Looking back from the future

Bob Sutton is a professor of management at Stanford and the author of “The A**hole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt.” And while the book is pitched toward helping you deal with difficult people, one of the techniques, shared in this 90-second video (includes colorful language –“viewer discretion advised,” as they say), can help you get through any difficult situation or period, whether or not a jerk is responsible for causing it. It’s called “Temporal Distance” and it works like this: When you’re going through a difficult or stressful time, imagine it’s one day later, then one week later, then one year later. Eventually, what you’re facing right now isn’t quite so upsetting. Looking back from the future makes today seem manageable.

I will admit that the idea struck me as hokey when presented as doing time travel in your mind. But then I realized it’s actually not at all unlike what I’ve recommended in many posts, two examples of which are here and here.

If you’re the type who likes to dig into the research (I am not), here’s a detailed study from UC Berkeley on the effects of Temporal Distance.

For students and parents navigating your way through the college admissions process, remember that the C on the exam, the test score that won’t budge, and so many other things that feel so important today just won’t matter when you’re looking back from the future.

Text talk is for text messages

To the chagrin of language, spelling, and grammar purists everywhere, many best practices in the art of written communication seem to be suspended when writing a text message. Rules and protocols like capitalization and punctuation slow down sending. And it’s hard for many people to justify writing 50 words if 5 are sufficient to get both your message and your meaning through. Given how many of today’s teens do the majority of their written communication over text, it’s no surprise that the truncated style of text talk seeps into other writing.

College applicants, please remember that while it might now be socially appropriate to suspend the rules of capitalization, punctuation, spelling, etc. when texting, that same style is not appropriate for written communication during the admissions process. When sending emails to admissions offices, college interviewers, teachers, counselors, etc., remember that what you put on the page sends a message about you, your writing, and in many cases, how seriously you’re taking both the task at hand and the process.

I’m not suggesting you need to pen a novel-like, publishable piece of work. But you likely wouldn’t talk to these people face-to-face the same way you’d talk with your friends, so don’t write to them that way, either. Pretend your message will be printed and added to your file for future review (that often happens). And save the text talk for actual texting.

Here’s a past post that includes some relevant links to help you write good email messages.

Avoidable public speaking mistakes

I’m blessed to work in a company full of public speakers ranging from capable to truly great. But I’ve been cursed by years of attending conferences, weddings, and other speaking-worthy events where well-intentioned speakers repeat the same blunders. You don’t necessarily have to be a natural-born public speaker to get the job done, but anyone who stands up in front of the room at the very least owes the audience a speech free of easily avoidable mistakes. Here’s my incomplete list.

What’s the point?
Just because it’s interesting to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting to your audience. I recently sat through a graduate school address filled with inside jokes and esoteric references about the fellow students’ favorite candy to binge on during study time and the hue of the lighting in the specific rooms on campus. Those references may have meant something to them, but given that each graduate had at least one family member with them, the majority of the audience had no idea what the speaker was talking about it. As you prepare your speech, keep asking yourself, “Who is my audience, and would they care about this?” A reader can delete an email or skip to the next article. But an audience member is being held hostage. Speakers owe it to them to keep it interesting.

A long list of thanks
Many speakers like to begin with a long list of thanks—to organizers, sponsors, and other people who are rarely siting through the speech themselves. If someone in attendance deserves to be thanked, thank away. But otherwise, just get to it. We’ll thank you for it.

Allow me to introduce myself (for a really long time)
Did the audience willingly show up to hear you speak? Did an organizer introduce you? Great—the audience knows who you are. Skip the introduction and jump right in. If the audience doesn’t yet know who you are, give us the 30-second elevator version of your intro. We’re here, we’re listening, and you’ve got our attention. Spend less time convincing us why you’re worth listening to, and more time actually telling us something worth listening to.

Tech troubles
You can’t help it if the mic goes out in the middle of your talk. But failing to test your mic, your laptop, and any other tech before you get started only to end up troubleshooting live on stage? That’s on you. I recently sat through a speech with two concurrent speakers who spent the first ten minutes trying to get their microphone to work. By the time it did, they’d lost their audience. Test ahead of time and make sure everything works. Even better, be wary of making your speech so reliant on tech that you’re toast if there’s trouble (Steve Jobs once said that people who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint). A tech-free presentation will be tech-trouble-free, too. But if you will rely on electronics or other media, make sure they work before you start.

“And now, I’ll read slide 22 to you out loud.”
If you’re just going to read your on-screen bullet points out loud, cancel the speech, email your presentation, and save the audience the trip.

