Are you the next Bill Gates?

Bill_gates_03In high school, Bill Gates was a kid who was absolutely fascinated with computers.  He got himself excused from his math classes so that he could learn more about programming.  He would sneak out of the house at night to use a computer on the University of Washington's campus (the college kids were using it during the day).  His high school hired him to write computer code to schedule students into classes.  So Gates did–and made sure the software would automatically place him in classes with a higher ratio of females to males.  He wrote a program in high school that would count traffic, and sold it to the city for several thousand dollars. 

According to the book Outliers, Gates estimated he spent about 10,000 hours learning and exploring computer programming during his youth.  He loved it, and was totally obsessed with it. 

I didn't go to high school with the man, but I am certain that Bill Gates never once concerned himself with whether or not his passion for computers would get him into a "good" college.  He didn't ask if it would "look good" on his applications.  He didn't worry if he should be getting more leadership positions or joining more clubs or doing something else that highly-selective colleges were "looking for."  He just found something he loved, devoted himself to it, mastered it, and used his knowledge to impact his school and his city. 

The results speak for themselves…

1. After high school, Bill Gates went to Harvard.

2. Today, he is the founder of Microsoft and has a net worth of approximately 56 billion dollars.

You can't fake passion.  And that's why colleges look for it.  They don't want someone who chose activities based on what he thought would be impressive.  They want the next Bill Gates (though they would likely prefer that you not drop out of college, which Gates did to found Microsoft in 1975).

   

Are you indispensable?

I just finished reading an interesting book called "Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?"  It wasn't written for high school students trying to get into college; but if you took its lessons and applied them to your high school life, I think you'd find yourself happier, more fulfilled, and more appealing to colleges. 

Here's the gist of the book:  If you want to have a successful career that you enjoy, it's not enough to just work hard, follow instructions, do what your boss tells you to do, and avoid mistakes.  That's fine if you do that, but it won't make you indispensable.  A boss can find lots and lots of other people who will follow instructions and do good–but not indispensable–work. 

Indispensable could mean being the best sales person who makes millions for a company.  But it can also be the grocery checker who's so warm and enthusiastic that customers love her and specifically come to that store because of her. It could be the waitress at the coffee shop who remembers customers' names and their favorite drinks and makes a great impression on everyone.  It's anyone who loves her work, puts her whole self into it, and in the process delights customers and co-workers.  It's these people who are getting and keeping the best jobs today because they're indispensable.  They can't easily be replaced.

Being indispensable isn't all about talent.  It's about attitude, investment, and energy that you bring to your job. You don't have to be the CEO of a company to do that, and you don't have to be the club president, the editor of the school newspaper, or the captain of the football team to do it in high school.

If you're on the student government and end up with the job of collecting tickets at the door for the homecoming dance, you can do that one of two ways.  You can show up on time, sit where you're supposed to sit, collect the tickets, not make any mistakes, and leave when it's over. 

Or you could show up a little early to help set up.  You could suggest that the table be moved to a different spot, because you can see that its current location will make it difficult for people to make an orderly line once the big crowd shoes up.  You could smile and enthusiastically greet people when they arrive.  You could tell people how great they look (and be especially complimentary to those kids who don't hear that kind of praise very often).  At your break, you could offer to go get some water and snacks for everyone working the table with you.  You could figure out ways to keep being valuable once most of the students have shown up, like picking up the tickets that students have dropped on the ground, checking in with the chaperones to see if they need anything, and offering to run out for more ice when you see it's running low.  And when the dance is over, you could be one of the last to leave, staying to help clean up and offering to help carry the tables back the cafeteria where they came from.

Which of those two approaches makes you more indispensable to the student government?  Which makes a bigger impression on the people around you?  And most importantly, which makes you feel better about yourself when you go home that night? 

Taking tickets is not a highly-visible job.  It's not something you'll list on your college applications.  It's not going to win you any awards.  There are few reasons to do it if you expect a tangible and immediate reward in return.   

But you have a choice about how to approach your role for that one night.  You can phone-it-in, do what you're supposed to do, and not make any mistakes.  Or you can use it as an opportunity to actually do a great performance, to bring your whole self to the role, to lead by example and show people that you're the kind of person who brings a lot to any job you do, whether or not it's important and visible. 

