I’m speaking in Seattle on September 13

I’ll be presenting this session in Seattle at the 2018 TINYcon, a conference about improving the employee experience:

Humans Are Not “Resources”: Little Things That Make the Biggest Difference For Your Best People

Presenter: Kevin McMullin

Employees are people first, and real people care about more than mission statements on the walls, elaborate benefits packages, and ping pong tables at the office. Collegewise doesn’t have nap pods or on-site laundry, but they do have hundreds of applications for every opening, a staff widely recognized as the best in their industry, and almost no employee turnover. Best of all, many of their best people-practices cost only a little time and attention. Join Collegewise founder and managing partner Kevin McMullin and you’ll leave this session with concrete ideas to make your real people feel like they’ve found their professional place to call home.

The conference runs from September 12-14 and isn’t cheap, but if its theme and agenda pique your interest enough to attend, I hope you’ll come say hi at my session on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. All the information is here.

Does the apology make it better, or worse?

While traveling last week, I checked into my hotel, headed to my assigned room, swiped my key and opened the door to find the room was still occupied by the previous guest, who was still clad in her pajamas. In my state of shock and embarrassment, I managed to blurt out something to the effect of, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” before retreating in haste.

Once back at the front desk, the clerk gave me an explanation to the effect of the computer system inexplicably showing that she had checked out. After giving me my new key, he sent me on my way with a half-hearted, “Sorry about that.”

It struck me that my apology to the guest I’d just walked in on was a lot more sincere and emotive than the one I’d just gotten from the clerk. And I’m guessing he didn’t think to call and apologize to the woman I’d walked in on, either (he really should have because she deserved to hear it).

I’m not one of those cantankerous patrons who needs a staff to trip over themselves to make me happy. But really, this mistake wasn’t just inconvenient and a little embarrassing for me. It was probably pretty unnerving for the shocked guest, too. And a sincere apology could have turned the entire thing around for both of us.

Mistakes happen, for students, for parents, for colleges, for high schools, etc. Not even the most conscientious of us is going to get it right every time.

But a good apology, one that’s sincere and that both acknowledges and owns the mistake, is enough to make up for all but the most egregious errors. Experience has taught me that most people are predisposed to forgive, but a good apology is the invitation to do so. Even the guest I barged in on was pretty gracious about it (she just laughed and said, “That’s OK” as I was retreating out the door).

Whatever the setting, don’t say you’re sorry just to say it. And don’t give the literal or figurative version of, “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.” Do it like you mean it.

When the mistake has already been made, the opportunity for a good apology is still available.

First, find the funny

sThere’s a lot in this snippet Cal Newport shares of an interview Jerry Seinfeld did in 2014.

“Let me tell you why my TV series in the 90s was so good, besides just an inordinate amount of just pure good fortune. In most TV series, 50 percent of the time is spent working on the show, 50 percent of the time is spent dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We spent 99 percent of our time writing. Me and Larry [David]. The two of us. The door was closed. It’s closed. Somebody calls. We’re not taking the call. We were gonna make this thing funny. That’s why the show was good.”

For Seinfeld and co-creator Larry David, if the show wasn’t funny, none of the extraneous stuff was going to matter. Before anything else, their most important job was to create episodes that would make people laugh. And the best way to do that was to just close the door and focus first on finding the funny.

Whatever it is you’re working on, what matters more than anything else? Whether the goal is to be funny, clear, useful, motivating, change-inducing, etc., close the door (literal and virtual—turn the phone off) and then get to work on finding it.

Prep for college or prep for life?

Who’s developing traits that will benefit them later in life?

The student who loves math, or the student who asks for extra credit so he can get the A?

The student who volunteers at the homeless shelter because she feels fulfilled serving others, or the student who’s there to fulfill her community service requirement?

The student who makes a mistake and takes responsibility, or the student whose parents work to ensure colleges never learn of the misstep?

The student who works a summer job because she wants to earn some extra money and be independent, or the student whose parents send her to a summer program in Costa Rica so she can list it on her college applications?

The student who loves playing the trumpet with the rest of his musical friends in the jazz band, or the student who joins a particular club simply because everyone else is doing it?

