Make things happen

Susan Cain’s recent New York Times piece calls attention to “the glorification of leadership skills, especially in college admissions,” something that leaves many kids “jockeying for leadership positions as résumé padders.”

She proposes at the end of the article:

“What if we said to college applicants that the qualities we’re looking for are not leadership skills, but excellence, passion and a desire to contribute beyond the self? This framework would encompass exceptional team captains and class presidents. But it wouldn’t make leadership the be-all and end-all…What if we said to our would-be leaders, ‘Take this role only if you care desperately about the issue at hand’?”

But here’s some news that may surprise some people—what Cain describes is, in fact, exactly what colleges are looking for.

Maybe colleges don’t always make it clear. Maybe the word “leadership” is too general, especially for 17-year-olds, to encapsulate all the various ways a person can lead, including doing so without running for an office or even telling other people what to do. Or maybe this “jockeying for leadership positions” is yet another piece of the college admissions process that is so deeply entrenched that families can’t bear to change their thinking, no matter what the counselors or the colleges say.

I tackled this topic recently, but it bears repeating: colleges are not impressed by leadership positions alone. What they’re impressed with is excellence, passion, and the desire to contribute beyond one’s self that Cain envisions. Leadership positions are not the only opportunity to demonstrate those traits.

There’s nothing wrong with leadership positions. But the mark of a leader is not the fact that she was named to a leadership position—it’s what she manages to accomplish while holding that position. And as a passionate, engaged, hard-working follower, you can probably accomplish just as much as, if not more than, the person who lists the title on their resume.

If you’re more comfortable as a follower than a leader, please don’t try to change yourself just to fit what you think colleges appreciate. Instead of trying to be something you don’t want to be, spend more time making things happen for activities, groups, people, and causes that you care about.

Your style of play

I got a lot of nice feedback—from students, and from parents about their students—in response to my post about playing the game right. Having a deep passion for whatever you do, sports related or not, makes you a happier, more interesting, and more successful person.

Soccer player Tobin Heath is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a two-time Women’s World Cup medalist, and the 2016 Player of the Year for the United States Women’s National Team. But what struck me most in this recent article was her description of what originally drew her to the game, and what still influences her style of play.

“’I grew up loving Brazilian soccer,’ Heath said. ‘What made me think soccer was cool was these guys making soccer look like fun and easy, and they would just destroy people. It was an art. I loved that. And that’s the way I learned the game and mimicked a style. It’s just so beautiful.’”

What’s influencing your style of play, whatever and wherever you decide to play it?

Play the game right

Jim, my friend from college who, as I shared here, died suddenly last fall, had spent years coaching his sons’ Little League baseball teams. As the new season opened in their hometown recently, the league honored Jim with an unveiling of jerseys bearing his initials, the welcoming of his younger brother, Mark, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and a reminder to the league’s players to do as Jim always coached them to do—to play the game right.

Jim wanted to win as much as any coach, but that’s not why he spent so much of his free time guiding Little Leaguers. He loved instilling in his players his love and respect for the game. You never saw one of Jim’s players lollygag on or off the field—they ran with purpose. No player ever showed up with a uniform shirt untucked or a hat worn askew. And it was Jim who invented the “Right Field Hero” award, regularly presented to his right fielder who would sprint from his outfield post to back-up every throw to first base, a practice that took discipline for a player to do consistently, but was sure to save at least one errant throw per game.

Jim’s players had fun playing and competing. But even more importantly, they were proud of the way they honored the game. Baseball comes with its share of hard knocks—strike outs, errors, missed signals—even the best-coached teams have their off days. But the players Jim coached could always hold their heads high. Even on those rare occasions when they didn’t play the game well, they always played it right.

You don’t have to be an athlete to play your game right. Some of the best college essays I ever brainstormed with students came from those who honored and respected the activities they participated in. The ocean lifeguard who talked about how difficult but important it was to keep a watchful eye for hours at a time because rip currents don’t announce themselves ahead of time. The computer programmer who swore there was such a thing as beautiful code if you knew what to look for. The Eagle Scout who took guff from his friends for always carrying a first aid kit, but who’d been called upon to use it on more than one occasion. It wasn’t about winning, garnering accolades, or cementing a college admissions advantage. Each of these students took pride in honoring the craft they’d chosen to commit themselves to.

Colleges know that the teen artist, musician, writer, journalist, budding mathematician, day care volunteer, emergency medical technician, placekicker, mechanic, etc. who plays their respective game right, and who takes pride in honoring their craft, has the capacity for that instinct even if it redirects to a different game in college. They’re the ones who will get up early for a class in their chosen major or go the extra mile for the club they’re helping to build. They’ll improve the refereeing for intramural sports programs and lobby for funds to repaint the dorm walls. They’ll visit professors’ office hours and make regular appointments with their academic advisors. Playing the game right makes you, the game, and everyone else who’s playing better.

