What students can learn from Major League Baseball

A lot of colleges' essay questions ask you to describe a time that you failed or made a mistake.  Nobody is successful all the time, so colleges don't expect seventeen year-olds to be perfect.  But they ask the question because the way you handle these circumstances says a lot about your character. 

Baseball fans saw a great example of that this week when umpire Jim Joyce absolutely blew a call that cost pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game.  The replay made it obvious to everyone, including Joyce, that he'd missed the call.  So he did something you almost never see an umpire do.  He admitted he was wrong and apologized. 

“It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the sh*t out of it, I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay.”

He also apologized personally to the pitcher, Galarraga.

"Joyce felt badly enough about it that, long after the game was over,
he asked to meet with Galarraga. It’s an incredibly unusual move, but
given the circumstances, it was understandable.

Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski brought Galarraga
from the home clubhouse into the umpires’ room.

'He asked if he could see Armando and I brought Armando in there,' Dombrowski said, 'and [Joyce] apologized profusely to him and he said he
just felt terrible. They hugged each other and Armando said, ‘I
understand.’"

Major League Baseball gave Joyce the option to take the next game off, but he declined, even though he knew what he was in for.  He said he was, "Ready for boos" and promised,

"I’ll take it.  “I’ll take whatever you can give me, and I’ll
handle it like a man, and I’ll do the best I can.”

And here's what happened in the next game.

Successful people don’t just “think” about doing things

Successful people don't just think about doing things; they actually do them.  That's why colleges are always looking for students who make things happen. 

According to his IMDB biography, Stanley Kubrick once said, "Perhaps it sounds ridiculous, but the best thing that young filmmakers
should do is to get hold of a camera and some film and make a movie of
any kind at all."  Note to potential film majors:  You don't become a filmmaker by talking about your favorite films.  You've got to actually make some.

Most people didn't know who Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were back in 1996.  Then they wrote "Good Will Hunting" and won an Academy Award.  They could have just talked about writing a movie; but they actually did it.

Bill Bowerman was a track coach at the University of Oregon in the late 60's.  He thought the standard racing shoes with metal spikes were too heavy.  So he started making his teams' shoes himself complete with rubber soles he forged on his wife's waffle iron.  A few years later, he co-founded a little shoe company called Nike.

Steve Jobs didn't know much about computers when he started Apple in 1976.  But his friend Steve "Woz" Wozniak did.  Woz had been building circuit boards that computer hobbyists could buy and turn into computers.  But he was just doing it for fun.  It was Jobs who saw the potential for the personal computer.  It took awhile, but he eventually convinced Woz to start a company with him–Jobs even sold his VW bus for $500 to help fund the start up (according to iCon).  Jobs wasn't just a thinker–he was the person who actually got Woz on board and started the company.

Ben and Jerry were sitting on the steps at Jerry's parents' house in 1977 talking about what kind of business they could start together.  They both loved to eat and decided to open an ice cream parlor because it was cheaper than opening a restaurant.  First, they took a $5 correspondence course through Penn State (they split the tuition and shared the material) to learn how to make ice cream. Then they found an abandoned gas station they could rent cheap and did all the renovations themselves.  They put the last coat of orange paint on the ceiling the night before they opened.  They combined thinking with doing (and eating) to start their business.   

What are you thinking about doing that you actually could be doing?

  • Does your softball team need to raise money new uniforms?
  • Is your senior class looking for a place to hold your prom?
  • Do you wish you knew more about the Civil War?
  • Do you need to learn more about which colleges are right for you?
  • Would you be a better basketball player if you could sink more free throws?
  • Does the homeless shelter where you volunteer need someone to supervise people on Saturdays?
  • Does the store where you work part time need a website?
  • Could you be the first chair violinist if you practiced a little more?
  • Does your soccer team need to organize practices for the summer?
  • Would it be great if your art class could display their work in the hallway?
  • Is there a kid at school who's being treated badly and would like someone to reach out and be nice to him?

Thinking about doing something is the easy part. It's the doing that's important.

Asking, “What can I do to help?”

"What can I do to help?" is a powerful phrase.  But someone who really needs you will be especially appreciative of the offer if you don't expect anything in return.

