The pre-judgment problem

Seth Godin’s recent post, “Our pre-judgment problem,” shares several examples of how people and organizations use the wrong metrics to judge people, including:

The SAT is a poor indicator of college performance, but most colleges use it anyway.

Famous colleges aren’t correlated with lifetime success or happiness, but we push our kids to seek them out.

The good news?

1. According to FairTest, “a record 900 accredited, bachelor-degree institutions say they will make decisions about all or many applicants without considering ACT or SAT test scores.”

2. Families can decide for themselves whether or not to push kids to seek out famous colleges.

Great benefits…and great writing

Zapier, an 8o-person startup that automates workflow between different applications, just started offering a “de-location package” for new employees in which they’ll reimburse up to $10,000 to help new hires currently living in the San Francisco Bay area relocate. To anywhere.

The initiative is innovative (it’s gotten some press). It makes sense for Zapier (they’re a 100% remote company). But what struck me was the utter lack of business-speak in the explanation—which was written by the company’s co-founder and CEO. Even the fine print reads like human communication that hasn’t been overly formalized by lawyers and PR reps.

“Some fine print: The $10,000 will be a reimbursement for moving expenses you incur in the first three months while working at Zapier. We also ask you stick around Zapier for at least a year. We want to make a commitment to you, so we think it’s fair you do the same. Right now we’re limiting this to folks wanting to make the move away from the Bay Area. We know other cities are expensive to live in too, but this is an experiment for us so we want to see how it goes before expanding the program.”

We all communicate in different voices—even in writing—depending on who we’re communicating with. The email you send to your best friend won’t sound the same as the one you send to your high school principal. Great communicators understand who their audience is and proceed accordingly.

But whether you’re writing an email, a memo, new website copy, or a college essay, if you strip out the voice, delete the personality, and add unnecessary formality, what you’ll be left with is:

1. Sentences that you (and pretty much anyone else) would never say out loud to another person.
2. Bad writing.

When in doubt, communicate like a human. Choose your words. And write like you’re talking to an audience of one.


Long-term payoff

My senior year of high school, our boys basketball team won the league title. But on a team full of all-leaguers and future college players, the fan favorite was a scrappy junior on the bench named Dave. He didn’t get much playing time. But when Dave would enter the game, that’s when the show—and the cheering—would start.

Dave would play his 12 or 8 or 2 minutes like he might never get the chance to set foot on the court again. He’d play frenetic defense. He’d dive to the floor for every loose ball. He’d even run to and from the time-out huddles like it was a race. His energy and enthusiasm were so contagious that the fans in the stands (of which I was one) couldn’t wait for him to get the call-up to enter the game.

I still remember the game when an opponent stole the ball. Dave chased him down the full length of the court like his life was on the line, and managed to block what should have been a sure layup. Dave—and the home court fans—celebrated like he’d just won the Super Bowl for us.

It turns out that all that hustle off the bench didn’t go unnoticed. I stumbled on this podcast last week and learned that Dave spent his senior year as our starting point guard, then played three years of junior college basketball before chasing—and reaching—his dream of playing for a Division I basketball team—Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Today, Dave is an academic advisor at UNLV. And I’m sure that he still retains and employs all those characteristics he developed coming off the bench back in high school—the work ethic, scrappy hustle, the spirit and the willingness to do what it takes to create opportunities. I can’t imagine a better example to set for college—and high school—students.

I write often here about the importance of making an impact, on becoming such an indispensable part of what you’re doing that people would miss you if you were gone. That high school basketball team in 1989 would not have been the same—for the players, coaches, or fans–without Dave coming off the bench. But imagine if someone had discouraged Dave from continuing to play the game he so clearly loved.

You’re just riding the bench. Good colleges won’t appreciate this. You should go start a club or volunteer or do something else that will look good on your college application.

What a loss that would have been.

Twenty years from now, most of today’s high school students will not be able to look back and draw a predictable straight line between their past high school activity and what will have become their career. But you probably will be able to trace the development of your skills, characteristics, talents, and other qualities that aren’t encapsulated on a transcript or a test score report.

