What are you noticing?

In 2007, I took a leap and checked an item off of my life’s bucket list: I entered a stand-up comedy competition.

To be clear, there was no audition. All you had to do to enter the contest was 1) have a working pulse and 2) write your name on a sign-up sheet. But I went for it. My friends all showed up to support me at the big show. And over the next four weeks, I actually managed to progress several rounds before the far more talented comedians went on to the finals.

I loved being on stage and making people laugh. But here’s what I didn’t love: spending all day every day asking, “Could that be funny?”

Stand-up comics are always looking for material. Is that funny? Could it be funny? How could I turn this thing I just thought or saw or experienced into something funny? That’s the job. It’s what a good comedian does. But I didn’t enjoy examining everything in my life through the lens of what was or might be funny. I found it exhausting. And it took away from my ability to notice and appreciate things that were more important to me.

Daily blogging inspired a similar behavior with a very different result.

Since beginning this blog ten years ago, at least once a day, I have to notice something that might be helpful or interesting enough to write about it. I can’t even begin to calculate how many hours I’ve spent over the last ten years noticing and consequently sharing information that intrigues me. Some days what I share is a lot more important or profound than other days. But the daily practice is one that’s made me a better observer, thinker, communicator, student, parent, and colleague. It’s why daily blogging is as selfish an act as it may also be a generous one. I get plenty out of this practice, too.

Lesson #3 of my final 31 posts: What you choose to notice every day influences your behavior.

We all have near limitless information streaming our way every day. But our brains have limited resources. We can’t take in everything around us and parcel out attention equally. We get to choose what we notice. And those choices have very real consequences. They can make us feel happier, more informed, more relaxed, more fortunate, etc., or they can make us resentful, over-invested in things that don’t matter, anxious, less fortunate, etc.

Not everyone has the luxury to ignore what might be difficult in their lives, especially if they’re experiencing real hardship. But we all get to make choices throughout the day about what’s worth paying attention to. And those choices have side effects. If you want to change the side effects, change what you’re choosing to notice.

It’s worth checking in regularly and asking yourself: (1) What am I choosing to notice every day, and (2) is that practice making my life better, or worse?

My final month of daily blogging starts today

It was almost a year ago that I announced this tenth year of daily blogging would be my last. October 12, 2019 will be my final post. And with just 31 days until then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the best way to say goodbye to my readers and to my little blog. Many of my friends and family have asked me what I have in mind for the final post, but that’s a lot of gravity and pressure to put on one entry, even the final one in a ten-year daily streak. So while there’s a fine line between honoring something for an audience who shows up willingly and overestimating your own importance in their lives, if you’ll indulge me, here’s what I’ve got in mind for the next 31 days.

For each of my remaining posts, I’d like to share one thing I’ve learned and benefited from while engaging in this daily practice, none of which I knew of or fully appreciated before I started. Here’s day #1 of 31:

It’s easier to make things for an audience you have than it is to find an audience for things that you’ve made.

The beauty of the internet and social media is that you can reach an audience with the push of a button. But all too often, people, organizations, and companies find something to announce and then shout into the online universe to find an interested audience. Kickstarter is a great example of this. Sure, there are success stories of products, projects, and films that got their start and their funding with a Kickstarter announcement. But there are a lot more examples of people who announced their big idea on Kickstarter and then hoped an audience would show up. That’s like that person on the street corner acrobatically spinning the arrow to generate interest in the rental property to their left. Sure, you may get the occasional passerby who happens to want exactly what you’re promoting. But would it not have been better if you already had a group of people who were voluntarily giving you their attention and waiting for you to bring that product to them?

In October 2011, my business partner Arun and I released our first version of the Collegewise Guide to the Common Application. We thought it was a great idea and we were excited to share it with students, parents, and counselors. And while the guide is free today, we initially charged $12.99 per download.

And our advertising strategy to promote it? Simple. I went to my blog readers and said, “Here it is.”

No paid advertising. No spamming strangers who didn’t want to hear from us. No smarmy tactics or anything else that just wasn’t us. I’d already been blogging daily for four years. I had an audience at the time of over 10,000 people who were already showing up willingly to read what I had to share. We didn’t have to find people who might be interested. The audience was already there. And if the guide were good enough, they’d tell other people about it for us. That’s exactly what happened.