In the last week, my bank has started offering new products, discounts and benefits as "Our way of thanking you for all that you do."  I even got a call from someone who just wanted to "check in and see if I needed anything."  OK, that's nice.  But all I keep thinking is,

"Where were you guys 18 months ago when the bottom fell out of the economy?"

It's easy to offer help when it benefits you.  But tough times are great opportunities for you to make a real difference for someone who could use your help.  So reach out.  Offer to pitch in and help.  And do it without necessarily expecting anything in return.

You'll end up doing a lot for people at times when they really need it.

How to write a high school graduation speech

Every year around this time, a few of our Collegewise kids ask us to look over the graduation speeches they’ve written so we can give them feedback. And every year, our most important feedback is that they not write the standard high school graduation speech.

Every kid in America who writes a high school graduation speech seems to say the same three things.

1. “We’ve come so far in just four years.”

2. “We’ve endured good times and bad, but we’ve gotten through it all together.”

3. “Now we’re going off into our futures, but we’re well-prepared thanks to our high school.”

It's not that those are inappropriate thoughts to share. But the rules we teach for great college essays all apply here.  Don’t say what everybody else says, exactly how they say it.  Be honest.  Be specific.  Be forceful.  Say something meaningful.  Don’t resort to quotes or clichés.

We’re not in the speechwriting business, but in the interest of high school graduation guests everywhere, here are my five unsolicited tips for potential graduation speakers.

1. Be specific.

Details make writing interesting.  The same can be said of details in speeches. There’s nothing original or interesting when you say,

“Our freshman year, we were somewhat unsure of ourselves, lost in a large school, and apprehensive about what our future held for us."

But details make it personal and relatable.

“It’s amazing how much we’ve all changed in the last four years. On my first day here at school, I could barely reach my locker. I estimated that most of the senior football players had to have been at least 28 years old. And sadly, I got lost trying to find Freshman English and had to ask for directions. Twice. Today, I’m proud to report that I can reach my locker, the football players don’t look older than I do, and I can find any class on this campus, from drama to physics without having to ask for directions. How different will we all be two years, or four years, or ten years from now?”

2. Put the quote book away.

Forget the famous quotes. You are the graduation speaker. People want to know what you have to say.  The crowd doesn't want to hear what Nietzsche or President Kennedy or King Ferdinand has to say. 

3. Thank someone.  And ask others to do the same.

It’s always good to recognize parents, teachers and your friends. But I think a very nice thing to do is to publicly thank a specific person, one person who helped you, who made a difference, or believed in you. It could be a coach, a counselor, a teacher, your dad, whoever. Thank them in front of everybody. And then encourage everyone else to find and thank the person who helped them, and to do so before they leave graduation.

Who you thank will not be that important to the audience so keep that part short. What will be important (and very cool) is that you’ll ask the crowd to think about who they have to thank. The speech shouldn’t just be about you.  If your speech inspires other people, you’ll be a speaker to remember.

4. Don’t say anything you’ll regret in thirty years.

Most kids who are selected to be graduation speakers are the type of kids who have always set a good example. But every year, they’ll be a few kids who want to take controversial stand, or call out a teacher or administrator, or make an inappropriate joke. Don’t be that kid. You want inspiration? Write the speech you can show to your own son or daughter thirty years from now and say, “That’s how it’s done.” 

5. Save your most important message for the end.

You are the student who will have the collective attention of your entire senior class. So put down the speech and ask yourself, what is the one thought, the one thing you would most like to say to every single member of the graduating class? If they remembered nothing else, what’s the most important thing you want to say to them?  Stay safe during graduation night so they can start their futures tomorrow?  You hope they all find success and happiness?  Whatever the answer is, make sure you include it in the speech, and make sure you close with it.

If you’ve got a friend who’s hoping to be a grad night speaker, feel free to forward this along. I hope it helps.

What’s your most important message?

A good friend of mine got married yesterday, and I was the officiant at his wedding (I'm legit).  I wanted the ceremony to be meaningful and thoughtful. I wanted to do a good job.  So I started by figuring out what I would say to the couple if I were only given the chance to express one thought at the ceremony.  That took some time to figure out, but once I had it, the most important part was done.  The beginning, middle and end just served to introduce, support and sell that one all-important message. 

