Your best self on a bad day

It’s easy to show your best self when you’re getting what you want. When you get the elected position you wanted, the grade you wanted, the college acceptance you wanted, etc., you’ve got a pre-existing lift that makes it easier to be nice, polite, and grateful.

But how do you behave when things don’t go your way?

When someone else gets elected club president over you, do you congratulate them? Or do you criticize the club’s choice?

When you come up short of the “A” you wanted, do you thank the teacher for spending time helping you after school and try to do even better next semester? Or do you blame the teacher and complain that you couldn’t get extra credit?

When a college you really wanted to attend doesn’t admit you, do you find a way to be happy for those who got in? Or do you belittle their accomplishments and claim one of their spots should have been yours?

And here’s the most important question—if your behavior depends on whether or not you get what you want, which version is the real you?

People will assume great things about you if you can be your best self, even on a bad day.

Is your weakness worth improving?

I’ve written before that too many college applicants spend their high school years trying to fix their weaknesses. Colleges don’t expect you to be perfect. If you want to stand out, you’re a lot better off maximizing your strengths than you are obsessing over what you think will be perceived as a blemish on your application.

But some weaknesses might be worth addressing. And since there’s no formula to help you decide when that’s the case, here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you decide whether to improve or just let it be.

1. Is it actually a weakness?
If you’re getting a D in math, or if you’ve lost friends because you just weren’t all that nice to them, those are weaknesses. And more importantly, they can be improved. But if you got a 1460 on the SAT and you were hoping for a 1500, you don’t have a testing weakness. Your score is good enough already—you’re better off moving on and maximizing a strength. Something just short of perfection is not a weakness. Neither is the identification of one thing that you’re great at. The college admissions process can skew your perception in these areas. So before you go dedicating time and energy to fixing something, make sure the weakness is real, not just perceived.

2. Is the weakness improvable?
Some clichés are true, and “Nobody’s perfect” is one of them. Not every weakness is necessarily improvable. And others that might be improvable can take a lot of work to actually do so. So before you dive in and commit to getting better at something, ask yourself if it’s something you really can improve, and if so, if you’re committed to doing the work it will take to get there. What you want to avoid is spinning your wheels and going nowhere, or spinning just long enough to improve a little, but giving up before you reach your goal. Decide ahead of time if this is a weakness you can change, and if you’re willing to do what it takes to actually do so.

3. Would you be happier or healthier if you fixed this weakness?
It’s hard to argue against fixing a weakness that you genuinely believe would make you happier or healthier if you improved it. But please ask yourself if doing so would actually make that change. Your doctor is the best judge of the health part, and it’s best to double check with her before you launch on your self-improvement plan. But you are the best judge of the happy part. Will this change make you happy, not just the colleges or your coach or your parents? I’m not suggesting that you (or your doctor) are the only one worth listening to. But you’ve only got so many things you can focus on at one time. Make sure that as many of them as possible are things that won’t just make you more successful, but will also leave you happier and healthier.

4. Is the weakness preventing you from doing something, or getting somewhere, important to you?
This is connected to question #1, but focused more on the outcome rather than the emotion behind it. If you’re 50 points away from the SAT score you need to hit for your dream school, that might be worth addressing, especially if you haven’t prepped yet. If the varsity basketball coach told you the only reason you got cut was because of your free throws, spend some time on the line. If you’re at a B+ in your history class and you need at least an A- to get into the AP level you really want to take next year, double down on your study time. Successful people work hard to overcome these kinds of challenges all the time. And putting in the work to reach a goal that means something to you is different from trying to fix every little thing that’s less than perfect.

5. What price (literal or figurative) will you need to pay to fix this?
Money, time, energy, and attention are at a premium for high school students and their families. Will spending more of each mean you’ll be spending less someplace else? And if so, can you afford to reallocate those funds? If you don’t need to pay any money to fix it, and you’ve got enough time, energy, and attention to go around, great! But if you’d have to spend money on a test-prep tutor your family has already paid more than was budgeted, or it would mean less time practicing the trumpet that you love, or you’d need to cut back on your time performing in the school play that’s just about the most fun you have all week, those are real prices to pay. And it’s worth asking yourself if the cost of improving will be worth the eventual payoff.

Just because

Seth Godin’s post, Is kindness a luxury?, points out that someone who’s only willing to be kind when they have enough money, confidence, and everything else they want is actually working against getting where they want to go. Kindness is the foundation. If you start with that, you get closer to satisfying those other desires. And you enjoy the ride along the way.

That sentiment certainly applies to high school students (to all of us, really). But it’s also a good reminder for those who want to get into college that you shouldn’t reserve your best efforts, qualities, or contributions for only those tasks where there’s a guaranteed payoff.

