Supporter or boss?

This upcoming online session, “Homework and the Self-driven Child,” makes a compelling promise for parents:

“In this class, we’ll explore the importance of helping children develop a sense of agency and responsibility so that your role becomes a consultant and supporter, rather than a boss.”

I don’t have any affiliation with the class, but I have enjoyed the work of one of the instructors, William Stixrud (you can find past posts I’ve written about his work here, here, and here).

If you’re experiencing those challenges in your house and the course’s promises are compelling, it’s $37 and runs on August 22. All the information is here.

College essay writer’s block?

If you’ve tried attacking one or more of your college essay prompts, but ended up staring at a blank screen only to vow to return later, you’ve got college essay writer’s block. And here’s a sure way to cure it.

1. Imagine you were told: “Submit a response to the prompt in the next 15 minutes and you’ll win $10,000 in cash.”

2. Write like crazy for 15 minutes.

3. Repeat once a day for five days.

Guess what? You’ll either have a first draft you can work with, one or more ideas you can develop, or inspiration for a new and unexplored direction.

But you’ll no longer be writing-blocked.

Rested is resilient

Positive psychologists Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielen share this snippet in their recent Harvard Business Review piece, “Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure”:

“The misconception of resilience is often bred from an early age. Parents trying to teach their children resilience might celebrate a high school student staying up until 3AM to finish a science fair project. What a distortion of resilience! A resilient child is a well-rested one. When an exhausted student goes to school, he risks hurting everyone on the road with his impaired driving; he doesn’t have the cognitive resources to do well on his English test; he has lower self-control with his friends; and at home, he is moody with his parents. Overwork and exhaustion are the opposite of resilience. And the bad habits we learn when we’re young only magnify when we hit the workforce.”

And for any naysayers who dismiss that advice as leaving our kids unprepared for a competitive world, you might note that Achor and Gielen earned their graduate degrees from two of the most selective universities in the world, Harvard and UPenn respectively.

Is your story working?

Students, as you progress through high school, what stories are you telling yourself? This question is not the same as “What’s happened in your life in high school?” What actually happens is not always the same as the stories we tell ourselves.

If your coach decides to start the new transfer student in the spot that used to be yours, what story do you tell yourself?

One possible story is that it’s a miscarriage of justice, a tale of an opportunistic student who swooped in and stole—and a coach who heartlessly gave away—what was rightfully yours.

But you could also view that circumstance as one that’s actually good news. An unexpected source of talent just magically showed up. Sure, you’re disappointed not to start. But what a benefit to your team. What a boost to your chances of winning the league title you are hoping to claim. What an opportunity for you to play a different role as a supporter from the bench, to push yourself even harder in practice, to make you and other players better as you rise up to match the new position competition.

It’s one event, but two very different stories. And the one you decide to tell yourself makes all the difference.

I’m not suggesting that students or anyone else should ignore the realities of the world, especially the unpleasant ones. But there’s a difference between confronting brutal facts and creating demotivating stories.

Is it the situation, or the story you’re telling yourself about it, that’s not working?

Be the different one

I’ve never been a Star Trek fan. But I heard an interview yesterday morning that included an anecdote about Leonard Nimoy’s character, Mr. Spock, that resonated with me.

During one of the early episodes, the script called for seemingly every crewmember on the Starship Enterprise to panic about impending danger. But the director pulled Nimoy aside and told him, “Be the different one.”

So when every other character was losing their cool, Spock calmly reacted with just one simple word: “Fascinating.”

It became not only a recurring line, but also a central theme of his character.

Lots of families fixate on the colleges most likely to say no.
Lots of parents take over the process for their student.
Lots of students over-schedule themselves to the point of exhaustion.
Lots of families view the college admissions process like an anxious rite of passage.
Lots of parents turn their kids’ journey to college into a status competition.
Lots of students care more about getting the A than they do about learning.
Lots of families turn every conversation into one about getting into college.

Lots, lots, lots…

What would happen if you made the choice to be the different one?

Join me to learn how to write better college essays

I’ll be teaching a free college essay webinar in two weeks.

How to Craft Compelling, Cliché-Free College Essays
Wednesday, August 21 2019
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT

All the details and registration information are here. I really enjoy speaking with students and parents about this topic, and I hope you’ll join me.


I had a great visit with my parents last weekend but a less pleasant visit with my mother’s car.

The vehicle is equipped with a warning system to alert you if you’re about to collide with something. It sounds great in theory. But in practice, any time you’re within fifteen feet of a solid object in any direction—regardless of whether or not you’re headed towards that object—the beeping starts.

Pulling into a parking spot with a car in an adjacent spot? “Beep!”

Slowing to a safe stop behind a car in front of you? “BEEP!”

Passing a wayward shopping cart in a parking lot from a perfectly safe distance? “BEEEEEEP!”

Seemingly every move you make comes with a warning signal that could be nothing or could spell imminent disaster, with no way to immediately differentiate between the two. And that alarmist warning system creates a perpetually alarmed driver.

Blogger’s note: Mom, I know you read this blog. I really like your car—I just don’t like this particular feature.

I see some families behaving during the college admissions process like the car with the alarmist warning system.

Didn’t get into the honors English class? “Houston, we’ve got a problem, one that could keep you out of college.”

Made the team but spending most of your time on the bench? “I don’t like the sound of that, and neither will colleges.”

