Ignore the sunk costs

I’ve noticed over the years that many students who agonize over a decision are hung up on what they perceive as the sunk cost.

In business-speak, a sunk cost is money that you’ve already spent and can’t get back. The non-refundable deposit you put down to secure office space in a building is now gone. It’s a sunk cost. And business schools teach their students to ignore sunk costs. If a new building with better, cheaper office space becomes available, one that will ultimately save you more money over time than the current space you put a deposit on, ignore the sunk cost and make a new decision based on the future cost.

For high school students, sunk costs sound like this.

I don’t want to take AP Spanish, but I’ve spent the last three years taking Spanish…

I’d rather play in the Dixieland band after school, but I played club volleyball for so long…

I’ve lost interest in this club and we never seem to do anything. But I can’t quit now. I’ve been a member since freshman year…

These struggles are almost always based on two things: the perceived sunk cost, and the perception that colleges don’t like students who quit.

If you’re wrestling with a decision that involves sunk costs, give Seth Godin’s podcast “Ignore sunk costs” a listen (I speed his episodes up to 1 ½ times in iTunes as his speaking runs a little on the slow side for me). And please pay particular attention to his remarks about quitting. Ignoring sunk costs doesn’t mean that you should indiscriminately quit anything. It just means not allowing the sunk cost to deter you from what might be a much better decision based on new information or realities.

And I can’t think of a college that wouldn’t endorse the same approach.

Great trails

Leading a conversation with “I’m the quarterback of the high school football team” is a good sign that you’re having some current success. But, “Twenty years ago, I was a great high school quarterback” is a sign that you’re living in the past. And maybe even an indicator that you haven’t done much worth talking about since then.

A recent college grad might sound great telling people they went to Princeton, Georgetown, Stanford, or another highly selective school. But every subsequent year, that tidbit will resonate less like an accomplishment worthy of pride and more like an attempt to hang on to past glory.

As you get older, people will care less about where you went to college and more about the trail you’ve left behind since then. And great trails start from plenty of colleges that aren’t famous.

No comparisons

Jeff Schiffman, director of admission at Tulane University, shares some great advice for college freshmen, the overarching theme of which I believe is just as applicable for high school students.

“Stop comparing yourself to others on social media. All at once, your friends from home are going to head to colleges around the world. And all at once, it will become a contest to see who can show how incredibly epic their first few weeks are. It can be so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of looking at everyone else’s experiences and comparing them to your own. The reality is that everyone has ups and downs in the first five weeks. There will be times of loneliness, homesickness, and anxiety: even at a school ranked #4 for the happiest students. When you look at Instagram, you are comparing your worst moments to everyone else’s best moments. So, next time you experience the natural low points that everyone experiences when they arrive at college: put down the phone. Go for a run. Head to the gym. Meditate. Just don’t compare yourself to others.”

Different worlds

It’s difficult for most high school students to envision a world where grades and test scores aren’t the markers of their achievement–where executing their way to prescribed right answers and completed assignments isn’t the path forward to success. That’s why so many good students struggle when there’s no longer a graded curve they can study their way to besting.

Seth Godin puts this well on his blog this week:

“Real life is not organized around an 800 on the SATs, or a FGA average that’s the highest in the league. Instead, real life has changing rules, hidden rules, rules that aren’t fair. Real life often doesn’t reveal itself to us all at once, the way the rules of baseball are clearly written down.”

And so, the first challenge of real life is: find some goals. And the second: figure out some boundaries.

It’s possible to play the game in the high school world of today while simultaneously preparing for the real life world of tomorrow. But students and their parents would be well served to treat those two different worlds as exactly that. Here are a few past posts of mine that might help.

Help kids develop long-term traits
No right answer = more learning
You can’t earn straight A’s in life

Back to school: greatest hits edition

Here’s a timely and updated repeat–my collection of past posts and resources to consider as students head back to school.

For high school students:

How to achieve your goals in school this year.

How to be more impressive by doing less.

Some advice to help you earn better grades.

A past post with back-to-school resolution suggestions.

My favorite study skills book is Cal Newport’s How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. Don’t let the “college students” reference in the title throw you off, as most of it applies to high school students, too. Includes great advice about how to take notes, how to study, how to take a test, etc.

For parents:

The Challenge Success folks share their Top Ten Back-to-School Tips to Help your Child Thrive in School This Year.

Here are three books I recommend to just about any parent. None tell you how to raise a teen’s SAT scores, but I promise they will absolutely help you better prepare your student for college, and their life that follows it.

For college students:

A past post with resources and advice to help you start college strong and happy.

Leadership essence

I remember sitting in a fraternity meeting in college and listening to one member make the same kind of suggestion he made in almost every meeting, one that started with, “We should…” This particular request had to do with someone waiting at the door at an upcoming party to ensure members who hadn’t paid their semester dues were not permitted to enter.

Our president at the time called his bluff and said, “If you think that’s such a good idea, why don’t you do it?”