Some involvements have an immediate payoff in the form of honors, awards, or other accolades. But the effort, passion, commitment, and resilience to keep going—those are the rewards that pay off over time.

For those playing the admissions waiting game

Kavita Varma-White, a parent whose senior is completing the college admissions process, posted 8 things I wish I’d known about the college admissions waiting game on the Today Show’s website. I found her advice sensible and timely. And of course, I enjoyed the shout out to Collegewise counselor Tom Barry in point 8, where Varma-White writes about celebrating every offer of admission.

How to get to the point

Basecamp’s Dan Kim shares “the single best way to improve your writing” here. From emails, to website copy, to college essays, I can’t think of a piece of writing where the advice doesn’t apply.

Just stop doing it

I enjoyed Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike. But to me, something about one early passage in particular just didn’t sit right. In 1962 when Knight was first getting the tiny company off the ground, he recalls having this realization while on a run:

“So that morning in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea [about starting a shoe company] crazy… just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where ‘there’ is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop. That’s the precocious, prescient, urgent advice I managed to give myself, out of the blue, and somehow managed to take. Half a century later, I believe it’s the best advice—maybe the only advice—any of us should ever give.”

And he kept coming back to that theme repeatedly, pointing to it as the guiding principle, the secret to his success.

We’ve all heard the mantra, “Never give up.” We’re taught not to be quitters, that sheer determination is what separates the people who achieve their goals and those who get left behind.

But here’s the thing that became clear as Knight recounted his story: Nike was successful in large part because Knight was willing to stop.

He stopped working a job as an accountant. Twice.

He stopped working as a professor at Portland State University.

In fact, Knight originally started his shoe company as the American distributor of Tiger brand running shoes manufactured in Japan. The Nike that we all know today only exists because Knight stopped selling the Tiger shoes and began manufacturing his own.

When you’re almost 80 years old, as Knight is, and you look back over your proudest and most significant accomplishments, from entrepreneurship to marriage, you’ll inevitably see a refusal to give up when things were difficult as an important ingredient in the success.

But achieving those milestones will mean letting go of other things that ultimately prove to mean less. Knight was focused, driven, and committed to the work that mattered the most. But he was also a quitter. A smart, tactical quitter. And it helped him and Nike get where they are today.

That’s what kept nagging at me with each passing chapter.

Then, in the final pages of the book, as Knight looks back and ponders the unlikely story of his “crazy idea” growing into Nike, a tale with all the successes enjoyed and the failures overcome, he reflects:

“And those who urge entrepreneurs to never give up? Charlatans. Sometimes you have to give up. Sometimes knowing when to give up, when to try something else, is genius. Giving up doesn’t mean stopping. Don’t ever stop.”

There it is. It’s not necessarily wrong to stop one thing. Sometimes stopping something is the key to succeeding in something else. Just don’t stop permanently.

“Just do it” was a great Nike slogan. But it turns out that “Just stop doing it” can be a pretty effective strategy, too.

Here are a few past posts, here and here, for high school students on the potential value of quitting. And a final one to make sure that you don’t end up punishing the people staying behind when you decide to move on.

Send it today, answer for it tomorrow?

In this interview with Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant, Mark Cuban, entrepreneur, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and Shark, demonstrated how to pitch a product. But what stuck with me (which I suppose makes it a good pitch) was this:

“Whatever text you send tonight or any day, whatever email you send tonight or any day, the minute you hit ‘Send,’ you no longer own that message. But you are still completely responsible for it for the rest of your life. How scary is that?”

I’ve never used the app that he’s pitching and this post isn’t an endorsement—it’s a reminder. That email, that text, that photo, etc.? You may feel perfectly comfortable sending it today. But remember that you might also have to answer for it tomorrow. So send—or don’t send—accordingly.

One per day

It’s difficult to dramatically improve your college admissibility in one day. But there are roughly 180 days of school in an academic year. What if you committed to doing one simple but effective thing each one of those days? By the end of the year, you’ll have a lot to show for your daily small efforts.

Here are a few suggestions.