However you’re choosing to spend your time, whatever game you’re investing your energy into playing, remember how much value there is to be found when you bring your heart to it. Follow the example Coach Jim taught his players and show your pride by playing the game right.

Where do leaders come from?

Is it necessary to hold a club office, or found an organization, or otherwise do something worthy of a leadership title to impress colleges? No. Not even close. There are countless roles on college campuses that require students from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives to fill and flourish in them. Your particular skills can come from formal leadership positions, but they could also come from volunteering, playing the tuba, holding a part-time job, or virtually anything else that you cared enough about to commit to it.

But while the formal positions and titles aren’t prerequisites for college, the behavior and impact of real leadership is always appealing. And thankfully, there are plenty of ways to lead without running for office or telling people what to do.

If you’d like some more perspective on just exactly what leadership is, how it’s viewed by colleges, and why those experiences are important, I hope you’ll check out these two reads.

First, a past post of mine, including the articles that are referenced and linked within the post. And this piece, Take Me To Your Leaders: What College Admission Deans Are Looking For, by Brennan Bernard, a high school counselor and education writer. Bernard asked a number of college admissions officers to share their thoughts on what it means to lead. Don’t expect a roadmap with a list of activities and roles that will satisfy the definition, because as you’ll see, their answers vary.

Here’s an example:

“Leadership is deep engagement in an area of interest—not necessarily an officer in an organization. Rather than the president of the student government, I love the student who has been the chair of the dance cleanup committee for a few years. Who wants that job? And yet, she consistently gets a few students who will stay late after the dance to clean up the detritus left by classmates. That, to me, is leadership. No accolades but lots of commitment and follow through.”

Deb Shaver, Director of Admission, Smith College

Yep, that’s good leadership.

I hope the differences in their answers will relieve, not frustrate students. There are lots of ways to lead. Almost certainly, one of them will be a natural fit for you, something that you enjoy and are good at. If you commit your time to that kind of endeavor, you’ll learn a lot, you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll impress colleges.

It turns out that leaders can come from everywhere.

Turn your organization’s line into a platform

For many businesses, clubs, and other organizations, there are two groups—leaders and followers. The leaders decide what gets done and how to do it; the followers perform the work. There’s nothing wrong with qualified leaders describing a clear vision and saying, “Follow me.” But relegating the rest of the organization to following alone is like forcing all of them to stand in a line. When you’re stuck in a line, you can’t do anything but wait your turn. Any initiative or non-directed movement just means you’ll lose your place. The only option is to stand there, await further instructions, and inch forward when directed.

Instead of a long line, what if your organization became a large platform?

A platform is a stage, a place where people don’t just stand—they perform. A long line just means a lot of waiting around. But when your organization is a platform, every member has an equal chance to stand up (on the platform) and say:

I’ll do…
I want to try…
I’ll take responsibility for…
I can help…
I know how to…
I’ll pitch in to…
I can make a difference doing…
I’ll fix…
I’ll change…
I’ll experiment with…
It might work if I…
I will make sure…

Imagine how much more your organization could accomplish, how much further your people could go, how much good you could do if you made the change from a place of waiting to a place of performing.

Leaders, to make the change, use the platform as both an invitation and expectation. Everyone is invited to step up. Nobody gets to sit back and wait to be told what to do. Assume that most people want to contribute and make a difference (most really do). And acknowledge that once the platform is in place, the best thing a leader can do is help everyone stand up and offer their best performance.

Once you let people stop waiting in line, those who care the most, who are willing to take responsibility and do the work, will rise to the top. Anyone who doesn’t will be left back in the line.

It’s better for the organization. It’s better for the people. And it’s a much better way for everyone involved to stand out to colleges.

Adventures in babysitting

Nearly two years ago, I wrote this entry about a sophomore in high school my wife and I were about to interview to babysit our then infant son. We were impressed with her initiative in offering up her services on a parent listserv, and with how responsive and mature she seemed in her communications with us. Too many families might think that babysitting isn’t a remarkable enough activity if a student wants to impress colleges, but as I explained:

“This kid is learning how to pitch herself in writing and in person. She’s learning how to meet people and make a good impression. If she gets gigs, she’ll be learning how to manage customers’ expectations, and hopefully, how to be remarkable enough that she’ll earn referrals and repeat business. And she’ll be earning (and hopefully managing) her own money. I can’t imagine that she could learn any of these things at Harvard Summer School or at a pay-to-play expensive summer program in a foreign land.”

So, whatever happened to that sixteen-year-old?

  1. We hired her.
  2. She’s been our go-to babysitter for two years.
  3. She was recently admitted early decision to Dartmouth.