The student who’s excited about the opportunities available to him in college, or the student who’s anxious that the B he got freshman year will keep him out of Duke?

The student who drives her own college process, or the student whose parent did all the college-related driving?

The student who asks questions in class because he’s curious, or the student who asks questions because participation counts toward the grade?

The student who helps the coach collect all the baseballs at the end of practice, or the student who complains relentlessly that he should be starting at third base?

The student who’s comfortable being herself, or the student who just wants to be whoever she thinks Harvard will most likely admit?

The more time you spend pursuing short-term rewards based on the judgement of other people or colleges, the more temporary any resulting benefits will be.

The best college prep is also the best life prep.

The teen today and the adult tomorrow

Last week, I was surprised to run across a student I tutored for the SAT over 20 years ago while I was still in college. I remembered him well, at least what he was like at age 17. Affable, relaxed, and engaged, he rested comfortably as a B student in high school who was a lot more interested in surfing than he was trying to boost his GPA. The last interaction I had with him was the email I received when he told me he’d raised his score over 100 points…to an 1100. He told me—and I still remember his exact words—that he was “way stoked.”

Today, he’s got a PhD from the University of Michigan and is a senior advisor on international trade to the mayor of one of the largest cities in the United States.

There was never any doubt that this kid was going to college one day. Too many college-going communities pejoratively refer to students like him as “average,” as if B’s signify that a student is destined for a sub-par future. But I’m not sure anyone, including him, would have predicted that he’d rise to these heights in a profession he probably had never even heard of, much less shown an interest in back in high school.

They’ll be adults someday, but today, they’re kids. You may not see an obvious connection between those two words yet. Don’t worry. The surfing or video-gaming or guitar-noodling student you see today could and probably will grow up and surprise everyone in ways nobody can predict today.

Appreciate the teen they are today and look forward to the adult they’ll be tomorrow.

Acknowledging without catastrophizing

It’s often difficult for college counselors to find the sweet spot between allaying and indulging families’ negative emotions around the college admissions process. Years ago, a parent told me that both she and her daughter were “just devastated” by a denial that had arrived from Stanford. I wondered how long I could patiently listen and sympathize before pointing out that their lives must be pretty great if this qualified as a “devastating” event. The process can generate fear, frustration, pain, etc. that feels quite real for the families experiencing it, even if they’ve lost some perspective.

The need for that balance is on full display in this piece, which tackles the “feelings of loss and grief that accompany the departure of a child [to attend college].”

I’m reluctant to indulge the notion that a kid going to college is a grief-worthy loss. Yes, growing up and moving out of the house means a new phase of life for both the student and parent alike. It’s a transition, maybe even a difficult one. But it’s not goodbye forever.

At the same time, much of the anxiety and frustration families experience during the college admissions process does come from their failure to acknowledge what they’re really thinking and feeling. Sometimes that parent who’s in full-fledged angst over her son’s college essay, who forces the story she believes is strong and then rewrites substantial portions of the essay herself, really just needs to say out loud how sad she is that her son won’t be coming down to the breakfast table every morning next September.

Parents, I’d read the article and thoughtfully consider the questions posed. If you or your student are in fact struggling with your upcoming transition to the college years, it’s far better to recognize and acknowledge it than to allow it to seep into and potentially ruin your college application process. Once you recognize that what’s really bothering you has nothing to do with essays or test scores or the potential advantageous connection your dentist might have with Cornell, you’ll be a lot closer to that balance of acknowledging without catastrophizing your worries.

Reasonable expectations

Richard Thaler is a professor of behavioral economics who won the Nobel Prize in 2017 for his work to prove that people are predictably irrational and make choices counter to economic sense. On the latest episode of the Freakonomics podcast, he spoke about whether winning the Nobel has made him noticeably happier.

