Put the truth on the table

When I was a senior in college completing my year-long stint with four colleagues as a summer orientation coordinator, we were tasked with interviewing and hiring the next crew of five students who would replace us. We’d spent the last year putting our time and hearts into a program that was very special to us, and we wanted to leave it in the right hands.

One of the most promising applicants, Neil, also had some spotty portions of his college history. He’d accomplished a lot in his three years on campus, leading important organizations, initiating necessary change on campus, and doing the kind of difficult work that gets you noticed. But he’d also had some very public fallouts with fellow leaders and even a few campus officials. The program needed his talents, but it didn’t need the baggage and chaos we were concerned might come with him.

There was no way around it—we had to express our concern and ask him to tell us more about those events.

He could have gotten defensive. He could have made excuses, tried to spin it, or blamed someone else. But instead, Neil just sighed, looked right at us and said,

“I’ve done a lot wrong while I’ve been here. I’ve made a lot of mistakes…”

I don’t even recall the rest of his answer. I know it involved what he’d learned and what he would do differently in the future. But honestly, those lessons weren’t as important to us as was the assurance that he didn’t blame anybody else, took ownership of his fault in some (though likely not all) of the experiences, and expressed regret that led to learning.

So we hired him. And he did a fantastic job.

“Everyone makes mistakes” is one of those clichés that’s true. Billionaire investor and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, was asked in this interview:

“You’ve gotten fired from or quit multiple jobs. When people go through that and then have to explain it in their next job interviews, what should they say?”

Cuban’s answer? “The truth.”

Nobody, from high schools, to colleges, to employers, expects you to be perfect. But they do expect that you’ll accept and acknowledge your mistakes. If you’re asked about them, own up to your role. Prove that you recognize what you did or did not do that caused things to go badly.

The far more positive discussion about what you learned and what you would do differently next time will almost certainly ensue. But your audience will be a lot more open to hearing and believing it once you’ve put the truth on the table.

Five ways to annoy your teacher when asking for help

Engaged students aren’t afraid to ask for help from teachers when they need it. And most teachers are happy to help a nice, earnest kid who’s struggling. But there are right ways and wrong ways to ask for that kind of help. Here are five wrong ways.

1. Forget that you’re asking for a favor.
A teacher who spends time to help you outside of class hours is doing you a favor. Instead of preparing before school for their first class, they’re meeting with you. Instead of eating their own lunch at lunchtime, they’re meeting with you. Instead of going home after school when the day is done, they’re meeting with you. That’s their time, not yours. And if you don’t ask them nicely to allocate some of that time to you, if you’re unwilling to meet on days and times that work best for them, and worst of all, if you don’t express your appreciation for their help, it’s hard for any reasonable person to feel good about extending themselves on your behalf.

2. Send your parents to do your talking for you.
Sending your parents on your behalf to ask a teacher for help sends the wrong message. It tells the teacher that your parents care more about this than you do. It tells the teacher that you aren’t taking responsibility for any of your own struggles. And it doesn’t allow your teacher the opportunity to diagnose the root of your struggles or give any preliminary feedback directly to you. When you’re sick, you don’t send your parents to the doctor on your behalf to diagnose what’s ailing you. Like the responsibility for your own health, the responsibility for your education is not something that you should outsource to someone else.

3. Take no responsibility.
How would you feel if you’d worked hard in class all semester and a friend who hadn’t tried at all came to you before the final and said, “This class is so hard! I really need your help to get my grade up. Can you tutor me?” Wouldn’t you feel a little taken advantage of? Wouldn’t you want that friend to at least acknowledge their role in the jam they’d gotten themselves into? That’s roughly how your teacher feels if you ask for help without recognizing what, if any, responsibility you have for your current academic state. If you haven’t paid attention, if you haven’t completed your assignments, or if you just haven’t tried as hard as you should have, and you combine those mistakes with a refusal to take any ownership of them, don’t be surprised if your teacher points out those facts when you ask for help.

4. Blame the subject or the course.

I just don’t get any of this.

This stuff makes no sense!

This class is really confusing.

Statements like those subtly make the case that the teacher, the material, or both are somehow failing you. But there are almost certainly students in your class who are not having the same struggles, so you can’t completely assign blame somewhere else. It’s entirely reasonable to struggle with particular subjects—nobody is great at everything. And like all professions, some teachers are better than others. But directing criticism at chemistry or trig or French is not the best way to elicit help from someone who’s dedicated their professional life to teaching that subject.

