Unpredictable benefits

I’m still close friends with the first person I met at college. I met Craig the first day of our freshman year at UC Irvine when we moved into a dorm together. And yesterday, he forwarded me a social media post from our alma mater welcoming the class of 2023 to campus. Craig’s subject line to me: “30 years ago, this was us.”

Lesson #10 of my final 31 posts: Much of what you’ll find most valuable in college can’t be measured or predicted ahead of time.

I can’t say that I didn’t know that before I started blogging; I’d been telling families the same thing for years. But it’s become even more clear to me as one of the biggest benefits of my college experience has continued and even grown since I graduated.

In just the last ten years, I’ve gotten married. I’ve had two kids. I’ve celebrated selling and buying back a company. And I’ve experienced the first real personal loss of my life. Craig and my other closest friends from college have been there figuratively (and often literally) for all of it. To enjoy those relationships that began during our college years and continued as adults who are now on the edge of our fifties is like a recurring gift that my college keeps giving me.

I don’t think that anyone should attend college just to make friends (and I’m certain nobody should go into debt for that reason alone). But friendships are one of countless discoveries and potential benefits that await students at college but that can’t be predicted or evaluated like you can the size or location of the school. Those unpredictable rewards are one of the most important reasons why all of us at Collegewise preach that the most selective colleges don’t have the market cornered on wonderful college experiences.

Students and parents, as you progress through the college search and selection process, try to balance your astute research into the qualities you can evaluate with your resolute belief that some of the most enriching parts are there waiting to be discovered. The unpredictable benefits can impact your life as much or more than the degree will.

Craig’s son is now a senior in high school and a Collegewise student. We certainly couldn’t have predicted any of that when we moved into our tiny dorm room together 30 years ago, with no idea what was in store for us but excited to take the unpredictable journey.

Identify the controllable portion

My daily blogging streak began under personally and professionally trying circumstances.

In October 2009, Collegewise (and many of our families) had been hit hard by the recession. In less than ten months, we’d gone from being a thriving business to one struggling to keep our doors open. I knew that if we made it to the other side, the prospects of us reclaiming our footing and our customer base were certain—we’d always had a long line of delighted customers who were happy to refer us. But every day of that year felt like a personal fight to drag my sleepless self out of bed in the morning to face the day. I was running out of ideas, time, and money. And I was losing my confidence that we could weather the economic storm.

I still vividly remember sitting at my desk on October 12 of that year and making what became a ten-year decision: I would start blogging every day.

Not in the hope that it would solve our problems, and not as part of a complex marketing strategy that could somehow contribute to our business bottom line. It simply felt like something productive to do when I was running low on productive practices. Looking back, the decision was impetuous—it took me less than two minutes to make it. But I knew that no matter what happened, at the absolute minimum, I could end each day knowing that I’d made some kind of contribution I could feel good about, a small win every day at a time when the wins seemed few and far between.

Lesson #9 of my final 31 posts: During stressful times, focus on what you can control.

Much of the stress we feel is caused by circumstances we can’t control. Finances, health, family dynamics, work–when we’re confronted with difficult challenges without easy solutions, we lose our sense of agency over our own lives. And it’s precisely during those times when we need to recognize which parts of our situation are actually in our control, no matter how small, and then relentlessly focus there.

When we were in the throes of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, there was very little I could control. Other than making sure we kept taking care of our customers and continued to speak at any high school or community organization who invited me, I could only control how to spend the rest of my time. I’m not sure I realized it at the time, but in the face of an enormous problem, blogging was a way to grasp a tiny portion that was still in my control.

One of the reasons that the college admissions process has become so stressful for so many families is that they choose to focus on the outcomes that aren’t in their control. You can’t control that another student got picked for the lead in the school play. You can’t control that your SAT score didn’t go up as much as you’d hoped, or that you didn’t get an “A” in AP English, or that Swarthmore denied your admission.

You can absolutely control your effort and attention in pursuit of those outcomes. And you should maximize that control to align with the goals you’ve set for yourself. But you can’t control the outcomes themselves. And the more time you spend trying to worry or will your way into desirable endings that you don’t ultimately get to decide, the more stress you’re going to feel.

I’ve written frequently about this concept of focusing on what you can control during your journey to college–you can find a few past posts here, here, here, and here. If the college admissions process is feeling a lot more anxiety-inducing than it is enjoyable for your family, I encourage you to read them. I’ve found that one of the very best ways to bring some relief during a stressful time in your life is to find the controllable portion and then take control of it.

Learning by doing is underrated

I’ve always considered myself a good writer. I was raised by an English teacher who gave me good genes and good examples. I majored in English in college. I’ve used my writing to open doors, to get access to opportunities, and to rally the groups I was part of or leading. Ten years ago, if you’d asked me to name something I felt I was good at, writing would have been at or near the top of the list.

