Deliberate practice

To become exceptional at just about anything takes practice. Studying, computer programming, counseling, managing, writing—they all take time, experience, and work to master. In fact, in his 2008 book, Outliers, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell introduced the “10,000 hours rule,” which argues that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at just about anything, from guitar, to golf, to video games.

But the 10,000-hour rule doesn’t specify what kind of practice is necessary to get measurably better. It turns out that whether your aspirations drive you to spend 10,000 or just 10 hours practicing, just putting the hours in isn’t enough to get better. You have to do the right things during those practice hours.

Enter “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice is purposeful and systematic rather than just mindlessly repeating actions and hoping to get better. For example, a professional video gamer doesn’t just sit for hours playing the game for fun. They analyze their performance. They carefully consider where improvements could make the biggest difference. They dissect the specific skills they need to practice to improve those areas. And they approach each practice session with a plan—much like a syllabus for a class or a focused agenda for a meeting—for exactly how they will spend that time. It’s not just putting in the hours. It’s putting in the time, focus, and analysis necessary to make the most of those hours spent.

Professor and author Cal Newport discusses deliberate practice at the 26:30 mark of this podcast. In fact, the entire 1-hour podcast—which discusses how to build a remarkable career—is worth a listen. But everyone, from students to parents to counselors, wants to be good at those things they care about. And if you’re putting in the hours, you might as well make those hours count.

The three best predictors of long-term success

Michelle Gielan is a positive psychology researcher and the best-selling author of Broadcasting Happiness. In this podcast, she shares the three greatest predictors of long-term success. And while it’s couched for listeners in the workforce, the studies are based on research done with students in the academic world.

According to the research, your long-term predictors of success are:

1. Levels of optimism
Part of this optimism is the expectation that good things will happen, especially in the face of challenge. But more importantly, it’s the belief that your behavior matters. You get to make choices about how hard you study, whether or not you prepare for a presentation, and how you treat your fellow students or co-workers. A person with high levels of optimism believes that those choices—more than elements they can’t control—make a difference.

My college admissions corollary: The high school students who believe that their work ethic, character, curiosity, and interest in learning matter more than whether or not a famous college says yes have higher levels of optimism than students who believe an acceptance to an Ivy League school is the key to a happy and successful life.

2. Your relationship with stress
Your brain responds differently to stress depending on how you perceive it. Do you look at stress as a challenge or a threat? If you see it as a challenge, your brain reacts well and your performance actually gets better. But when you perceive stress as a threat, you’re simply not at your best, and you’re less able to handle the challenges you’re facing.

My college admissions corollary: The student who approaches a big test worrying that everything from his grade to his GPA to his college admissions chances is on the line is already putting his studying brain at a disadvantage. But the student who approaches that same test with the idea that this is her opportunity to show how much she’s learned is increasing her likelihood of performing well.

Here is a collection of past posts to help you respond to stress as a challenge rather than a threat.

3. Support provision
It’s more productive in the short- and long-term to focus on supporting those people around you as opposed to measuring and worrying about how much they’re supporting you. In fact, Gielan’s research showed that people who are among the top 25% of supporters within an organization are 40% more likely to receive a promotion over the next year than the people in the bottom 25%.

My college admissions corollary: Worry less about which teacher treated you how you think you should be treated or which student got what you think you deserved. Instead, focus more on making every class, club, team, etc. better for everyone in it, not just for yourself. In fact, that’s the best way to assure your own success.

And here was the research’s most compelling stat: taken together, these three things account for 75% of long-term job success.

It’s also a formula that has nothing to do with grades, test scores, or admissions outcomes.

Time to reinvent yourself?

When I taught SAT classes in college, I once agreed to substitute at a location where a teacher had called in sick. And before I’d even arrived to teach, I’d heard all about Alex, the bad apple of the class.

The sick teacher had called and warned me that Alex was a disruptive class clown who clearly didn’t want to be there. The site director at that location made a separate phone call and gave me the same heads up. The message was clear—Alex will be a challenge, so be ready for him.

But fifteen minutes before the four-hour class was scheduled to end, Alex had yet to do a single thing that could be called disruptive. I finally just decided to address the elephant in the room and playfully ask him about it, right there in front of everyone else in the class.

Alex, I’ve gotta be honest—I’m a little disappointed. I got all these warnings that you were going to give me a hard time. I was ready for you. But we’ve been in here for almost four hours and you haven’t done a single thing out of line. Are you giving me a pass, or are you just waiting to give me an extra hard time at the end?