  • Send a personal thank you email to your counselor, teacher, tutor, friend, parent, or anyone else who helped you when you needed it.
  • Commit to turning off (and tuning out) all distractions for at least one hour of focused studying or homework.
  • Teach someone how to do something.
  • Be nice to a fellow student people usually aren’t so nice to.
  • Congratulate, encourage, or otherwise acknowledge someone at your school who deserves it.
  • Help a local charity or non-profit.
  • Take responsibility for something that will impact one of your activities.
  • Learn about a college that you aren’t currently familiar with.
  • Go the extra mile in one class even if no extra credit policy exists.
  • Cut out all the time wasting during the day and reallocate it to an extra hour or two of sleep that night.
  • Abstain from the gossip and other high school drama that makes life harder than it needs to be.
  • Take 30 minutes and write down as many ideas as you can about how to do more of what you really enjoy and are good at.
  • Write a blog post about a topic that you care about.

Don’t try to do them all on one day. One per day is all it takes to make a difference.

Phone risk and regret

PricewaterhouseCoopers partner Brian Cullinan is having a rough week. One of two accountants entrusted with overseeing the ballot process at the Oscars, he’s been identified as the man responsible for handing the wrong envelope to the best picture presenters, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, which led to the now infamous Oscar debacle for the ages.

As if the mistake itself wasn’t bad enough, Cullinan’s Twitter account revealed that he was tweeting photos of the event just moments before the grand gaffe. As described in this Washington Post article:

“He [Cullinan] acknowledged both the simplicity and paramount importance of his role during the show itself: ‘It doesn’t sound very complicated,’ Cullinan said, ‘but you have to make sure you’re giving the presenter the right envelope.’ But that obviously didn’t happen, and some swiftly suggested that Cullinan’s attention wasn’t solely focused on the task at hand: Just moments before he handed the wrong envelope to Beatty, Cullinan tweeted a photo of best actress winner Emma Stone clutching her statuette backstage. The tweet has since been deleted, and PricewaterhouseCoopers has not commented on Cullinan’s social media use.”

We’ve all experienced the regret that can come when you don’t have (or won’t allow yourself to have) immediate access to your phone. You might miss a great photo opportunity. You might miss a text. You might even miss a call you really needed to take. It’s understandable why so many of us, not just teenagers, can be reluctant to redirect our attention from the phone in our hand to the world in our view. Nobody likes missing out.

But the regret of “I wish I hadn’t been so focused on my phone” can be so much worse. If you’re doing work that matters to you, if you’re having an important conversation, if you’re reading or studying or especially if you’re driving, the effect of diverting your attention can harm your work, your relationships, and in the most severe cases, your life.

How much do you think Brian Cullinan regrets using his phone in that vital moment? How much better would his life be this week if he had just focused on the important, live-televised task at hand? Was that tweet worth the lifetime association his name will carry with the biggest mistake in Oscar history (Google will never forget even when the rest of us have long since moved on)?

The next time you divert your attention away from something important to focus on your phone, stop and ask yourself if it’s worth the risk. And more importantly, can you live with the regret if things go wrong?

First steps

You might already have some vision for what you want to learn, do, or experience during or after college:

  • Become an engineer
  • Be a doctor
  • Dive into classic literature
  • Become a titan of technology or another industry
  • Create positive change in politics
  • Help those who need it the most
  • Teach kids
  • Express yourself with your art or music or dance
  • Discover your underlying talents and passions
  • Learn more about Eastern European history or math or philosophy

Whatever your vision is, consider what steps you can take now to start down that path.

There are plenty of books, YouTube videos, cheap in-person or online classes, internships, volunteer opportunities, apprenticeships, and other ways to get a taste of whatever interests you. And while I don’t think teenagers should be in a hurry to grow up (you’re only a teenager once, after all), initiative and curiosity are an appealing pair to colleges. Admissions officers know that the student who has not only the desire to learn and experience new things, but also the initiative to seek out and find opportunities to scratch those itches, is more likely to be successful in college.

You don’t have to become an engineer, perform surgery, or take your first company public to impress colleges (if you knew everything you need to know to achieve all your dreams, what would you need college for?). But the sooner you take your first steps, the closer you’ll be to your goal. And the sooner you’ll realize whether or not you’re stepping in the right direction.