Going over your time
Don’t do 20 minutes when you’re asked to do 10. Don’t end at 7:45 when you were supposed to end at 7:30. But all the other speakers went long, and I prepared for this! Doesn’t matter. End on time, even if you need to cut your talk short. The great orators of our time may have left audiences thinking, “I wish that speech were longer.” But most of us just aren’t that good. Trust me, your audience will thank you, which is exactly what you want them to do when you finish speaking.

No end in sight
I’ve now been to three weddings where a groomsman’s toast went so long, and so far off course, the bride and groom had to ask him to stop. It was as if those speakers were hoping to meander their way during the talk to find an ending. Wherever you’re speaking, treat attention like a precious, scarce resource. The more of it you demand from your audience, the more likely you are to expend it all. Shorter is almost always better. And if you don’t know where you’ll end, don’t even start.

Refusal to read the room
If you went on a first date and the person across the table was yawing, looking at their watch, and generally looking like they didn’t want to be there, would you take it as a good sign? Probably not. Your audience will tell you how they’re feeling and how you’re doing during a speech. Just look at them. Agreeing nods, responsive chuckles, and enthusiastic note-taking are good signs. Yawns, time-checks, and heads nodding off are not. A less-than-warm reaction might not always be fair or rational. In fact, it might not even be your fault, especially if you’re following several other speakers who committed mistakes on this list. But forging ahead as planned no matter how long it takes isn’t always a best practice. Read your audience and be prepared to adjust as necessary.

Ending with a whimper
The end of your speech is your moment, your time to end on a high note. And yet too many speakers spend too little time preparing for that ending. “So, unless there are any questions, I think that’s all I have. . .” Really? That’s your ending? The end of your speech is the last memory you can give to your audience. Make me laugh, think, reflect, etc. Tell me what you want me to do, change, or notice moving forward. Leave me with something good to remember you and your speech by. Last impressions matter even more than first impressions. Don’t let a whimper at the end ruin all the material that preceded it.

One chapter

I flew to England last week to attend my brother-in-law’s graduation from Oxford, where he and 300 other overachievers from around the world earned their MBAs. Not surprisingly, the people I met were an impressive collection of varied successes. I met a 23-year-old Rhodes Scholar who was already earning his second master’s at Oxford. I met a woman who’d spent the last year in Rwanda working to stop some of the worst forms of child labor. I met a business owner whose company installs solar farms all over Europe, several students who left behind lucrative careers in investment banking and venture capital, and budding entrepreneurs who’d secured multiple post-graduation pitch meetings with potential investors.

I certainly didn’t meet anywhere near all 300 of the graduates. But of the dozen or so that I did get to chat with, only one attended a college that would likely be described by most of my readers as prestigious—UCLA. The rest went to schools that included Occidental, Northeastern, Emory, Arizona State, and multiple international colleges I’d never heard of.

And while each of them when asked (as I have a tendency to do) spoke fondly of their college years, not one of them credited their college with their success. For each, college was an important, memorable four-year period on a continuous path of work, learning, growth, successes, and yes, failures. College is an important chapter of their story, not the entire story.

It’s easy for high school students and their parents to get so immersed in the quest to get into college that they lose perspective on the relative importance of what will eventually be a student’s adult life. Given the time, money, and energy you’ll have to spend to get in and to succeed once you’re in college, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t treat the process with respect. But nobody’s future was ever made or broken with one piece of good or bad admissions news from your dream school. According to the class profile, the average student in this Oxford graduating class had been out of college for only five years. Yet most spoke of their undergraduate years like ancient, albeit wonderful, history.

College will be an important chapter in your life. But no matter where you go, the rest of your story can be a page-turner if you want it to be. One chapter doesn’t make or break the entire book.

Standing out starts at home

The consistent references to “your child” in Challenge Success’s “Top Ten Back-to-School Tips to Help Your Child Thrive” might cause some high school parents to pass by the advice. But I don’t see a single one that doesn’t apply when you swap out “child” for “teen.”

Parents, remember that you, more than your teen’s school or friends, set the tone for how your family approaches education and the college admissions process. Many other families, particularly those in areas with a pervasive kids-must-get-into-prestigious-colleges mentality, will fly in the face of these tips. They will not resist the urge to fix problems for their kids. They will not prioritize work done with integrity over work that receives an “A.” They will not leave technology behind at dinner time, encourage regular downtime, or encourage passions independently of their (often incorrectly) reported college admissions value.

