Creating a pocket of greatness

Some people believe they can’t make a difference in their organization unless they’re in charge.  They think that unless they’re the CEO of the company, or the superintendent of a school, or the president of their club, they’re not empowered to do those things that would really make their organization great.

Jim Collins is a professor at the Stanford Business School who’s written several books about the workings and leadership behind great companies.  His website has several articles and MP3s in which he discusses his work.  Here are two pieces I found addressing the question of whether or not you really need to be in charge to create greatness.

“For many people, the first question that occurs is, ‘But how do I persuade my CEO to get it?’ My answer: Don’t worry about that… each of us can create a pocket of greatness. Each of us can take our own area of work and influence and can concentrate on moving it from good to great. It doesn’t really matter whether all the CEOs get it. It only matters that you and I do. Now, it’s time to get to work.”

“Take responsibility to make great what you can make great.  And let others do it in the areas that they can make.  And if the whole company doesn’t do it, you can’t change that. But you can take responsibility for your area.”

10 holiday reading recommendations

If you've got some downtime during the holidays and are looking for a good read, here are ten of my favorites from 2010 that I thought might pique the interest of students, parents or counselors.   

BornToRunBorn to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
Christopher McDougal

A tribe of Indians in Mexico who routinely run up to 200 miles wearing homemade sandals–and they do it because they love it.  It's a good reminder for students that you can accomplish some pretty incredible things when you love what you're doing. 

 

Rework Rework
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

For counselors, it's a great book about how to run a better business (or department) and get more work done in less time.

 

 

HowToBeAHighSchoolSuperstar How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out)
Cal Newport

I don't agree with the central message of the book that any student can somehow follow a program that leads them to greatness (as evidenced by his examples, superstar students become that way by not following a formula, but by pursuing their real interests).  Still, pages 51-76 about study habits and time-management should be required reading for all high school students.  

Linchpin Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?
Seth Godin

I'm a Seth Godin fan and I admit that I was a little disappointed after my first read of this.  His discussion of the lizard brain in all of us and how it rises up to sabotage us felt a little too much like it belonged in the "Self-Help" section of the bookstore. But it stayed with me enough that I've since read it again and I think that if you can hang in there through the lizard discussion, the central message of the book is a crucial one–you don't need anyone's permission to do great work and make something happen.  If you're not doing it, what are you waiting for? 

MeatballSundae Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing out of Sync?
Seth Godin

Another Seth Godin book I'd recommend to any business owner.  The internet has changed not only what people buy, but also how they buy them (remember when people used to pay a travel agent to find good travel deals?).  And yet a lot of business are trying to sell the same old stuff using the newest marketing.  That's a meatball Sundae.  You don't just need new marketing–you need new stuff.

LessStressMoreSuccess Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond
Marilee Jones and Kenneth R. Ginsburg

While the first half of the book offers up sound, practical advice for parents from a former Dean of Admissions at MIT, the second half is complex discussion by a psychologist that read too much like a textbook to me.  Still, I'd recommend (the first half of) the book to parents. 

 

DebtFreeUDebt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents
Zac Bissonnette and Andrew Tobias

A must read for the cost-conscious college shopper.  It's also got the best, most thorough critique of the US News college rankings I've ever read.

 

 

 

DeliveringHappiness Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose
Tony Hsieh

Zappos founder Tony Hsieh is a pretty fascinating guy.  He's a serial entrepreneur who's been starting businesses since he was in elementary school, and this is his story of how he built Zappos, what the company stands for, and how they've managed to revolutionize selling goods on the internet.

 

 

MadeToStick Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
Chip Heath and Dan Heath

After I read this book, I had to go back and re-write all my seminar descriptions and rethink how I present information in talks.

 

 

MyAppetite My Appetite for Destruction: Sex, and Drugs, and Guns N' Roses
Steven Adler

To make my list all about business and college admissions would be a) taking myself too seriously and b) not entirely representative of what I read.

