Making a decision once

Over the last ten years writing this blog, one of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently is, “How do you find the time to write something every day?” Almost every weekday, I find the time to write. Before a weekend, a holiday, or a vacation, I write my posts and queue them up ahead of time. My wedding day, the day each of my two kids were born, the days during my move from California to Washington, and every day in between, a blog post has gone up here (the answer to the other most frequently asked question, “Have you ever missed even one day?” is no).

I’m a fairly disciplined person, but I’ve never been as disciplined about doing anything else every day as I have with this project. And in retrospect, I stumbled into one part of decision-making that can be applied to other areas of our lives.

Lesson #21 of my final 31 posts: Some decisions are best made once.

When I started this streak on October 12, 2009, I decided that I was going to post every day, without fail. Had I decided “I’ll blog more often,” or “I’ll blog three times a week,” every day would have required that I revisit the decision of whether or not to post. And that would have made it easy to consistently decide that it just wasn’t a good day or that I didn’t have anything interesting to say. But once I decided to post every day, that decision had already been made. I didn’t have to wrestle with it. And that freed me to move to the next daily decision of, “What should I blog about today?”

Making good decisions is a skill, one that we can learn, practice, and improve. And while some decisions shouldn’t or simply can’t be made just once, those that can be often should be.

How can you turn that to your advantage to help you reach your goals, personally, academically, or professionally?

Students, what would happen if you decided once that you will study with your phone turned off? Or that you will work on your college applications for three hours every Saturday until they are all submitted? Or that you will raise your hand and contribute to the discussion at least once every day in your AP English class?

Parents, what would happen if you decided once that you will give more attention to your student’s strengths than you do their weaknesses? Or that you will not participate in comparative discussions with other parents about your children’s college application process? Or that while you will encourage your student to seek feedback from their counselor or English teacher, you simply will not make suggestions about the topic or approach of their college essays?

Even a one-and-done decision isn’t akin to keeping that decision forever (more on that tomorrow). But if a goal that’s important to you requires a potentially recurring decision to be made, you can spend less time deciding and more time working towards the goal if you make the decision once.

The magic is in the extra

I’ve just returned from the NACAC conference where I purchased a surprising amount of mediocre coffee from a tiny convenience store in my hotel that somewhat misleadingly called itself a deli. There were plenty of coffee shops within a short walk, from the artisan to the big chain. But every morning (and a few tired afternoons), I went to the same counter to get the same bland cup o’ joe, one that I would never talk about were it not for something extra.

The staff who worked there changed the entire experience.

I don’t know if it’s good hiring, personal predisposition, or just Kentucky charm, but these women used every interaction with a customer as an opportunity to turn that job into an art.

Their greetings made you feel like you were making their day just by showing up (a tenet also described in one of the best customer service books I’ve read).

By the third day, they remembered my order and poked some playful fun at me with, “You know, we’ve got more than just black coffee here. Don’t you ever drink anything else?”

They sent everyone away with an endearing, “Bye, Sugar.”

You just couldn’t help but leave feeling a little better than you did when you arrived. That’s a remarkable transformation to take place when you’re buying an unremarkable cup of coffee.

Lesson #20 of my final 31 posts: The magic is in the extra.

My point here is not that even people in the service industry can be happy doing their jobs (that message is both trite and offensive). The lesson is that each of us goes to our version of work every day, whether that’s a job, school, raising a family, etc. And each day we get to make a choice. Are we going to do the job just by executing the particulars? Or will we view it as an opportunity to do something extra and bring some magic to our work?

Not more hours, not more work necessarily. Just more extra, the emotional kind that goes beyond the work itself and turns it into an art.

A student can bring that magic to their Spanish or biology or history class even if they don’t earn the highest grade.

A counselor can bring that magic to their meeting with a student even if they don’t have the perfect solution the student might be seeking.

The lawyer, the electrician, the librarian or accountant or cable TV repairperson–every one of them (and every one of us) has a chance to do something extra.