Raise your hand in class even if participation doesn’t count toward your grade.

Help round up the balls after basketball practice because that’s what good teammates do.

Stay late to help clean up after the school dance even when it’s not your job.

Write thank you notes to your teachers and counselors who helped you apply to college, even if you don’t get into your first choice school.

Be nice to the kid that nobody else is nice to even if you’ll take some immature guff from students who are too insecure to do the same.

You can’t list most of these on your college applications. But you’re more likely to get rewards if you make a habit of doing the right thing just because.

A few resolution tips

Here’s a repeat share to get your new year off to a good start. Authors Chip and Dean Heath (who teach at Stanford and Duke respectively) have written several books about how to make better decisions and how to create change that sticks. So they know what they’re talking about when they pen “4 Research-Backed Tips for Sticking to Your New Years Resolutions.”

Here’s a post by author Dan Pink that brings the science of behavioral economics to new year’s resolutions.

Speaking of resolutions and economics, here’s an interesting 30-minute podcast on the Freakonomics blog about why willpower alone is not enough (and what to do instead).

And one final tip of my own. High school students spend enough time being measured, evaluated, and compared. Most are receiving too many messages identifying their (perceived) weaknesses and reminding them (often inaccurately) what they need to change or improve about themselves to get into “good colleges.” If you’re a high school student making new year’s resolutions, please make sure that some or all of those goals lead to things that actually make you–not just colleges or teachers or your parents–happy. There’s nothing wrong with vowing to study for the SATs or get a higher GPA, especially if the pursuit and accomplishment of that goal would make you feel proud and fulfilled. But if your resolutions are things you want to do rather than simply things you think you should do, you’re more likely to achieve and appreciate them. They’re your resolutions, after all.

Have a happy and safe New Year.

When phones are turned off

Students, what would happen in your life if you gave up your phone for one week?

The Today Show recently featured one class of sophomores at Black Hills High School in Washington State who, with some convincing, agreed to give up their phones for one week. And while they all agreed that they were initially bored, anxious, or a combination of both, at week’s end, the students acknowledged that they’d gotten more done and had been more engaged. One student acknowledged that he’d spent more time “actually talking to” his family members. Another remarked with some surprise, “I started reading a book last night.”

Not entirely surprisingly, most gratefully welcomed their phones back into their lives at the experiment’s conclusion. But one student now turns her phone off when doing homework and often leaves it behind when she leaves the house. Another turns his phone over to his parents at night to help resist temptation.

The students also mentioned that while their parents are quick to criticize their teen’s reliance on their phones, from the students’ perspective, those same parents are on their own phones as much as–or even more often than–their kids are.

This might be an interesting family experiment to try. Turn the family phones off for one week. If not for a week, maybe even for a day or two. Just make sure that the parents join in on turning off.

Do you need an ideal scenario?

If you only work hard when you find the class interesting, or you like the teacher, or the subject is something you can use (or all of the above), how brightly do you shine when you get what you claim to enjoy?

The best strategy is to find a way to do the work you’re capable of doing. But if you insist on limiting your efforts to ideal scenarios, turn those ideal scenarios into remarkable work.

What to keep track of

You change your entire outlook, and your chances of success, by just changing what you keep track of.

Many of the students I’ve met who are stressed, unhappy, and generally negative about their journey from high school to college are paying attention only to those things that support those outlooks. They’ll talk about the teacher who supposedly doesn’t like them, the student they believe didn’t deserve to edge them out for entrance into an AP class, the politics of the baseball team, and the problems they find with their school. They track (and blame someone else) every time they come up short. They remember every unlucky break. It’s them against the world, the odds are stacked against them, and none of it is their fault.

It’s not that all of their observations are necessarily untrue. But what they’ve chosen to track is clearly changing their outlook.

What if instead, they tracked the opposite?

What if they noticed their great teachers, the smart and interesting students they have the good fortune to learn with, the comradery of the baseball team, and the good parts of their school?

What if they paid more attention to every one of their successes, every lucky break, and every time a friend, family member, or teacher extended a hand to help them?

What if they owned every failure and used it not as an opportunity to blame, but one to learn from, something that could make them smarter, more resilient, and more likely to succeed the next time?

What you keep track of becomes what you expect more of. And what you expect more of often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some disappointments and setbacks are the real thing. But many more are not. If what you’ve come to expect is not making you happy and fulfilled, the quickest way to change your outcomes might be to change what you keep track of.

The sound of silence…and productivity

Do you listen to music when you’re studying or trying to get other difficult work done? According to Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, author of This Is Your Brain on Music, and featured expert in this article, music is an aid to productivity only when doing work that’s repetitive, like driving a truck or working in a factory. Otherwise, repeated studies have shown that music, especially lyrics, can wreak havoc on cognitive performance.