When you're writing a paper, giving a speech, filling out a college application, having an interview, or meeting with someone important and you're trying to figure out what to say, start by asking yourself, "What's my most important message?"  Start there and spend some time on it.  Your most important message deserves the most time and attention.    

Boil everything you're thinking down to the one thing, the most important message you need to get across, and the rest will fall into place from there. 

Worthy risk-taking

Perfectionists are overrated. 

People talk about being a perfectionist like it's a good thing.  But I'm not so sure it is, especially when it's applied to high school students.

Nobody expects that adults will be great at everything.  And yet a lot of high school students feel pushed to take hard classes, score high on standardized tests, be a leader, play a sport, do community service, invent plutonium, find a cure for lupus, etc.

When I talk to high school perfectionists, a lot of them refuse to take worthy risks, like auditioning for a school play even though they've never acted, or taking a summer class in Civil War history even though it seems interesting, or join the start-up field hockey squad at school even though they've never played. If they do fail, they're ashamed of it.  They're not about to admit it, much less be endearingly self-deprecating when they discuss it. 

It's not that I think that failure should necessarily always be
celebrated.  If you stayed up all night playing World of Warcraft and
failed your chemistry midterm, that's a dumb failure.  I wouldn't be
proud of that one.

But colleges want worthy risk-takers, not the perfectionists who stay in their comfort zones just to do what they're already good at.  In fact, many colleges have started asking questions on their applications to look for evidence of worthy risk-taking. 

"What has been your most significant failing, and what did you learn from the experience?" Gonzaga University

"The ability to learn from one’s mistakes is key to personal growth and success. Tell us about what you learned from a mistake you’ve made." St. Mary's College of California

"We tend to spend our time doing the things we know we do well—running because we’re good runners or painting because we’re talented artists. Tell us about a time when you tried something for which you had no talent. How did it go?" University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

This is one of those times when a cliche is true–"Nobody's perfect."
It's just not possible.  The only way to make yourself appear perfect is
to try only those things at which you know you can excel.  And when you do that, you miss out on so many opportunities for learning and fun.    

So don't force yourself to be good at everything.  Be good at what you love and love what you are good at.  But don't be afraid to take some worthy risks.


Inspiration is perishable

I just finished a great business book called "Rework."  And like a lot of business books, it's got plenty of application for high school students, too.  Here's an example.

Page 271:  Inspiration is perishable. 

"Inspiration is like fresh fruit or milk.  It has an expiration date.  If you want to do something, you've got to do it now.  You can't put it on a shelf and wait two months to get around to it.  You can't just say you'll do it later.  Later, you won't be pumped up about it anymore.  If you're inspired on a Friday, swear off the weekend and dive into your project.  When you're high on inspiration, you can get two weeks of work done in twenty four hours.  Inspiration is a time machine that way…Inspiration is a now thing.  If it grabs you, grab it right back and put it to work."

The next time you're excited about something, jump in and do it now.  If you've got a fundraising idea for the soccer team, start it.  If you write stories and come up with an idea you love, put it down on paper.  If you play music and get excited about putting a band together, get your first practice scheduled.  If you're excited about a new book or a project in physics or a new training program to get you in better shape for baseball tryouts, start.  Do it now. 

What's the worst thing that could happen?  Maybe you're not as excited about the idea when it's finished.  But that's not likely to happen.  And even if it does, you'll probably have learned something along the way.

Do you have a favorite book?

I don't necessarily think that every student has to love to read.  But I do think every kid—every adult, too, really—should have a favorite book.

If you love to read, that's wonderful.  Read like your hair is on fire.  There are few interests that will make you think more analytically, argue more persuasively, and write more clearly than reading will.

But even if you don't love reading, it's a great way to take whatever your passion is to a logical extreme.

If you love to play the saxophone, who's your favorite saxophonist?  Why not read a biography about him or her?  Or read a book about music theory, or the building of brass instruments?  Or read about life as a member of a college marching band, or about the history of jazz.  It doesn't matter what you read about.  Let your interest be your guide. 

