’s Deli is one of my favorite businesses, and yet I’ve never tasted one of their sandwiches. They’re highly profitable, with their community of businesses earning over $13 million in annual revenues. They’re consistently innovating, always looking for new ways to get better. They boast a fantastic culture with employees who care. They even write, speak, and teach prolifically to anyone who’s interested, including their competition. But none of it happens by accident. Everything is intentional.

Take their recent blog post, “How to give great customer service over the phone.” Plenty of businesses give lip service to customer service, expressing it via a banner that hangs on the wall. But Zingerman’s takes the time to envision what great service might look like. They codify, teach, and measure it. And they inculcate it into everything they do.

Can you imagine the pleasant service surprise for customers who call them? What message does that attention and care on the phone send about the food and service on the premises?

You don’t have to work in a deli, or speak with customers on the phone, to learn from Zingerman’s example.

Most people reading this are involved in things they care about. Family, work, a project, a team, an organization, an event, etc. Do you have a vision for what it could be? Have you thought about how you might bring that vision to fruition? And most importantly, are you laying the tracks, day by day—and doing so with intention—to get there?

Your vision paints a compelling destination. But you’ll need some intentionality to get where you’re hoping to go.

Investment initiative

I graduated with some impressive business experience considering I was a 22-year-old who’d yet to work a real full-time job.

In my four years of college, I’d recruited, interviewed, hired, managed, and on one occasion had to fire, employees. I’d drawn up marketing plans. I’d talked down angry customers. I’d written advertising copy, pitched ideas, created training programs, planned events, worked in teams, bounced back from failures, and done lots and lots of selling.

And yet, as an English and history major, I never took a single course related to business. I never had an off-campus internship, either. I just availed myself of the opportunities around me.

I volunteered as part of the staff for new student orientation and was hired to run the program during my senior year. I ran discussion groups as the TA for a course. I worked as a security guard at the library and as a conference planning assistant in the dorms one summer. And I ran a spectacularly unsuccessful new-member rush for my fraternity (it was the first time I learned that “This is how we’ve always done it” is not a compelling reason to do something).

I was nowhere near the most successful or involved person in my peer group, much less in the entire student community. My comparatively short list of involvements wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Some were even pedestrian. But baked into them were countless opportunities to lean in, to try new things, to take responsibility, and to fail. And best of all, they were available to any student on campus regardless of their area of interest.

As college costs and the associated student debt continue to rise, families are smartly starting to look more critically at the outcomes of college when compared to the cost. Investments are made based on the likelihood of a return, and it doesn’t make sense to pay that much for college only to cross your fingers and hope for the best after graduation.

But with some notable exceptions of programs built to combine applicable skills with job placement, it’s difficult for most colleges to promise (and to substantiate) an outcome at graduation, career-related or otherwise. A college can only present the opportunities, but the student is the x-factor.

It’s the student who gets to make the choice. You can view the boundless clubs, organizations, jobs, and other opportunities as a limited-time offer, one you must take advantage of before they disappear. Or you can view them as optional add-ons if and when the desire strikes.

The opportunities are there at every college, famous and otherwise. But you have to invest the initiative in pursuit of a successful return.