The best way to start building an audience? Whatever your project is that you’re envisioning or even already working on, start by identifying, as specifically as you can, who it’s for. What need are you trying to fill? How will it help them? And most importantly, what can you share, teach, or otherwise give them today to start earning their attention and trust?

If you start today giving people recurring reasons to show up, when your project is ready to share, your audience will be there waiting.

And appropriately, for the final time on this blog, I’m happy to announce that our 2019/20 Collegewise guide to the Common Application is available today. You can download it for free here.

The college “why?”

College applicants, as you’re finalizing your college lists and brainstorming your essays and organizing your list of application to-do’s, here’s a question you may not have considered.

Why are you going to college?

I’m not suggesting that you reconsider your path, especially before you even submit applications to give yourself the choice to attend. But many students grow up knowing that college after high school is a foregone conclusion. It’s what’s necessary. It’s what’s expected. It’s what they and their families have worked for. And much as you wouldn’t get married without some sense of why you’re making that commitment, college is an investment of time and money that’s worthy of asking, “Why?”

Whatever your answer to that question, it will help clarify your goals. It will help you (re)evaluate your list of schools. It will help you answer questions about why you’ve chosen to apply to particular colleges, what you hope to gain from the experience, and how you plan to make yourself successful.

Knowing your “why” will likely improve your chances of admission to the right college for you.

Maybe you’re applying because you want to be an engineer and you need the education to pursue that dream. Maybe you love physics and want to take that interest to a reasonable extreme. Maybe you want to discover your interests and talents, or learn from people different from you, or begin navigating the world on your own as you’ll need to do as an adult.

There are few wrong answers to the question as long as you’re thoughtful and sincere in your response.

And if you struggle to find an answer, here’s an exercise that might help. Imagine the option of attending any college at all is suddenly taken away from you in perpetuity. If you’d be somewhere between disappointed and crestfallen, ask yourself (here comes that word again) why.

Your reasons will probably give you some clear insight into your answer to the college “why?”

The right questions to ask

Over the last 20 years at Collegewise, I’ve watched thousands of teenagers progress through our programs. I’ve observed nearly 200 colleagues who made their mark working here. I can look back on my own career development and that of my friends and family. I’ve read and thought about education, the point of both high school and college, and the ingredients that seem to be so important to finding success and fulfillment as an adult. And it’s difficult to ignore a reality that plays out in all those scenarios, one that should be liberating but will actually make many people, especially some parents, uncomfortable.

In the grand scheme of what will become a student’s life, high school grades (and even more so, test scores) just don’t matter.

There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, so let me do a few preemptive takedowns. Education is everything. We can’t possibly invest enough in schools. Teachers deserve so much more than they’re getting and earning for choosing such a laudable career (I was raised by one of the best public high school English teachers in America whose former students still talk about how she changed their lives). A student who’s engaged in learning and preparing for their future should be applauded and encouraged. Curiosity, effort, work ethic—all of it matters. And kids coming from under-resourced backgrounds who seek upward mobility for themselves and their families need every advantage to get there. We need to help them engage, not send a message that could be interpreted as, “School doesn’t matter.” I have two kids of my own, ages two and four, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to encourage them to make the most of those 6-7 hours a day when they’re on campus between kindergarten and high school.

But I just don’t think the grades on the transcript encapsulate a student’s skills, potential, or likelihood of finding happiness and fulfillment as adults.

Training kids to place a premium on getting the right answer produces students who are more likely to ask, “Will this be on the test?” than they will the real-world questions, the kind without correct answers that can easily be found on the internet. If you’re convinced that getting accepted to an Ivy League school is the key to your success in life, then grades matter a lot. But as I’ve written before, you can’t earn straight A’s in life.

Seth Godin’s recent podcast episode explores this idea in more detail by examining some of these real-world challenges that don’t have one correct answer, like running for office, designing a garbage can to meet the complex needs of New York City sanitation, and understanding how to get along at work when the rules at work keep changing. And he asks an important question: How do we help our kids understand what it means to address challenges that don’t have a right answer? Godin offers two suggestions:

1. Begin with this: you won’t get in trouble for getting it wrong, because nobody knows what “right” means. We’ve got to get past the idea that you can get an “A” on this.

2. Instead of pushing kids to find the right answers, we need to push kids to ask the right questions.

How do you execute it in practice? How do you balance the dueling realities of an education system that places so much weight on grades with a future that will be built based on so many other factors? How do we know if parents or students are doing it right?

Godin doesn’t answer that because there’s no right answer. But those are the right questions to ask.

