Reward enough

Jerry Seinfeld’s “Jerry Before Seinfeld” special on Netflix is a great illustration of what true passion looks like.

Seinfeld returns to the stage at the Comedy Store in New York where he first began his career in 1976 and tells the story of growing up dreaming of doing comedy. He took his first steps at age 20 when he moved to Manhattan from his parents’ house in Long Island because the Comedy Store agreed to let him perform a few nights a week…without pay. As he relates:

“I lived in a little apartment on the West Side. And it was very small. It was just 15 feet square. That is not a joke. You know New York apartments are like that. And I brought my little bed from my room to sleep on. That was all I had. I didn’t care. I wasn’t planning on really gettin’ anywhere doing this, by the way. I just loved it and I wanted to do it.”

Students, seek that feeling from your activities.

Too many students measure the worth of an activity by the purported impact on their college applications. Some go as far as to quit things they enjoy just because they aren’t excelling at levels that will allow them to eventually garner awards or recognition for doing so. And that’s one of the worst effects of college admissions pressure. The constant need to crash activities against the mythical admissions measurement destroys the idea that the joy of participating is reward enough.

I’m not telling you to give up goals. If you have a dream to play college basketball or to earn your black belt or work your way up at your part-time job, chase that dream, especially if the pursuit of it makes you happy.

But not everything needs a projected end result to be worth doing.

In 1976, 20-year-old Jerry Seinfeld wasn’t thinking about how he was going to make a full-time living doing comedy, or how to get on television. He just loved getting on stage to make people laugh, and he leapt at any opportunity to do it. The time on stage and the resulting laughs were reward enough.

How much joy are you finding in how you spend your time? Not the ways that you think those involvements will help you get into college, but the fulfillment you spend from just doing what you do? The higher on the scale your answer, the more passion you’re fueling and demonstrating.

The best (and often most objectively impressive) things you can do are those where the joy of doing them is reward enough.

Make things better

In the “Nepotism” episode of the iconic workplace comedy The Office, bumbling boss Michael hires his nephew, Luke, to work as an intern. And it’s immediately clear to everyone but Uncle Michael that Luke is not a good addition to the team, as Luke is unable to muster any effort at all to do the job well.

He not only arrives late with the morning coffee, but also orders the wrong drinks for just about everyone.

When asked to rush a shipment of samples to a client, he forgets to complete the job and leaves the shipment in the trunk of his car.

Devoid of initiative, he does nothing until he’s asked to do anything, choosing instead to look at his phone, play games on the computer, aim the laser pointer at people’s heads, etc.

But what’s most frustrating (to both coworkers and Office viewers) is Luke’s attitude. He’s not at all bothered by his mistakes. He makes no effort to apologize or to improve. He takes no pride in his work. He does less than the bare minimum and even that seems taxing to him.

Can you imagine someone like Luke asking for a reference or a letter of recommendation from a supervisor? What could someone on that job possibly point to as an example of Luke’s contribution or potential? The writer would have nothing to work with because Luke did nothing at work.

But the episode can be a good reminder of how much potential there is to contribute in just about any role.

What if Luke had treated that internship like the proving ground it is to show future potential employers what kind of impact he makes?

What if he’d made the effort to do what was asked of him a little better and a little faster than he was expected to?

What if he’d looked around and found ways to contribute beyond what was asked of him, like taking out the garbage or restocking the break room or alerting someone when the supplies were running low?

What if he’d given his boss and his coworkers dozens of examples to cite about why work got a little better when Luke came aboard?

It wouldn’t have made for funny television. But it’s exactly how to approach any worthwhile commitment: exert the effort to make things better.

For more on this, here’s a past post on how to thrive at your part-time job, and another on the value of internships.

Where interest meets action

Cal Newport wrote in How to Be a High School Superstar:

“When admissions officers say they’re looking for students who show ‘passion,’ what they really mean is that they’re looking for the type of student who would appeal to an NPR talk show producer. That is, a student who could sit down and chat about a topic for thirty minutes and hold an educated audience’s rapt attention.”

He’s not implying that you need to be an expert on your particular interest, or that successful students have the presentation skills to hold an audience’s attention. He means that a student who volunteered for two Saturdays at a blood drive because it would look good on their college applications will run out of interview material a lot faster than a student who spent an entire summer working in an ambulance as an emergency medical technician because they had a genuine interest in doing so. One has demonstrated a passion, the other has not.

I’ve written before that interests make you interesting. Real interests are backed by real actions to pursue them. Whatever yours are, from writing poetry, to learning about the stock market, to cooking, repairing computers, or playing hockey, your passions are wherever the interest is met with the most action. And those are the very passions that should be highlighted on your college applications.

The summer enrichment craze?

The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s 15-minute podcast episode entitled “Managing the Summer Enrichment Craze” features Denise Pope from Challenge Success and is worth the listen for parents grappling with questions about what their kids should do this summer. I particularly appreciated her reminders that a student’s interest should be the driving force for any enrichment program, that downtime is an imperative part of development, and that there is plenty of enrichment to be found without paying money for it.

