What to keep track of

You change your entire outlook, and your chances of success, by just changing what you keep track of.

Many of the students I’ve met who are stressed, unhappy, and generally negative about their journey from high school to college are paying attention only to those things that support those outlooks. They’ll talk about the teacher who supposedly doesn’t like them, the student they believe didn’t deserve to edge them out for entrance into an AP class, the politics of the baseball team, and the problems they find with their school. They track (and blame someone else) every time they come up short. They remember every unlucky break. It’s them against the world, the odds are stacked against them, and none of it is their fault.

It’s not that all of their observations are necessarily untrue. But what they’ve chosen to track is clearly changing their outlook.

What if instead, they tracked the opposite?

What if they noticed their great teachers, the smart and interesting students they have the good fortune to learn with, the comradery of the baseball team, and the good parts of their school?

What if they paid more attention to every one of their successes, every lucky break, and every time a friend, family member, or teacher extended a hand to help them?

What if they owned every failure and used it not as an opportunity to blame, but one to learn from, something that could make them smarter, more resilient, and more likely to succeed the next time?

What you keep track of becomes what you expect more of. And what you expect more of often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some disappointments and setbacks are the real thing. But many more are not. If what you’ve come to expect is not making you happy and fulfilled, the quickest way to change your outcomes might be to change what you keep track of.

The sound of silence…and productivity

Do you listen to music when you’re studying or trying to get other difficult work done? According to Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, author of This Is Your Brain on Music, and featured expert in this article, music is an aid to productivity only when doing work that’s repetitive, like driving a truck or working in a factory. Otherwise, repeated studies have shown that music, especially lyrics, can wreak havoc on cognitive performance.

So why do so many people insist on listening to music while they work or study? As the article says, “We like it, and we can’t tell it’s messing us up.”

Courage, responsibility, and credit

Before he became a New York Times columnist and bestselling author of 20 successful cookbooks, Mark Bittman was just a guy who wanted to work as a writer. He approached the editor of his local paper in Massachusetts and confidently proposed that he could do a better job than the paper’s current restaurant reviewer. The editor told him to come back the next day with a review and prove it. It worked, and that first cooking piece was published in 1980.

Jason Fried is the founder and president of Basecamp, the company behind the popular project management software of the same name. But he started as a freelance web designer in the late 90s. To win his first clients, he studied various companies’ websites, sent the CEOs emails pointing out what was wrong with their current designs, and included a mock-up of how he could improve them. That strategy won him his first clients—large companies that paid him big bucks.

These, and so many other stories of how successful people got their starts, have a few things in common.

1. They weren’t afraid to try…or to fail.
It took some guts for Bittman and Fried to boldly claim they could do it better. But what were they really risking? The editor could have passed. The CEO could have said, “I like our current design better.” But other than hearing the (temporary) sting of “No,” neither Bittman nor Fried would have suffered any lasting damage. But the fact that they weren’t afraid to try or to fail, no matter how many times it took for them to get what they hoped for, is what improved their odds and ultimately helped them be successful. If you want to be successful, you’ve got to be willing to try, to fail, and then to keep trying if necessary.

2. They shouldered the responsibility.
Bittman didn’t ask the editor to hire him before he wrote the piece. Fried didn’t require a deposit for the work he’d already completed before he shared his ideas with the CEOs. That approach didn’t just mean that Bittman and Fried were shouldering all of the responsibility; it also meant that the people in charge had nothing to lose. The more responsibility you take for your own project, the more willing you are to take the blame if it doesn’t go well, the better the chances that you’ll get to do exactly what you want to do.

3. They deflected credit.
Bittman and Fried actually made those in charge look good. Sure, Bittman got his name on that first article, but the editor must have looked good to his bosses for finding an undiscovered—and better—restaurant critic. The CEOs who gave Fried a shot got to claim the foresight in retaining someone who could improve their company’s website.

If you’re looking for a chance, an opportunity, or just the approval to try an idea within an organization:

• Have the courage to try and potentially fail.
• Accept all responsibility, and the blame if it doesn’t work.
• If it works, deflect the credit to those who gave you a chance.

Do this often enough and the practice, along with the subsequent success, will probably become a good habit.

Determination: friend or foe?

I love the show Shark Tank. Budding entrepreneurs pitch their business—and offer a stake in their company—to the cast of multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons (the sharks) in exchange for an investment. It’s entertaining, it’s educational, and it’s helped to launch hundreds of successful businesses. But every now and then, an entrepreneur will present a business that’s just not working. And that’s when the show gets a little sad.