If you love football, why not read a book about how to coach defense, or about your favorite team, or your favorite quarterback?

If you love computers, why not read a book about programming?  Why not read ten books about programming and learn ten different languages?  Or read a biography about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?  You could read about video games or the history of the internet or about how Facebook was created.

Here's the bottom line—smart, motivated people like to throw themselves into their interests.  They want to know as much as they can about what they're doing because that's how you get good at it.

So if you don't have a favorite book, why not make it a goal to find one?  Lots of colleges will ask you what your favorite book is.  And they won't care if it's a classic work of literature or a biography about your favorite band.  If you read it, it shows you were interested enough to want to learn something.

“I’ll do it”

"I'll do it" is a powerful phrase. 

It's the opposite of "I'm too busy," or "That's not my job."  Unless you're responding to someone asking, "Who wants to light things on FIRE?!," then pretty much everybody, from clubs to teams to teachers to colleges, likes the person who quickly says, "I'll do it."

Last Friday, our blog feeds stopped working properly.  So I posted an ad to Craigslist looking for a web developer who could fix it.  I offered $200 plus a $50 bonus if he or she got it done that day. 

I got a lot of responses that wanted more details, or wanted to negotiate the price, or just rattled off their qualifications.  None of them said those words I was looking for.

But then I got an email from Brian that just said, "I'll do it."  He told me he'd start right away and I could pay him when he fixed it.  Done.

Brian didn't get it done that day.  Turns out it was a much longer project than he thought it would be.  But he stuck with it, worked over the weekend, and about 4:30 on Monday, it was completely fixed.

I paid him the $200 plus the bonus.  It wasn't done the same day, but he made my life easier.  He didn't haggle about the price or ask a bunch of questions to see if he really wanted the job or even try to protect himself by making me pay a portion up front.  He just said, "I'll do it."  And he did it. 

So while I'm hoping there won't be a next time, if we have problems with our blog again, I won't be posting an ad.  I'll go right to Brian.  I'd recommend him to anyone looking for web development help.  It's possible that someone else may have twice the skill that he has and could have completed the job in one day, I don't know.  But Brian said, 'I'll do it" first and followed through.

So, what are you going to say the next time you hear…

"Who would like to show the new kid around school?"

"Who can help me coach at a youth soccer camp this weekend?"

"Who's interested in learning more about the Civil War?"

"Who can staff the front desk at the homecoming dance?"

"Who would like to run for treasurer of the student body?"

"Who can help me put up signs to advertise for the bake sale?"

"Who would like to volunteer at the shelter with me this weekend?"

If you become known as someone who says, "I'll do it," and then does it right, people will appreciate you, they'll rely on you, and they'll recommend you when anyone asks. 

You’ll win if you love it

I just finished reading a great book about the best distance runners on the planet–the Tarahumara Indians in the Sierra Madre mountain range in Mexico.  The Tarahumara routinely run 100-200 miles in rugged terrain wearing homemade sandals.  And the best part is how much they love doing it. They smile and enjoy themselves while they're running.  Even when they were brought to the US and began competing in (and winning) 100-mile ultra marathons, they're just laughing and having fun while they do it.  The author says that while we run to win races or to punish ourselves for eating a big slice of cheesecake last night, the Tarahumara run for one reason–because they love to do it.  And nobody can do it better. 

Now, you know there's a college admissions lesson coming here…

The most successful college applicants I've ever met didn't take hard classes because they wanted to get into famous colleges; they took hard classes because they wanted to be challenged and learn something.  They didn't do community service because they wanted to put it on a college application; they did it because they really wanted to help someone.  Their excitement about college has nothing to do with getting into an Ivy League school.  They might be happy to go to one but that's not why they do what they do.  They're happier, more interesting, more confident and just plain cooler than kids who make all their decisions based on what they think Stanford will appreciate.

Like the Tarahumara, they do it because they love it.  It's not about winning a competition for them.  And yet they beat out the other applicants who spend four years of high school trying to make themselves competitive without enjoying most of the experience.

It's your choice.  Which kid do you want to be?