Alex looked at me with half a smile and just said, “Do you want me to give you a hard time?”

I don’t think I taught any better or differently than Alex’s regular instructor, and there could be any number of reasons Alex decided to play it straight the day I was his teacher. Maybe he was tired. Maybe he just didn’t feel like wasting his comedic powers on someone who would only be there one day. Or maybe he decided he didn’t want to be the problem kid. But for that day, he was a completely different student than he was reported to be. For that one day, he’d reinvented himself. And there was nothing jarring about it for me—I’d never experienced the other version of Alex.

Students, as you head back to school, remember that there’s no law saying that you can’t reinvent yourself with your teachers.

Maybe you don’t want to be the class clown anymore and are ready to show your more studious side.

Maybe you’re tired of sitting back during class discussions and you’re now ready to raise your hand and engage.

Maybe you’re ready to care more about learning and less about earning an A at any cost.

Maybe you’re ready to lean into your favorite subject, or to stop beating yourself up over your weaker subject and be happy just trying your best.

Depending on where you go to school, most of your teachers will be meeting you for the first time. You’re not carrying any reputation-based baggage with you. You can start fresh if you want to.

So if you’re ready to make a change that will leave you happier, more successful, more engaged, or all of the above, the first week of school is the perfect time to reinvent yourself.

How to train your parents to step back

I write often here about how important it is for parents to step back. Kids who rely on their parents to direct, manage, and fix their lives for them are less successful getting into college and less prepared once they get there.

But the truth is that there’s a lot teenagers can do to earn that independence rather than just lament its absence. Here are five suggestions.

1. Start doing things you’ve always been asked to do.
Asking for independence isn’t nearly as effective as actually demonstrating it. And the best way to start is to do things your parents have always had to ask you to do, like making your bed, cleaning your room, taking out the trash, etc. Tasks like these are the low-hanging fruit of independence. You don’t need permission. You don’t have to earn the right. Just start (and don’t stop). Every teen wants to stay out later or have access to the family car or spend unsupervised time with their friends. But it’s hard to entrust a teenager with a car and late curfew if you can’t be trusted to make your bed without being asked. Assuming responsibility for the things you’ve always had to be asked to do will demonstrate a real maturity and independence that you and your parents can build on.

2. Look for opportunities where failure would be recoverable.
Most parents’ reluctance to step back comes from their fear of what will happen if things go badly. If the first independence you seek is to manage your entire college application process with no parental oversight, failure might not be recoverable (missing a deadline could mean that a college you loved is now completely off the table). Instead, start with things where you could recover from the worst case scenario. Meeting with your counselor to discuss your course planning, keeping track of your schedule for your part-time job, asking your calculus teacher for some extra help before the next exam—if those things don’t go well, there will be little harm done and your parents could even step in if you needed them to. Think of it like training for a marathon or investing money—you have to build up slowly before you can safely go big.

3. Seek advice along with permission.
Many students assert their need for independence along with a steadfast refusal to listen to any advice. But the problem with that approach is that it puts you and your parents on opposite sides of the table. And as ready as you may be to do more on your own, your parents know more about life than you do. So instead, ask for their advice along with their permission. There’s a big difference between “Can I go with my friends to look at colleges this weekend?” and “I want to look at colleges this weekend with my friends. What do you think I should do while I’m there to get the most out of it?” See the difference? The former is pushing them out. The latter is inviting them in.

4. Share credit, own blame.
As you direct more of your own life, some things will work out as you’d hoped, and some will not. How you respond to each will affect whether or not you’ll get more chances to stretch in the future. So here’s a tip—give your parents credit when things go well, but own all the blame yourself when they don’t.

“My counselor agreed to let me do an independent study, just like we talked about. Thanks for your advice. It really helped.”

“I thought I could juggle both activities at the same time, but I was wrong. I’ll make sure not to take on more than I can handle again.”

No demand for acknowledgement when it goes right, and no excuses for when it goes wrong. Just a willingness to share the good and to own the bad. And both responses earn you more opportunities in the future.

