Change makers

My number came up for jury duty this week. Anyone who’s gotten this particular call to serve knows that it begins with shuffling everyone scheduled to report that day into one large room for an overview of what to expect. Greg, our clerk, has the unenviable job of beginning his day by facing a room of more than a hundred people, many of whom are there by obligation alone, and explaining the procedures we’ll be following. He was cheerful but also particularly effective in that he changed the room in the first sixty seconds with his explanation of jury reimbursement.

“You’ll be compensated ten dollars a day, which I know is more than most of you paid to park here this morning. That figure isn’t something we’re proud of. In fact, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t changed since the Eisenhower administration.”

It came off as more empathetic than comedic, but it sure did get a laugh from a tough crowd. And with just one sentence, he won the room over in the most subtle but effective of ways—by showing us that he understood what we were feeling and experiencing.

Greg likely gives some version of that 20-minute overview every day. It would be so easy to just plod through it, to resign himself to the idea that nobody in the room particularly cared what he had to say and that there really was no point in doing more than the bare minimum.

But he’s clearly engaged in his job. He embraces the opportunity to change the posture of everyone in that room, not by following instructions or reading a script, but by bringing some emotional labor to the task at hand. Greg may not have the power to change the system, but he’s got the power to change the day for a lot of people. I’m guessing what we witnessed was just a glimpse of the magic he brings to work.

One of the best ways to stand out is to make change. And you don’t need a title or even a room full of people to do it.

A student who patiently tutors someone from a D to a B in algebra is changing that student’s academic progress. A student who finds ways to make the gym work as a senior prom location instead of bemoaning the reality that a different venue fell through is changing people’s moods. A student who treats every customer who orders a burger when she’s behind the counter like they’ve just made her day by showing up is changing people all day. None of these opportunities require special training or scarce opportunities. They’re available to you in ways that you’re already spending your time every day.

There’s a difference between executing and engaging, between just doing what you’re told and creating an interaction that’s bigger than the work. Not everyone can do what Greg did in front of a crowd. But everyone can do for someone or something what he did for our jury room.

Imagine what would happen if you made a point to consciously create change in whatever you’re doing. Sure, you’d make things better for a lot of people around you. But it’s hard to see how becoming a change maker wouldn’t also change you–and your college admissions chances.

When you need a break

Nobody can churn out great work without taking an occasional breather. Dan Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, has read the research and distilled the science into his latest short video, “These are the 5 ways to make your breaks more replenishing.”

And here are a few past posts preaching the powers of the well-timed and well-executed break, one from study skills author Cal Newport, the other from Brad Stulberg, who wrote a book about achieving peak performance.

Show your best on your worst

This week in Russia, Japan suffered a heartbreaking loss to Belgium in soccer’s World Cup. Up 2-0 in the first half, Japan gave up two goals before surrendering a heartbreaking third as time ran out, sending the Belgians to the quarterfinals and ending Japan’s World Cup run.

Before departing, the Japanese players cleaned their locker room to a state so spotless it looked like you could eat lunch off the floor. They also left a note in the middle of the room that said only “thank you,” written in Russian.


But it wasn’t just Japan’s players who cleaned up when they didn’t have to. As they have done throughout the tournament, Japan’s supporters stayed behind to pick up trash in the stadium, this time with many in tears over their team’s defeat.


If I were organizing the next World Cup, I’d invite the Japanese even if they didn’t officially qualify. They make the tournament better for everyone, on the field, in the locker room, and in the stands.

It’s easy to do the right thing when things are going well. But if you really want people to take notice, bring your best self when people least expect it, when things have not gone your way, when others would let their disappointment, frustration, or anger get the better of them.

Who you are on your worst days says even more than who you are on your best.

Are you asking for help in the wrong way?

Dr. Heidi Grant is a social psychologist and the author of Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You. According to the advice she shares in this article, many of us are asking for help in the wrong way—apologizing profusely, using disclaimers like, “I’m not the kind of person who usually asks for help,” portraying the help you need as a tiny, insignificant favor, or reminding people that they owe you.

Here are a few past posts of mine for some additional guidance, one on how to put you and the benefactor on the same team, and two on asking teachers for help—here’s how to do it, and here’s how not to do it.