Constants emerge over time

David Epstein, author of the forthcoming Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, penned an opinion piece in the New York Times  last week entitled, “You Don’t Want a Child Prodigy.” Epstein argues that the most elite performers, from athletes to musicians, didn’t specialize early. In their younger years, these elite adults sampled different activities, developing a range of skills and experiences before finding the field where they’d one day reach the very highest levels. Statistics, experience, and just plain common sense tell us that most of us—and our children—aren’t likely to reach the elite levels of the Roger Federers and Antonio Vivaldis (both of whom are mentioned in the article) during our lifetimes. They’re called “elite” for a reason. But there’s still a great deal of application for high school students here, regardless of their performance levels inside or outside the classroom.

A shift took place in admissions in the late 90’s when colleges and counselors began advising students that the term “well-rounded” wasn’t necessarily an admissions strength. In the growing drive to get accepted to famous colleges, many students had progressed through high school amassing long lists of varied interests—leadership, community service, sports, etc. The logic of the new approach was that those students who’d achieved a higher level of impact within a chosen interest were more likely to stand out in a pile of high-achieving applicants. And that advice, combined with an obsession with prestigious colleges, drove many families to push their students to find a passion early in high school and then stick with it.

The advice wasn’t and still isn’t necessarily misguided.

While there’s nothing wrong with a student who spends four years of high school picking things up and putting them right back down (they’re kids, after all), the resulting college admissions challenge is that an application full of activities that only lasted a short time makes it difficult for a college to ascertain what kind of impact this student could make when interest and energy are applied consistently.

The antipode for that circumstance, however, is not to force kids to pick one interest early and stick with it. In fact, that’s almost always a recipe for burnout and resentment. Most kids are likely to shop around a bit before they land on those things that both draw and sustain their interest. They’ll have some starts and stops. Those choices aren’t necessarily a sign of a lack of fortitude or commitment. They can also be a sign of curiosity, growth, and learning. Most adults have experienced fits where a new hobby or interest they were excited about lost its luster. Constants need time to emerge.

For the rare student who legitimately discovers a sustained passion early in life and finds joy in it, great. Dive in and stay in as long as it’s both enjoyable and rewarding.

But for those teens who resist pledging their undying devotion to one area, don’t worry that they’re somehow lacking forward college admissions progress. Encourage them to honor their commitments. But let them find those things that light them up, whenever those lights happen to start shining. Those are the areas where they’re most likely to thrive, to make an impact, and to show colleges just how much they’re capable of in whatever interest they pursue on campus.

Protecting downtime

Julie Lythcott-Haims added her post, “Making Childhood Healthy Again,” to the website of the School Superintendents Association. There are a number of important insights here for parents and students, but this particular one struck me, especially in the age of overscheduled kids whose lives have become a constant state a busyness.

“Downtime can exist only in the absence of constant busyness. It allows kids to process and reflect upon what they’ve experienced and to decide for themselves what to do next. This builds resilience, imagination and critical thinking. We have to prioritize downtime and reduce the number of activities accordingly.”

Three underrated summer pursuits

College admissions anxiety has a way of ruining perfectly valid activities and involvements. Students are so driven to stand out that the benchwarmer or second chair in the orchestra or club member without an office all feel as if their contributions will go unrewarded by colleges. To be fair, those perceptions can often be valid when those same students fill their college lists with highly selective schools. But wherever you plan on applying, here are three examples of seemingly pedestrian summer pursuits that colleges will always appreciate.

1. Get a regular job.
I define “regular job” in this case as one that routinely employs teenagers. Bus tables. Cut grass. Sell clothes at a retail store. It’s almost impossible for an admissions officer not to like a kid who earns an honest dollar doing honest work. You don’t need a fancy sounding internship. You don’t have to spin it on your college application with a misleading title or description. Just prove that you have the initiative and commitment to find, get, and keep a job. You’ll earn money, you’ll add early experience to your resume, and you’ll impress colleges.

2. Take a selfish class.
A “selfish class” is one that you take for one reason—because you genuinely want to. For some students, that might be calculus at a local college. For others, it might be hip-hop or pottery or mystery novel writing taught in a local continuing education program. The value here is scratching your intellectual itch. Whether that’s basic first aid, ballroom dancing, web design, or Eastern European history, virtually any subject is a viable opportunity for you to show colleges that you enjoy learning and take advantage of opportunities to do so.

3. Find a generous opportunity to volunteer.
A generous opportunity is one where you have no personal agenda other than to make a difference. Don’t look to start or involve yourself in something because it will have a nice ring to it on your application. Go where help is needed. There are non-profits, community organizations, and even groups made up only of volunteers who would welcome a reliable contributor to join them in their efforts. Help a disadvantaged population. Improve your local community. Make a difference. You don’t have to change the world to impress colleges. Contributing to even a small change in your local area is evidence enough of the impact you can make in any environment.

Need some summer plans?

Students, I hope your summer plans include ample time to recharge, have fun, and enjoy the summer-related benefits that come with still being a teenager. But chances are you don’t want to let your mind and body atrophy completely under a haze of sleeping in and watching YouTube. So if you’re looking for suggestions of ways to spend a summer that’s both enjoyable and productive, here are a few resources that might help.

