There’s a great scene in the movie Jerry Maguire in which sports agent Maguire, frustrated with his chronically-complaining NFL client, Rod Tidwell, finally explains what’s preventing Tidwell from getting the richer contract he desires so badly.
“Right now, you are a paycheck player. You play with your head, not your heart…when you get on the field, it’s all about what you didn’t get, who’s to blame, who underthrew the pass, who’s got the contract you don’t, who’s not giving you your love—you know what? That is not what inspires people…Shut up! Play the game. Play it from your heart.”
Tidwell has all the skills. But he cares a lot more about what’s in it for him than he does about being great. Great players don’t dispense their greatness like a transaction that takes place only once they’ve gotten what they want. They play for the love of the game and trust that the rewards will follow. And they inspire people because of it.
A lot of high school students approach college prep like Tidwell was approaching football. They’re paycheck students, so driven by what they want—an admission to their dream college—that they’ll only extend themselves if they feel promised the effort will pay off. They’ll raise their hand or participate or do an outside project only if it will boost their grade. They’ll do community service hours only if they’re promised that colleges will appreciate it. They’ll join activities or visit colleges or take a summer class only if they can be reasonably certain an appropriate admissions advantage is attached. And when things don’t turn out as they had hoped, they blame other people (“The teacher didn’t like me!”).
These students execute based on a perceived transaction—I do this, therefore, I get this—not because of genuine curiosity and passion. That’s why they don’t have a favorite class, teacher, or activity. They’re working with their heads, not their hearts.
Can the paycheck students succeed in college? Sure. But measuring your every move against how you will be rewarded makes you a lot less interesting to talk to and learn from. It makes you less desirable to colleges. And it’s not what inspires people.
Nobody can criticize a hard-working student who focuses on your goals. But whether you’re trying out for a team, running for an office, applying for a job, or trying to get into college, remember that you’re more likely to be rewarded when you put your energy into what you can give—energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, caring, etc.—rather than obsess about what you hope to get. You’ll inspire people when you play it from your heart.