Your favorite teacher does this. The favorite uncle does it. The favorite mechanic or friend or neighbor—they don’t become your favorite by doing what they’re supposed to do. They become your favorite by doing the extra.

And the extra is where the magic is.

Preparing for college vs. preparing for life

In the years after I started Collegewise and was still counseling students myself, I learned that there were different kinds of high achievers in high school.

Some of the kids I’d meet were genuinely curious and interested in learning. They had a favorite subject and teacher. They chose their activities based on what they enjoyed, and they thrived brilliantly in at least one. They were engaged in their college planning, thinking about their futures, and while they were often interested in at least one highly selective college, they were resolutely confident that no matter where they ended up, their traits and work ethic would take it from there. Their stellar records in and out of the classroom were byproducts of their inherent make-up, not the product itself they’d worked to manufacture. And most notably, these kids were almost always driving their own goals and education, cheered on and supported by their parents, but not managed or directed by them.

The other kind of high achiever looked similar on paper, but they made every high school decision based in pursuit of those recorded achievements. Whatever they’d been told the most selective colleges want, that’s what they’d do. Whatever it took to get the “A,” or to raise the test scores, or to excel in an activity they believed colleges would find desirable, that’s what they’d do. It wasn’t about their own interests or fulfillment. Their work and in fact much of their high school life was predicated on achieving a desired result and eventually a desired outcome in the form of an admission to a highly selective college. In pursuit of that outcome, their days were filled with commitments, from classes to tutoring to extracurricular activities, leaving them overscheduled and under-rested year-round. And the desire to achieve those outcomes was shared or, worse, explicitly led and directed by their parents. My colleague Arun, who read applications for University of Chicago, Caltech, and UCLA, defines these kids as “trained to execute, but not to initiate.”

I want to be clear here—those executers have a laudable drive. In fact, many of them work much harder and much longer hours than some of the hardest working adults I know. And for years, I assumed that while those kids would get to college and not necessarily abandon that work ethic, they would happily adjust to their new world where they were encouraged and in fact required to take agency for their own life and education. But since I began writing this blog ten years ago, I’ve learned I was wrong.

Lesson #19 of my final 31 posts: When we overprepare kids for college, we underprepare them for life.

When kids arrive on college campuses having spent the last four years with every decision, every metric, every goal focused on achieving a specific outcome, they’ve been trained to get the right answer. They’ve been trained to ask, “Will this be on the test?” They’ve been trained to follow directions, to do what they’re told, and to expect that every challenge put in front of them is best attacked by getting the allusive right answer. But as I’ve written before, you can’t earn straight A’s in life. And that’s exactly why so many of those students, when confronted with a comparatively simple problem like a class that conflicts with their internship, will ask their parents to intervene. They don’t have the past experience or the current tools to handle what they’re facing. Their overpreparation for college has left them underprepared for life.

This is an area where I don’t fault those kids or their parents. They didn’t decide that our society would fetishize the 50 most selective colleges in the country in spite of the fact that those schools don’t produce better outcomes or happier graduates. They didn’t decide that seemingly everyone involved in this process would emphasize grades, test scores, and other pursuits of the correct answers, or that so many colleges would reward perfection in those areas. They didn’t decide that the way those aforementioned colleges ultimately make decisions would so often be shrouded in mystery. They’re simply responding to those influences.

But with all those pressures, the associated rise in the rates of teen depression and anxiety, and the rising cost of college that has only increased the need for a tangible college ROI, there’s an urgent need to help those kids, to relieve them of these notions that if they can just work hard enough to achieve high school perfection, they’ll have climbed the mountain and be prepared to succeed in a similar fashion for the rest of their lives. And until we see a broad, systematic change in the process, the best place to start is at home.

To those parents who protest that it’s their teen, not Mom or Dad, who’s applying all that perfectionist pressure, I believe you. And that makes it even more important that you set the example at home to praise effort over outcomes, to resist the urge to over-parent, and to do your most important college admissions job well.

