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.

Self-explanations are the best explanations

I’ve written often that the surest way to learn any new material is to teach it back to an imaginary audience. The act of explaining something clearly and cogently activates a different part of your brain and is a lot more effective than passively reviewing or memorizing. Here’s more evidence–a study showing that self-explanation turns out to be more effective than teacher explanation, note-taking, and several other learning techniques.

Our kids need more sleep

From Challenge Success’s regular newsletter, which arrived in my inbox this week:

“Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that not getting enough sleep is associated with certain health risks and that more than ⅔ of U.S. high school students report less than 8 hours of sleep during school nights. When teens consistently get the right amount of sleep, they feel and function better. A lack of adequate sleep is associated with increased risk of physical illnesses, such as obesity and diabetes, injury-related risk behaviors (e.g. risky driving or not wearing a helmet), poor mental health, attention and behavior problems, and poor academic performance.”

The best productivity hack?

If you’ve made any resolutions in the vein of getting more done in 2019, don’t skip what could be the world’s best productivity hack: saying no. We all have obligations that are just part of school, work, or life, things we don’t have the option of turning away. But just about everything else is a choice. Do you need to attend that standing meeting every Tuesday? Do you need to meet with that tutor for the course you’re already earning a solid B in? Do you need to do yet another round of test prep in the hopes of eking out another 50 points?

Your answer to any or all of those scenarios might well be yes. But it’s important to ask the question, and to remember that the surest way to get more done is to have less to do.

Put some teaching into your studying

Studies have shown teaching material is the best way to learn it, a process I’ve written about before. The act of clearly explaining something, even to an imaginary student, engages a different part of your brain than just absorbing the material. And here’s some more science, a meta-analysis of 64 studies involving 6,000 students, all showing that the ability to explain something (even to yourself) leads to better learning outcomes than when the explanation comes only from a teacher or book.

If you want to raise your grades this year, put some teaching into your studying.

Diminishing returns of overwork

Given that your average college-bound student probably works at least 40 hours per week between school, homework, and activities, you might check out this article and consider the referenced research that shows:

  • Working more doesn’t mean working better.
  • Productivity dramatically decreases with longer hours and drops off completely at 55 hours per week.
  • On average, someone working 70 hours a week achieves no more than a colleague working 15 fewer hours.

If your biggest achievement is simply how many hours you work, fewer hours spent working just might lead to bigger achievements.

More downtime, and more sleep

Here’s Challenge Success’s Playtime, Downtime, and Family Time: PDF for Teens; Common-sense strategies for promoting teen health and well-being.

And for teens (or parents!) who are convinced that you can get by with less than the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep, Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams is a worthwhile and potentially alarming read.

Let’s get some more downtime—and some more sleep—into all our lives.

Better posture

“Will this be on the test?” and “Tell me what to do” work occasionally in high school. But that approach is working less often and less reliably every day in the real world.

As often as you can, approach the things that matter to you in high school not by looking for a right answer and waiting to be told what to do. Instead, try:

“Here’s what I think we should do.”

“Here’s why I think that’s right.”

“Here’s what I’m hoping will happen if it works.”

“Who’s with me?”

That’s the posture of the leader who seeks to solve problems without a right answer. And colleges can’t get enough of those people.

Forthcoming forgiveness

Students, parents, employees–even the most well-intentioned of us screw up occasionally. And when others are affected, those moments are a perfect opportunity to build your reputation rather than to break it.

Yesterday, Basecamp, the project management software used by hundreds of thousands of people, including me and my team at Collegewise, went down for five hours. Basecamp allows users to do everything around a project, from posting and editing files, to communicating with team members, to assigning and tracking to-do’s. Used as intended, you don’t have to rely on other services for file sharing, for group chat, or even for email. Basecamp does it all. That’s their sell. If you used the tool exactly as they encourage you to do, five hours is a long time to be without it, especially if you have a lot of people working on an important project. It also turned out that the malfunction was entirely avoidable.

And yet, by the time the problem was fixed, Basecamp’s reputation as a tool and a company appeared to be even stronger than it was before. How did they pull that off? I saw five components to their approach:

1. They alerted all of their users right away. They didn’t wait for people to reach out to their help lines just to learn that software was temporarily down.

2. They continued to update their users with information and estimates about when the problem would be fixed.

3. Each of these updates was detailed and shared seemingly all of the information available at the time of the posting.

4. They never said or wrote that truly awful phrase, “We apologize for any inconvenience.”

5. Their CTO, David Heinemeier Hansson, stepped up and took personal responsibility for the problem. Here are some excerpts from his post after the problem had been fixed:

“All in, we were stuck in read-only mode for almost five hours. That’s the most catastrophic failure we’ve had at Basecamp in maybe as much as a decade, and we could not be more sorry. We know that Basecamp customers depend on being able to get to their data and carry on the work, and today we failed you on that…We’ve let you down on an avoidable issue that we should have been on top of. We will work hard to regain your trust, and to get back to our normal, boring schedule of 99.998% uptime…It’s embarrassing to admit, but the root cause of this issue with running out of integers has been a known problem in our technical community…We should have known better. We should have done our due diligence when this improvement was made to the framework two years ago. I accept full responsibility for failing to heed that warning, and by extension for causing the multi-hour outage today. I’m really, really sorry.”

The steps are less important than the overarching approach. They cared. They communicated. They empathized. They brought a human to the forefront instead of hiding behind company layers. And most importantly, someone stood up, took responsibility, and sincerely apologized.

After Hansson posted his explanation and apology, the comments and social media feeds filled with users’ expressions of forgiveness, encouragement, and even praise for both Hansson and Basecamp. Here’s a screenshot:



You’ll screw up (or do so again) one day. It happens to everyone, often in spite of the best efforts or intentions. When it happens, run towards—not away from—the responsibility. Apologize to people who were affected and acknowledge that you understand what the mistake meant for them. Resolve to do better and mean it.

Whether you’re just one person who let down a friend or a company who let down thousands of customers, forgiveness will almost certainly be forthcoming if you handle the mistake correctly.