Focusing on the short term

Long term goals are great motivators.  But the way you get there is by adding up enough good, productive individual days.  And that means focusing on short term goals, too.

For students heading back to school today, just worry about having a good, productive day you can be proud of.  Pay attention in class.  Ask questions.  Use your homework time as a time to really learn the material rather than just get it done as quickly as possible.  Bring some effort and enthusiasm to your activities.  Smile.  Be nice to people (including your parents, your teachers and your counselor).   When you finish the day, be honest with yourself about whether or not you really did your best in all those areas.  If you didn’t, don’t beat yourself up.  Just resolve to be better the next day.

Add up enough individual days like that, and you're bound to be happy with the outcome.

And while you're at it, remember that while nobody said reaching any of your goals would be easy, there's no law that says you have to be miserable to be successful.  Make sure that the pursuit of both your short term and long term goals actually makes you happy, too.

You can get more out of it…or less

Seth Godin wrote on his blog last week:


You can either seek to get more out of an opportunity (job, technology, interaction, person, moment), or less.  More exposure, more risk, more upside, more work, more learning, more engagement, more passion, more chance to be blamed, more opportunity to make a difference, more effort…or less."

What does that look like for a high school student?

You can sit in your trigonometry class and take notes that just copy what your teacher writes on the board.  Or you could get more out of it.  Don’t just copy the problems—write the steps on separate lines.  Include your own commentary.  When you don’t understand something, raise your hand and ask a question.  Or go see your teacher immediately after class.  Treat this class time like study time.  Get more out of your time there.

You can attend meetings of the Red Cross Club, sit quietly, listen, and maybe think about running for an office one day.  Or you could go to each meeting looking for opportunities to actually do things.  You could offer to pitch in and help the officers.  You could ask questions, contribute your own ideas, and recognize those people who are doing a great job.  If you’re going to go to the meeting, why not get more out of it?

When you meet with your counselor, when you audition for the school play, when you visit a college or take a cooking class or even just plan an evening with your friends, how could you get more out of it?   The best part of this is that the answer is entirely up to you.  Nobody’s stopping you from getting more out of what you do.   

Lies people tell high school freshmen

For new freshmen starting school next week, it's important that you get the right information about how to get into college.  So you're going to need to learn to spot bad advice.  Here are five lies a lot of freshmen hear when they start high school.  Anyone who tells you these are true is probably not someone you want to go to for academic or college advice.

1. The freshman year doesn’t count for college admissions.

The freshman year is always the least important year when colleges evaluate you (they figure you’re just trying to find the school every day). But that doesn’t mean the freshman year doesn’t matter at all. Lots of colleges, particularly private schools, will look at the freshman year.  And since your academic performance as a freshman influences what classes you’ll be able to take as a sophomore, it matters for pretty much every college. So don’t panic if you have a stumble here or there while learning the ropes of high school. But don’t blow off your freshman year, either.

2. Colleges like students who hold leadership positions.

When people say, "Leadership looks good on your college applications,” it implies that leadership is somehow better than other activities. Colleges do like leadership. But they don’t like it more (or less) than athletics, art, music, community service, taking cooking classes, writing for the newspaper or any other activity that you really care about and make an impact doing. Colleges don’t have a magic list of activities that look “good.” They just want to see that you have the initiative and passion to find things you love doing and to commit yourself to them.

3. (Insert name of teacher here) is a terrible teacher.

I’m going to let you in on a secret. A lot of students who claim a particular teacher is "terrible" are just bitter that they didn't do well in the class.  The best students don’t complain about terrible teachers. They find a way to get good grades no matter who the teacher is.  I’m not saying that great students love all their teachers or that every teacher is of equal quality. But part of being a successful student means learning to get along with all of your teachers, asking questions, and being willing to ask for extra help when you need it.

4. It’s impossible to get into a good college today.

There are about 40 colleges that are absurdly difficult to get into. But there are over 2,000 colleges in the country, and all but about 100 of them take pretty much everybody who applies. The harder you work and the more successful you are, the more college opportunities you’re going to have, so your efforts are certainly worth it. But don’t take yourself out of the game by believing that only straight-A, perfect test scoring, proton-inventing students get into college.

5. The counselors at school don’t do anything.

Anyone at a high school who claims the counselors don’t do anything is probably A) someone who’s never bothered to visit his counselor, and B) a jerk.  High school counselors work hard for their students.  If you’re at a big school, your counselor might not seek you out and ask you to meet to talk about how to get into college.  But why should your counselor care about your college process more than you do?  If you want to go to college and you want your counselor’s advice, find your counselor, introduce yourself, and ask when you can schedule a meeting so you can talk about your college future.

