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.

Make good bets

We tend to make better decisions if we separate the decision from the outcome.

Imagine you’re walking to school. You’re confronted by an aggressive dog, so you move to the other side of the street. A car speeds past you and splashes muddy water all over your clothing.

Did you make a bad decision moving to the other side of the street? No. The decision and the outcome are two separate entities. You acted based on the best available information and options at the time. The fact that things later went awry doesn’t change the quality of the past decision.

This works the other way, too. Imagine you’d instead decided to approach the dog and provoke it, causing it to run away. A few more steps down the sidewalk, you find $100 you wouldn’t have found if you’d crossed the street.

Did you make a good decision? Actually, no. You made a terrible decision based on the information and options. You just got lucky that things turned out well.

This happens all the time in all areas of your life. My wedding rehearsal dinner took place at a wonderful restaurant that had no air conditioning during one of the hottest summer days in Seattle’s recorded history. Did we make a bad decision booking that place months earlier? No. It was a great decision based on what we knew at the time, which did not include an accurate weather forecast months in the future.

For many families, the intense focus on admissions-related outcomes causes them to conflate those outcomes with the decisions that led them. But losing an election does not mean you made a bad decision to run. The fact that you didn’t enjoy performing in the school play doesn’t mean you made a bad decision to audition.

And while we’re at it, another student’s acceptance to your dream school does not necessarily mean they made a good decision with their choice of essay topic, or that you should follow suit. They might have been admitted in spite of that topic (only the admissions readers who were in the room know why that student was admitted). Don’t assume the decision created the outcome.

Decisions are like bets. Making a smart one increases the likelihood of a good outcome. But it almost never guarantees it.

So stack the deck in your favor. Do the work, be informed, and make your decision based on what’s in front of you at the time.

But if the outcome isn’t what you’d hoped for, don’t punish yourself or the decision. It might just mean that your smart bet met bad luck.

For more on this, poker champion and business consultant Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts is an excellent read.

Losing sleep

Overachieving, overscheduled students—here’s a scenario. Imagine your top colleges of choice announced their intention to give special admissions consideration to students who averaged 7-8 hours of sleep every night. Would you need to make changes in your life to maintain that advantage? If so, what would you do?

Would you cut out that sixth activity that just doesn’t mean that much to you?

Would you shut out the distractions while you study so you could really focus and get more done in less time?

Or would you have to entirely rethink the way you’re currently scheduled, maybe by scaling back your APs or your test prep or your activities?

Whatever your answer, maybe you should consider making that change now?

Losing sleep almost never makes us, our health, or our work results any better.

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.


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.


  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.