“… I absolutely don’t want to sound like a sore winner or an ungrateful winner. I’m saying that most of the people who win were already pretty successful people with pretty good lives. And there’s what psychologists call a ceiling effect. So I had a pretty happy life, as you know, I have a nice wife and I have kids I love. And yes, this made me happy. And it was very gratifying. But you have this image that you’re going to be on cloud nine. And then there is life, you still get flat tires even if you have a Nobel Prize. You still have leaks at home that nobody seems to be able to fix. So they need to fix that and say that if you get a Nobel Prize, nothing can leak in your house.”

Does the Nobel Prize change your life? Sure. But your life is still your life, and the Nobel isn’t going to make it perfect.

I think that’s analogous to the process of attending highly selective colleges.

Too many applicants think that if they can just get into Georgetown or Stanford or Penn their lives will be complete and that each day will be better than the one before it. College can absolutely be a life-changing experience at the right school, selective or not. But no college is perfect just as no life is perfect.

Even if you are lucky and deserving enough to get accepted to your dream school, you’ll have good days and bad days, successes and failures. There will be periods when you feel you’ve found home and periods when you may wish you could return to what used to be home. You’ll make friends that will be in your life forever and friends who let you down. You’ll go on good dates and bad dates, take classes you can’t wait to attend each day and others you can’t wait to end. College is representative of life that way. Ups and downs, highs and lows. The right college just stacks the deck a bit to give you what should be a lot more good days than bad.

So don’t put so much pressure on yourself or on whatever you believe is your dream college. Instead, work hard and commit to things you enjoy. Find colleges that appreciate you for exactly who you are. And if you believe some highly selective colleges fit you, put your very best application foot forward and take your shot. But keep your expectations of the outcomes—of both applying and potentially attending—reasonable.

When their success is also your success

Twenty-five-year-old Sam Kendricks is one of the world’s best pole vaulters, winning a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics and five consecutive national titles. But what really makes him stand out is that as much as he wants to win, he cares so much about his sport that he’ll frequently share tips and advice with his competition, even during a meet.

As related in this recent New York Times piece:

“Kendricks could be mistaken for a coach rather than competitor by the way he interacts with opponents. During a recent meet in the Czech Republic, he gave tips to Ivan Horvat of Croatia and Shawn Barber of Canada. He encouraged his American teammate Scott Houston and cheered on his friendly rival Wojciekowski as the duo battled for the highest bar.”

While writing this blog every day for almost nine years, I’ve noticed a few emerging trends in both college admissions and the world outside of it, and one of the most consistent is how frequently the success of one person is tied to their willingness and ability to help those around them be successful, too.

I don’t necessarily expect a basketball player to help an opponent with their free throw form in the middle of a tight game. But whether you like golf or graphic design, debate or drama, timpani or tae kwon do, one of the most effective ways to honor your craft and to make an impact is to help others who are interested share the same joy and success.

I can’t think of a college that wouldn’t be impressed by an applicant who revealed that while they didn’t win the league pole vaulting championship, they helped the competitor who did.

The success is still yours when you help others achieve it.

Are you leading from the bench?

As she entered her final World Cup run, US soccer legend Abby Wambach had scored more goals than any player—female or male–in soccer history. She was a perennial force who seemed to always come up with a goal when the team needed it most. But before the tournament began, Wambach, a soccer icon who’d captained the US National Team to two Olympic gold medals, learned that she would no longer be a starter. Wambach was in the twilight of her career, and Team USA had an emerging force of promising young stars who were ready for their place on the pitch. So Wambach assumed a role that only a true leader would embrace.

As she described in her 2018 commencement address at Barnard College:

“You’re allowed to be disappointed when it feels like life’s benched you. What you aren’t allowed to do is miss your opportunity to lead from the bench. During that last World Cup, my teammates told me that my presence, my support, my vocal and relentless belief in them from the bench, is what gave them the confidence they needed to win us that championship… If you’re not a leader on the bench, then don’t call yourself a leader on the field. You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere.”

The most vital people in any team or organization don’t need a title to make an impact. They don’t withhold their best effort until the best opportunity is presented to them. They find a way to do great work no matter what role they’re asked to play.

If you want to show colleges real leadership ability, show them what you can do when you haven’t been given the perfect role. Prove that you can lead from the bench and they’ll know you can lead from just about anywhere.