Distraction out, focus in

Imagine you’re struggling in a class, so you ask your teacher if you can get some extra help at lunch. Your teacher agrees, but when you arrive, ready to explain where you’re struggling, they say, “I’m just going to grade these papers. But keep talking.”

You sit down with your college interviewer who says, “Tell me a little bit about yourself while I review this proposal I have to submit at work later today.”

You’ve been struggling with a decision in your personal life and ask a friend for some advice. But while you’re explaining the situation, your friend is busy trying to create the perfect playlist, with each potential song requiring a 10-second sampling to test it as an appropriate choice.

Would you be annoyed? Would you feel like you were in fact not the focus of their attention? Would you be tempted to ask to reschedule to a time when they weren’t so distracted?

Now replace each of their distractions with “scrolling through their phone.” Does it feel any different? Probably not.

If you’re trying to have a meaningful interaction with someone—not necessarily one in which you need something, just one where conversation is intended to take place—put the phone away and silence it. Send a signal that tells the other person that right here, right now, this interaction is your priority.

When you replace your distractions with focus, you’re more likely to get a similar gesture in return.

You see what you look for

Families tend to see what they look for as they move their way through a student’s college preparation process.

If you look for perceived advantages others received that somehow hurt you, you’ll find them.

If you look for experiences that left you smarter, more mature, or otherwise better prepared for college, you’ll find them.

If you look for students who were shut out of their dream colleges in spite of their high achievements, you’ll find them.

If you look for a reason to believe that you’ve got a good shot at admission to a highly selective college regardless of what your counselor says, you’ll find it.

Depending on where you attend high school (and access to information today means you can find countless examples even beyond your own school’s walls), there are likely enough students preparing for, applying to, and receiving decisions from colleges that you can find an example to support whatever it is that you decide to look for. But that still doesn’t mean that you’re seeing reality.

If a family decides they don’t want to hear that Stanford is an unrealistic college option, they’ll eventually find a narrative that supports the outcome they want to believe. But that doesn’t necessarily change the admissions reality.

The good news is that we all get to choose what we look for. And if families look for evidence that healthy, balanced, happy kids not only emerge relatively unscathed from the college admissions process, but also end up at colleges where they thrive—even if the schools were not among their top choices—you’ll find those, too. In fact, you’ll find lots of them. That’s admissions reality.

How do you know if you’re looking for the right things? Evaluate the behaviors inspired by what you’re looking for.

Does your visible pattern of experiences that helped you learn and grow leave you feeling more likely to embrace challenges, and more confident about your college future?

Does your evidence that others are benefiting in ways that you do not result in you complaining and feeling less inspired to do those things that actually make you happy?

Does your belief that a dream school really is a realistic possibility prevent you from finding other less selective schools that interest you?

If you choose healthy and beneficial behaviors first, it will be easier to find the right stories to support them.

You know the list

At my first job out of college, a colleague gave me an invaluable tip. Our boss ended each day by writing a list of things he wanted to check in with us about the following day to make sure we were on track with our work. He’d leave that list on his desk as he departed the office. If you were willing to stay an hour or two later, you could check the list, note anything you’d forgotten to do, and take care of it before he came back the next day.

Two things happened as a result of this sneaky but effective habit.

  1. He started to assume that we didn’t need to be micromanaged.
  2. We got better at anticipating the very things he shouldn’t have had to ask us about in the first place.

Students, you probably know your parent a lot better than I knew my boss. My guess is that you can already anticipate what items are on their list to ask you about. The more often you do them without your parent having to ask, the less likely they’ll keep asking in the future.

Just one more thing

My four-year-old has discovered the stall tactic–some version of which many kids embrace growing up—“Just one more thing.” Whatever undesirable task we lay in front of him, from putting on shoes, to heading to bed, to cleaning his room, there’s always “just one more thing” he instantly has decided must be accomplished before addressing the task at hand.

The thing is, we don’t exactly let go of that stall tactic as we get older.