For additional evidence of, and advice to address, this problem, here are some of the best resources I’ve found.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford dean of freshmen who I’ve referenced over a dozen times on this blog, wrote a best-selling book and delivered an equally popular TED Talk on this topic. If you agree in principle that our kids deserve better but don’t know where to start to help them, her resources are the best I’ve found.

The folks at Challenge Success offer some wonderful resources, including Raising Well-Balanced Kids, a slew of short videos on specific topics, and some excellent advice to help kids thrive in school. Their co-founder, Madeline Levine, also wrote an excellent book, Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or “Fat Envelopes.

And Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams–a manifesto that asks “What is school for?”–is available as both a PDF and a TEDxYouth talk.

I’ve never met one of those executing high achievers, or the parent of one, who didn’t genuinely believe they were behaving in the best interest of the student’s future. And I don’t fault either party for that inclination. But the statistics and the anecdotal evidence are there. And it’s time we all shift our focus from preparing kids for college to preparing them for life.

Rethinking meetings

I’m not sure I’ll embrace the specific action Dan Pink recommends in his latest video, a 90-second snippet that shares one company’s method for keeping meetings on track. But I agree with the overarching point that meetings need some drastic fixing.

According to Pink’s most recent newsletter, American workers attend 55 million meetings each day. And that’s not even including high school students who meet regularly with their clubs and organizations. How many of those meetings were actually necessary? How many of them drove to a decision (other than to have another meeting)? How many of them are standing meetings that take place on a given day without first asking, “What’s this meeting for?”

And that’s another lesson I’ve learned in the ten years since I started writing this blog:

Lesson #17 of my final 31 posts: Don’t have a meeting just to have a meeting.

Before I started writing this blog, I’d participated in plenty of meetings that broke almost all of those tenets. In fact, I’d called far too many of them. There’s something about putting people in a room together and discussing things that makes you feel like you’re doing something important.

But if you finish that meeting with no action to be taken, no decisions made, no recognizable difference to be found in an examination of the before and after of the meeting that just took place, chances are that all you did was meet. Multiply the number of people by the time spent in the meeting and that’s exactly how much productivity your organization just sacrificed at the altar of the meeting.

I’m not against having meetings. I’m against having meetings that didn’t need to be had. So here’s a two-step process to make your meetings less frequent, and more efficient.

1. Before you schedule a meeting, consider this question: “If this meeting were going to cost us money (pick an amount that would be noticeable but not necessarily a deal-breaker for your group), would we still have it?”

2. If so, ask, “What needs to happen by the end of this meeting for us to have gotten our money’s worth?”

Your work will get better if you rethink your meetings.

Living life out loud

This week a story hit the press about an angry Philadelphia Eagles football fan who’d been captured on camera vociferously expressing his in-game displeasure with the referees. That alone isn’t much of a story. But the fact that that apoplectic fan was the Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania? That made it slightly more newsworthy.

The discovery that admissions officers are, like the rest of us, real and occasionally flawed human beings outside of work was not exactly a newsflash to anyone I know in the admissions or counseling industry. It’s one of the many reasons I remind students here that colleges don’t expect that students will be perfect, and that applicants should be themselves in their applications.

But this is another area where social media has changed the game. 20 years ago, a fan caught on camera at an NFL game might only have garnered amused acknowledgement from their own friends, colleagues, and family who happened to be tuning in at that precise moment. Today, the ease of sharing just about anything on social media amplifies that story to the level of broader interest in the subject matter.

Lesson #16 of my final 31 posts: We’re all living life out loud.

That email you’re sending, that tweet you’re composing, that picture you’re posting–would you feel comfortable doing the same if it were shared far and wide? For better or worse, we only get to decide what we say, do, and post. More and more, the decision of whether or not to share it, and with whom, is made for us.

None of us can be perfect all the time (including when your beloved team is losing at home). But we can’t reserve our best behavior for only those occasions that are designed to be shared publicly. Increasingly, we’re all better off assuming that we’re living life out loud.

