Plus it

Walt Disney coined a phrase–“Plus it.”  Whenever a team at Disney was sure a ride or a film or a project was done, he’d push them to plus it and make it even better. It was his way of asking, “How could we go even further?”

When I was a high school freshman, I was in the group that made our homecoming float.  We were sure our lifelike statue of the bulldog (our mascot) chopping down the redwood tree (the opponent’s mascot) was going to win and prove that the freshmen were to be taken seriously.  And when we saw the other floats, we thought we had it in the bag.  None of them looked nearly as cool as ours did.

Until we saw the sophomores fire up their mock saw mill that shot smoke and wood chips out of the fake log like it was actually being sawed.  I’m not even sure how they did it.  But it got everyone’s attention and they won.  The sophomores’ float actually did something other than just sit there.  They plussed; we didn’t. 

Whatever you’re doing, try plussing it when you can.  Taking it just a little bit further is a sure way to stand out (and maybe even make your homecoming float a winner).

Bring the extra

Two good college buddies and I met for lunch at a new Peruvian restaurant last week.  The food was good, but not good enough to leave us talking about it.  The owner, on the other hand, was talk-worthy.

He was circulating around the restaurant chatting with people at each table.  He was handing out cups of Peru’s version of popcorn for everybody to try.  He told someone in town from Los Angeles for a meeting where to go in LA for good Peruvian food (restaurants that this owner had no part in).  He made some (semi-offensive) comments about his first wife and how much weight she had gained when she fell in love with his cooking and had all the tables laughing.  And as each party left the restaurant, he shook their hands, remembered their names, and told everyone he hoped they’d be back.  My friends and I definitely will be.

There’s absolutely no doubt that this guy loves running that restaurant.  His enthusiasm for it was contagious.  That’s why his place was full while the food court full of restaurants just 10 steps away had fewer than a dozen people in it.  He’s bringing the extra with him to work, the emotional investment that’s free to him but priceless to his customers. 

It was a good reminder how much doing what you love and bringing the extra with you can affect the people you’re with, whether it's your classmates, teammates, co-workers or customers.

Pay attention to those college freshmen

The college kids will be home for the holidays again this season.  This month, if you run into any college freshmen who went to your high school, ask them how college life is going.  And pay close attention to what they say.  I’ll bet…

1.    Most will rave about how great life at college is

2.    You won’t find one who says, “I really wish I’d gotten into my first choice school.”

Not everybody loves the college the go to, but most do.  One year ago, today’s college freshmen were sweating out application season, writing their college essays and hoping their dream schools would say yes.  They survived it.  And most are pretty happy wherever they ended up. You will be, too.

A holiday homework assignment (it involves Facebook)

1. Borry an older friend's yearbook from his or her freshman year.

2. Pick ten seniors from that year who your friend recalls as having their acts together, who studied and worked hard, and seemed to take their futures seriously.

3. Google them or look them up on Facebook and see if you can find out where they went to college and what they’re doing now.

Are the ones who went to less selective colleges living substandard lives compared to those who went to prestigious schools?  I’ll bet they’re not.

PS:  Please don’t email me to point out that those who went to highly selective colleges are successful.  I expect those students who worked hard enough to get into those schools to be successful.  But they didn’t magically transform into successful people just because they went to Yale.  They were pretty impressive already.     

When college essay prompts are like Tweets

The Chicago Tribune ran a story last week about how many college applications now include short, quirky essay prompts that must be answered in 25 words or less, like:

My favorite thing about last Tuesday?—University of Maryland

Imagine you have to wear a costume for a year of your life. What would you pick and why? — Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

What is your favorite ride at the amusement park? How does this reflect your approach to life? — Emory University in Atlanta.

And there was some considerable debate on The Choice blog about whether or not these questions just add to the stress of an already stressful process.

My advice is to relax.

No college is going to reject you because they didn’t like the amusement park ride that you picked.  These questions are colleges’ way of begging you to relax, be yourself and just answer the question without trying too hard to impress them.

“I completed my 84th hour of community service at the hospital where I’ve been volunteering since sophomore year” is trying too hard to impress.

“Playing Jenga with David, a 12-year-old patient at the hospital where I work.  He beat me five straight times.  But I got over it.”  Now we’re talking.

Colleges aren’t trying to trick you.  Just tell the truth and be yourself (which is good advice for all application questions…and life in general).

Seeking approval vs. taking initiative

Some students want collegiate approval of all the choices they’re making in high school.  They only want to do something if it’s guaranteed to help them get into their dream schools.

Those students sound like this:

“Would it look good if I got a job this summer?”

“Which would be better—playing the clarinet or running track?”

“Which is more impressive—AP calculus or physics?”

“Would my chances be better if I took another year of foreign language?”

“How would it look if I joined a few more activities?”

Planning for college is good; seeking their approval before you do anything is not.  It’s a lot better to just take initiative and actually do things.  Stop looking for permission and start making things happen.

Those students sound like this:

“I want to get a job at my favorite bookstore.  I applied last week and have my interview tomorrow.”

“I don’t have time to do track, but that’s fine.  I really like playing with the Dixieland band I just joined.”

