More on strengths over weaknesses

The research and the experts keep showing up to endorse focusing on strengths—our own, and our kids’—rather than fixing weaknesses. Lea Walters is a positive psychology researcher and the author of The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish.

As shared in her recent piece:

Three decades of research point to the advantages of taking a strength-based approach in our lives, including better work performance, greater levels of happiness at work, and greater likelihood of staying at work.

Research shows that the benefits of playing to strengths spill over outside of work, too: more happiness in marriage, higher levels of physical health, better recovery after illness, increased life satisfaction, and higher self-esteem.

Studies have also found that helping your kids play to their strengths helps them to develop resilience, build optimism, do better at school, handle friendship stress, and much more.

Rest to take and work to do

Sports fans (and sports participants) understand the role of the off-season. It’s a time for athletes to heal and to take a break—physically and mentally—from the day-to-day grind of practice and the relentless pressure of competition. But the off-season is also a time to prepare, to study, and to improve. Athletes will train, work on important components of their game, and address any areas that will help them compete when the next season arrives. Done correctly, this balance of recovery and recommitment means that an athlete arrives at the start of the next season primed for performance. Don’t show up run-down. Don’t show up out of shape. Show up rested and ready to get to work.

High school seniors should view their summer the same way.

If your junior year felt like a nine-month sprint full of AP classes, standardized tests, and extracurriculars, if sufficient downtime became a lost luxury, the summer is your time to rest and recover. Get eight hours of sleep on a regular basis. Spend time with your friends and family. Do things that make you happy, especially those that have absolutely nothing to do with getting into college. That’s the resting part of your off-season, and it’s crucial for your future readiness and performance.

But the senior year will eventually arrive. And in addition to the usual rigors, you’ll have college applications and the associated deadlines to contend with. Why not use the summer to help you prepare and to ensure you don’t have to start the (college application) season out of shape?

During your summer off-season, you can research and finalize your college list. You can begin and even complete some of your college applications and essays. You can retake a standardized test or assemble a required portfolio or prepare a schedule of what needs to be done and when.

Best of all, each of those tasks can exist concurrently with a consistent regimen of rest and recovery. Much as it does for an athlete, an effective off-season should be about striking a balance, one that leaves you ready to perform when the season officially begins.

The off-season, like the season itself, won’t last forever. You’ve got to take advantage of it when it’s presented to you. So don’t miss it. Don’t enjoy so much downtime that you arrive to the season out of application shape, but don’t press so hard that you’re run-down before the season even begins. You’ve got rest to take and work to do. And the off-season is your opportunity for both.

One room, smart people, and no agenda

Sometimes the best ideas—for a company, for a school, for a club or organization—come from the newest members. This week, I joined Collegewise Orientation for Class 40, a crop of seven new Collegewisers finding their footing during their first week of work. While enjoying dinner on night one, Zain, one of our new online counselors, shared a deceptively simple approach that just about any group could embrace.

“If you want to get good ideas, put smart people in a room and don’t tell them what to talk about.”

I often push back on the idea of “Let’s have a meeting.” All too often, meetings go too long, involve too many people, and decide nothing other than to schedule yet another meeting. I push to meet only when it’s necessary, to have tight agendas when we do, and to make sure there is a specific outcome intended. I still believe that’s a good approach to meetings at work, but the reminder was a good one.

When college admissions officers are assembling a class, they’re doing so driven in large part by the belief that if they bring smart, engaged, diverse groups of students with different interests, perspectives, and backgrounds together, they’ll learn from each other. That’s a lot like what we’re trying to do with assembling our teams at Collegewise.

If you want to unlock the genius within your group, I’d do three things right away:

  1. Recognize that the more people you have thinking about how to make your organization even better, the better your organization will be.
  2.  Ask the new people what they see, what they notice, and what they think. Fresh eyes can be the antidote for stale environments.
  3. Regularly put smart people in a room, and don’t tell them what to talk about.

You might be surprised by how much you–and they–learn.

Who and what is it for?

It might be too late for most graduation organizers to implement Seth Godin’s recommendations in his recent piece, “Rethinking Graduation.” But he poses two seemingly small but (I think) significant questions that I believe can drive much better behavior around just about any project, practice or tradition: (1) Who’s it for? (2) What’s it for? As Godin describes, “When we ask those two questions, great opportunities arrive.”

Homecoming, senior prom, the lunchtime rally, etc.—who’s it for, and what’s it for?

Performing community service—who’s it for, and what’s it for?

Getting a summer job—who’s it for, and what’s it for?

Test prep—who’s it for, and what’s it for?

Counselors organizing a “Junior Parent Night” for the high school—who’s it for, and what’s it for?

Going to college—who’s it for, and what’s it for?

The right answer may not always be clear, which is exactly why you ask the questions.

On purpose

When you show up, who and what do people get?

When you arrive to class, punch in for your part-time job, or show up at practice for soccer or band or debate, what happens? Are you the one who shows up on time, who does the little things without being asked, and who finds ways to make the time and the experience better for all involved?

Are you reliable? Can you be trusted? Do you always find a way to come through? Or are you the one who rarely steps up, who seems disengaged, or who accepts the opportunity but then always has an excuse why it never got done right?

None of us can or have to be perfect. Some days will be better than others–at school, at work, on the field or the court or the stage. That’s part of learning and growing.