Steven Adler is the former drummer from Guns and Roses.  There is not a single productive takeaway for students, parents or counselors (other than, well, don't do heroin)–this one is all trash.  But reading books like this is the closest I'll ever get to being a rock star.  I read Slash's autobiography, too.  

And while I'm at it, I've also got a subscription to People Magazine.

 

Never end with Q and A

I think the worst way to end a presentation is by asking, "Now, does anyone have any questions?" 

It's a presenter's responsibility to make sure your audience gets what they came for.  When you take questions at the end, you lose control.  You're not in charge of what's asked.  You're not in charge of whether or not it's relevant to the talk, interesting to the entire audience, or even appropriate.  A questioner may represent the interests of a few people in the audience, but rarely all of them.

More importantly, when you do Q & A at the end, you neglect the most important part of your talk.

Hopefully, you're doing a presentation because you want the audience to do something with the information–to start their applications or consider your college or buy your counseling service.  The end of your presentation should call your audience to action.  It should send a clear message of exactly what it is you want them to do with the new information.  Everything you do in the talk leads to this.  And how you leave them feeling at the end is how you'll leave them feeling about your talk.

Why leave that up to someone else?

It's fine to take a few questions during your talk (stop at appropriate times and let people know how many questions you'll take before you move on).  And maybe let them know you'll answer any additional questions afterwards.

But don't relegate the end to Q & A.  That part of your presentation should be all you. 

Join us for the next episode of College Admissions Live tonight

Arun and I will be hosting our next episode of College Admissions Live, our free online show, tonight.

How to Make a Great Last Impression:
Improving your Chances of Admission After You Apply

With Kevin McMullin of Collegewise and Arun Ponnusamy of Open Road Education

Tuesday, December 7 at 6 p.m. PST.

On our free online channel

We'll talk for about 30 minutes and take questions for 15 minutes.  We hope you'll join us.

For colleges: What if you showed instead of told?

Colleges spend a lot of time and money marketing to kids.  They all promise wonderful educations and experiences.  But when schools all make the same promises, colleges all start to sound the same.  So here's an idea for those in charge of college marketing efforts.

Why not prove it to your prospective students by showing–not telling–them?

All colleges claim to have great professors.  What if your best math professor did a ten-minute video once a week for a semester to show high school kids just how easy trigonometry can be?  What if your most popular writing instructor gave weekly tips to help high school students write better papers?

Your Nobel Prize-winning faculty member could help 11th graders make sense of chemistry.  Your most published history professor could help kids be more prepared for the AP exams. Spanish, French and German professors could make basic language instruction more memorable by sharing subtleties of the vernacular that are common knowledge in the respective countries not normally taught in the high school classroom.  A drama or music professor could share tips on how to nail on audition. 

If your school claims to have great services to LD kids, why not have that office produce a monthly newsletter sharing ways kids can overcome test anxiety, or advocate for themselves, or better manage their disabilities?  Would the students (or their parents) who became reguarly viewers be much more likely to apply later?

Even admissions officers could get in on the act and teach kids instead of marketing to them.  You could show students what goes on behind the scenes of an admissions office.  Let them hear your version of why "Soccer taught me to commit to me goals" is a cliche topic, or why you ask kids to write an essay about how they would contribute to the campus community, or ways kids could better choose their teachers to write letters of recommendation.

Any college who did this would build a willing audience of students who come back week to week to learn from you.  Show them you can teach them now, and you'll spend less time and money telling them why you should be the college that teaches them later. 

Take a class at Harvard, Stanford or MIT for free

Not many people in the world have ever experienced calculus at MIT.  No surprise there since you had to, well, get into MIT, which almost nobody does.  But now you don't have to get in.  You don't even have to apply.  All you need a computer to experience calculus…MIT style.  Here it is.  35 lectures, all free.  No grades.  No pressure.  Just watch and learn for the fun of it (if calculus is your idea of fun).

Even if you don't like math, c'mon–that's pretty damn cool. 