5. Ask what to do to improve your grade.
Of course, you want to raise your grade. There’s no shame in that. But there’s a difference between asking, “What can I do to improve my grade?” and, “What can I do to better understand biology?” I understand that many students may not see a difference, but trust me on this one. Asking how to improve your grade smacks of grade grubbing—not a likeable trait in a student. It’s like a struggling restaurant owner contacting Yelp and asking how to improve their low reviews. The low reviews themselves are not the problem. What the restaurant is doing (or not doing) to earn such low marks is the problem. A grade is the measurement of your performance. Asking your teacher to help change the measurement alone just shows that you’re not focusing on the actions (or inactions) that led you to this place.

That’s my summary of what not to do. Here’s a past post focusing on the better ways to ask teachers for help.

Small adds up

I love this message in one of my favorite blogger’s recent post. Doing something small every day adds up to big changes over time. As he puts it, “A small thing, repeated, is not a small thing.” Whether you want to get a job one day as a game designer, make the hockey team, or just get better at the trumpet, a little bit of focused effort every day goes a long way.

Very few big accomplishments happen because of one monumental shift. Whatever you want to achieve—this year, during high school, or in life—you’re not going to get there just by meeting one key person, learning one secret, or getting accepted into one college.

Big accomplishments happen when small habits add up.

Accomplishments vs. attitude

The most successful, fulfilled people didn’t get where they are through accomplishments alone. They paired their great drive to achieve with an equally great attitude. It’s true in the workplace, and in college admissions.

You have two applicants with near-perfect GPAs. One is a grade grubber who only cares about getting the A, who whines for extra credit and will not hesitate to send his parents in to argue with the teacher on his behalf. The other is a curious learner who participates in class discussions and helps the student next to him with their trig troubles. Who would you admit?

You have two applicants who’ve done over 40 hours of community service. One did it so she could list the activity on her college applications, did the bare minimum asked of her, and amassed the time without exerting much effort. The other found an organization she cared about, constantly looked for new and better ways to contribute, and has a letter of recommendation from a supervisor raving about her work and lamenting how much the student will be missed when she leaves for college. Who would you admit?

Two applicants enjoyed successful varsity football careers. One cared more about his personal stats than he did about the team and constantly clashed with both coaches and teammates. The other won the Coach’s Award for pairing positivity with his pads, and actually congratulated the talented incoming transfer to whom he lost his starting spot. Who would you admit?

Two students each had minor disciplinary infractions in high school. One complains about the punishment, and blames his cohorts for initiating the prank and the school for making an example out of him. The other gracefully accepts the blame, apologizes, and regrets that he didn’t show better judgement. Who would you admit?

Two students have learning disabilities. One refuses to try, the other refuses to quit. Who would you admit?

One student constantly looks for people to blame for his shortcomings. The other constantly looks for people to thank for his successes. Who would you admit?

Attitude might not be everything in college admissions and in life. But while accomplishments aren’t always entirely in your control, attitude is something that you get to choose.

Sustainable givers

In a past post, I shared the most important lesson in Adam Grant’s wonderful book Give and Take: the “Givers,”—those who pay more attention to what other people need than what other people can offer them, who are generous with their time, energy, skills and ideas and want to share them with people who can benefit the most, all without concern for getting credit—those are the people who are consistently the most successful, providing that they don’t allow themselves to be taken advantage of.

That distinction—the art of giving without letting the takers take advantage—is important. Successful people say no all the time, and much of Grant’s book explores how to land and stay in the healthy giving camp. But if you’d like a crash course, this Harvard Business Review article, which Grant co-authored, explains more about how to be a giver without burning out your giving engine.

Grant divides the givers into two categories: selfless givers and self-protective givers.

SELFLESS GIVERS have high concern for others but low concern for themselves. They set few or no boundaries, which makes them especially vulnerable to takers. By ignoring their own needs, they exhaust themselves and, paradoxically, end up helping others less.

SELF-PROTECTIVE GIVERS are generous, but they know their limits. Instead of saying yes to every help request, they look for high-impact, low-cost ways of giving so that they can sustain their generosity — and enjoy it along the way.

Whether you’re a teenager or an adult, you’ll be more successful, more indispensable, and better appreciated when you’re willing to give more than you take. But it’s important to keep the giving sustainable.

As the article concludes, “Effective givers recognize that every no frees you up to say yes when it matters most. After all, it’s hard to support others when you’re so overloaded that you’ve hit a wall.”

