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.

Is your weakness worth improving?

I’ve written before that too many college applicants spend their high school years trying to fix their weaknesses. Colleges don’t expect you to be perfect. If you want to stand out, you’re a lot better off maximizing your strengths than you are obsessing over what you think will be perceived as a blemish on your application.

But some weaknesses might be worth addressing. And since there’s no formula to help you decide when that’s the case, here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you decide whether to improve or just let it be.

1. Is it actually a weakness?
If you’re getting a D in math, or if you’ve lost friends because you just weren’t all that nice to them, those are weaknesses. And more importantly, they can be improved. But if you got a 1460 on the SAT and you were hoping for a 1500, you don’t have a testing weakness. Your score is good enough already—you’re better off moving on and maximizing a strength. Something just short of perfection is not a weakness. Neither is the identification of one thing that you’re great at. The college admissions process can skew your perception in these areas. So before you go dedicating time and energy to fixing something, make sure the weakness is real, not just perceived.

2. Is the weakness improvable?
Some clichés are true, and “Nobody’s perfect” is one of them. Not every weakness is necessarily improvable. And others that might be improvable can take a lot of work to actually do so. So before you dive in and commit to getting better at something, ask yourself if it’s something you really can improve, and if so, if you’re committed to doing the work it will take to get there. What you want to avoid is spinning your wheels and going nowhere, or spinning just long enough to improve a little, but giving up before you reach your goal. Decide ahead of time if this is a weakness you can change, and if you’re willing to do what it takes to actually do so.

3. Would you be happier or healthier if you fixed this weakness?
It’s hard to argue against fixing a weakness that you genuinely believe would make you happier or healthier if you improved it. But please ask yourself if doing so would actually make that change. Your doctor is the best judge of the health part, and it’s best to double check with her before you launch on your self-improvement plan. But you are the best judge of the happy part. Will this change make you happy, not just the colleges or your coach or your parents? I’m not suggesting that you (or your doctor) are the only one worth listening to. But you’ve only got so many things you can focus on at one time. Make sure that as many of them as possible are things that won’t just make you more successful, but will also leave you happier and healthier.

4. Is the weakness preventing you from doing something, or getting somewhere, important to you?
This is connected to question #1, but focused more on the outcome rather than the emotion behind it. If you’re 50 points away from the SAT score you need to hit for your dream school, that might be worth addressing, especially if you haven’t prepped yet. If the varsity basketball coach told you the only reason you got cut was because of your free throws, spend some time on the line. If you’re at a B+ in your history class and you need at least an A- to get into the AP level you really want to take next year, double down on your study time. Successful people work hard to overcome these kinds of challenges all the time. And putting in the work to reach a goal that means something to you is different from trying to fix every little thing that’s less than perfect.

5. What price (literal or figurative) will you need to pay to fix this?
Money, time, energy, and attention are at a premium for high school students and their families. Will spending more of each mean you’ll be spending less someplace else? And if so, can you afford to reallocate those funds? If you don’t need to pay any money to fix it, and you’ve got enough time, energy, and attention to go around, great! But if you’d have to spend money on a test-prep tutor your family has already paid more than was budgeted, or it would mean less time practicing the trumpet that you love, or you’d need to cut back on your time performing in the school play that’s just about the most fun you have all week, those are real prices to pay. And it’s worth asking yourself if the cost of improving will be worth the eventual payoff.

Just because

Seth Godin’s post, Is kindness a luxury?, points out that someone who’s only willing to be kind when they have enough money, confidence, and everything else they want is actually working against getting where they want to go. Kindness is the foundation. If you start with that, you get closer to satisfying those other desires. And you enjoy the ride along the way.

That sentiment certainly applies to high school students (to all of us, really). But it’s also a good reminder for those who want to get into college that you shouldn’t reserve your best efforts, qualities, or contributions for only those tasks where there’s a guaranteed payoff.

Raise your hand in class even if participation doesn’t count toward your grade.

Help round up the balls after basketball practice because that’s what good teammates do.

Stay late to help clean up after the school dance even when it’s not your job.

Write thank you notes to your teachers and counselors who helped you apply to college, even if you don’t get into your first choice school.

Be nice to the kid that nobody else is nice to even if you’ll take some immature guff from students who are too insecure to do the same.

You can’t list most of these on your college applications. But you’re more likely to get rewards if you make a habit of doing the right thing just because.

A few resolution tips

Here’s a repeat share to get your new year off to a good start. Authors Chip and Dean Heath (who teach at Stanford and Duke respectively) have written several books about how to make better decisions and how to create change that sticks. So they know what they’re talking about when they pen “4 Research-Backed Tips for Sticking to Your New Years Resolutions.”

Here’s a post by author Dan Pink that brings the science of behavioral economics to new year’s resolutions.

Speaking of resolutions and economics, here’s an interesting 30-minute podcast on the Freakonomics blog about why willpower alone is not enough (and what to do instead).

And one final tip of my own. High school students spend enough time being measured, evaluated, and compared. Most are receiving too many messages identifying their (perceived) weaknesses and reminding them (often inaccurately) what they need to change or improve about themselves to get into “good colleges.” If you’re a high school student making new year’s resolutions, please make sure that some or all of those goals lead to things that actually make you–not just colleges or teachers or your parents–happy. There’s nothing wrong with vowing to study for the SATs or get a higher GPA, especially if the pursuit and accomplishment of that goal would make you feel proud and fulfilled. But if your resolutions are things you want to do rather than simply things you think you should do, you’re more likely to achieve and appreciate them. They’re your resolutions, after all.

Have a happy and safe New Year.

When phones are turned off

Students, what would happen in your life if you gave up your phone for one week?

The Today Show recently featured one class of sophomores at Black Hills High School in Washington State who, with some convincing, agreed to give up their phones for one week. And while they all agreed that they were initially bored, anxious, or a combination of both, at week’s end, the students acknowledged that they’d gotten more done and had been more engaged. One student acknowledged that he’d spent more time “actually talking to” his family members. Another remarked with some surprise, “I started reading a book last night.”

Not entirely surprisingly, most gratefully welcomed their phones back into their lives at the experiment’s conclusion. But one student now turns her phone off when doing homework and often leaves it behind when she leaves the house. Another turns his phone over to his parents at night to help resist temptation.

The students also mentioned that while their parents are quick to criticize their teen’s reliance on their phones, from the students’ perspective, those same parents are on their own phones as much as–or even more often than–their kids are.

This might be an interesting family experiment to try. Turn the family phones off for one week. If not for a week, maybe even for a day or two. Just make sure that the parents join in on turning off.