Asking “Who and/or what is this for?”

I’m writing this from 30,000 feet en-route to Louisville, KY, for the annual NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counseling) conference, attended by over 6,000 counseling and admissions professionals. But I’m not going there just to see what happens. I’ve got specific plans to make the most of my time. I’m presenting a session on Thursday, and I’ll be spending as much work and social time as I can with my 20 colleagues who will also be in attendance.

Sure, I’ll attend some other sessions. I’ll meet fellow professionals. And there will inevitably be some opportunities to learn or connect that I couldn’t have possibly planned for. But I know what I’m there for. I’m there to deliver the very best speech I can, and to connect with my colleagues (none of whom I get to see every workday as we’re spread all over the country). If I don’t do those things, I didn’t get the full personal, professional, or financial value for the trip.

And it’s not just me. Each of my colleagues in attendance has done their own examination of just exactly why they’re attending and what they hope to accomplish. Some are there to learn as much as possible from the sessions. Some are there to evaluate business opportunities. Some are there to connect with friends and former colleagues outside of Collegewise who make their life and work more enjoyable. But nobody goes just to go, or just to say they went.

We take this kind of intentionality seriously at Collegewise. Last month, my colleagues Allison and Arun, both of whom have attended this conference over a dozen times, held an internal webinar for the NACAC attendees. They laid out our collective goals and expectations. They reviewed some conference best practices. They explained the schedule of events we’re expected to attend and delineated those from the blocks of time when people could choose their own conference adventure.

To a person, and as a company, we’ve planned to make this conference a valuable use of our time and energy.

Lesson 15 of my final 31 posts: Start anything worth doing by asking, “Who and/or what is this for?”

This email you’re about to send, who and what is it for?

The meeting you just scheduled, who and what is it for?

The event you’re planning, the ad you’re running, the speech you’re giving, who and what is it for?

Don’t let yourself off the hook with an easy answer like, “Sharing information is what this speech is for.” If that’s your actual answer, you don’t need to call people into a room to give a speech. Write a memo instead. But when you get clear about who will be in the room, why you want to bring them there, and how you’ll know if the time was well spent, your speech gets a lot more focused and effective for you and for the attendees.

Neither I nor Collegewise as a company have always been so intentional around this conference. We used to send most of our counselors because it felt like the professionally responsible thing to do. But when we asked hard questions, it was pretty clear that some people enjoyed and benefitted from the conference a lot more than others did. Even those who found it worth their while did so through a combination of planning, intuition, and luck. And that’s not a good recipe for success if you apply it to a larger group.

I’m not suggesting that everything you do needs to achieve some sort of productive outcome to be worth doing. Your answer for your upcoming vacation might be, “This is vacation is for me and my family to spend as much time as we can together and to enjoy the spontaneity that comes from having no scheduled activities.” Guess what—the fact that you asked and answered the question just dramatically improved the chances that you’ll get exactly what you want from your time away.

Don’t do things just to do them or to say you did them. Your time, energy, and commitments are too important for that. Instead, decide ahead of time why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you’ll know if it was worth it. And one of the best ways to get there is to start by asking, “Who and/or what is this for?”

Accessible influence

My daily search for shareable advice over the last ten years has produced more than just writing fodder. It’s also introduced me to two of my personal heroes: Jason Fried of Basecamp and blogger Seth Godin. So much of what I’ve read, listened to, and absorbed from these two greats has impacted and, even more importantly, often changed my thinking about business, writing, and education. And while I’ve actually had the opportunity to correspond with and even meet both of them on a few occasions, those exchanges were brief and comparatively uneventful when compared to their influence that had long before taken hold.

Lesson #14 of my final 31 posts: Heroes are there for the emulating.

Of the countless benefits the internet delivers us, one of the most impactful for me has been the virtual access to heroes. And while I’ve certainly benefited from the fact that Fried and Godin are prolific writers and sharers who freely put their ideas and perspectives into the universe, there’s almost nothing to stop you from learning from—and even more importantly, emulating—your heroes, no matter who inspires you.