How to achieve your goals in school this year

The start of a new academic year is a great time to set goals.  And a lot of students set ambitious ones, like:

  • Get a 4.0.
  • Score higher than 1800 on my SATs.
  • Become a starter on the varsity soccer team.
  • Be the editor-in-chief of the school paper by the end of the year.

Those are admirable.  But the problem is that while they define what you want to achieve, they don’t help you with your steps to getting there.  And that turns your ambitions into entirely pass or fail opportunities.  You could work like crazy, but if you don’t achieve your outcome, you’ll feel like you failed. 

Here are a few tips that will not only improve your chances of succeeding but will also make the process of getting there more valuable. 

1. Identify the most important steps you need to take—and be specific.

What are the most important actions you need to take to actually achieve your goals?  Figure those out first, and be specific.  “Study more” isn’t specific.  “Shut off my cell and my email until I’m done with my homework/studying each day” is specific.  It’s easier to do the old “One day at a time” technique when you’re focusing on small, specific actions.  And you can hold yourself accountable along the way.  You’ll know exactly what you need to do, and whether or not you’re actually doing it.

2. Focus on what’s worked before.

When you’ve achieved goals similar to these, how did that happen?  What did you do differently?  For example, when you were named a starter for the first time on the soccer team, were you doing anything differently?  Were you treating your practices like games?  Were you setting up teammates for goals?  Did you really kill it in the conditioning workouts?  Eliminating things that didn’t work is good.  But doubling those things that did work is even better. 

3. Learn from little victories.

Let’s say you decide that for you to become editor-in-chief of the newspaper, you need to be recognized as one of the best writers.  And in order to do that, you need to write at least two drafts of all your articles so you can have your journalism teacher critique them before you submit them to the current editor (good, specific action).  When you actually do that for your first article, you should take the time to learn from it.  How did you make the time to get those articles done early?  How will you do it again?  And don’t reserve your celebration for the day that you actually become the editor.  Start now.  Learning from and celebrating little victories keeps you focused on the positive.  And it will prevent you from getting discouraged about a goal that might occasionally seem unrealistic.  

4. Tell people about your goals.

Sometimes peer pressure is a good thing.  Tell your closest friends about your goals.  Maybe invite them to make their own?  Then resolve to help each other achieve them.  Telling people what you’re trying to do can help them be supportive, too.  If you resolve not to be online until your homework is done every night, tell your friends so they won’t get bent out of shape when you take longer than usual to respond to their emails and texts.

5. Recognize that the process is even more important than the outcome.

You should set high goals for yourself—that’s what successful people do.  But you should also remember that the efforts you make are just as important—if not more so—than whether or not you actually achieve the goals.  If you resolve to do all the homework in your SAT class and to actually use every technique you learn, your score will almost certainly improve.  But if you don’t get the score you wanted, you won’t have to blame yourself.  You won’t have to wonder if it could have been better if you’d just put in the effort.  And you’ll have the reward of knowing that you did all you could so you can confidently move on to something else now.

You gotta have more cowbell

If you're going to do something, don't just phone it in.  Bring some energy.  Bring a little oomph.  Whether you're doing an in-class presentation, volunteering at a fundraiser, or running a meeting of the French Club, don't bother if you're just going to do it like you're checking an item off a list.  Make the effort or don't do it at all.

Gene Frenkle and his legendary record producer, Bruce Dickinson, understood this.  Don't just play the cowbell.  Really explore the space.  More cowbell.

More Cowbell! – watch more funny videos



What is your online legacy?

Before you share anything in an electronic format—an email, a photo, a blog post, etc.—ask yourself if you would be comfortable with it showing up whenever anyone Googles your name.  Forever.  Potential viewers include the colleges you’ll apply to, friends, your family, future employers, and people you haven’t met yet but will one day want to date.

Last Friday, a Whole Foods worker who was at best disgruntled and at worst, well, a little deranged, penned a 2000-word resignation letter loaded with anger, personal insults, and gems like,

“Oh, you actually think being 20 minutes late matters? You know Whole Foods Market is just a grocery store, right?”

At some point, someone will unearth the author’s name.  And that means that for the rest of his/her life, there will be no escaping it.  That letter will be his/her online legacy.  Google will never forget, even when other people do. 

Can you even imagine the long term damage that’s going to carry for the writer?   How long will that person have to regret hitting “Send”?

I’m not suggesting that a 2000-word tirade is the same as one Tweet or a Facebook photo.  But today’s high school students are the digital generation.  You live in a reality where people have been humiliated, fired, divorced, sued, and even prosecuted because of things they or other people have posted online. 

Be protective of your online legacy.  I don’t have to answer for anything I said or did way back when I was sixteen.  Today’s students won’t necessarily have the same luxury.

Ever wonder why you procrastinate?

