Make it a little better

There’s a lot of wisdom in this pithy passage from one of my favorite management books:

“When you enter your place of work, you never leave it at zero. You either make it a little better or a little worse. Make it a little better.”

It also applies when you swap “place of work” with school, classroom, rehearsal, dinner with your family, etc.

Job, career, or calling?

Amy Wrzesniewski is a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. Her ongoing research into how we can find more meaning in our work has led her to conclude that people view occupations in one of three ways: a job, a career, or a calling.

A job is something to endure just to get a salary.

A career is something that gives prestige or position within society.

A calling is work that you believe is part of your identity, something that gives you meaning in your life.

On the surface, those findings may not appear that surprising. You can probably name at least one person you know who fits into each category.

But where her research gets fascinating is that when asked whether they view their work as a job, a career, or a calling, the answers remain fairly consistent across every profession. Doctors, janitors, social workers, executive assistants, writers, construction workers, trash collectors, teachers—the percentage within each profession who view the work as a job, a career, or a calling is roughly the same. And the reason? Because we all can find meaning in the work that we do, no matter what kind of work it is.

That’s why a great restaurant server can transform the entire dining experience.

That’s why a doctor with a great bedside manner will likely have much better relationships with her patients.

That’s why a plumber who tells the truth and makes a recommendation for repairs in the best interest of the customer is a lot more likely to get referral business.

And that’s why one student can transform anything from a class, to a cross country team’s workout, to a club meeting, to an orchestra rehearsal.

The key to finding that meaning is not to ask, “How much can I get out of this for myself?” It’s to ask, “How can I improve this experience for everyone?”

Whether you’re attending a study group, a karate class, a drama rehearsal, or a part-time job at a frozen yogurt shop, what would it take for you to see that time as a calling? How could you bring more of your unique talents, energy, insights, and personality to make the experience better, not just for you, but for everyone?

Sure, there will always be roles, experiences, and jobs that we’re just not cut out to do. It’s hard to imagine any universe where I could call competitive high-jumping a calling given that I have absolutely no natural skills or interest in that area.

But while we don’t always get to choose what we’re doing, we do get to choose how we do it. And how you do it is what decides whether you’ll feel like you’re in a job, a career, or a calling.

Make others notice

Students, if you only do your best work when you like the teacher, or your parents push you, or the boss is watching, that’s giving other people an awful lot of power over your life. And worst of all, you’re letting them control when you’re at your best.

If you want to stand out, earn more credit, get more positive attention, and improve your chances of getting into college, don’t wait for others to get you to work. Do work that will make others take notice.

Teacher/student responsibilities

Students, who’s responsible for making sure that you learn the material in each of your classes?

I’d argue it’s you, not your teacher.

It’s your teacher’s job to make it clear what’s expected from students. It’s your teacher’s job to provide the necessary instruction and resources like materials, opportunities to answer questions, and even extra help if necessary. It’s your teacher’s job to fairly evaluate your performance in the class based on the metrics that have been made clear.

But learning takes two willing parties. And just like parents, bosses, and other figures of authority can’t physically force you to do anything well or at all, your teacher can’t will you to be an engaged student who genuinely wants to learn.

“I didn’t do well in that class because I didn’t like the teacher” is a student who’s abdicating their responsibility.

“My teacher wasn’t my favorite, but I still found a way to learn in her class” is a student who’s embracing their responsibly.

On purpose

There are some things you do (almost) every day. Brushing your teeth. Taking a shower. Checking your email or messages. There’s no debating whether or not you have time, no waiting for the right circumstance or opportunity. At some point, you just made a decision that this was something important enough to do every day. You started by doing it on purpose, but over time, it just became a habit.

On purpose works for lots of other things, too. What if you made the choice this week to:

Raise your hand and contribute to an in-class discussion at least once per day.
Spend 15 minutes a day learning more about something that interests you.
Initiate a project for your club or organization.
Ask a teacher for help when you need it.
Turn off your phone while you are studying.
Express your thanks to someone who deserves it.
Put 10% of your money into a savings account.
Stop doing one thing that’s no longer making you happier, smarter, or more productive.
Start doing one thing that will make you happier, smarter, or more productive.
Learn more about a college your counselor says will likely admit you.

At some point, you won’t have to remind yourself. You won’t have to find the time. You won’t have to do it like you’re checking an item off your day’s to-do list. It will just be a habit.

Most good habits start by doing something on purpose.

Find your fun

One of the worst symptoms of the college admissions arms race is the disappearance of downtime, frivolity, or anything else that can’t be directly connected to a college admissions advantage. Kids stop being kids and spend all their time resume building, measuring the worth of every potential choice with, “Will this help me get in?”

Here’s one deceptively simple way to combat that. Many colleges, and college interviews, ask the question, “What do you do for fun?” To not have a genuine answer that lights up would actually be an admissions disadvantage. You’re hurting your chances if you don’t regularly have a little fun.

Please don’t tell me you don’t have time. If that’s actually a true statement, you’ve just identified a problem. Now it’s time to change it.

And if you don’t have an answer to the “What do you do for fun?” question, now is the time to find one.

How to make calm application progress

I just might turn this past post built around Patrick O’Connor’s “What to Say When Your Students are Freaked About College Apps” into an annual September share here. O’Connor’s recommendations on how to make continuous application progress without over-planning, or worse, procrastinating, are both simple and sensible. And I can’t imagine any college applicant who follows it faithfully not enjoying both the thrill of application momentum and the wonderful calm that accompanies work done well ahead of deadlines.

When less is best

More activities

More commitments

More hours

More scheduling

More time, more energy, more drive, etc.

Is it actually leading to better results? Are you finding more success, more enjoyment, and more impact as a result of all this “more?”

If not, what would happen if you did less?

What if you pruned those activities that don’t light you up and doubled down on those that you’re genuinely excited about? How much more would you get out of what you’re doing, and how much more would you have to show for it on your college applications?

More doesn’t necessarily always mean better. In fact, sometimes less really is best.

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.