It's this kid, not necessarily the ones who have the most impressive titles, who's going places.

When I've written about kids who are active and engaged in class, those are the kids that teachers find indispensable. 

When I've written about kids who bring a positive attitude and work ethic even if they're not the best player on the soccer team, those are the kids that coaches find indispensable. 

When I've written about the kid who does community service not to chalk up hours but because she cares deeply about the mission of the organization, or the kid who doesn't get the lead in the school play but volunteers to run the lights, or the water polo player who leads the team's fundraising drive, or the kid who doesn't hold an office in the Spanish club but makes authentic tamales everyone loves for the meetings, or the kid who does scientific research with a college professor because he just has to know more about physics, those are the kids that are indispensable.

So, are you indispensable?  If you're not, what could you start doing today to become that way?

No fear of failure

I write and talk a lot about the importance of celebrating your strengths as opposed to spending all your time trying to fix your weaknesses.  But here's a secret about smart, confident, successful people–they actually fail a lot.  

Those people don't like to fail, but they understand that the more often you challenge yourself, the more often you're going to fail.  And they're not afraid of it.  They know that you can't have a big success without some failures along the way.  And the most likeable of them aren't afraid to talk about their failures. They'll share those stories openly and maybe even laugh at themselves when the failure was embarrassing.

When you can laugh about a failure, a weakness, or something that was outright embarrassing, it's endearing.  It shows confidence and how comfortable you are just being yourself.  People love hanging out with others who are like that.  And colleges love those people in their classes and dorms.

Those who can laugh at themselves would have no trouble completing the following statements.  In fact, they'd probably enjoy it.

1.  I am quite possibly the world's worst__________.

2.  The most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me is ___________.

3.  It bothers me that I don't seem to be very good at ___________.

4.  I think my greatest weakness is____________.

5.  An example of a time I failed (and I mean really failed) was ___________.

Try it.  Complete the blanks and have a laugh. 

I'm not saying you should resign yourself to failure and give up.  I'm saying that the only people who never fail are the ones who always take the easy way.  Take the harder way and have a laugh when it doesn't go so well.

There's a reason why college applications and interviewers ask questions like these (#5 shows up on lots of college applications).  They want the people who are confident enough to risk failure and still hold their heads high when it happens to them.

On the art of the complaint…

Seth Godin posted an interesting take yesterday about how to voice a complaint. It's a good technique with lots of applications for students and parents going through the college planning years. 

The message here is not to complain more often.  I think the college admissions process needs less complaining, not more.  

But sometimes you do have a legitimate complaint.  Maybe your counselor didn't send your transcripts or the college never told you that they hadn't received your test scores?  Maybe your SAT scores didn't go up after the prep class, or you feel like you're not getting a fair chance to be the starting catcher on the baseball team?  Whatever the complaint, why not approach it in a way that invites respect and collaboration. 

You have a better chance of getting someone to try to be helpful.  And you'll be putting yourself and the person to whom you're complaining on the same team.

Life advice from Steve Jobs

When Steve Jobs of Apple gave the commencement address at Stanford in 2005, the transcript made its way around cyberspace in a flurry of forwards.  But nearly five years later, I wonder how many of today's high school students (and parents) have read it.  I think it's worth it, so I'm posting it here.

For high school students, I see three direct parallels between his advice and your college planning. 

1.  Don't expect that you can plan your entire future in advance.  You can't draw a line forward that perfectly predicts what your life will be in 5 or 10 or 50 years.  But once you're there, you'll be able to draw a line backwards to see how it happened.  It will make sense when you look back. I can't tell you how many successful people, some famous and some not, describe what was a somewhat uncharted and surprising route that brought them where to they are today.  In the meantime, you just have to work hard, trust yourself, and follow the next two guidelines.   So don't try to convince yourself that the only way you'll ever be happy and successful is to go to one particular college–there are lots of different routes and colleges that can get you where you're meant to go. 

2.  Make your most important goal to find what you love.  From your high school activities, to your chosen college, to your college major, to your post college career choice, find what you love.  Don't spend your time doing something just because you think you should be doing it.   

3.  Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.  Don't choose a college just because it's famous or because your friends are going.  Listen to yourself and go where you want to go.  As Jobs says,
"Your heart and intuition already know what you want to become.  Everything else is secondary."

