Hours don’t always mean hard work

Sara sent me this clip of Will Smith saying that while other people may be better or smarter than he is at his craft, nobody will ever outwork him.  As he puts it,  “I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill.  I will not be outworked.  Period.”

It’s a great example, but only if you follow it correctly.

Just because you put in more hours and get less sleep than everyone else doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re working hard.  If you won’t ask your teacher for help when you need it, if you answer your phone, texts and emails when you’re trying to get your homework done, if you sign up for multiple activities you don’t care about just so you can list them on your resume, sure, you’ll be working a lot and probably staying up late.  But working long doesn’t equal working hard.

It’s hard work to pay attention in class like your grade depended on it.  It’s hard work to take on a project in your club that nobody else wants to do.  It’s hard work to shut off all your communication and focus for two hours on chemistry, or work the lights for the school play when you didn’t get cast in a part, or sweep up the store at your part-time job even when you aren’t asked to.

Instead of thinking about how many hours you’re putting in,ask yourself at the end of each day, “What did I do today that was actually hard?”

Limit your hours

One way to stand out in college admissions is just flat-out
work more hours than the competition. 
Someone else might do 100 community service hours, but you’ll do
120.  Someone else might spend 20 hours
studying for the SAT, but you’ll get a tutor on retainer and work 80
hours.  Someone else might sleep eight hours
a night, but you’ll sleep five and spend the remaining three adding more
activity hours to your growing list.

The problem with this strategy is that you can’t spend more
hours than everyone else.  Someone else
will find a way to do more community service and test prep hours while getting
fewer hours of sleep.  And at some point,
you’ll all max out, as not even Superman can work more than 24 hours a

The more effective option which will also make you happier
is to spend fewer hours, but get even more done. 

What if you promised yourself that you were not going to
work past 10 p.m., no matter what the circumstances?  How would that change the way you paid
attention and took notes in class?  How
would it change the time you spent on Facebook or texting your friends?  It would have to change if you wanted to get
the same results.   But you’d be more
efficient, you’d sleep more, and you’d have more time for doing things you
actually want to do that have nothing to do with college.

My suggestion: try it
for a week and see what happens.  If it
doesn’t work or you just don’t like it, go back to your old ways.  But I’ll bet some of the changes stick.  

Follow the habits of elite performers

It’s not exactly ground-breaking study skills advice to tell students to get enough sleep and to take breaks.  But Tom Rath’s book Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes actually shares two scientific findings that might convince you to follow those tips.

1. An influential 1993 study on human performance found that truly elite performers slept an average of 8 hours and 36 minutes per night (the average American sleeps 6 hours and 51 minutes on weeknights).

2. That same study found that elite performers, from musicians, to athletes, to actors and chess players typically practice in focused sessions lasting no longer than 90 minutes.  This mirrors the advice shared by study skills author (and one of my favorite go-to’s for study skills advice) Cal Newport here

The study skills takeaways:  Work hard in short bursts.  Take regular breaks.  And get plenty of sleep.  

Consider the source

Two days before my high school
economics final, my buddy, Noah, who’d taken the course the previous semester, told me he’d gotten an A on the final without even studying.  According to him, every question on the
multiple-choice final was followed by “four ridiculous, incorrect answer
choices.”  It sounded like some easy
process of elimination was all I needed to do just as well.

When I took the final two days
later, I realized that Noah was a lot smarter than I was.

I hadn’t considered the
source.  Noah was the kind of kid who could
breeze through a multiple-choice test without studying. He later went to Reed
College, where he spent four years surrounded by other wonderfully quirky and
intellectual students who would much rather read, think and discuss than take
multiple-choice tests. 

When you’re in high school, your
friends will share a lot of strong opinions, some informed, some not.

That teacher is terrible. 

That course is easy. 

My counselor doesn’t do anything. 

That kid is great to hang out with.

That kid is dull.

That college has an ugly campus. 

That college needs journalism majors.

All the football players are stupid.

That kid got into Harvard because of his ethnicity. 

People are entitled to their
opinions.  But acting on other peoples' opinions can get
you into trouble.  Before you change your
thinking or your actions based on a friend’s opinion, consider the source.  Ask questions.  Look for more information.  And think about the information yourself
before you just blindly take it on. 

What we can learn from the tenure process

Study skills author Cal Newport wrote an interesting post this week that imagines what would happen if every working professional approached their work like a professor approaches the goal of getting tenure.  There are a lot of applications in here not just for adults trying to advance their careers, but also for students trying to stand out in high school. 

During a tenure review, a panel of experts evaluates a professor's work to assess how much intellectual value that professor has contributed to his or her particular field.  Professors can't advance just because they have a lot of twitter followers or because they answer emails quickly.  They need to make substantial contributions beyond the daily requirements of their jobs.  Newport's suggestion:

Most knowledge work fields, of course, don’t have the equivalent of tenure review. But an interesting thought occurred to me recently: What if they did? Imagine that after a few years a panel of outside experts in your industry was going to scrutinize the contributions you’ve made — not to your company, but to your industry — and fire you if they’re not impressed with what they find. How would this change your daily habits? My guess is that you’d spend less time checking e-mail.  I won’t suggest that you formally replicate all the elements of tenure review in your own work life, but there’s something to be said for replicating the basic idea. Every two or three years, for example, consider stepping back and assessing the actual amount of new value you’ve created in your field. If your hypothetical tenure committee is not impressed with the results, fire your current habits.  I suspect that there’s a large number of well-educated and ambitious knowledge workers out there who would come away from such a review realizing that their attention has been dedicated almost exclusively toward mastering the shallow: doing what they’re asked as quickly as possible, and occasionally suggesting new “initiatives,” like setting up social media accounts for their company, that are satisfyingly accomplishable, but also easy to replicate and not a source of new value in the world.