Predictably, the Big Idea Guy didn’t exactly grab hold of the responsibility. He just mumbled something about that not being “his thing.” You can imagine how much respect he carried in the group (not much).

The next time you’re tempted to offer a suggestion or a constructive criticism as invitation for someone else to step up and do it, try something else instead.

“I have an idea and I’ll take responsibility for it. Anybody else want to join me?”

That’s the essence of leadership. And it’s available to anyone, with or without a leadership position.

Prep for the real event

The rub about so many practices that have become common in college prep is that much of it doesn’t really help a student prepare for college at all.

All the hand-wringing and grade grubbing at the expense of learning sends students into college classrooms less prepared, not more.

All that prepping for the SAT or ACT? Please. No student in the history of American education has arrived on a college campus more prepared because they spent hours mastering a standardized test that measures only how well you take that particular standardized test.

All the orchestrating, coaching, and crafting of a high school experience based on what a small subset of colleges ostensibly demands leaves kids unable to plot the next step—the one where they set their own direction—once they get to college.

It’s like a decathlete preparing for the Olympic trials by spending four years finding the perfect shoes, winning favor with their coach, and preparing to make a good impression on the Olympic committee. It’s all tangentially related at best. None of it will help that athlete actually run, jump, and throw when it counts.

Wouldn’t it make sense to align the prep of college with the event—and opportunity—of college?

Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times piece, “How to Get the Most out of College,” relates his findings after spending years visiting campuses and talking to both experts and recent graduates. And just about all of his recommendations align with the results of a study by Gallup and Purdue University that Bruni cites in the article. As he writes:

“The study has not found that attending a private college or a highly selective one foretells greater satisfaction. Instead, the game changers include establishing a deep connection with a mentor, taking on a sustained academic project and playing a significant part in a campus organization. What all of these reflect are engagement and commitment, which I’ve come to think of as overlapping muscles that college can and must be used to build. They’re part of an assertive rather than a passive disposition, and they’re key to professional success.”

So what if instead of spending hours tutoring their way to A’s in the subjects where they struggle, kids invested that time into learning even more within the subjects they enjoy?

What if instead of visiting teachers only to ask for extra credit or to complain about a grade, students forged healthy relationships with the teachers they admire? The time a student spends asking his AP US History teacher for book recommendations to feed an interest in the Civil War will go a lot further than the same time spent asking how to get a few extra credit points to move from a B to an A.

What if instead of racing from obligation to obligation, padding a long resume with activities the student hopes will look good to colleges, they spent that time making as much impact as possible in the activities they enjoyed most? You’ll learn a lot more rising through the teenage ranks at your part-time job than you will joining the the club that seems to spend most of its time holding meetings.

The student who spends their time finding their love of learning, earning the interest of mentors, and enjoying the thrill of doing even more for—and getting more out of—things that matter to them will be a lot more prepared to reap the real benefits of college than the student who spent four years executing a strategic plan to impress prestigious universities.

You don’t need to qualify or test in or be elected to participate. Any student, not just those with the best GPAs and test scores, can prep for the real event of college.

And here are a few past posts of mine on this topic:
How to build a remarkable college career
How do you make the most of college?
Your successful college career starts now

Keeping the wrong scores

Keeping score has its place. Basketball games would be pretty confusing if nobody on the court or in the stands knew how many points were on the board. But too many students and their parents inject way too much scorekeeping into college admissions, often about all the wrong things.

They’ll measure and track every exam, graded paper, and standardized test, but forget to measure if the student is actually learning something.

They’ll keep a mental log of every perceived missed opportunity, every AP class they didn’t get or starting position they weren’t given or election they didn’t win, but take no reward in the effort that went into pursuing those things or the learning that followed.

They’ll track the competition, who got what score or what award or what notice of admission to which prestigious college, but forget to take the time to consider their own journey and whether or not their path is a healthy and rewarding one for them.

They’ll rack up items for the resume but forget about the value of time spent doing something the student enjoys.

And most troublingly, they’ll turn a student’s time in high school and preparation for college into an unending stream of performance measurement—grades, scores, accolades, etc.—at the expense of the student’s health and happiness.

Nobody does this because they set out to make themselves or their kids miserable. Scorekeeping like this is pervasive in many communities and schools because of the obsession with prestigious colleges and the belief that satisfying a magic formula can open the doors of admission.

If you’re keeping score, it’s worth considering:

  • Is the score something you can control or even influence?
  • Can you change the outcome once the score is final?
  • Does the score carry long-term consequences that will affect you 2 or 5 or 20 years from now?
  • Will the quest to score well make you or others around you smarter, healthier, or happier?
  • Are you focusing on the life, opportunities, and people around you no matter how or where you’re scoring?

If you answer no to those questions, it might be time to keep a different score.

Start where you’re already strong

Here’s a simple but effective way to improve yourself dramatically.

Change “What’s one thing I could do better?” to “What’s one thing I could do even better?”

A weakness that’s really holding you back from something important may need to be addressed. But strengths always improve more than weaknesses do.

If you’re looking to make big improvements, start where you’re already strong.