Academicearth.org features online lectures and full courses from colleges and universities.  There are so many lectures available from the Stanford Business School that there's a good chance I won't get any work done for the next three-and-a-half weeks.

Look at some of the great classes you could take: 

One of the most popular courses at Harvard is a philosophy course called "Justice: What's the right thing to do?"  The professor examines difficult moral dilemmas and then challenges your opinion with new information, tackling subjects like affirmative action and-same sex marriage.  Interested?  Here it is.  12 lectures.  You're taking one of the most popular classes at Harvard.  Free.   

Organic chemistry has dashed the pre-med hopes of countless students who just couldn't survive it.  Why not test drive it at UC Berkeley?  Here it is.  26 lectures, all free.  

Are you a Civil War buff?  Want to take a class at Yale that examines the causes and consequences of the American Civil War?  Here they are.  27 lectures, all free.  

Two things worth noticing here:

1. Now more than ever, you don't need a high GPA, perfect SAT scores or a lot of money to learn about subjects that interest you.  Access to quality education is increasing all the time.   Real learners don't have to go far, or pay a lot, to feed their minds.

2. Who's really more intellectual?  The kid whose parents pay thousands of dollars to send him to a summer school session on an Ivy League campus?  Or the kid who takes history classes at his local community college over the summer, checks out every book on the Civil War from the library, and watches free history lectures like the ones at academicearth.org?

Few qualities are more appealing to colleges than a genuine curiosity and interest in learning.  There are more opportunities to demonstrate that trait now than there ever have been before.

On Veteran’s Day…

College applicants, Veterans Day is a good day to remember that you are lucky to be living in a country that has the strongest and most accessible system of higher education in the world, a country that encourages anyone who wants to do so to go to college, a country where you get to decide for yourself what direction you want your life to take when you become a legal adult. 

If your biggest worry is that you might not get into your first choice college, you're very, very fortunate.  We all are.

Is it still worth it to go to college?

In many ways, today's economy actually makes having a college degree less important.

It used to be that just having a college degree was special.  If you applied for a job and you'd been to college, you instantly stood out.  That's not true anymore.  Lots of people have college degrees.  Just about any job for which a recent college grad might apply, there will be at least a dozen other candidates with college degrees who look virtually identical on paper.  

Some people argue that the economy just makes it even more important to attend a prestigious college.  Not true.  There are lots of unemployed Ivy League grads right now.  There are lots of unemployed Ivy League grads who went back and got masters degrees, too.  It's rough out there.

So you could pay up to $150,000 to go to college and come out as just another recent college grad who can't get a job.  If you're going to college just to go, if you're going because you don't know what else to do after high school, that's an awful lot of time and money to invest in something whose rate of return isn't guaranteed at all. 

But I think there's a huge opportunity for future college freshmen here.  Recognize that college is a four-year opportunity to become remarkable–someone future employers won't be able to ignore.

You could coast through your college career, endure your classes and have some fun.  Or you could lean into it.  You could make it your mission to spend every single day of your college career discovering what you're good at, learning as much as you can, finding mentors who can guide you, pushing yourself in classes that scare you (and you could still have plenty of fun). 

Four years later, instead of being just another college grad looking for a first job, you could tell potential employers about…