But every time you show up, you’re creating a reputation. You’re saying to people, “Here’s what you can expect from me.” So we get to make a choice. We can let that reputation make itself and hope for the best. Or we can decide what we want our reputation to be and go deliver it.

I’m not talking about creating a fake persona—people will see through that. I’m talking about conscientiously deciding what behaviors you’re willing to engage day-to-day to create a reputation that will make you proud.

Your reputation is created either way. Why not make yours on purpose?

Does it pass the champagne test?

Making changes can be difficult, even when the changes are good. Getting better grades, exercising regularly, spending more time with your family—the rational knowledge that the change would benefit us often isn’t enough to carry us to our desired result. That’s why so many New Year’s Resolutions start with vigor in January, fall apart in February, and re-appear on the next resolution list the following year. So why is it so hard to create these good changes? Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard sets out to answer that question. And one of their recommendations that stuck with me is to ask the following question about any change you’re trying to make: Does it pass the champagne test?

The champagne test is simple. Is your destination clear enough that when you (or your team, business, organization, etc.) get there, people will know to crack the bottle of champagne and celebrate? I’m sure I don’t need to explain this, but just in case (as this is a blog frequented by readers too young to drink legally), the recommendation has nothing to do with actual champagne (although parents, knock yourselves out!). It’s entirely about identifying a moment when you’ve reached your goal. Is it clear? Will you know?

“Get in better shape this summer” doesn’t pass the champagne test. But, “Run a 10K by the end of the summer” is very clear. You know when you’ve crossed the literal and figurative finish line.

“Get going on college applications?” No clear passing of the champagne test. But, “Finish my college applications before Thanksgiving” certainly does.

“Improve communication for our counseling department” leaves it open to interpretation what “improving communication” actually means. But, “By January 1, hold six all-staff meetings to solicit new ideas” makes it clear when it’s time to celebrate.

It’s far from the only recommendation in the book. In fact, they present an entire system to make any difficult change, personal or professional. But the champagne test is easy to understand and to implement whether or not you’ve read the book. And if you use it successfully, you’ll know exactly when to celebrate.

What you do, or how you do it?

Sometimes businesses, organizations, or schools are resistant to change. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s a good litmus test to check if that resistance is coming from a good place.

“This is what we’ve always done” is often the resistance to good change. It’s the theme song of status quo, a way of saying that it’s easier to just repeat what you’ve done than it is to innovate and get better.

But, “This is how we do things” can often be the resistance to bad change, a way of drawing a line, refusing to compromise, and sticking to what’s right rather than changing to what’s easy or profitable. It’s resistance worth being proud of.

When you sense the resistance to change, ask if that resistance is looking to preserve what you do, or how you do it.

And then ask if you’re proud of the answer.

Worth remembering today

I hope we all take this holiday not just to rest and recharge, but also to remember the young men and women who joined the armed forces and then never had the opportunity to go to college, find their career, get married, or watch their kids do any of those things.

We enjoy not just the finest, but also the most open and accessible system of higher education in the world. The process of finding, applying, and getting accepted might occasionally be stressful or disappointing. But nothing that happens as part of the process qualifies as a tragedy.

Today, let’s take a minute to appreciate all the good we have in front of us, and to remember the sacrifice of those who fought to preserve that future.

Accept both realities

I suspect that the headline of a recent piece in The Atlantic, “The Two Most Important College-Admissions Criteria Now Mean Less,” will draw plenty of eager eyes from students and parents looking to decode the process and strategize their way to an offer of admission. And unfortunately, they’ll likely ignore these passages that reveal two important college admissions realities.

“When [highly selective] schools with anywhere from several hundred to a couple thousand slots are picking from tens of thousands of applicants, a good amount of deciding who gets in is going to be arbitrary.”

It’s not because the process is rigged or fundamentally unjust. It’s just reached the point where there are too many students with top (or perfect) grades and test scores to offer admission on meritocracy alone.

But there’s good news.

Eighty percent of American colleges accept more than half of their applicants, but at the country’s most selective schools, there is something of a merit crisis: As test scores and GPAs hold less sway, admissions offices are searching for other, inevitably more subjective metrics.”


“More than 1,000 colleges nationwide have come to a similar conclusion about standardized tests, having dropped them as an admissions requirement. That number includes even some selective campuses such as George Washington, Wake Forest, and Wesleyan.”

Reality #1: There is no magic formula for admission to highly selective colleges, including performing with perfection both in and out of the classroom. Not many students can achieve at that level in high school. But those who do all seem to apply to the same colleges.

Reality #2: Most of the colleges in this country admit the majority of their applicants. All that bad news is limited to a fairly short list of schools.

You’ll enjoy a more successful, less stressful college application process if you accept both realities.

Take a course to de-stress?

Last February, I shared a New York Times story about the most popular class taught at Yale: Psychology and the Good Life. It was designed to help Yale students overcome the harmful life habits developed in high school that the course’s professor, Dr. Laurie Santos, describes as the “mental health crisis we’re seeing at places like Yale.”

I wish I’d caught this a few days earlier, but Santos began teaching an online version of the course, called “The Science of Well-Being,” on May 21. But the course appears to still be taking enrollments. It’s free if you’re willing to forgo the certificate of completion, $49 if you’re not.

If you’d like a little encouragement to give the course a shot, you might be motived by a recent profile in the Washington Post that describes the results Yale students are experiencing with the course.