If you’re the kind of procrastinator who waits until the last minute to study or start projects, and you'd like to understand the science behind it so you can stop doing it, here’s my attempt to summarize Cal Newport's scientific explanation.

Human beings are special because we can do “complex planning.”  We can consider future steps and decide for ourselves if those steps are actually a good idea.  The part of your brain that does that evaluation knows that waiting to study until the night before an exam is a bad idea that won’t work.  So it tells you not to take that course of action.  It doesn’t necessarily tell you that the better alternative is to start sooner.  It just tells you not to do what you were planning to do.  So your brain screams, “Waiting until the last minute to study for a big exam is bad.   Don’t do it.  Watch movies and eat ice cream instead!”  

So the solution might not be to just force yourself to study.  The solution is to have a better plan in the first place. 

I've found that our students who ignore our warnings and write cliché stories in their college essays are almost always the ones who still haven’t done their first drafts as the application deadlines approach.  And those students who insist on applying to ten reach schools are always doing their applications at the last minute. 

Maybe they know deep down that their plans aren’t good?

Your successful college career starts now

You will never have as much time and opportunity available to you as you will during your four years of college.  And while there are plenty of things you can do to make that time as productive and fun as possible, here are my top five college to-do’s that will help you become a successful and employable college graduate. 

1. Major in a subject that fascinates you.  Too many college students study what they think they should study.  Or they pick a major for all the wrong reasons.  (Do you know how many college students major biology or political science because they mistakenly think those are the pre-med and pre-law majors?)  You should major in something that you actually want to learn about, something where studying doesn’t feel like work.  The benefit here is obvious—the more you enjoy what you’re learning, the better you’ll perform academically and the more engaged you'll be.

2. Discover and develop a talent.   Coaching intramural volleyball, doing scientific research, painting, translating Spanish, writing, peer counseling, public speaking—all of them are talents that could be put to use in a successful career.  College is your opportunity to figure out what you’re good at and then get better at it.  But you can’t just sit by passively waiting for your talents to reveal and perfect themselves.  You’ll need to work every day to find and develop them.

3. Find at least one activity that you love, and commit yourself deeply to it.  You should try lots of things in college.  But successful students eventually find one activity where they dedicate substantial time.  It’s the resident advisor who works as an RA for two years, then gets promoted to help hire and train new advisors.   It’s the fraternity member who holds several offices and eventually becomes the president, who can proudly talk about the improvements he initiated and why the chapter is bigger and stronger than ever now.  It’s the social science major who starts working with a professor to do research and is eventually invited to TA the class.  Those students won’t just list their primary activity on a resume.  They can talk about the impact they made, what they learned, and how they could bring those experiences to a new job.   

4. Cultivate mentors.  You will be surrounded by smart, dedicated people in college—professors, faculty, internship directors, advisors, etc.  Successful students graduate with one or more mentors who have taken a personal interest in them, who can give them advise, serve as references, or write letters of recommendation.  But this is a question of effort.  How hard are you willing to work to learn from them?  What are you willing to give back in terms of time and effort for them to take a personal interest in your development and success?  The best way to do this is to follow suggestions 1-3 and be willing to ask for help or advice while you’re doing them. 

5. Don’t be afraid to fail.  You can have a safe college career with a safe major and a safe list of activities that don’t challenge you.  Or you could take smart risks.  You could enroll in one class every semester that looked interesting but also very difficult.  You could apply for internships that would force you to learn new skills, try new activities that push you, and contribute to class discussions even though you don’t feel confident.  The students who are willing to do those things are the ones who will trasnform during their time in college.  They’ll be smarter, more talented, more confident and better supported by smart people than those who played it safe.

Now, here’s the surprise—you don’t have to be in college to do these things.  The students who get accepted to college are already doing them.  So if you’re in high school, what are you waiting for?  Your successful college career can start now.

College prep

Are you really preparing for college?  Not just taking classes labeled "college prep," but also developing the important skills you'll need?

Getting ready for college means getting ready for life.  Here are a few skills you can start developing now if you wan to be a successful college student (and a successful college graduate).

•    Learn to do things for yourself, without relying on your parents to take care of them for you. (If your parents email your teachers and counselor on your behalf, you're not preparing for college like you should be.)

•    Find the confidence to ask for help or guidance when you need it.

•    Develop the skill to thoughtfully consider an idea or opinion very different from your own.

•    Gain an appreciation of differences and the ability to get along with people very different from you.

•    Learn how to take lessons from failure or disappointment and then move on. 

•    Develop the curiosity to find a subject or idea that interests you and dive in to learn more.

Getting ready for college means more than just taking the right classes.  In fact, that's why so many colleges' applications require multiple essays, letters of recommendation and interviews–to look for evidence that you've developed some of these skills. 

They could easily just look at your GPA alone, but colleges know that you're preparing for life, too.