“I’m going to take physics because I really like the teacher.  I’d never enjoyed science until I took his class sophomore year.”

“I think I’m done with foreign language.  It’s just not my thing.  I’d much rather spend that time taking this college level math class I found online.”

"We’ve got some really cool stuff planed for the yearbook next year.  It’s going to take a lot of time, but it’ll be worth it.  I’m excited about it.”

The second group always has a lot more to show colleges than the first group does.

How your group can come up with better ideas

Let’s say you’re having a club meeting to come up with ideas to raise money next year.  Here’s how to make that meeting a lot more productive, courtesy of the business/marketing class I took last week.

  1. Don’t have the meeting where you normally meet to do work.  Go someplace else like a restaurant.
  2. Assign one person who won’t participate and instead will just take notes (not for the entire meeting, but just for this quick brainstorming exercise). 
  3. You are allowed to contribute ideas, but you are not allowed to instruct or to criticize at all.  There is absolutely no commentary at this point (no, “Here’s why that won’t work”…).

Then spend 5-15 minutes making a list of every conceivable idea you can think of.  Just shout them out.  What will happen is that at first people will be hesitant.  They’ll edit their ideas and only share what they’re sure is good.  But the longer the exercise goes, the more outlandish the suggestions.  The more outlandish the suggestions, the less reluctant people are to share their own. 

We did this in the class I took. We broke into groups were told to come up with as many App ideas for the iPad as we could think of.  Nobody in our group had any idea how to make an app, but that didn’t matter.  In five minutes, we came up with 84 app ideas.  Most of them came in the final 2 ½ minutes.  Once we got going, the person taking notes couldn’t even keep up.

Some of the ideas were absolutely crazy.  But in looking at the list now, some of them were really good.

When people have a formal meeting to brainstorm and do it in the usual location, lots of people will be too afraid to contribute.  They’ll worry that it might sound stupid.  Or they’ll worry that people will criticize it.  Or they’ll worry that it might be genius and they’ll actually end up responsible for making it happen.  When you take those fears away and just let the ideas fly free, you’re going to end up with a long list.  Then you can just cherry pick the best ones.

Of course, the next step would be going through the list, picking out the ones the group likes best, discussing whether or not they’re feasible, and assigning people to actually take ownership of making the chosen ones happen.  But when you start with a long list, you’re far more likely to end up with winners. 

What would happen if your club tried this?

What if a college did this to come up with application essay questions for next year?

What if counselors did this to think up new events they could do for students and parents?

No way to know unless you try it.

The Collegewise Financial Aid and Scholarships seminar

I’m doing my last seminar of 2011 for our Collegewise senior families today—“Financial Aid and Scholarships.”  I’ll be talking about how they can manage the process, what they can do now to prepare to apply for aid in January, and answering common questions like, “Can applying for aid hurt my student’s chances of admission?”  I always enjoy this topic because I think it’s Collegewise at our best—taking something unnecessarily complicated and intimidating, and making it simple and accessible.

If you'd like to see it, too, you can download our “Financial Aid and Scholarships” video.  It's the same seminar, filmed in front of our Collegewise families back in August, and it's available as a streaming download for $12.99. 

And if you’re already in our full senior program in any of our Collegewise offices, you can watch it for free.  Just email your Collegewise counselor for instructions on how to access it.

What if you had to pay $1,000 just to go to class tomorrow?

I’m at a 3-day business and marketing seminar this week.  It’s expensive, so much so that I had my reservations about enrolling.  So I’m going to do my part to make sure the money is worth it for me.  Before I left, I thought about what I wanted to learn and take away from it.  When Arun and I met to talk about our projects for next year, I kept a list of marketing questions that came up for me that I’ll bring with me to the course.  And I know that dollar amount will keep me paying attention even if I start to get tired by the third day.

When you’re spending a lot of money to do something, you do whatever you have to do to make it worth your while. You don’t leave all of that in someone else’s hands.  I have a friend who did the math to figure out how much more money his expensive private college was costing his parents than the public school he’d been admitted to with a scholarship would have.  In four years of college, he never once missed a class and never got any grade lower than an “A.” 

If you were paying $1,000 a day to attend your high school classes, would you be doing anything differently?

Make time to sleep on it

A lot of things you work on don’t look as good to you the next morning as they did the night before when you finished them.  The essay you wrote for English class the night before might not feel like your best work the next day.  Your college application, the project you’re working on in AP Euro, the layout you just finished for the yearbook, what looked good to you at the end of the day often doesn’t look as good the next day.  It’s normal and it happens to everybody.    And it can be a cruel trick when you finished something the night before it was due only to be less confident when you submit it the next day. 

But what if you used that to your advantage?

What if you started earlier so you could have a few more nights of sleeping on it and tweaking it the next day?  Sure, you’d have more time to get it done and you’d be less stressed.  But you’d also gain a few more nights worth of perspective to see just how good it could be.  That would be a huge advantage.  Imagine how much better your finished product would be.

Eventually, what you see the next morning will look just as good as it did the night before.  And that’s when you’ll know you’re done. 

Whatever you’re working on, make sure you leave yourself a little time to sleep on it.