Efficient fuel

Students, if you were to list your five most successful and fulfilling achievements—a good grade on a test, a raise at your part-time job, a learned skill in something that matters to you—what  would you learn from it? What behaviors led to the success? How can you apply those approaches to other areas of your life?

Successful people get that way in part because they learn from the inevitable failure that comes with repeatedly embracing challenges where they might not succeed. But they also know that success comes with its own valuable lessons.

This isn’t about pushing yourself to get better at everything all the time. It’s important to savor your successes and not to instinctively demand that you do even more all the time.

But the thrill that comes along with success is motivational fuel. And recycling the behaviors that lead to that success makes your fuel more efficient.

Self-persuasion

If you have a student, colleague, or friend who’s always late and leaves you waiting, here’s a technique that may change their behavior. The day before your next scheduled meeting together, just ask, “Will you be late tomorrow?”

Most people can’t bring themselves to answer yes to that question. But just considering the question at all makes them examine what they’re doing and consider what kind of behavior they want to model. Psychologists call this “self-persuasion,” and it’s surprisingly effective.

We’re more likely to persuade ourselves to change than we are to be persuaded.

Grade yourself

At the end of every week, month, semester—your choice—give yourself an honest grade based on these metrics.

  • Did you bring your best effort to class?
  • Did you bring your best self to class?
  • Did you try to learn the material (that’s not necessarily the same thing as trying to get an “A”)?
  • Did you participate?
  • Did you present as if you were genuinely happy to be there?
  • Did you ask good questions?
  • Did you find ways to contribute that made the class better for the teacher and/or your fellow students?
  • And the most important one, are you proud of the grades you gave yourself?

Earning good grades from yourself keeps you focused on the parts you can control. And it’s the secret weapon to earning good grades from the teachers who give them to you.

On doing less

The 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall includes a memorable cameo by Paul Rudd as Kunu, a zany surf instructor who repeatedly dishes out just one instruction: “Do less.”

Wacky as the character may have been, there’s a lot of evidence that doing less is the key to success. It doesn’t work if you do nothing, but if you cut out the extraneous stuff and leave yourself with less to do, you focus your efforts on the work, people, and impact that matter most.

Here are a few past posts of mine, here, here, and here, that link to the research and writing on this topic.

Thank them now, and thank them later

Adam Grant’s recent advice shared on his Twitter feed really resonated with me for a number of reasons.

AdamGrantMondayMotivation

  1. It’s a nice (and easy) thing to do.
  2. It feels less like a transaction when you care enough to reconnect.
  3. A mentor should know when their good advice followed in the moment builds in value over time.
  4. The mentor will be more likely to help you (and others) in the future.
  5. It encourages a generous cycle of sharing and reciprocating.

Change makers

My number came up for jury duty this week. Anyone who’s gotten this particular call to serve knows that it begins with shuffling everyone scheduled to report that day into one large room for an overview of what to expect. Greg, our clerk, has the unenviable job of beginning his day by facing a room of more than a hundred people, many of whom are there by obligation alone, and explaining the procedures we’ll be following. He was cheerful but also particularly effective in that he changed the room in the first sixty seconds with his explanation of jury reimbursement.

“You’ll be compensated ten dollars a day, which I know is more than most of you paid to park here this morning. That figure isn’t something we’re proud of. In fact, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t changed since the Eisenhower administration.”

It came off as more empathetic than comedic, but it sure did get a laugh from a tough crowd. And with just one sentence, he won the room over in the most subtle but effective of ways—by showing us that he understood what we were feeling and experiencing.

Greg likely gives some version of that 20-minute overview every day. It would be so easy to just plod through it, to resign himself to the idea that nobody in the room particularly cared what he had to say and that there really was no point in doing more than the bare minimum.

But he’s clearly engaged in his job. He embraces the opportunity to change the posture of everyone in that room, not by following instructions or reading a script, but by bringing some emotional labor to the task at hand. Greg may not have the power to change the system, but he’s got the power to change the day for a lot of people. I’m guessing what we witnessed was just a glimpse of the magic he brings to work.

One of the best ways to stand out is to make change. And you don’t need a title or even a room full of people to do it.