One reply, or ongoing learning?

As a college freshman, Alex Banayan set out to interview some of the most successful people in the world to learn how they’d managed to launch and thrive in their careers. He not only successfully interviewed Bill Gates, Maya Angelou, Steve Wozniak, Jane Goodall, Larry King, Jessica Alba, Quincy Jones and a long list of others, but he also details the experience in his book released this year, The Third Door: The Wild Quest to Uncover How the World’s Most Successful People Launched Their Careers. So how did an 18-year-old secure these interviews simply by sending cold emails that began from his dorm room? Alex shares his secret (which he acknowledges he borrowed from author Tim Ferriss) in this two-minute video.

The technique is a great one because it asks only one question, and it gives the reader an easy out. But I’d caution high school students from employing it too broadly with a similarly famous audience. Instead, use it to connect with not-so-famous but still knowledgeable people. Why? Because they’re more likely to be willing and able to do more than just answer one question.

Instead of cold emailing Steven Spielberg and hoping to get your one filmmaking question answered, why not email the head of a local media company, or an instructor at a film school, or a producer at a local TV station? You can and probably should still ask just one question. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll get even more advice or an offer to work semi-regularly together.

Are you more likely to improve your ability to read defenses by emailing Tom Brady, or a local high school assistant coach who played QB in college?

The chef at the small local restaurant is a lot more likely to need prep help this summer than Gordon Ramsay or Cat Cora or Thomas Keller is.

Famous makes for a potentially great story. But open, accessible, and helpful makes for potentially great ongoing learning.

Is it urgent, or important?

Do you often find that you work hard all day only to leave important work undone? It’s possible you’re spending too much time on seemingly urgent tasks, and not enough on the important ones. This recent Washington Post piece, “How deadlines thwart our ability to do important work (and what we can do about it),” makes three recommendations:

1. Consider the outcomes before you rush into a decision. You might convince yourself that a phone call is important enough to stop what you’re doing right now. But take a moment and consider if the call is in fact important before you drop everything.

2. Block off time to work on important tasks (what feels urgent doesn’t necessarily mean it’s important).

3. Consciously limit the time you spend using phone and email.

Advice to our 17-year-old selves

Every Friday, we pose a voluntary “Social Question” to everyone at Collegewise, something non-work related to help us all learn more about each other. Last week we asked, “If you could give advice to the 17-year-old version of yourself, what would you say?” I decided to share many of the responses here (anonymously) for two reasons:

First, as adults, it’s easy (and often a relief) to forget what high school was really like, before we’d come into our own, found our way, and made sense of everything with the benefit of hindsight. But transporting ourselves back to this time, and imagining how we’d advise our 17-year-old selves, conjured up all those memories of a period that often felt both uncertain and uncomfortable. Occasionally reconnecting with that feeling makes us better at our jobs as we try to help teenagers get where they want to go next.

And I thought high school readers might appreciate and benefit from the responses, especially given they come from confident, happy, successful professionals who really do understand what it’s like to be where you are today.

Here are the responses:

It’s okay not to know who you are yet. You’ll find your people in about ten years and it’s okay to wait.

Don’t worry. Relax. You don’t have to be great at everything. College and life beyond are going to be better than you ever imagined.

RELAX. And don’t be so mean to your parents. They actually do know what they are talking about, and in a few short years you’ll completely respect them for all of their sacrifices. Also, that Marilyn Monroe style prom dress you fought with your mom about actually looks awful on you!

Stop stressing so damn much. You don’t have to be perfect. You’re going to screw up sometimes, but it’s all going to turn out fine.

Ask people/grownups who are doing things I might want to do how they got there, whether they think the same thing might work for me. And be skeptical of those selling you a dream.

Take risks, be smart, but have fun!

It’ll all be OK. Also, stop saying you’re “bad at math and science.”

Hang in there. Your people are out there, and you’ll find a lot of them in college! You won’t ever be cool, and that will always be okay. Don’t spend so much time stressing and “efforting” over things–nobody has as much control as they’d like to think, and that includes you. And keep doing things that bring you joy, not following “shoulds” from other people. Those “shoulds” will rarely be along the right path for you.