Here's how students could approach this.

If you write for your school paper, how much will you contribute to your paper and to your school beyond just writing good articles?

If you play on the tennis team, how much benefit are you creating for your entire team, or for future teams, or for your school, beyond just winning matches?

How much value are you creating in your classes beyond just getting the best grade you can?

If you have a part-time job at a local ice cream shop, how much value are you creating for that business beyond just showing up on time and doing what's asked of you?

Yes, we all have to do the jobs that we're assigned.  But the more value we can create beyond the roles we play, the more impact we make and the more indispensible we become.  

Be a mentor magnet

I wrote recently about the value of good mentors.  I think one of the most valuable things a student learns in college is how to do the kind of work that will  pique a mentor’s interest.   Hard work and potential are like magnets that draw the right people to help you be greater than even you thought you could be.

One of my mentors, my good friend and Collegewise general manager Paul Kanarek, is celebrating 30 years with The Princeton Review.  On Friday night, we threw him a small surprise party to celebrate.  The guest list included Paul’s family, a few long-time employees, old friends who started at The Princeton Review at the same time Paul did, and a local high school counselor who came to know and rely on Paul over her own 30-year career.

Throughout dinner, each of us shared some thoughts about Paul and this milestone.  Some of the sentiments included:  

“I don’t come from business.  I was a high school counselor who spent my career working with poor kids.  And every time I called Paul, anytime I or my kids needed anything, he was there.  Every time he’d come to my school and speak to my students, he would light a fire under them.”

“I left my job and came to work here so that I could learn from you.”

“You taught me that work didn’t have to be something that we should need to take a vacation to escape from.”  

“You taught us all by example how to be generous with our time and our expertise.”

I share this for two reasons.  First, Paul is important to Collegewise, not just because he helps me run it now, but because he’s always been a loyal supporter.  He was even a customer of ours when his own son applied to college.

But more importantly, while I can confidently say that there is nobody in the universe like Paul, there are countless smart, generous, potential mentors out there who can teach and inspire you the way Paul has done for so many people.  Do the work.  Show the potential.  And most importantly, be hungry to learn.  Be open to suggestions and advice from people who know what they’re talking about. 

If you’re attracting the interest of potential mentors, you’re doing something right.  

Act like you own the place

Acting like you own the place can be rude, like when you raid someone’s fridge or put your dirty shoes up on their couch.  But when done in the right scenarios, it can be one of the surest ways to get ahead. 

While shopping at Trader Joe's today, I shared the elevator from the parking lot with one of their employees who was returning a long chain of shopping carts to the store.  As the elevator doors closed, he noticed that one of their promotional signs inside was askew.  It wasn’t easy to get to with the shopping carts in front of him, but he took the time to right the sign, then stepped back to make sure it was straight.  Before we exited, he took a rag out of his back pocket and wiped his fingerprints off the plastic coating. 

I doubt that “Make sure the signs are always straight” is written in his or anybody else’s job description.  It would have been easy for him to ignore it and let it be someone else’s problem.  But he’s not waiting for his boss to ask him to do it.  Instead, he’s acting like he owns the place.  And I'm sure the boss is just fine with that.  

People who do good things without being asked always seem to get ahead at work, in school and in life.  The next time you’re at your part-time job, or at your club meeting, or at tennis practice, ask yourself what you would do if you owned the place.  Then do it. 

Sometimes the surest path to actually owning the place is to just act that way over and over.

Rediscover this skill from childhood

My work desk at home looks out a window into our neighborhood.  A new family recently moved in across the street, and today, their son (who I’d guess is about eight years old) was playing in their front yard when a kid of similar age from across the way just walked right up to him and said,

Hi!  I’m Steven.  Wanna play?

No shyness.  No hesitation.  No awkwardness—just a totally genuine and enthusiastic introduction to another person.

The ability to confidently and comfortably approach a new person and introduce yourself is one of the most valuable life skills you can (re)learn.  Whether you want to chat with a college rep, inquire about a job opening, or just make a new friend, take a lesson from kids.  They don’t worry that it will be awkward or that they won’t know what to say.  And you probably didn’t when you were their age, either. 

This is one skill worth rediscovering from your childhood. 

No internet = fewer distractions

I’ve written before that one of the best ways to be productive is to close your email when you’re working on something important.  But if the temptation to check for incoming email is too much to resist (I give in to it, too), here’s a program that will lock you out of your own internet connection.  You tell it how long you want to be restricted from online access, and it won’t let you in until the designated time. 

Not a great option if you need the internet for the project you’re working on, but a good way to keep yourself focused when an internet-free task (like your college essay) is waiting to get done.

The first step is to deserve the help

There’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it.  But successful people make sure they deserve the help in the first place.

Imagine you agreed to help a friend move, then showed up to his apartment to find that he’d yet to pack a thing.  Sure, good friends help each other.  But a good friend would also have respected your time enough to have everything completely ready to go when you showed up.   

Private counselors often approach us for advice on starting and running their counseling businesses.  We believe in business karma, and we’ve all benefited from mentors who were generous with their advice.  So we’re often happy to offer up some time and guidance. But the counselor has to deserve the help.  If you haven’t bothered to learn anything about college admissions and private counseling, if you haven’t read our book, or perused this blog, or already taken some measure of effort to get started, you’re the guy who hasn’t packed anything in his apartment and wants us to help you move. 

I’ve written several posts in the past about how to ask for help.  Two—here and here—were specifically for when you need help from a teacher.  And two more—here and here—cover how to put yourself and the person you want help from on the same team.

Don't be afraid to ask.  But start by doing the work to deserve the help.