Lots of homework to do? “I’d better respond to my texts now so they won’t pile up while I’m working.”

Need to make an uncomfortable phone call? “I’ll just check my email first.”

Intimidating project to start? “Well, I can’t start the project until I clean my desk/take out the trash/reorganize my files.”

“Just one more thing” might be the world’s greatest all-age-appropriate stall tactic. But it’s still just stalling.

Imagine the one more thing is done. What will you do next? Start there. Chances are that whatever the “just one more thing” was won’t be quite so important when what was meant to come next is already done.

If you have a micromanaging parent

I write often here about the risks and effects of overparenting. When a parent assumes a role that’s part manager, part agent, and part personal assistant on behalf of their kid, the student loses all opportunities to learn by doing and to assume agency for their own life and education. Naturally, most of those posts are pitched with the parental reader in mind, as it’s their behavior I’m trying to prevent or change.

But what if you’re a student who’s being overparented? What can you do to help your parent see the error of their ways, and even to change their behavior?

Before I share my resource, below, I’d like to remind students of two things.

First, as difficult as it might be, try to assume good intent.

If you write off your parent’s behavior to bad character (“My mom is SO controlling!”), or selfish intentions (“My dad doesn’t want me to have my own life!”), you’re assuming a posture that will put even the most well-meaning parent on the defensive. Parenting is one of life’s most difficult (most rewarding, yes, but still difficult) jobs, and there is no instructional manual issued on day #1. I don’t expect most teens to sympathize with that, and it’s not your job to do so. But just trust me when I tell you that you’ll understand if you become a parent one day. Every single parent I have ever met, myself included, has made mistakes. We have weaknesses, insecurities, and other faults that make us human, not unqualified for the job. With rare exception, almost every case of overparenting I’ve seen comes from a good place–a parent who loves their child and wants to see them live a good life. Yes, those intentions can lead some parents wildly astray in their ensuing behavior. But assuming good intent puts you on the same side of the table as the parent you’re trying to change.

And second, please look closely at your own behaviors before asking your parent to change theirs.

The relevancy of that advice varies a lot depending on the student. Some teens proved they could be trusted to manage their own lives around the time they confidently marched ten feet ahead of their parents into the kindergarten classroom. But others have taken a more traditional route through the teenage years, one sprinkled with questionable decisions and occasional bad outcomes. No, those missteps are not proof that you’re immature and unable to direct your college journey. But you can’t expect a parent to ignore them if you won’t even acknowledge them. Digging your heels in and saying, “Why are you making such a big deal about that?!” doesn’t make it go away nearly as quickly as does, “I shouldn’t have done that, and it won’t happen again.”

Claire Lew puts out regular content to help managers do a better job leading their teams. And I was struck by how relevant her recent piece, “How to deal with a micromanaging boss,” might be for teens who are having a similar experience with their own parent. It was almost as if you could replace every use of “boss” with “parent” and transform the article from one written for workers to one written for teens.

Bad behavior–from both parents and teens–often comes from good people with good intentions. If we can identify the good, we’re much closer to changing the bad.

Love it, or just good at it?

Sometimes we’re good at things that we don’t actually love doing. As you progress through high school, how can you tell if you really love an activity, class, project, etc., as opposed to just being good at it? Here are three questions to consider:

  • Do you look forward to it, or try to put it off?
  • When you’re doing it, does the time fly by, or seem to slow down?
  • When you’re done, do you want to do it again, or would you be fine leaving it behind?

The more time you spend doing and learning things that elicit positive responses to those three questions, the happier and more successful you’re likely to be.

Act as if you need something

I loved Seth Godin’s recent post that asked:

“That meeting on your calendar, the one scheduled for tomorrow. What if it were the final interview for a job you care about?”

That litmus test—showing up with the same posture as if we were asking for something important—can change your approach to a lot of things.

