Different or differently?

Sometimes we get to choose what we do. But even when faced with an obligation that’s not our choice, we still get to choose how we do it.

It’s rare to experience all of these at once, but if you’re not:

Getting something worth doing done…
Changing someone or something for the better…
Learning, growing, or otherwise bettering yourself…
Making an impact that would make you missed if you stopped showing up…
Doing work you’re proud of…
Enjoying yourself…

Maybe it’s time to change things up?

When you reach that point, you might be able to pick a new commitment entirely. Or you can always change what you’re doing—and how you’re doing it—within that existing commitment.

If you’re feeling stuck, do something different, or do this thing differently.

Great mistakes

Some people don’t get to make mistakes. Pilots, heart surgeons, and skydivers—they need to get it right the first time, and every time after that. Those are not the people you ever want to tell you, “I’m going to try something new that might not work.”

But unless you’re facing potentially catastrophic consequences, you might be better off inviting mistakes than you are avoiding them.

Not the kind of mistake that happens because you just didn’t care or try enough. Those mistakes are harder to come back from. But the mistake that happened in spite of pairing good intent with equally good effort? As long as you extract the necessary learning from it, it’s hard to call that a bad mistake.

An essential element of greatness is the willingness to make great mistakes.

You are the “if”

Many students, particularly those with their hearts set on attending a college that turns away most of its applicants, are applying an if/then construct to their education and their future.

If I get in, then…

…all my hard work will have paid off.

…I’ll have a wonderful college experience.

…I’ll be successful in my career.

Three problems with the if/then approach:

1. It injects absurdly high pressure and stakes into the process.
2. It relies on a decision that the student doesn’t ultimately control.
3. It’s inherently flawed.

Data, studies, and anecdotal evidence have shown over and over again that students who attend highly selective colleges don’t necessarily enjoy better college experiences, emerge better educated, or prove to lead happier, more fulfilling, more successful lives than those who attend less famous schools. Giving any particular college that power means handing over almost all of your agency in your own future.

Some if/thens hold up. If you’re engaged in your education, if you’re curious, kind, and passionate, if you’re willing to take advantage of the staggering number of opportunities available to you at the right school (famous or not), then great things will happen to and for you.

But you, not your dream college, are the most important if.

Self-motivation

It’s easy to feel motivated when the conditions are perfect, especially when there’s an encouraging outside voice cheering us on. But if you’re willing to bring your best effort only when you like the teacher, coach, boss, etc., you’re putting your motivation in someone else’s hands. And motivation is entirely too powerful an asset to hand over to anyone else.

The best motivation is always self-motivation.

“I did what I was asked to do”

There’s no shame in doing what you were asked to do. You can do a lot worse than being a compliant worker, colleague, teammate, etc. who can always be counted on to follow instructions.

But it’s not a role that’s likely to help you stand out.

If the best you bring is simply doing what you’re told, there’s a long line of people who will do exactly the same, and plenty of others who will do even more.

People who bring something extra—energy, insight, connection, etc.–and improve the experience for those around them.

People who make those around them better.

People who can find a way to solve the challenge other people haven’t solved yet.

People whose contributions and presence would be missed if they were gone.

People who can see what’s possible and rally others to that better future.

You don’t have to be in charge to be one of those people who find a way to bring more to what they’re doing rather than simply getting it done as instructed. For students looking for examples, here are two past posts, one describing five people you want to work with and another about a teenage part-time worker at a frozen yogurt shop who made himself indispensable as an employee.

You can do better than doing what you’re asked.

Perceived risk

I’m not sure I could ever summon the bravery to run into a burning building to save a stranger. That’s why I could never be a firefighter. As much as that news would have devastated me at age four, I’m comfortable with it today. That kind of courage is wiring I don’t have.

But I’ve noticed that confidence doesn’t seem to work that way.

Confidence can be built up over time. Giving a presentation, counseling a student, even taking a standardized test–you can become more confident simply by exposing yourself to the situation often enough that it loses its fear factor.

But confidence can also be summoned by acting as if you already have it. If you repeatedly make the choice to behave like a confident person, eventually, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m not suggesting that any of us can or should become different people. We’re not supposed to walk through the world unfazed by anything at all.