A student who patiently tutors someone from a D to a B in algebra is changing that student’s academic progress. A student who finds ways to make the gym work as a senior prom location instead of bemoaning the reality that a different venue fell through is changing people’s moods. A student who treats every customer who orders a burger when she’s behind the counter like they’ve just made her day by showing up is changing people all day. None of these opportunities require special training or scarce opportunities. They’re available to you in ways that you’re already spending your time every day.

There’s a difference between executing and engaging, between just doing what you’re told and creating an interaction that’s bigger than the work. Not everyone can do what Greg did in front of a crowd. But everyone can do for someone or something what he did for our jury room.

Imagine what would happen if you made a point to consciously create change in whatever you’re doing. Sure, you’d make things better for a lot of people around you. But it’s hard to see how becoming a change maker wouldn’t also change you–and your college admissions chances.

When you need a break

Nobody can churn out great work without taking an occasional breather. Dan Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, has read the research and distilled the science into his latest short video, “These are the 5 ways to make your breaks more replenishing.”

And here are a few past posts preaching the powers of the well-timed and well-executed break, one from study skills author Cal Newport, the other from Brad Stulberg, who wrote a book about achieving peak performance.

Show your best on your worst

This week in Russia, Japan suffered a heartbreaking loss to Belgium in soccer’s World Cup. Up 2-0 in the first half, Japan gave up two goals before surrendering a heartbreaking third as time ran out, sending the Belgians to the quarterfinals and ending Japan’s World Cup run.

Before departing, the Japanese players cleaned their locker room to a state so spotless it looked like you could eat lunch off the floor. They also left a note in the middle of the room that said only “thank you,” written in Russian.

spotless

But it wasn’t just Japan’s players who cleaned up when they didn’t have to. As they have done throughout the tournament, Japan’s supporters stayed behind to pick up trash in the stadium, this time with many in tears over their team’s defeat.

Postgame

If I were organizing the next World Cup, I’d invite the Japanese even if they didn’t officially qualify. They make the tournament better for everyone, on the field, in the locker room, and in the stands.

It’s easy to do the right thing when things are going well. But if you really want people to take notice, bring your best self when people least expect it, when things have not gone your way, when others would let their disappointment, frustration, or anger get the better of them.

Who you are on your worst days says even more than who you are on your best.

Are you asking for help in the wrong way?

Dr. Heidi Grant is a social psychologist and the author of Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You. According to the advice she shares in this article, many of us are asking for help in the wrong way—apologizing profusely, using disclaimers like, “I’m not the kind of person who usually asks for help,” portraying the help you need as a tiny, insignificant favor, or reminding people that they owe you.

Here are a few past posts of mine for some additional guidance, one on how to put you and the benefactor on the same team, and two on asking teachers for help—here’s how to do it, and here’s how not to do it.

One reply, or ongoing learning?

As a college freshman, Alex Banayan set out to interview some of the most successful people in the world to learn how they’d managed to launch and thrive in their careers. He not only successfully interviewed Bill Gates, Maya Angelou, Steve Wozniak, Jane Goodall, Larry King, Jessica Alba, Quincy Jones and a long list of others, but he also details the experience in his book released this year, The Third Door: The Wild Quest to Uncover How the World’s Most Successful People Launched Their Careers. So how did an 18-year-old secure these interviews simply by sending cold emails that began from his dorm room? Alex shares his secret (which he acknowledges he borrowed from author Tim Ferriss) in this two-minute video.

The technique is a great one because it asks only one question, and it gives the reader an easy out. But I’d caution high school students from employing it too broadly with a similarly famous audience. Instead, use it to connect with not-so-famous but still knowledgeable people. Why? Because they’re more likely to be willing and able to do more than just answer one question.

Instead of cold emailing Steven Spielberg and hoping to get your one filmmaking question answered, why not email the head of a local media company, or an instructor at a film school, or a producer at a local TV station? You can and probably should still ask just one question. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll get even more advice or an offer to work semi-regularly together.

Are you more likely to improve your ability to read defenses by emailing Tom Brady, or a local high school assistant coach who played QB in college?

The chef at the small local restaurant is a lot more likely to need prep help this summer than Gordon Ramsay or Cat Cora or Thomas Keller is.

Famous makes for a potentially great story. But open, accessible, and helpful makes for potentially great ongoing learning.