If you were intending to ask that teacher to help you, that friend to drive you home after practice, that director for an audition in the school play, your coach for a chance to start, your boss for a day off, etc., how would you treat that person, that interaction, and that opportunity today?

When you act like you need something before you actually need it, people will be more likely to come through when the scenario turns real.

Passive early, active late

In financial investing, an active investor is one who’s hands-on, frequently adjusting their strategy and their asset allocation based on market trends. They buy and sell repeatedly in an effort to beat the stock market average. The passive investor, on the other hand, plays the long game. They’re not trying to predict the market’s next move. They don’t react to market fluctuations. They’ll buy and hold, confident that whatever ups and downs the market may present in the short term will ultimately lead to financial returns in the long term.

Your education is an investment, and not just financially. You’re investing time, energy, attention—choices that affect the experience and the outcome. And for those investments, I recommend going passive early and active late.

The passive college prep investors try hard in high school, choose activities they enjoy, act like nice human beings, and remain secure that things will work out somehow no matter what college they end up attending. Active college prep investors are constantly reacting to circumstances based on the predicted effect on their college admissions chances. They’re repeatedly course-correcting and often doing so based on hearsay or what the competition is doing. Actives worry a lot more and enjoy high school a lot less than the passives do. And because their respective expectations around admissions decisions tend to vary so widely, the actives are less frequently happy with their admissions outcomes. During high school, passive college prep investing seems to bring better returns.

But once you get to college, it pays to increase your activity. Not to a frenetic pace of change where you drop any class at the first sign of an impending grade lower than an A. But if you take a semester’s worth of classes as a business major and just can’t stand any of them, it’s probably worth meeting with an academic advisor to talk about your options.

To get the most out of college means doing more than just working hard and hoping for the best. College is four short years filled with opportunities to learn, grow, experience, and prepare for life on the other side of graduation. What do you want to have to show for that time? If all you can say at the end of your college career is that you worked hard and went to class like you were supposed to, you’ve missed countless opportunities to extract value from your time there. And sometimes extracting value means looking objectively at the choices you’ve made, comparing those to your desired collegiate outcomes, and course-correcting when the two don’t match.

Put a different way, you can and should still play the long game—hard work and character are investments that always pay off in some way. But short-term changes in college can make a longer-term impact when you make them thoughtfully.

There’s always room for informed planning combined with equally informed self-assurance. But your future as an adult is not based on one decision you make in high school. College choices can carry more gravity because of how much there is to benefit from and how little time there is to do it. I don’t make financial recommendations, but as far as where to direct your effort and intention, I recommend you play the passive game before college and turn your active game on once you arrive.

2 minutes a day, for 21 days

Want to feel happier, more socially connected, and more grateful for the good in your life? All it takes is 2 minutes a day for 21 days to notice a dramatic difference. From author, former Harvard instructor, and positive psychology expert Shawn Achor:

“The simplest thing you can do [to feel happier and more positive] is a two-minute email praising or thanking one person that you know. We’ve done this at Facebook, at US Foods, we’ve done this at Microsoft. We had them write a two-minute email praising or thanking one person they know, and a different person each day for 21 days in a row. That’s it. What we find is this dramatically increases their social connection which is the greatest predictor of happiness we have in organizations. It also improves teamwork. We’ve measured the collective IQ of teams and the collective years of experience of teams but both of those metrics are trumped by social cohesion.”

And let’s not forget the more immediate upside—lots of these people will write back positive notes telling you how great you are for sending such a nice message. Everyone wins.

You can read the full article here.

If the application had one prompt

Students, imagine for a moment your college applications consisted of only one prompt:

Submit letters of recommendation, as many as you’d like, from people who can tell us how you helped, supported, encouraged, or otherwise positively impacted them and their lives during your high school years. Bear in mind that when we read these letters, specific examples tend to resonate more than vague generalities do.

If you could put together a strong application with just that one prompt, you’d have a lot to show for how you spent your time in high school (and how others were impacted by it). And you’d likely have plenty of compelling examples to share on any college’s application.