SAT score didn’t break 1200 like you’d hoped it would? “Warning! Warning! Warning!”

I’m not dismissing the reality that some admissions concerns are legitimate. But whether or not there’s cause for alarm depends entirely on your goals and the nature of the concern. And more troublingly, like a car’s overly sensitive warning system, these alarmists can indiscriminately spread their panic to others.

The uncertainty of college admissions creates much of the associated anxiety, and yes, even the alarmism. Families are grasping for some sense of control during a process where so many of the decisions are under the control of others. Without the reasonable assurance that everything will work out just as you hope it will, worry and panic can be a natural consequence.

But the truth is that admissions alarmism almost never leads to better choices, experiences, or outcomes. It just leaves you in a constant state of worry with very little relief in sight.

If you’re surrounded by admissions alarmists who are spreading their panic to you, be compassionate about the anxiety they’re feeling, as it’s never a happy state for any family. But don’t take on their indiscriminate panic. They’re (over)reacting to their own stressful situation, not channeling helpful advice that will improve yours.

And if you’ve fallen prey to the alarmism, I understand where that comes from. You want things to go well for your student as any good parent does. But instead of panicking reactively, consider what you’re actually worrying about. Is it really the SAT score that concerns you, or the fear that Dartmouth will say no? Sometimes coming right out and naming the real worry takes away the power of that panic.

Concerns have their place—in parenting, and in college admissions. But consistent alarmism is not a desirable feature.

Are you mentorable?

I appreciated this recent piece, “Are you mentorable?” from the group who produces the TED Talks (appropriately, the article also includes a TED Talk video of the same name). I’ve often heard students or working professionals lament the lack of a mentor in their lives, as if they’re passive observers just waiting for the opportunity to present itself. It’s true that a degree of circumstance and luck exist at the start of any mentor/mentee relationship. But it’s also important to consider what you are doing to earn the interest and time of a mentor who can help you achieve your goals.

From the basic value of expressing your appreciation for the mentor’s time, to understanding what type of guidance you’re seeking, to remaining open to new ideas and even constructive criticism, the article is a good reminder of just how much agency you have and must commit to retaining if you want to draw and benefit from a mentor’s interest.

High school is an excellent training ground for college and for life. Students, what are you doing to earn the attention and interest of your teachers, counselor, coach, boss, etc.? If someone is already guiding and encouraging you, what efforts are you making not just to extract maximum value from that resource, but also to give back in the form of openness and appreciation?

These are skills that can be learned. And the sooner you start developing them, the more effectively you’ll be able to wield them when you get to college. Your future college will likely have no shortage of faculty and staff who could eventually serve as resources, references, and yes, mentors. But the path towards finding the right match starts with making yourself mentorable.

Bite-sized chunks

Any big, long-running project, from college applications to a professional’s initiative at work, can feel overwhelming at the start. An as yet undefined but probably long list of to-dos. Difficult choices to be made. A feeling of urgency without a clear triaging of priorities. It can be enough to paralyze you to inaction or to send you scrambling to start something just to enjoy immediate progress.

One approach is to make an exhaustive list of everything that will need to happen and then simply start with the first item. If that’s worked for you in the past, don’t abandon a successful strategy.

But another approach is to ignore the totality of to-dos and instead answer this question:

What would make you happy to accomplish in ____ weeks?

The number of weeks depends on the length of the project. You can’t spend five weeks taking the first steps of a project that’s due in six. And this approach doesn’t work for projects due much sooner than they are later.

But imagine the college applicant who said in early August, “Four weeks from now, I’d be very happy to have finalized my college list to show my counselor, and to have a final draft of my Common App essay.”

Now you’ve bitten off a bite-sized chunk of a much bigger project. But more importantly, you’ve set yourself up to make reasonable progress while simultaneously retaining some sense of control of your time, task and technique.

Every project can be broken into bite-sized chunks. If you’re unsure where to start, decide on how much you can bite off–and finish–in a short period of time.

How, not who

I’ve heard the conversation-starter, “Who would play you in a movie about your life?” But for parents of kids going through the college admissions process, I think it’s more compelling to consider the how, not the who.

If a movie were made that accurately depicted your words, your actions, your relationship with your student, and all of the associated outcomes as pertaining to the college admissions process, how would your actor of choice portray you?

Would your character make college admissions the focal point of family conversations? Would they prioritize the outcomes above all else? Would they step in and take over, making decisions or filling out applications or revising (or even outright writing) essays themselves?

Would they be portrayed as someone who was putting their needs (from social pressure to parental pride) ahead of their student’s needs?

Or would they be portrayed as someone who decided their most important job was to just be the parent of a college applicant? Would they be the parent who understood this was not their process and that all the adverse pressures were happening to their kid, not to them? Would they be a supportive guide, offering opinions and encouragement when necessary without overstepping and taking over?

And whatever your answer, how would you feel watching how you were portrayed? Would you be proud, or secretly wish the script and the actor hadn’t captured you so completely?

As parents, we’re on stage all the time. Our kids are watching, listening, and learning from what we say and do. But it can sometimes be difficult to evaluate our own behaviors, especially as they relate to our own families. We and they are too close to the action.

Sometimes it helps to step outside and consider the ramifications of what we’re doing. And one way to do that is to imagine this time in your life on film. Sure, it’s fun to think about who would play us. But it’s more thought provoking to consider how they’d do it.