Need some happiness instruction?

The rates of anxiety and depression among teenagers have reached alarming levels. And while there’s a difference between a serious mental illness and a student who’s a little stressed or just has the occasional (and normal) bout with the blues, it seems that many teens—and many adults—might need a little guidance to (re)discover some of the happiness we should all be able to enjoy.

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley is launching “The Science of Happiness: A free online course exploring the roots of a happy, meaningful life.” From the course page:

“The free eight-week course explores the roots of a happy and meaningful life through science and practice. Students will engage with some of the most provocative and practical lessons from the latest research, discovering how cutting-edge research can be applied to their own lives. The course is divided into eight one-week segments, with an additional week in the middle for a midterm and an extra week at the end for a final exam, though students have six months to complete the material at their own pace if they wish.”

Might be worthwhile to try it for yourself, or to forward to someone who might benefit.

Different or differently?

Sometimes we get to choose what we do. But even when faced with an obligation that’s not our choice, we still get to choose how we do it.

It’s rare to experience all of these at once, but if you’re not:

Getting something worth doing done…
Changing someone or something for the better…
Learning, growing, or otherwise bettering yourself…
Making an impact that would make you missed if you stopped showing up…
Doing work you’re proud of…
Enjoying yourself…

Maybe it’s time to change things up?

When you reach that point, you might be able to pick a new commitment entirely. Or you can always change what you’re doing—and how you’re doing it—within that existing commitment.

If you’re feeling stuck, do something different, or do this thing differently.

Great mistakes

Some people don’t get to make mistakes. Pilots, heart surgeons, and skydivers—they need to get it right the first time, and every time after that. Those are not the people you ever want to tell you, “I’m going to try something new that might not work.”

But unless you’re facing potentially catastrophic consequences, you might be better off inviting mistakes than you are avoiding them.

Not the kind of mistake that happens because you just didn’t care or try enough. Those mistakes are harder to come back from. But the mistake that happened in spite of pairing good intent with equally good effort? As long as you extract the necessary learning from it, it’s hard to call that a bad mistake.

An essential element of greatness is the willingness to make great mistakes.

You are the “if”

Many students, particularly those with their hearts set on attending a college that turns away most of its applicants, are applying an if/then construct to their education and their future.

If I get in, then…

…all my hard work will have paid off.

…I’ll have a wonderful college experience.

…I’ll be successful in my career.

Three problems with the if/then approach:

1. It injects absurdly high pressure and stakes into the process.
2. It relies on a decision that the student doesn’t ultimately control.
3. It’s inherently flawed.

Data, studies, and anecdotal evidence have shown over and over again that students who attend highly selective colleges don’t necessarily enjoy better college experiences, emerge better educated, or prove to lead happier, more fulfilling, more successful lives than those who attend less famous schools. Giving any particular college that power means handing over almost all of your agency in your own future.

Some if/thens hold up. If you’re engaged in your education, if you’re curious, kind, and passionate, if you’re willing to take advantage of the staggering number of opportunities available to you at the right school (famous or not), then great things will happen to and for you.

But you, not your dream college, are the most important if.

Self-motivation

It’s easy to feel motivated when the conditions are perfect, especially when there’s an encouraging outside voice cheering us on. But if you’re willing to bring your best effort only when you like the teacher, coach, boss, etc., you’re putting your motivation in someone else’s hands. And motivation is entirely too powerful an asset to hand over to anyone else.

The best motivation is always self-motivation.

“I did what I was asked to do”

There’s no shame in doing what you were asked to do. You can do a lot worse than being a compliant worker, colleague, teammate, etc. who can always be counted on to follow instructions.

But it’s not a role that’s likely to help you stand out.

If the best you bring is simply doing what you’re told, there’s a long line of people who will do exactly the same, and plenty of others who will do even more.

People who bring something extra—energy, insight, connection, etc.–and improve the experience for those around them.

People who make those around them better.

People who can find a way to solve the challenge other people haven’t solved yet.

People whose contributions and presence would be missed if they were gone.

People who can see what’s possible and rally others to that better future.

You don’t have to be in charge to be one of those people who find a way to bring more to what they’re doing rather than simply getting it done as instructed. For students looking for examples, here are two past posts, one describing five people you want to work with and another about a teenage part-time worker at a frozen yogurt shop who made himself indispensable as an employee.

You can do better than doing what you’re asked.