Lots of ideas don’t work when turned into a business, and there’s no shame in trying and failing. But some of those business owners have invested tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into their idea. Some have taken out second mortgages on their homes. Some have borrowed money from friends or family. They’re out of options, time, and money. Not surprisingly, the sharks almost always pass on these pitches and advise that it’s time to give up on this particular idea.

And almost every time, the next clip shown is of the dejected entrepreneur vowing to never give up.

Dogged determination is a necessary trait to be successful in just about anything. But when that sheer relentlessness prevents someone from facing facts, when it drives them to give up more money, time, or energy than they can afford, when it prevents them from redirecting to something potentially more successful and personally fulfilling, determination becomes a foe rather than a friend.

I often see determination’s transition from friend to foe during the college admissions process. The student whose SAT score has stalled after three tries, and who wants to do yet another round of expensive test prep. The student who refuses to look at more realistic schools and instead keeps searching for a way to get into a highly selective college. The student who won’t accept a college’s denial, who wages an appeal campaign and won’t even consider any of the available college options on the table. Their determination is admirable. And it will help them achieve a lot of things in the future. But in these scenarios, that determination is holding them back from achieving many other more realistic—and likely just as rewarding—goals.

It’s far better to have determination than not to. And there’s no formula to identify when it’s time to move from determination to acquiescence. But you can start by simply facing facts. What do the facts tell you? What do people who know you and love you advise? What does your counselor think you should do?

And most importantly, if you kept pursuing this goal and never achieved it, would you be proud of yourself for trying so hard? Or would you regret what you gave up to stay so determined?

Determination is a great friend. But if it stops acting in your best interest, that friend might be turning into a foe.

On asking for help

Wharton Business School professor and author Adam Grant offers up his take on How Not to Ask for a Recommendation Letter. It’s directed towards college students, and it’s too late for this year’s crop of high school seniors to implement the advice. But I’m sharing it anyway because I think all students (and many parents) can still draw some great lessons from it.

Here’s a snippet of what Grant said was one of the best recommendation requests he’s ever seen.

“I was hoping you would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation because I have interacted with you over the past couple of years more than with any other professor here. I have made countless mistakes as a team leader, including micromanaging in our first weeks as a club, not giving proper feedback to my teammates about their performance, and not being able to defuse tension at board meetings. But I have also grown tremendously, especially with the help of your advice on…”

Part of being successful means asking for help when you need it. Those requests sometimes mean asking someone to do you a favor, and people don’t always feel compelled to say yes. So here are a few past posts that explain more about what this student did—and what you’ll need to do—if you want the people you’re asking for help to respond in kind.

Here’s one with Grant explaining why admitting your inadequacies—rather than simply selling your strengths—is a more effective way to get job offers, promotions, and board seats.

And another highlighting the most applicable of Grant’s “6 Ways to Get me to Email You Back.”

Here’s another, this one with my advice on how to deserve the help you need (along with some links to other past posts about how to ask for help effectively).

And a final one for parents with guidelines for emailing your student’s teachers.

The gossip antidote

Unless you write for National Enquirer, it’s hard to see how gossip can be a productive influence in your group of friends, employees, co-workers, etc. A recent Harvard Business Review article, The Antidote to Office Gossip, defines gossip as “casual and unconstrained conversation, about absent third parties, regarding information or events that cannot be confirmed as being true.” The article is aimed at managers, but just about anyone in any group can embrace the most important piece of advice:

“Employees look to their managers as role models and messengers of organizational values. It’s one thing to insist on conduct based on mutual regard and high character; it’s quite another to demonstrate it. Ethics and empathy should be the tandem directive for conduct. If you model integrity in what you say and do, your employees will likely follow suit.”

What if you modeled integrity in this way within your group? What effect would it have? And how much loyalty and respect would you engender? Worth giving it a try.

And here’s a past post about college admissions gossip and how to avoid it.

Four ways students can get more sleep

One of the many side effects of the escalating arms race of college admissions is the sleep deprivation for so many of today’s teens. There’s a growing body of research that shows just how important adequate sleep is for mental and physical health and performance. Check out this TED Talk by a pediatric neurologist, this study of elite performers in a variety of disciplines, this short video by the Army Surgeon General, and this study by the director of sleep medicine at Boston’s Children’s Hospital. They all agree on just how vital adequate sleep is, and how damaging—especially for children and teens—a lack of sleep can be.

So how are busy, hardworking students supposed to find the time for more sleep? Between classes, homework, practices, rehearsals, meetings, etc., many kids who would love to be asleep much earlier are staying up until the wee hours just to keep up and get their work done.

Here are a few tips that can help.

1. Make sleep a priority.
You might say there’s just no way you can get to bed earlier. But if you were offered a million dollars if you could successfully go to bed an hour earlier than your usual time every night for a week without letting your grades or commitments slide, you’d probably find a way. The first step towards doing anything is deciding that it’s important.