Here’s my past post sharing 50 ways to spend your summer.

Here’s another identifying three benefits of holding a part-time job, a post with some tips to help land one, and one more to help you thrive once you’re hired.

And here’s our free Collegewise Summer Planning Guide 2019, free to read and share.

Leadership lessons are everywhere

It’s easy for high school students to fall into the trap of believing that leadership is reserved for leadership positions. The editor of the yearbook. The captain of the hockey team. The treasurer of the student body. Elected or appointed positions are almost always reserved for a select few. They’re the leaders. Everyone else is just following.

I don’t buy it, and neither should you.

I’m not trying to minimize those roles, because if you do them well, you’ll learn a lot about leadership. But doing them well does not mean asking people for updates on the yearbook layout, or calling the coin flip at the beginning of the game, or giving the treasurer’s update when it’s your turn in the weekly meeting. Real leadership means leaning into situations where there is no roadmap, figuring out how to change things for the better, and getting other people to follow you.

You don’t need a leadership position to do those things.

The yearbook budget just got slashed. Without some new funds fast, no yearbook this year. Who’s going to step up and find the buffer for the budget?

The hockey team has lost eight straight games, two players have stopped showing up to practice, and everyone is starting to question the coach. Who’s going to step up and bring the team together?

The student council has some of the most engaged students on a disengaged campus. Who’s going to step up and ask the tough questions, offer possible solutions, and take some responsibility for unleashing the talent that’s assembled in the room?

Wherever and however you’re spending your time in high school, there’s almost certainly an opportunity just waiting for a leader–someone who takes charge of change, with or without a title.

Why can’t that be you?

Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company, wrote an interesting piece about the leadership lessons she learned while working as a restaurant hostess. High school students, please give this a read and consider two things:

1. What leadership lessons are you learning just by doing what you’re already doing?
2. What leadership opportunities are there just waiting for someone to take hold of them?

Ten ways to make valuable contributions

Too many high school students view their success in group activities as measured only by accolades or official titles. But there are lots of ways you can make valuable contributions that your group—and the colleges you apply to—will appreciate. Here are ten suggestions.

1. Improve relationships with constituents.
Be the server at the coffee shop who remembers people’s names, the member of student government who engages with the student body, or the lighting tech who gets others interested in coming to the performance. Helping connect the group with those outside of it is a valuable public relations contribution.

2. Solve the problems other people can’t solve.
What’s a challenge your group faces repeatedly and just can’t seem to solve? The ability to spot solutions is a valuable skill that can make you invaluable to the group. If you’ve got that talent, put it to work and let your fixes fly.

3. Manage complex projects.
Managing a fundraiser, planning a junior prom, organizing a team retreat—these are big jobs with a lot of moving parts, and plenty of potential for things to go sideways. But some people are at their best when they’re taking a complex job with a variety of inputs and shipping it out the door.

4. Inspire, teach, and make others better.
Ever seen that person that the rest of the group will follow to do almost anything? Those people are irreplaceable. And they don’t need to be granted authority to do it.

5. Become the domain expert.
What if you became the expert on once slice of your group’s work? The runner who knows the most about how elite distance runners train in the off-season, the writer with a deep understanding of the role of journalism in reporting news, the photographer who knows so much about lenses and exposures and lighting that they always get the perfect shot. When you know your stuff, and you share that knowledge, you’re making a valuable contribution.

6. Be a maximizer.
Do you look at things that are already good and ask, “How can this be even better?” Groups sometimes spend so much time fixing what’s broken that they miss opportunities to maximize their areas of strength. Amplifying bright spots is a sure way to improve just about anything, and if you’re the one who sees those opportunities, the group will look to you to keep sharing your talent.

7. Make new people feel at home.
It’s hard to be the new employee on his first shift, the recently promoted player at her first practice with the varsity team, or the new kid at school joining the history class discussion on day one. Can you make them feel at home? Can you make that transition a little easier so they can get comfortable and start making their own contributions? Most group memberships in high school don’t last forever, and turnover means there will always be new people joining who could use a friendly welcome to make things easier.

8. See what’s possible.
Not everyone can peer into the future and envision a way to make it better. In a group, instead of saying, “This is what we’ve always done,” this version says, “I see a new and better way.” Do you see that vision? Can you communicate it clearly and enthusiastically to your group? If so, chances are you’ll get some followers who support your vision. And once you’ve got followers, you’re a leader, with or without a leadership position.

9. Unleash your enthusiasm.
Are you inherently positive, always able to spot the good in any situation? Are you quick to smile and reluctant to let a bad mood get the best of you? Genuine enthusiasm is like a group pick-me-up. It makes everyone a little happier, a little more positive, and consequently, a little better at what they do.

10. Become the best.
I listed this last because it’s the hardest and the most exclusive. But it still deserves a place on the list. If you’re the very best musician in the orchestra, player on the tennis team, or mathlete in the math club, you’re making the group better with your excellence. If your talent and hard work puts you in that position, assume the mantle proudly. But don’t forget that there are plenty of other ways to contribute, and the point of being in any group is to help the group—not just yourself—be successful.