No magic formula. No contrived experiences designed to impress. Just a smart, nice, responsible, hardworking, happy kid who wanted to go to Dartmouth, but also had enough confidence to know that she’d be just fine wherever she went.

Parents and students, I hope you’ll go back and read that past entry (here’s the link again). And I hope you’ll think twice about choosing (and especially about paying for) activities based solely on what you think will impress colleges.

Make them great, too

Author Simon Sinek’s recent blog post argues that a great way to find more fulfillment, meaning, and satisfaction in your career (and I would argue in your extracurricular activities) is to help others find the same.

“If you want to get a better job, first and foremost, take charge of your own lot. If you wish to feel more engaged, fulfilled and happy at work, make it your obsession to help the people around you find more engagement, fulfillment and happiness in their jobs. Create it. Not simply for you. Create it for the people around you.”

At first glance, that might seem like a nice sentiment that doesn’t necessarily translate into career success. But there’s a growing body of writing and research that argues just how vital helping others is in pursuit of your own success, some of the most convincing of which comes from University of Pennsylvania’s Adam Grant’s book Give and Take, which I discussed in a past post.

And this approach aligns nicely with Stanford’s Jim Collins’s recommendation that while you can’t necessarily change an entire company (or school, or club, or organization), you can create a pocket of greatness by focusing relentlessly on your particular area.

Collins isn’t arguing that you should selfishly focus on your own interests alone. He’s lobbying that you take responsibility for what you can make great. And if you work with other people, you can make them great, too.

Will you stay for the story?

Startups get a lot of attention in the press. The vision, the big ideas, the risk—it makes for good headlines and memorable stories. But a startup isn’t a business. It’s the start of a business. And starting a business isn’t nearly as difficult as executing your idea, keeping your promises, and staying in business.

Activities in college admissions work the same way.

Many students want to highlight the startup-style headline on their college applications. They proudly list that they “started a club,” “founded a non-profit,” “or “launched a fundraiser.” But colleges know to look for evidence of the story that follows the start. If your club only held one meeting, if your non-profit exists in the paperwork alone, if the fundraiser never actually raised funds, your startup story doesn’t have the same impact.

I’m not discounting the value of initiative (I’ve written about its importance before). And I’m not suggesting that colleges will only appreciate what you start based on how you finish. In fact, there’s a lot you can learn from trying your best to execute something that didn’t work. But even learning that lesson will require that you do more than just start.

So yes, if you’ve got an idea, if you see a need you can fill, if you’ve got the gumption to take the lead and the risk, then start, found, launch, etc.

But if your only motivation is to list the start on your college application, you might consider redirecting your time and attention to something where you’d be excited to stay for the story.

How engaged are you?

After 30 years with over 30 million employees, The Gallup Organization has found that a highly engaged workforce is the difference between a company that outperforms its competitors and one that fails to grow. And their descriptions of the different levels of engagement may help students identify just how engaged they are in their chosen activities.

Gallup breaks employees into three different categories of engagement:

1. Engaged.
These are the passionate people who care deeply about the success of their organization. The mission and goals speak to their values. They work hard because the work and the organization matter to them.

2. Disengaged
The disengaged are checked out. They show up to work and do what they have to do so they won’t get fired. But they don’t feel connected to the company or the work. They’re not bringing energy or new ideas. And they have no interest in putting forth any extra effort beyond the minimum.

3. Actively Disengaged
These folks are just plain unhappy at work. And they act out on that unhappiness. They don’t just decline to contribute anything. They work against the organization by undermining what their boss and their coworkers are trying to get done.

Look at how you’re choosing to spend your time outside of school. Are you excited by what you do? Does it matter to you? Do you work hard because you love the work, the people, and the purpose? Do you light up when you talk about it?

Or are you just going through the motions? Even worse, are you making negative contributions?

The students who fit the definition of “engaged” with their activities are the ones who show the most passion, who make the biggest impact, and who stand out to colleges.

If you don’t fit that definition, try a new approach. Or try a new activity.

Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z]

Laszlo Bock is a former SVP of People Operations and Senior Advisor at Google, and the author of Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. His LinkedIn piece shares his personal formula for crafting a winning resume.

Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z]

The formula could be applied to crafting winning college applications. But I think it also could help students evaluate just how much of an impact they’re making in and out of the classroom. You don’t have to be the president, MVP, or first chair to make valuable contributions. Even the role player in the club, the recipient of the Coach’s Award for effort rather than playing time, or the consummate good natured oboe player who isn’t the best musician can still be vital to the spirit and success of their respective groups. If you consider how your participation fits into the formula (which pairs well with my advice here on how to measure impact), you’ll contribute more to—and get more from—your chosen activities.