From athletes to CEOs, social activists to artists, musicians to educators, political pundits to programmers, you don’t need to meet them. You don’t need them to be your personal mentors. You don’t need access to their time or attention. You can still learn plenty about them and their work. And more importantly, you can turn around and emulate it.

Whoever inspires you, what are you doing to honor their influence? How are you learning from and then doing more of what they do in those things that matter to you?

The best thing about today’s heroes is that even when you can’t access the people, you can always access—and emulate—their influence.

End with the thanks

Yesterday’s post recommended that writers open with the ask when emailing a request for a favor. But with the thank-you, the order is best reversed.

Lesson #13 of my final 31 posts: When writing a thank-you note, end with the thanks.

I first encountered (and blogged about) this tip in 2016 via an NPR story, and it really resonated with me. I find this recommended order often makes it easier for the writer. It’s sometimes difficult to find enough substantive things to say as supporting evidence of your appreciation. But ending with the thank-you frees you up to express any number of things the person you’re thanking might be interested in hearing from you.

Here’s an example of how that might look for a student writing a thank-you note to a teacher who wrote recommendation letters on the student’s behalf.

Dear Mr. Lloyd:

Last week, I officially committed to attend Oberlin College in the fall! Words cannot express how excited I am, but they might be able to once I enroll as I’ve decided to study comparative literature. I have to say that until I took your class last year, I probably would not have considered that path. But the days I spent in room 102 discussing Chaucer, Twain, and the other authors whose work you somehow made come to life were some of the most engaging class hours I spent at Poly. In fact, one of the reasons I chose Oberlin was because I want to enjoy similar experiences learning, discussing, and debating ideas in class while I’m in college.

I also wanted to thank you for taking the time to write my letters of recommendation. I know how many of my friends asked you for the same favor and I can only imagine how much time it must have taken. But they clearly helped me gain admission to the college I most wanted to attend, and I hope you know how much I appreciate your work on my behalf.

All the best to you,

Cherise A.

The number of sentences expressing thanks in this message is only three. But the sincerity and appreciation ring true because of the order.

In email, open with the ask

In the ten-year daily search to notice and share something interesting here on my blog, I uncovered two tips that have saved me hours of email toiling to find the right tone and message.

Lesson #12 of my final 31 posts: When asking for something over email, open with the ask.

I first found and blogged about this gem of advice from Simon Sinek in 2015. When asking for help, a favor, or anything else over email where you aren’t sure the person will agree, it’s tempting to try to butter them up for a paragraph or two before you hit them with the ask. That’s the wrong order. Ask right away. Then get to the pleasantries.

The former feels manipulative and selfish. The latter feels more direct and generous.

Find your personal “why”

During my ten years of daily posting, I’ve received a lot of well-intentioned but unsolicited blogging advice. And from running ads, to allowing comments, to writing headlines that were SEO-strategic, almost all of it ignored the reason I was blogging in the first place: I’ve enjoyed doing it.

Lesson #11 of my final 31 posts: Be clear with yourself about why you’re doing what you choose to do.

One of the reasons I’ve been able to keep blogging for so long is that I don’t measure it. I have thousands of loyal readers, but I’ve never paid regular attention to the number or tried any contorted plan to increase it. I don’t try to make money with it. I don’t have to check with anyone before I post. I don’t have to convince people to show up or to stay here. I realized early in the ten-year streak that I love writing this blog for the people who enjoy reading it. That’s why I do it. And anything that impedes my pursuit of that “why” isn’t worth embracing.

The cliché is true: there really are only so many hours in a day. And for any regular practice that takes your time and energy, it’s worth getting really clear about why you’re doing it. Maybe it’s because you have to, or you enjoy the comradery it brings, or you find the pursuit of getting better to be a thrilling practice. Maybe it’s just flat-out fun. Whatever the reason, finding your personal “why” for the things that you do can help you keep doing—or stop doing—it for the right reasons.