That was a painful time of my life, so I would tell the younger me that life is so very much better after high school and that I would develop the ability to connect in very real ways with other people as I got older.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Chill out. You’ll figure it out eventually and you don’t need to stress as much. Also, double major and join the equestrian team in college.

High school might feel like trying to fit into one (or, if you’re lucky, two) of a handful of predetermined boxes. But college will be alllllll about creating a mold just for yourself.

You are smart and learning can be fun. You will one day master pre-calc, but then forget everything about it five years later and it won’t matter. Also, you should eat more pizza.

New findings on teaching material back

Study skills are not a one-size-fits-all science. From the style of note-taking, to the length of time dedicated to studying, to the choice of starting early or waiting until the last minute, what works flawlessly for one successful student may completely fall apart with another. But in the nine years of occasionally offering study skills recommendations on this blog, I’ve seen two consistent themes recur from both experts and from studies around learning.

First, distractions chip away at your cognitive abilities. You might think you can get plenty done while responding to text messages and checking social media and taking breaks every 10 minutes, but if so you’d be an anomaly according to seemingly every notable study of effective learning. And second, the best way to learn something is to teach it, often referred to as the “Feynman Technique” after Richard Feynman, Caltech’s Nobel Prize-winning physicist. New information just might help you hone how well that technique works for you.

The latest study of the teach-it-to-learn-it’s effectiveness showed what on the surface may seem a pretty obvious finding: the technique works best when you can teach the subject without using notes. It might not seem groundbreaking, but it is a crucial distinction. With notes in front of you, you don’t have to use the portion of your brain that recalls information. The notes jog your memory, which gives you an assist that won’t be available to you when you have to showcase the new knowledge in practice or on an exam. Put the notes away, and your mind has to first recall and then explain the information.

So close the notes and your books, then try to teach the material back, just as if you were standing in front of a class. If you can get through your lesson without relying on your notes, chances are you’ve just made a Nobel Prize winner’s learning technique your own.

Anatomy of a thank-you

If you owe a genuine expression of thanks to someone who really helped you out and made a difference, “Thanks so much!” probably doesn’t get the job done. Instead, try hitting three important areas.

1. Express your thanks.

Be specific and reference the thing they did for you.

“Thank you so much for jumping in to cover my shift when I was sick.”

“Thank you for helping me study for that bio exam.”

“Thank you for spending so much time reviewing my college applications.”

2. Explain why you’re appreciative.

This should ideally be about them, not about you.

“I know you were probably looking forward to your own day off and you swooped in anyway.”

“You spent a lot more time with me than you probably expected to given that bio is not my strong suit.”

“I know you have a lot of students to help, and you somehow found a way to give me as much time as I needed.”

3. Reiterate your appreciation by pointing out the difference they made.

“You saved me from cashing in yet another sick day, and I was already running out after having bronchitis last month. So really, thank you.”

“I never would have passed that exam if it weren’t for you and I want you to know how much I appreciate it.”

“I’m so excited about college and I will never forget the role you played in helping me apply to so many great schools.”

An effective thank-you pays the person back in some way, it makes it more likely they’ll help you in the future, and most importantly, it’s just the right thing to do.

Real progress or faux progress?

When you have a difficult, intimidating, or otherwise unpleasant task ahead of you, it’s tempting to start by doing things that don’t actually get you closer to finishing.

First, I’ve got to respond to all these emails so I can empty my inbox.

First, I’ll organize my desk.

First, I want to finish these other tasks [that aren’t nearly as important] so I can clear my mind.

First, I’ll check social media, poke around the internet, trade emails with people, repeat repeat repeat until I throw in the towel and say that I had writer’s block or just couldn’t find inspiration today.

I’ve done it. We’ve all done it, at least on occasion. You fill the time with seemingly related tasks and then call it a good day’s work. But what we’ve really done is spent that time hiding from the difficult or scary work. And even worse, that work will be there staring at you tomorrow, only now you’ll have one fewer day to complete it.

The best way to stop this is to recognize the behavior for what it is—a way to avoid that which you want to avoid. And once you commit to stop making faux progress, it’s that much easier to start making real progress.