So why do so many people insist on listening to music while they work or study? As the article says, “We like it, and we can’t tell it’s messing us up.”

Courage, responsibility, and credit

Before he became a New York Times columnist and bestselling author of 20 successful cookbooks, Mark Bittman was just a guy who wanted to work as a writer. He approached the editor of his local paper in Massachusetts and confidently proposed that he could do a better job than the paper’s current restaurant reviewer. The editor told him to come back the next day with a review and prove it. It worked, and that first cooking piece was published in 1980.

Jason Fried is the founder and president of Basecamp, the company behind the popular project management software of the same name. But he started as a freelance web designer in the late 90s. To win his first clients, he studied various companies’ websites, sent the CEOs emails pointing out what was wrong with their current designs, and included a mock-up of how he could improve them. That strategy won him his first clients—large companies that paid him big bucks.

These, and so many other stories of how successful people got their starts, have a few things in common.

1. They weren’t afraid to try…or to fail.
It took some guts for Bittman and Fried to boldly claim they could do it better. But what were they really risking? The editor could have passed. The CEO could have said, “I like our current design better.” But other than hearing the (temporary) sting of “No,” neither Bittman nor Fried would have suffered any lasting damage. But the fact that they weren’t afraid to try or to fail, no matter how many times it took for them to get what they hoped for, is what improved their odds and ultimately helped them be successful. If you want to be successful, you’ve got to be willing to try, to fail, and then to keep trying if necessary.

2. They shouldered the responsibility.
Bittman didn’t ask the editor to hire him before he wrote the piece. Fried didn’t require a deposit for the work he’d already completed before he shared his ideas with the CEOs. That approach didn’t just mean that Bittman and Fried were shouldering all of the responsibility; it also meant that the people in charge had nothing to lose. The more responsibility you take for your own project, the more willing you are to take the blame if it doesn’t go well, the better the chances that you’ll get to do exactly what you want to do.

3. They deflected credit.
Bittman and Fried actually made those in charge look good. Sure, Bittman got his name on that first article, but the editor must have looked good to his bosses for finding an undiscovered—and better—restaurant critic. The CEOs who gave Fried a shot got to claim the foresight in retaining someone who could improve their company’s website.

If you’re looking for a chance, an opportunity, or just the approval to try an idea within an organization:

• Have the courage to try and potentially fail.
• Accept all responsibility, and the blame if it doesn’t work.
• If it works, deflect the credit to those who gave you a chance.

Do this often enough and the practice, along with the subsequent success, will probably become a good habit.

Determination: friend or foe?

I love the show Shark Tank. Budding entrepreneurs pitch their business—and offer a stake in their company—to the cast of multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons (the sharks) in exchange for an investment. It’s entertaining, it’s educational, and it’s helped to launch hundreds of successful businesses. But every now and then, an entrepreneur will present a business that’s just not working. And that’s when the show gets a little sad.

Lots of ideas don’t work when turned into a business, and there’s no shame in trying and failing. But some of those business owners have invested tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into their idea. Some have taken out second mortgages on their homes. Some have borrowed money from friends or family. They’re out of options, time, and money. Not surprisingly, the sharks almost always pass on these pitches and advise that it’s time to give up on this particular idea.

And almost every time, the next clip shown is of the dejected entrepreneur vowing to never give up.

Dogged determination is a necessary trait to be successful in just about anything. But when that sheer relentlessness prevents someone from facing facts, when it drives them to give up more money, time, or energy than they can afford, when it prevents them from redirecting to something potentially more successful and personally fulfilling, determination becomes a foe rather than a friend.

I often see determination’s transition from friend to foe during the college admissions process. The student whose SAT score has stalled after three tries, and who wants to do yet another round of expensive test prep. The student who refuses to look at more realistic schools and instead keeps searching for a way to get into a highly selective college. The student who won’t accept a college’s denial, who wages an appeal campaign and won’t even consider any of the available college options on the table. Their determination is admirable. And it will help them achieve a lot of things in the future. But in these scenarios, that determination is holding them back from achieving many other more realistic—and likely just as rewarding—goals.

It’s far better to have determination than not to. And there’s no formula to identify when it’s time to move from determination to acquiescence. But you can start by simply facing facts. What do the facts tell you? What do people who know you and love you advise? What does your counselor think you should do?

And most importantly, if you kept pursuing this goal and never achieved it, would you be proud of yourself for trying so hard? Or would you regret what you gave up to stay so determined?

Determination is a great friend. But if it stops acting in your best interest, that friend might be turning into a foe.