The formula for high-quality work in less time

Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, just posted on their website an excerpt from Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by study skills author Cal Newport. The formula referenced below is what Newport describes as the secret to getting great work done in less time:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).

“It [the formula] first came to my attention when I was researching my second book, How to Become a Straight-A Student, many years earlier. During that research process, I interviewed around 50 ultra-high-scoring college undergraduates from some of the country’s most competitive schools. Something I noticed in these interviews is that the very best students often studied less than the group of students right below them on the GPA rankings. One of the explanations for this phenomenon turned out to be the formula detailed earlier: The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration — radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.”

It works for a prodigy

In just a few short years, Wesley So has risen from a celebrated chess up-and-comer to one of the best players in the world. His current 56-game win streak includes four major tournament wins and a victory over Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion.

When So decided that he wanted to make the leap from a recognized prodigy to a top professional chess player, he knew he needed more time to study, and less stress in his life. He got both when he consciously decided to spend less time on the internet and social media.

If it helped the prodigy reach his goals, what could fewer internet distractions do for you?

You can read the story of So’s rise—and his internet usage decline—here.

No laughing matter

I’ve watched several interviews with famous stand-up comedians who reference a comedic habit of obsessing over that one person in the audience who won’t laugh. A comedian can be delivering an uproarious set and getting great laughs all around. But many comics will ignore 99% of the laughing crowd to focus on the 1% sitting stoically. And most admit that it’s not only a fruitless effort, but also one that ends up excluding the very people who were enjoying the show most.

Comedians might make this mistake often. But most teachers do not.

Of course, great teachers will obsess over that one student who’s struggling to learn. The best teachers even enjoy being doubted—it’s their chance to demonstrate how great teaching can open a student’s eyes and mind.

But a student who’s completely disengaged, who refuses to pay attention, who makes no effort to hide just how much they despise being in class? Most great teachers know that to make the comedian’s mistake of obsessing over that one student, of redirecting their classroom energy and focus in an attempt to bring that kid back to life, could mean ignoring those students who want to be there and are eager to learn. And that’s not a fair teacher-student trade.

Yes, your classroom performance is measured in large part by your grade. But the way you handle yourself in class each day is also a performance, one that your teacher will notice. Some students bring their best, most attuned, engaged selves to that performance. And other students miss that opportunity.

Which students do you think are more likely to get help when they need it?

Which students do you think are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt come grading time?

Which students do you think will ultimately earn stronger letters of recommendation?

Here’s a past post, Things teachers notice about you in class, to give you some idea of those visual cues teachers can’t help but notice, or ignore, depending on whether or not you choose to display them.

You’re giving a performance either way. Might as well give one that deserves attention.

The path to making things right

Author and former Navy Admiral David Marquet penned this Forbes piece about Volkswagen executives ducking and bumbling their way through their diesel emissions cheating scandal. There are so many press-garnering examples of companies and public figures who get caught doing something they shouldn’t have been doing but still refuse to take appropriate responsibility for their actions. It’s no wonder so many teenagers are reluctant to own up to their mistakes given the bad public examples of so many famous adults and successful companies they’re being shown.

People make mistakes. That’s especially true for teenagers who aren’t supposed to have learned everything about life yet. Most people will find a way to forgive youthful indiscretions if you take the right steps.

Here’s a past post with some advice about how to handle yourself if you get into trouble, and a second reminding you that the best time to apologize is when the infraction is still fresh.

For all but the most egregious violations, the path to making things right might not be easy. But it’s not all that complicated, either.

Your best self on a bad day

It’s easy to show your best self when you’re getting what you want. When you get the elected position you wanted, the grade you wanted, the college acceptance you wanted, etc., you’ve got a pre-existing lift that makes it easier to be nice, polite, and grateful.

But how do you behave when things don’t go your way?

When someone else gets elected club president over you, do you congratulate them? Or do you criticize the club’s choice?

When you come up short of the “A” you wanted, do you thank the teacher for spending time helping you after school and try to do even better next semester? Or do you blame the teacher and complain that you couldn’t get extra credit?

When a college you really wanted to attend doesn’t admit you, do you find a way to be happy for those who got in? Or do you belittle their accomplishments and claim one of their spots should have been yours?

And here’s the most important question—if your behavior depends on whether or not you get what you want, which version is the real you?

People will assume great things about you if you can be your best self, even on a bad day.