If you were ever looking for advice about how to be successful, Steve Jobs seems like a good source.  And he never even graduated from college. 

Attitude adjustments

While I was in the grocery store today, two teenage workers who were stocking fruit were griping to each other about how much they hate their job.  It wasn't hard to hear them, as they were making no effort at all to keep their conversation private.  So while I was selecting my apples, I got to hear them complain how "bulls@&t" their job is, what an "idiot" their boss is, and how easy it was to get by with as little effort as possible.

I was thinking two things.

1)  That's pretty stupid to do that right in front of the customers.

2) It's pretty sad that they're so disengaged. 

I don't think there's anything unusual or wrong with a kid who doesn't exactly love his part time job.  But a kid who's that negative about it, who's so brazen about his complaining, he's infecting the staff and even the customers around him.  And I'd bet the money I spent at that store today that their attitude isn't remarkably different in the other areas of their lives. 

What do you think those kids are like in class?  Even if they're among the best students in the school, (they might be–I don't know), do they them seem like the kind of kids a teacher would be thankful to have in class?

What do you think they're like on the soccer team?  Or in their clubs and activities?  I wonder how they treat their friends. 

I hear lot of students and parents complain about the seemingly arbitrary nature of college admissions today.  They compare applicants at their high school and wonder how Stanford could possibly admit one but deny another whose test scores were 60 points higher. 

But grades, test scores, and activities don't tell a college everything.  There's a lot to be said about attitude. 

Teachers are happy to write letters of recommendation for a student who never exactly set the curve in trig, but was pleasant and cheerful and always gave his best effort.  The soccer coach always appreciates the kid who may not be a starter but who sets an example for the stars with his work ethic and attitude.  Clubs and organizations love members who bring positivity and energy to the meetings even if they aren't in charge.  Nice, positive, kids never seem to lack for friends, either.  And colleges are always happy to add another kid with a good attitude to their freshman class. 

So, how is your attitude?

Are you positive?  Do you make classes, teams, activities and friendships better for other people because you're in them?

Or are you a complainer, someone who finds the negative, who focuses on the reasons not to like what you're doing, someone who drags others down with your negativity.

If you're the latter, maybe you need to be doing different things.  Or you may just need a new attitude.

The same team

When you need assistance, guidance or advice, it's a good idea to ask for it a way that encourages both parties to work as one team.

If you're getting a "C" in your English class and you say to your teacher, "Why did you give me a 'C?'", you're immediately putting your teacher on the defensive.  His first inclination isn't going to be to do whatever he can to help you; he's going to gear up to defend the grade he's given you.  You asked the question in a way that divided you into two opposing teams.

I often see students and parents make this mistake during the college planning years.  A student gets a low grade on a big exam, so the parent fires off an email to the teacher demanding an explanation.  A student misses an "A" in a course by a few points and marches into the class to complain that the grade should be raised. A student isn't placed in an AP class so the parent calls the counselor to argue that this just isn't acceptable.    

I'm not arguing that students or parents shouldn't ask questions in these scenarios.  But you're the one who needs something in each of these situations.  So you have to ask in a way that encourages collaboration.  You've got to create one team. 

Here are a few steps that will help you do that.

1.  Leave your emotions out of it. 

There may be places or professions where bullies are the ones who get ahead, but education isn't one of them.  While you might be frustrated by the situation, your frustration or outright anger won't encourage collaboration.  It's much easier to find the desire to help someone who's nice and respectful.  So be nice.  Don't assign blame.  Leave your negative emotions at the door and try to work together.

2.  Acknowledge your role in the scenario.

There is almost always something you could have done to prevent or at least mitigate the situation that you're in.   So acknowledge it.  It doesn't necessarily mean you have to take the all the blame for something that wasn't entirely your fault.  But someone will be much more likely to help you if you own your responsibility.  

It sounds like this,

"I know my son really should have told us much earlier that he was struggling in your class.  If he had, we wouldn't be coming to you so late to discuss his performance."

"I know I did badly on my last three exams.  That was my fault.  I don't know why I'm just not getting trig."

"We knew the cut-off for entry into the AP course was to earn a B+ or higher in this year's class.  Our daughter didn't get the B+, and that certainly isn't anybody else's fault."    