2. Prune your activities.
Activities are supposed to be things that you do by choice because you enjoy them. Are you involved in anything that’s lost its luster? Is there some commitment that seems to be taking your time without giving back any fun, learning, camaraderie, or other benefit? If so, consider letting that activity go. Colleges don’t expect you to spend every waking second doing something productive. And I’ve never met an admissions officer who would want a student to dutifully plod through an activity they just don’t like anymore.

3. Study smarter.
You know those students who do well in school without necessarily studying harder than the rest of the class? It’s not because they’re all just more intelligent. Most of them study smarter. Here are some tips to help you do the same.

4. Ditch the snooze button.
Check out this past post on why the snooze button makes you sleepy.

Five ways to show potential

Part of a college admissions officer’s job is to be a fortune teller. Who you were yesterday in high school is a lot less interesting to colleges than who you’ll be tomorrow in college. They choose a freshman class based on the predicted future success of the applicants. And while a track record of success in high school reveals a lot about an applicant’s preparation for the rigors of college, there’s another quality that, while hard to spot, is just as appealing–if not more so.


The word “potential” actually means something promising that has not yet been fully realized. An applicant with potential may have done good work in high school, but the potential means he or she has a good shot to do even better work once they get to college. So here are five ways to demonstrate potential to colleges. All of them are available to any student regardless of your GPA or test scores.

1. Be hungry.
(Figurative) hunger is a great pre-college trait. Are you hungry to learn as much as possible about the Civil War? Are you hungry to make a difference in your community? Are you hungry for a chance to play in the orchestra or serve on student council or design pages for the yearbook? Successful people aren’t satisfied just taking whatever happens to come along. They’re hungry to learn, help, accomplish and impact as much as possible. And successful high school students are hungry for more than just items to list on their college applications.

2. Capitalize on opportunities.
Not everything you do in high school will pay you back the same rewards. But applicants with potential recognize when they’re in a particularly good situation and try to capitalize on it. Do you have a favorite class or teacher? Did you get named a varsity starter, or get picked to play a major part in the musical, or get the part-time job you really wanted? These opportunities don’t come around every day. Now that yours is here, how will you extract the most from it? Will you try to challenge yourself, learn, and make as much of an impact as you possibly can? Or will you do just what’s asked of you until it’s time to move on to the next thing? High school is the perfect time to demonstrate that you recognize and appreciate these opportunities when they come along.

3. Get good at (good) failure.
Failing an exam because you didn’t study is a bad failure. But failing to win an office, failing to sink the free throws at the end of the game, failing to get that promotion at your part-time job in spite of your best efforts–those are good signs. They prove that you go after what you want and that you don’t shy away from things that are hard. And best of all, failing gives you the chance to show colleges your resiliency. Here are a few past posts, here and here, with examples of how to get good at good failing.

4. Be impatient for real experience.
It’s easy to sit back and talk about big plans, like how you plan to be premed because you want to help people, or how you want to run your own business someday. But a plan not pursued just remains a lot of talk. So why not start now? Take a class (in person or online). Get an internship or a part-time job. Read a book about the field. You don’t necessarily have to know what you want to do with your life or even what you want to study in college. But whatever you’re interested in or drawn to today, don’t just observe from afar. Take a few steps closer, maybe even to the point of getting some real experience if possible.

5. Let your excitement for college show.
A student who’s excited to attend college, to learn and grow and experience as much as possible, that’s a student who will work to satisfy that hunger (see #1) during their college years. Think about what you hope or expect to gain from college. Look for colleges that fit. Answer questions honestly about why you’re applying to your chosen schools. And don’t base your college excitement on being admitted to just one particular school (or a range of prestigious schools). Why? Because if your primary motivation in high school is just to get into a famous college, where’s the guarantee that you’ll keep being that same motivated, hardworking student once Prestige U actually lets you in?

And if you’re a “B” or “C” student, here’s a past post with a few more ways to show your potential to colleges.

Practicing paying attention

The evidence just keeps growing that multi-tasking increases the time you spend working and decreases the quality of what you produce. You end up doing more but getting less done. As this New York Times article points out:

“Indeed, multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.”

It’s not easy for most of us to just disconnect and focus on one thing, but the article also goes on to give some helpful tips on how to practice paying attention.

Be good, or get good

I loved the simplicity of Seth Godin’s message in his recent post. You can either do what you’re good at, or get really good at what you do. But, as he puts it, “It makes no sense at all to grumble and do something poorly.”

It’s couched as career advice, but following it would get any student a lot closer to their college dreams.