But if you’re holding yourself back from doing something because you’re just not confident enough, what would it look like if you acted as if you were? Chances are, you’ll be scared in the moment. But you’ll emerge unscathed in the worst case and exhilarated in the best case. Do that over and over again, and eventually it will become part of your makeup. What once felt risky will become second nature.

Confidence won’t make running into a burning building less dangerous. But it can do wonders for mitigating perceived risk.

The first minute

The last minute does something pretty extraordinary for people. It forces us to act.

The deadline is here. The paper is due. Auditions are today. Just one spot left. When time runs out, tomorrow isn’t an option. Today is all that’s left.

But while the last minute is great for getting us going, it usually hurts the work. And it always causes stress.

What if we reversed it and behaved that way at the beginning? Instead of waiting to act until there is no other option, we can choose to act when there are hundreds of options. Hurry at the beginning and then polish at the end.

Quality goes up and stress goes down when you start in the first minute.

The metric to maximize

It’s hard to think of a better metric to drive us than “How many people trust me?”

Not people who like your social media post—that’s not real trust. How many people know they can count on you to tell the truth and keep your promises? How many people would pick you first to join their project? How many will listen when you speak, or open your newsletter, or read your blog because you’ve already shown them over and over again what you give when they show up?

I’d trade social media likes for real trust every time.

Students, parents, counselors, and everyone else, what are you doing today to earn that trust? If you’re measuring the output of your work, trust is a great metric to maximize.

Your opportunity is waiting

Any student who applies to a highly selective college is exhibiting laudable bravery. The only way for a college to become that selective is to deny just about everyone who applies, including students with off-the-charts scores and accomplishments. You’ll see unforgiving math at work when the highest achievers from all over the world apply to the same 40 or so colleges, none of which have nearly enough spots to go around. It takes a certain fortitude to put yourself out there when the odds of “no” are so much higher than they are for “yes.” But tens of thousands of students summon that resolve every year.

That bravery can also be channeled into a thousand other things that are guaranteed to pay off.

Raising your hand in class. Calling a director of a non-profit to inquire about volunteering. Launching a club or a fundraiser or initiative. Trying something new that might not work. Abandoning something old that stopped working long ago. Accepting responsibility, deflecting credit, asking the tough question—all of these things come with perceived risk. What if the director turns you away? What if your big idea doesn’t work? What if you feel foolish? These are all potential outcomes that come with doing important work.

But that’s why this kind of bravery is guaranteed to pay off—you’ll learn from it.

You’ll be smarter, more informed, and more resilient. You’ll train yourself to be the kind of person who doesn’t sit back and wait to be told what to do, who instead leans in and pushes forward and leads other people to a place you all want to go. These are learned skills. Every time you put yourself in a position to practice them, you get better no matter the outcome.

It’s these skills that lead to almost any definition of success (including gaining admission to a highly selective college). But they are available to anyone. A “C” student has the same opportunity to wield it as an “A” student does.

Your opportunity to be brave is always there waiting.

How many stars do you deserve?

Gabe the Bass Player shares an interesting idea on his blog. What would happen if every music concert came with a rating of 1-10 stars people could see before they bought tickets? And here’s the catch. What if the musicians chose their own rating?

If you’re a musician, now you’d have a choice to make. Out of ten stars, how good is your show? How many stars do you deserve?

Sure, you could rate yourself a 10, even if your show doesn’t deserve it, just to sell more tickets. But then you’d look like both a fraud for duping your audience and a fool for thinking your 3 could pass for a 10. Or you could do a difficult, honest assessment of how many stars you really deserve and then tell your potential audience the truth.

That rating would say a lot not just about a musician’s desire to sell tickets, but also how they judge music and how they hope to relate to their fans.

Now, here’s the exciting opportunity. Any musician who’s willing to give themselves an honest rating can then ask the even more important question: What do I need to do differently to earn more stars?

As a student, a parent, a sibling, a coworker, a counselor, etc.–how many stars would you give yourself? And what do you need to do to increase your rating?