3.  Ask for help, and be willing to do your part.

Demanding action keeps you on two teams.  Asking for help and showing that you're willing to participate in the process puts you on the same team.

"Do you have any recommendations for steps our son could take to improve his grade?"

"If I show you my tests, can you help me understand where I'm going wrong so I can do better next time?"

"Do have any suggestions of things our daughter could do to show the teacher that she's ready and able to take on the AP workload?"

This isn't a post about manipulating people to get them to do what you want (I promise you that none of this will work if that's what you're trying to do).  It's about taking responsibility for your education, seeking out assistance when you need it, and doing so in a way that treats people with respect.

The fewer teams, the better.

How to study less and get better grades

A lot of students who get high grades don't actually study harder than other students do; they just make the most of the time they are already in class.

Say you're in class an hour a day for each subject, 5 days a week.  If you have a math test every three weeks, you've already invested 15 hours of time just by being in class.  If you really used that time that you're sitting there, seriously, how much additional studying should you really have to do for the test?

Here's how smart students use class time.

  • Treat class time like study time.  I mean really pay attention.  Zero in while you're there.  Don't think about other things high school kids think about (at least, don't think about them while you're in trigonometry). 
  • Don't try to write down everything the teacher says.  Instead, just pay attention and think about what's being said, and write down only what's important.  Here's what's important…
  • Anything the teacher writes on the board is important.
  • Anything the teacher repeats, makes a big deal of, or emphasizes in any way–it's important.  It sounds like, “This was a crucial turning point for the United States in World War II!”
  •  Pay attention to verbal ticks and pet phrases.  I had an AP Government teacher in high school who used to love to say, "C'mon, folks.  You need to know this stuff!"  While other people were drooling on their desks, the smart kids wrote down everything that followed that pet phrase.  Do you know why?  Because it was always—and I mean always–on the test.  I don't even think the teacher knew his giveaway, but like good poker players, we weren't about to let him know we were onto him.
  • Anything your teacher discusses at great length is important.  If you're studying the Great Depression all week but spend two days on the reasons for the stock market crash, that's a tip. 
  • If your teacher goes to the trouble to make a handout, it's important.
  • If your teacher spends a lot of time talking about something that isn't mentioned anywhere in the textbook, it's important.

Before you study harder, work smarter while you're in class. 

The kid who pitches in

Teachers, counselors, coaches–they all love the kid who pitches in.

The kid who pitches in…

  1. …puts your hand up regularly to ask or answer a question in class.
  2. …makes traditional flan for the Spanish Club's fundraiser.
  3. …says "Thank you" after meetings with your counselor.
  4. …offers to help clean up after homecoming.
  5. …helps clear the table after dinner.
  6. …does community service because you want to do it.
  7. …says "Hi" to your teachers when you see them in the hallway.  
  8. …offers to help the kid in math class who obviously is struggling.
  9. …grabs as many soccer balls as you can and puts them in the bag when your coach calls an end to practice.
  10. …picks up the soda can on campus and throws it away.
  11. …sticks up for the social outcast at school.
  12. …drives your friends home when they've had too much to drink.
  13. …remembers your parents' birthdays.
  14. …tells your teacher when you're really enjoying the class.
  15. …helps other people stay positive.  
  16. …asks, "What can I do to help?"
  17. …cheers your friends on at the football games and the school musicals.
  18. …puts your hand up when someone says, "I need a volunteer…"
  19. …stays late after practice to run extra laps with the captain. 
  20. …asks the new kid in school how things are going so far. 

Colleges love the kid who pitches in, too.

Lost arts

I think every high school student would be well served to master these ten skills.

  1. How to shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye, and introduce
    yourself.
  2. How to call someone you don’t know and articulately ask a question.
  3. How to write a thoughtful, appropriately composed and punctuated email that makes a good first impression.
  4. How to talk to adults comfortably.
  5. How to express thanks.
  6.  How to give praise.
  7. How to apologize and accept responsibility when something is your
    fault.
  8. How to laugh at yourself.
  9. How to celebrate what you’re good at (and acknowledge what you’re not good at).
  10. How to rely less on your parents to do things you can do for yourself.

All ten can help you get into college, be successful once you get there, and even continue that success once you get out.

How many of them can you do?  How long would it take to master them all?