But when I go back and read any of my oldest blog posts, many of them make me wince. Too many words. Too long to get to the point. Too many sentences that should have been more tightly edited. I don’t even recognize the writer who penned many of those entries a few thousand posts ago.

Since starting this blog, I’ve never taken a writing (or blogging) class. I’ve never reached out to a successful blogger and asked for writing advice. I’ve never taken steps to learn how to get better at this. I just wrote. Every single day, at least one entry a day, for ten years.

I’m not implying that my little blog entries are channeling anything Hemingway-esque. Every day, I read authors and bloggers whose writing is much better than mine. And I suspect the posts I’m writing today would make me cringe ten years from now if I kept this practice up.

But while I’ve got plenty of room left to get better, nothing has ever made the demonstrable writing difference like simply writing every day has. Done regularly over time, incremental improvements begin to add up.

Lesson #6 of my final 31 posts: Learning by doing is underrated.

One of the many advantages of the technologically infused world we live in is that the obstacles on the path to actually doing something have been lessened or outright removed.

If you want to write for an audience, you don’t need a book proposal or an agent or a publisher. Blogs, shareable PDFs, email newsletters–they are all there waiting. You can start writing without going through a gatekeeper.

If you want to be a leader, you don’t need to get elected to a leadership position. Find a cause or goal that other people care about, stand up, and offer to lead them towards the place you all want to go.

If you want to learn how to play guitar or paint with watercolors or restore a vintage Chevy truck, the internet has all the lessons you need to get started almost immediately.

If you want to make films, don’t start by strategizing how to get a job as a production assistant in the entertainment industry someday. Just grab a camera (even your phone will do) and start making films. Do those films entertain your friends and family? Does anybody want to share them with others? If you put them on YouTube, do viewers show up, view, and share them? If the answer is “no,” make different films. Shoot from different angles. Write different scripts or provide different direction or try a new approach until something resonates with an audience. The curve might feel steep. But the learning and the subsequent strides will be significant.

Whatever it is that interests you, there are fewer barriers than ever before to getting started. And one of the best ways to learn something is to actually do the thing you want to learn.

Nobody gets there alone

Through college and my 25 years since becoming an official adult with a full-time job, almost everyone I’ve met or known who achieved significant, sustained success simultaneously helped a lot of other people along the way.

Whether it was pitching in to help with a project, acting as a mentor, deflecting credit, or even just offering occasional advice, if there’s a long line of people who can say about you, “You really helped me in a way that made a difference,” you’ll almost certainly have achieved a level of success you can be proud of.

I don’t necessarily mean that you should cast aside personal or professional ambition in the name of helping others. But you can be simultaneously wildly ambitious and unrelentingly helpful. In fact, those instincts harmonize together.

Lesson #5 of my final 31 posts: Nobody gets there alone.

Whatever your goals or definition of success, your chances of getting where you want to go will almost certainly involve others at times, maybe even frequently. The teacher who gives you extra help. The teammate who pushes you in practice. The colleague who steps in to help when you’re in the work weeds. We all need other people to occasionally be the wind at our backs.

And the more regularly you’ve helped others get to where they want to go, the more people you’ll have standing by at the ready when you need someone to help you along your own way.

Here’s a past post with more on this topic.

Reversing the sleep deprivation trend

A new study from the Journal of Community Health shows that the number of adults sleeping less than six hours each night has risen from 30% in 2010 to 35% in 2018. UC Berkeley neuroscience professor Matthew Walker, a sleep expert, tweeted in response to the study, “This is unsustainable chronic sleep deprivation for maintaining human health.” And the physical and mental side effects for teens similarly sleep deprived are even worse.

Lesson #4 of my final 31 posts: Lack of sleep is a dangerous practice that makes you miserable today and also shortens your life tomorrow.

This is something I did not understand ten years ago. I’d always carried some pride as someone who could sleep 5-6 hours a night and seemingly function just fine. I’d reserve focused effort to get a good night’s sleep for occasions that merited it, like a big presentation or event the following day.

But since I’ve started writing this blog and consequently had to find interesting things to write about for parents and teens, I’ve consistently come across articles, studies, and, most notably, this book that have completely changed my perspective. Regular good sleep is imperative to good physical and mental health. It deserves to be prioritized and protected. This is not an opinion. It’s science. And it’s one of those areas where our society is trending in the wrong direction. It’s time to reverse the trend, especially with teens.

If you want to have more energy, perform better at school or work, reach your potential, be happier, healthier and live a longer life, make a full night’s sleep (which Walker defines as at least 8 hours) a regular priority.

What are you noticing?

In 2007, I took a leap and checked an item off of my life’s bucket list: I entered a stand-up comedy competition.