5. Respect the process.
The transfer of responsibility from parent to student isn’t meant to happen overnight. It’s a process. And like any process that a) involves human beings and b) is worth doing, it takes time, patience, and an acknowledgment that if it were easy, everyone would do it perfectly. So expect that it will take some time. You and your parents may both make mistakes along the way—remember that they’re more likely to forgive yours if you’re willing to do the same for them. And most importantly, care more about progress than you do about getting what you want when you want it. Showing that you can move maturely and productively through the ups and downs doesn’t just show respect for the process. It also shows that you’re behaving like the adult who’s ready for the very independence you’re seeking.

The best antidote to worry

Worry ruins college admission for too many families. All the uncertainty about what might happen with one upcoming grade, test, or admissions decision can leave some students and parents in a constant state of anxiety, almost all of which will seem overblown in retrospect when that student eventually moves into a dorm and becomes a college freshman.

Research out of the University of Chicago shows that the best way to stop worrying about what might happen tomorrow is to be grateful for what you have today. Your health, your family, your friends, your life—all of these things are more important than your SAT score or whether Northwestern says yes. If that feels true in theory but difficult to embrace in practice because you’re in the middle of this potentially stressful time, here’s an article that shares not just the research, but also a simple exercise to help you embrace gratitude as your worry antidote.

The confidence formula

Whether you’re selling, dating, or trying to get into college, confidence helps. And it works best when you combine two beliefs.

1. I’d really like for this to work out between us.
2. If you decide I’m not for you, no hard feelings. There are others I may be a better match for.

No pressure. No arrogance. No desperation. Just a genuine interest in finding the best path forward for both parties and the recognition that one no today is just that—one no today.

Sleep as an investment, not a cost

Patricia D. Horoho is a retired United States Army lieutenant general who also served as the 43rd U.S. Army Surgeon General and the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Medical Command. And this interview shares some of her strong beliefs about the importance of sleep in achieving peak performance. In particular, I loved this phrase: “We’ve got to view each hour of sleep as the ammunition our brains need.”

Think of sleep not as a cost to your performance today, but as an investment in your performance tomorrow.

“Show, don’t tell…”

Fans of ABC’s Shark Tank, where investment-seeking entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to the cast of multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons (the sharks), have seen this scenario play out on the show. The sharks are interested, but on the fence, questioning if there’s enough potential in this business to earn their time, money, and attention. Sensing that he or she is at risk of losing their potential deal, the entrepreneur tries to tell the sharks what sets them apart.

“I’m relentless. I will not give up.”

“You won’t find someone who works harder than I do.”

“I am passionate about this!”

I’ve seen almost every episode of Shark Tank, but I’ve never seen any of these statements alone lure a shark to make an offer.

Persistence, hard work, and passion are prerequisites for entrepreneurial success. And just because you do those things doesn’t necessarily mean you have a viable business.

Would an NFL coach be swayed just because you claimed to practice hard?

Would a potential romantic partner be swayed just because you claimed to be a nice person?

Would a recruiter at Google or Apple be swayed just because you claimed to be passionate about technology?

In each of these cases—and on Shark Tank—showing works a lot better than telling does.

If you want to see how showing versus telling is done, scroll to 3:50 of this Shark Tank clip and watch entrepreneur Nathan Holzapfel. In just 20 seconds, he gets the sharks interested, not by telling them that he works hard and he cares and he keeps going, but by actually showing them. 20 seconds is all it takes for him to get billionaire investor Mark Cuban to belt out, “I love you—I LOVE you!”

When you’re writing your college essays, don’t just tell colleges that you’re resilient or hard-working or passionate. Show them.

And if you’re working your way through high school, remember that the best way to be successful and to get into college is to put your natural strengths to the best use so you have something to show for them.

Mistakes can be persuasive

Just a month ago, I posted about how sharing weaknesses can accentuate a strength. Here’s another example, this one from Warren Buffet, the 86-year-old CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the world’s most successful investors.

The financial and business stakes are high when Buffett pens his annual letter to shareholders. Yet as Bob Cialdini, a psychology professor who studies and writes on the science of influence and persuasion, points out in this recent CNBC piece, Buffet almost always describes—within the first page or two—an error or mistake that he and his company made in the previous year.

Here’s how Cialdini describes the effect of those admissions:

“It is so disarming. . . I say to myself every time, ‘Oh! This guy is being straight with us. What is he going to say next? I need to pay attention to everything he says next!. . . He’s established himself as a trustworthy credible source of information before he describes the things that are most favorable, that he wants me to process and recall. Brilliant.”

Mistakes really can be persuasive, a tip worth remembering for students who will soon be trying to persuade with their applications and essays.