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.

How to demonstrate your leadership skills

“Leadership skills” are one of those traits that garners a lot of mentions in college applications and essays (e.g., “During my tenure as Student Body Treasurer, I developed leadership skills…”), but often without specific examples to substantiate them. Just holding a position or office isn’t evidence of leadership. Neither is just holding meetings every Tuesday during lunch. Real leaders have followers who are enrolled in a compelling vision of the future that the leader has vividly depicted.

If you’re interested in leading, or if you’re currently in a leadership position and want to gauge your progress, here are three questions to consider.

1. Are your people going somewhere?
The essence of leading followers is that you’re taking them somewhere. Is your team, club, or organization focused on a goal, change, improvement, or other destination? If not, then they’re not being led anywhere.

2. Are you the person who is painting the portrait of the destination?
Good leadership doesn’t stop with adding something to an agenda. It describes a compelling vision that people can see, to the point that it excites them and motivates them to follow you.

3. Are you modeling the behavior that will get you where you want to go?
Imagine a team captain who talked constantly of winning a championship but consistently missed practice, or didn’t learn the plays, or played so selfishly that it hurt the team’s chances of winning. The first step to earning trust from your followers is to do as you say. And the fastest way to lose those you’re leading is to show them that you’re all talk and no action.

And here’s a past post (with links to other articles) about leadership as demonstrated in college admissions.

To do better work in less time, stop multitasking

Eric Barker’s latest post, “This Is How To Increase Your Attention Span: 5 Secrets From Neuroscience,” shares key findings described in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Here are three worth paying attention to, particularly if you’re a student or adult looking to do better work in less time.

  1. People who think they are good at multitasking have actually been shown to be the worst at it.
  2. Much like the fact your body can’t lift 5000 pounds, your brain can’t do its best work while trying to juggle too many tasks simultaneously.
  3. Multitasking doesn’t just divide your attention among tasks—it also leads to more errors and more total time spent than had you dealt with each item separately.

One at a time leads to better work in less time.

How to work smarter, not harder

I enjoy Eric Barker’s blog, which shares “science-based answers and expert insight on how to be awesome at life.” And his most recent piece, “This Is How To ‘Work Smarter Not Harder’: 3 Secrets From Research,” hits on three themes that can benefit any college-bound student.

1. Do less. You can’t be great at any one thing when you’re constantly multi-tasking 1000 things.
2. Make a conscious effort to improve within those areas of focus. Don’t just expect it to happen because you show up.
3. Find the joy and passion in the work (which has as much to do with how you view it as it does the work itself).

Intentionally incomplete

When you’re working on a project that can take days or even weeks—writing a research paper, studying for final exams, building a website, etc.—you might experience the onset of burnout overnight. You end your day, even one where you made a lot of project progress, but the next day, any momentum you had is gone. Whatever you try, you just can’t get back in the zone or muster the gumption to get going again. And you resolve to try again tomorrow when you hope to feel more motivated.

In his new book about the science of perfect timing, Dan Pink shares this great tip: End the day in the middle of a task. Stop writing in the middle of a sentence. Stop studying right in the middle of an equation or a paragraph. Stop programming right in the middle of a line of code. Call it a day without a clean ending point.

This might sound absurd or even torturous to people who find a lot of mental relief in finishing at a logical endpoint for the day. But that’s exactly why stopping in the middle can make it easier to get started again the next day. Pink points to the Zeigarnik effect, which is our tendency to remember unfinished tasks better than finished ones. When you come back to that unfinished sentence or equation or line of code the next day, your mind remembers what you were doing and feeling at the time. The sense of momentum comes right back. And that can fuel your motivation day-to-day. Pink even points out that Ernest Hemingway, who published 15 books, loved this technique and often ended his writing sessions in the middle of a sentence.

Turns out one of the best ways to get going the next day is to leave something intentionally incomplete today.