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.

On getting our kids back

I’ve shared enough of Julie Lythcott-Haim’s growing body of work around her book, How to Raise an Adult, that not only does she likely need no introduction to regular readers, but she also might be—through my actions, not her own—on the verge of oversaturating the Collegewise blog audience. But that’s a risk I’m willing to take. The anxiety among teens, the pressure around college admissions, the struggle for parents trying to navigate this new world with their kids that’s so much different from the one we lived in while we were in high school–Julie’s message is too vital and her perspective too wise not to share at every opportunity.

Thanks to the generous folks in the Laguna Beach Unified School District in Southern California, her recent talk to their community was both recorded and generously shared on YouTube. I hope you’ll watch it, and my guess is that most parents will be as struck as I was by how much empathy she has for her fellow parents. She and her husband have wrestled with the same questions and scenarios so many parents are experiencing as they try to balance pushing and guiding with supporting and cheerleading. I think her personal stories of her own experiences with her son will resonate with you. And I suspect you’ll be as moved as I was when she shares the tale of her sophomore, who struggled to keep up with his rigorous schedule, the culmination of which she put so endearingly: “Sawyer dropped Spanish. And we got Sawyer back.”

You can watch the entire video here. Many thanks to the LBUSD for capturing and sharing it.

How many days are left?

How many days are left before:

…you walk out of your favorite class for the last time?
…you play your last baseball game, or act in your final high school play, or work your final shift at your part-time job?
…you graduate from high school?
…you leave for college?

And parents, how many days are left before your student says goodbye and departs for college?

Calculate the number of days. Even an approximation is fine.

And then consider this final question:

What do you want to do with those days?

Your answer just might change what you do today, tomorrow, and the day(s) after that.

The “A” is not the point

Another good share from Challenge Success, this time from Mary Hofstedt, Community Education Director, in her latest piece, “A New Normal.”

“Another friend’s son (I’ll call him Alex) attends an elite high school in Silicon Valley. My friend was concerned about Alex’s academic motivation (he is a B student), and wondered why, if he could get a B, couldn’t he work just a little harder and get the A-? Alex explained to his mom that he was learning what he wanted to learn, liked school, and by being okay with a B, had time for friends, sports, and sleep. My friend left the conversation frustrated. Then she thought about it. She realized Alex was a healthy, balanced kid. That was the point. Not the ‘A.’”

Talking to kids about grades

With end-of-year report cards right around the corner, this two-minute video from Denise Pope at Challenge Success shares some great advice on how to talk to your kids about grades. The summary: (1) Focus on effort and learning over performance and grades; (2) let them know that your love for them is not conditional based on the content of their report card (that’s not always obvious to many kids).