But that doesn’t mean you must do the same thing in your house. Kids stand out by being the best versions of themselves, not by following what everyone else is doing. And standing out starts at home.

Five sentiments colleges find compelling

I’m excited to go to college.

There is so much I don’t know, and so much I want to know.

I’ve got a lot of growing and experiencing to do.

I’m willing to give as much as I get while I’m in college.

I really want to attend your school, but if you don’t accept me, I’m sure I’ll have a great experience someplace else.

Like all sentiments, they resonate most when the actions match the words.

On networking and building connections

Here’s author and Wharton School professor Adam Grant’s latest piece, “Good News for Young Strivers: Networking Is Overrated.” And he connects the networking behavior of many young professionals to those of many of his college students:

“My students often believe that if they simply meet more important people, their work will improve. But it’s remarkably hard to engage with those people unless you’ve already put something valuable out into the world. That’s what piques the curiosity of advisers and sponsors. Achievements show you have something to give, not just something to take. Sure, you can fire off cold emails to people you respect — they’re just a click away — but you’ll be lucky if 2 percent even reply. The best way to attract a mentor is to create something worthy of the mentor’s attention. Do something interesting, and instead of having to push your way in, you’ll get pulled in. The network comes to you.”

I think that message has equal application for high school students who believe that attending a prestigious college will guarantee connections that will help you be successful. The best connections are those that come to you because you’re what I’ve called a mentor magnet, not those you built just so you could benefit from the personal link.

Here are two past posts, one of mine, and one with wise words from author and Harvard grad Jay Mathews on the value (or lack thereof) of alumni connections in determining your post-college success.

Back to school: greatest hits edition

Here’s a 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.

My book, If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted, explains every step of the college admissions process, from classes and testing to applications, essays, and interviews.

For parents:

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

For college students:

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


Monday morning Q&A

As a fun almost-back-to-school diversion, I’d like to try something new here. For the next month or so, I’ll be answering a question every week from a blog reader. The question form is here if you’d like to submit one for consideration. Anything goes, but questions that are too specific to one particular student aren’t likely to get selected unless there’s a broader application for other readers.

Great things take time to make

Between the day I left for college and the day I arrived home for my December holiday break, I had almost no communication with anyone I’d gone to high school with. Unless we were willing to place an expensive long-distance phone call or write a good old-fashioned letter, we all had to wait until December to reconvene in our hometown and swap college stories. Until that time, each of our experiences was our own. The only frame of comparison was our fellow students on our respective campuses, not our friends spread out at colleges across the country.

Times are different for today’s college freshmen. With email, text, and social media, everyone is experiencing college together—virtually. It’s a great way to see what your old friends are up to, and even to stay in closer touch with those people you’d rather have more meaningful exchanges with than just the occasional comment on a posted photo. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to make you feel terrible about your own college experience.

When you scroll through social media feeds of nothing but positive reports and renderings from college campuses, yet you’ve got a roommate you don’t connect with, or classes that haven’t inspired you yet, or a campus social scene where you’ve yet to find your place, you might feel like you’re doing college wrong while everyone else is doing it right. It’s even worse if you start second-guessing your choice of where to spend these next four years.

New college freshmen, please remember two things. First, much of what you see and read about your friends’ experiences at college is just advertising. Many are posting the carefully selected share-worthy moments that don’t necessarily reflect the entirety of their experience. Second, while some people experience college bliss from the moment they move into their dorm, many more do not.

Looking back, was your first week or month or even semester of high school representative of the entire four-year experience? Probably not. And your earliest college experiences won’t be, either. A great college experience is the sum of four years that will include lots of ups and downs, successes and failures, good fortune and tough breaks. Believe it or not, all of those things contribute to what makes college such a learning, growing, and even flat-out-fun period of your life. In fact, that’s not just college, that’s life. And you deserve to reap all the great rewards and memories of it without the impression that you’re the only one for whom the ride is occasionally bumpy.

So many of today’s college freshmen have spent the last four years or more working towards and dreaming about what’s been promised to be the best, most fulfilling, most transformative experience of their lives. For most of you, it will be just that when you look back on it. But please don’t despair if it doesn’t seem to be happening for you on week one, semester one, or in some cases even year one. Relieve yourself of the pressure of expecting that every day should be your best day. Instead, focus on things you can control—your effort, your initiative, your willingness to treat every day of college as an opportunity to go out and make something of it as opposed to sitting back and waiting for that something to come to you.

Spend enough days doing those things and it will start to add up. Over time, you’ll have plenty to love—and share—about college.

College will be great. But great things take time to make.