  • The relief work you did in Haiti when you traveled there with an on-campus service organization.
  • The mistake you found during an accounting internship that saved the company a million dollars.
  • The $250,000 you raised for a non-profit where you volunteered over the summer.
  • The on-campus business you started that later had 20 employees.
  • The changes you made to the athletic department's intramural program during your three years of work that started as an unpaid internship.
  • The political campaign you worked on as an intern, and the on-campus speech for the candidate that happened because of you.
  • The drawings you completed in your art classes that are now featured in the school's largest performing theater. 
  • The 22 websites you built for free for every campus fraternity and sorority.
  • The teaching experience you gained when a professor asked you to TA for her and later to run her discussion group.
  • The speeches you gave to faculty and administrators as part of your work with the ombudsman's office.
  • The work you did with your physics professor to help her publish the latest textbook.
  • The computer program you wrote with a fellow student that you later sold to a software company for a ridiculously large sum of money. 
  • The campus coffee shop you managed during your senior year, and how you grew it 40%.
  • The marketing lessons you learned while working in your college's admissions office to help them recruit under-represented students.
  • The counseling skills you developed as a resident advisor, and how you put them to use when a student was considering committing suicide.
  • The campus photographs you took that the school later paid to have posted on the website.
  • The training program you created from scratch for the campus tour guides that was later adopted by the entire state university system. 
  • The speech the new chancellor asked you to help her write.
  • The meeting you had with the university's president to lobby for additional campus safety officers, and what you learned about beating bureaucracy. 
  • The music you wrote that was later commissioned to be an opera.

Every single one of those items has actually happened.  A few happened to me, others were my college friends, and lots of them are from our former Collegewise students. But they were all products of students who sought out the opportunities and made them happen during their brief four years of college.  

In today's economy, it's easy to ignore a kid with a college degree.  It's a lot harder to ignore one who pairs that degree with a remarkable college career.  It doesn't matter where you go.  Now more than ever, it matters what you do while you're there.

Five college admissions factors that don’t matter as much as people think they do

The stress of college admissions makes a lot of students and parents focus on the wrong things, things that don't matter nearly as much to colleges as we're often left to believe.  Here are five examples. 

1.  Connections.

Most people who think they have an influential connection later find out just how little influence those connections really had.  In the 11 years since starting Collegewise, I've known only two kids (out of several thousand) who were admitted because of connections.  Both had parents who donated several million dollars to particular schools that paid for a new building on campus.  So while I don't deny that there are cases where connections can have huge influence, the truth is that those are extraordinary, and rare, instances. 

2.  Standardized test scores.

Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are not nearly as important as the college admissions frenzy makes them out to be.  There are very few legitimately intellectual, hard working kids who are shut out of colleges because of low test scores alone.  The tests play a role at lots of schools, and some kind of focused test preparation can be useful.  But if you ultimately spend a lot more time studying for the SAT than you do reading, studying for trig or playing soccer, you're focusing on something that just doesn't matter as much as the things you're ignoring to focus on it. 

3. Your GPA.

Your grades are a lot more important than your GPA is.  What's the difference?  Most colleges don't just take the GPA that's calculated on your transcript at face value.  They look at what classes where available at your high school, which ones you took, and recalculate your GPA while paying attention to the rigor of your courses.  A student who passes up a hard class just because it doesn't come with a weighted grade is focusing more on his GPA than he is on the opportunity to take a great class.  A student who takes an elective college course over the summer not because he's interested in it, but because he hopes it will increase his GPA, that kid is focusing on the wrong things.  Your GPA is not an endangered species that needs to be protected.  Focus more on what you're learning and how hard you're working.

4. Expensive summer programs.

You will not impress Harvard by paying thousands of dollars to attend their summer school.  Programs like that are "pay to play" and often measure a student's financial resources more than they do his interest in learning.  The same can be said for expensive travel programs where you dig ditches in Costa Rica or swim with dolphins off the coast of Fiji (don't laugh–I've met kids who've done it).  Get a job at the supermarket.  Take a cooking class.  Volunteer or intern at the community newspaper or coach a little league baseball team.  No need to shell out all that money to learn or to make an impact. 

5. Strategy, packaging yourself, and anything involving a "hook."

Getting into college isn't about strategy; it's about authenticity.  Intellectual students want to take summer classes.  Students with a sense of service want to volunteer at the soup kitchen.  Leaders want to run for club office.  If you're doing those things as a strategy for getting into what you think is a good college, you'd be far better served working hard doing something you really enjoy.  They are far too many great colleges out there for you to spend your high school years trying to mold yourself into what you think a few selective colleges want.