To be clear, there was no audition. All you had to do to enter the contest was 1) have a working pulse and 2) write your name on a sign-up sheet. But I went for it. My friends all showed up to support me at the big show. And over the next four weeks, I actually managed to progress several rounds before the far more talented comedians went on to the finals.

I loved being on stage and making people laugh. But here’s what I didn’t love: spending all day every day asking, “Could that be funny?”

Stand-up comics are always looking for material. Is that funny? Could it be funny? How could I turn this thing I just thought or saw or experienced into something funny? That’s the job. It’s what a good comedian does. But I didn’t enjoy examining everything in my life through the lens of what was or might be funny. I found it exhausting. And it took away from my ability to notice and appreciate things that were more important to me.

Daily blogging inspired a similar behavior with a very different result.

Since beginning this blog ten years ago, at least once a day, I have to notice something that might be helpful or interesting enough to write about it. I can’t even begin to calculate how many hours I’ve spent over the last ten years noticing and consequently sharing information that intrigues me. Some days what I share is a lot more important or profound than other days. But the daily practice is one that’s made me a better observer, thinker, communicator, student, parent, and colleague. It’s why daily blogging is as selfish an act as it may also be a generous one. I get plenty out of this practice, too.

Lesson #3 of my final 31 posts: What you choose to notice every day influences your behavior.

We all have near limitless information streaming our way every day. But our brains have limited resources. We can’t take in everything around us and parcel out attention equally. We get to choose what we notice. And those choices have very real consequences. They can make us feel happier, more informed, more relaxed, more fortunate, etc., or they can make us resentful, over-invested in things that don’t matter, anxious, less fortunate, etc.

Not everyone has the luxury to ignore what might be difficult in their lives, especially if they’re experiencing real hardship. But we all get to make choices throughout the day about what’s worth paying attention to. And those choices have side effects. If you want to change the side effects, change what you’re choosing to notice.

It’s worth checking in regularly and asking yourself: (1) What am I choosing to notice every day, and (2) is that practice making my life better, or worse?

My final month of daily blogging starts today

It was almost a year ago that I announced this tenth year of daily blogging would be my last. October 12, 2019 will be my final post. And with just 31 days until then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the best way to say goodbye to my readers and to my little blog. Many of my friends and family have asked me what I have in mind for the final post, but that’s a lot of gravity and pressure to put on one entry, even the final one in a ten-year daily streak. So while there’s a fine line between honoring something for an audience who shows up willingly and overestimating your own importance in their lives, if you’ll indulge me, here’s what I’ve got in mind for the next 31 days.

For each of my remaining posts, I’d like to share one thing I’ve learned and benefited from while engaging in this daily practice, none of which I knew of or fully appreciated before I started. Here’s day #1 of 31:

It’s easier to make things for an audience you have than it is to find an audience for things that you’ve made.

The beauty of the internet and social media is that you can reach an audience with the push of a button. But all too often, people, organizations, and companies find something to announce and then shout into the online universe to find an interested audience. Kickstarter is a great example of this. Sure, there are success stories of products, projects, and films that got their start and their funding with a Kickstarter announcement. But there are a lot more examples of people who announced their big idea on Kickstarter and then hoped an audience would show up. That’s like that person on the street corner acrobatically spinning the arrow to generate interest in the rental property to their left. Sure, you may get the occasional passerby who happens to want exactly what you’re promoting. But would it not have been better if you already had a group of people who were voluntarily giving you their attention and waiting for you to bring that product to them?

In October 2011, my business partner Arun and I released our first version of the Collegewise Guide to the Common Application. We thought it was a great idea and we were excited to share it with students, parents, and counselors. And while the guide is free today, we initially charged $12.99 per download.

And our advertising strategy to promote it? Simple. I went to my blog readers and said, “Here it is.”

No paid advertising. No spamming strangers who didn’t want to hear from us. No smarmy tactics or anything else that just wasn’t us. I’d already been blogging daily for four years. I had an audience at the time of over 10,000 people who were already showing up willingly to read what I had to share. We didn’t have to find people who might be interested. The audience was already there. And if the guide were good enough, they’d tell other people about it for us. That’s exactly what happened.

The best way to start building an audience? Whatever your project is that you’re envisioning or even already working on, start by identifying, as specifically as you can, who it’s for. What need are you trying to fill? How will it help them? And most importantly, what can you share, teach, or otherwise give them today to start earning their attention and trust?

If you start today giving people recurring reasons to show up, when your project is ready to share, your audience will be there waiting.

And appropriately, for the final time on this blog, I’m happy to announce that our 2019/20 Collegewise guide to the Common Application is available today. You can download it for free here.

The college “why?”

College applicants, as you’re finalizing your college lists and brainstorming your essays and organizing your list of application to-do’s, here’s a question you may not have considered.

Why are you going to college?

I’m not suggesting that you reconsider your path, especially before you even submit applications to give yourself the choice to attend. But many students grow up knowing that college after high school is a foregone conclusion. It’s what’s necessary. It’s what’s expected. It’s what they and their families have worked for. And much as you wouldn’t get married without some sense of why you’re making that commitment, college is an investment of time and money that’s worthy of asking, “Why?”

Whatever your answer to that question, it will help clarify your goals. It will help you (re)evaluate your list of schools. It will help you answer questions about why you’ve chosen to apply to particular colleges, what you hope to gain from the experience, and how you plan to make yourself successful.

Knowing your “why” will likely improve your chances of admission to the right college for you.

Maybe you’re applying because you want to be an engineer and you need the education to pursue that dream. Maybe you love physics and want to take that interest to a reasonable extreme. Maybe you want to discover your interests and talents, or learn from people different from you, or begin navigating the world on your own as you’ll need to do as an adult.

There are few wrong answers to the question as long as you’re thoughtful and sincere in your response.

And if you struggle to find an answer, here’s an exercise that might help. Imagine the option of attending any college at all is suddenly taken away from you in perpetuity. If you’d be somewhere between disappointed and crestfallen, ask yourself (here comes that word again) why.

Your reasons will probably give you some clear insight into your answer to the college “why?”

The right questions to ask

Over the last 20 years at Collegewise, I’ve watched thousands of teenagers progress through our programs. I’ve observed nearly 200 colleagues who made their mark working here. I can look back on my own career development and that of my friends and family. I’ve read and thought about education, the point of both high school and college, and the ingredients that seem to be so important to finding success and fulfillment as an adult. And it’s difficult to ignore a reality that plays out in all those scenarios, one that should be liberating but will actually make many people, especially some parents, uncomfortable.

In the grand scheme of what will become a student’s life, high school grades (and even more so, test scores) just don’t matter.

There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, so let me do a few preemptive takedowns. Education is everything. We can’t possibly invest enough in schools. Teachers deserve so much more than they’re getting and earning for choosing such a laudable career (I was raised by one of the best public high school English teachers in America whose former students still talk about how she changed their lives). A student who’s engaged in learning and preparing for their future should be applauded and encouraged. Curiosity, effort, work ethic—all of it matters. And kids coming from under-resourced backgrounds who seek upward mobility for themselves and their families need every advantage to get there. We need to help them engage, not send a message that could be interpreted as, “School doesn’t matter.” I have two kids of my own, ages two and four, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to encourage them to make the most of those 6-7 hours a day when they’re on campus between kindergarten and high school.

But I just don’t think the grades on the transcript encapsulate a student’s skills, potential, or likelihood of finding happiness and fulfillment as adults.

Training kids to place a premium on getting the right answer produces students who are more likely to ask, “Will this be on the test?” than they will the real-world questions, the kind without correct answers that can easily be found on the internet. If you’re convinced that getting accepted to an Ivy League school is the key to your success in life, then grades matter a lot. But as I’ve written before, you can’t earn straight A’s in life.

Seth Godin’s recent podcast episode explores this idea in more detail by examining some of these real-world challenges that don’t have one correct answer, like running for office, designing a garbage can to meet the complex needs of New York City sanitation, and understanding how to get along at work when the rules at work keep changing. And he asks an important question: How do we help our kids understand what it means to address challenges that don’t have a right answer? Godin offers two suggestions:

1. Begin with this: you won’t get in trouble for getting it wrong, because nobody knows what “right” means. We’ve got to get past the idea that you can get an “A” on this.

2. Instead of pushing kids to find the right answers, we need to push kids to ask the right questions.

How do you execute it in practice? How do you balance the dueling realities of an education system that places so much weight on grades with a future that will be built based on so many other factors? How do we know if parents or students are doing it right?

Godin doesn’t answer that because there’s no right answer. But those are the right questions to ask.

Need some happiness instruction?

The rates of anxiety and depression among teenagers have reached alarming levels. And while there’s a difference between a serious mental illness and a student who’s a little stressed or just has the occasional (and normal) bout with the blues, it seems that many teens—and many adults—might need a little guidance to (re)discover some of the happiness we should all be able to enjoy.

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley is launching “The Science of Happiness: A free online course exploring the roots of a happy, meaningful life.” From the course page:

“The free eight-week course explores the roots of a happy and meaningful life through science and practice. Students will engage with some of the most provocative and practical lessons from the latest research, discovering how cutting-edge research can be applied to their own lives. The course is divided into eight one-week segments, with an additional week in the middle for a midterm and an extra week at the end for a final exam, though students have six months to complete the material at their own pace if they wish.”

Might be worthwhile to try it for yourself, or to forward to someone who might benefit.