Finding Your Sweet Spot

Yesterday, I had a conversation with an amazingly talented student who will graduate in a few months. In an effort to decide what she should do after graduating, she took a radical step: a ten-day fast from tv and movies!

As she told me about her experience, she taught me an important lesson:

You’re not too busy. You’re too distracted.

It’s uncomfortable to be alone with your thoughts. You’re a complex person whose life experiences make you who you are. Some of those experiences were positive, others not. But your talents, personality, and passions are the result of your response to these experiences.

We find it much more comfortable to entertain ourselves than delve into our thoughts and determine what they mean.

Except that your talents, personality, and passions point somewhere.

The sweet spot. The answer to the question “what should I do with my life?” The place where you can make a huge impact. People usually start hunting for careers by searching for job openings. This approach limits you to what other people have imagined.

Everyone should take a break from entertainment and go through the challenging process of being alone with their thoughts. Imagine a future for yourself, and then figure out how to make it happen.

The result?

  • She’s going to create a job for herself helping high-schoolers land internships and explore college majors to find their paths.
  • Another is double-majoring in Outdoor Education and Psychology so that he can start a “Wilderness Therapy” organization that treats mental illness through adventure experiences.
  • A third (me) found a dream of starting a movement to show college students how to win at life.

You’re not going to find those dreams on a job-search website. Turn off the TV and listen.

Exception Season

You’d be amazed at the number of exception requests I’ll get over the next few weeks. I’ll be asked for project deadline extensions. I’ll be asked to accept unsubmitted homework weeks late. I’ll be asked how to make up for low midterm grades. I’ll be asked to create extra credit assignments (because nobody did the original ones).

I get it. All semester we want to believe we’re going to turn things around. The end is so far off. Until it isn’t. We see that final day of classes approaching and realize our chances to make a change are dwindling.

My goal as a student was to never ask for an exception.

You may feel differently, but the truth is that the reason you need an exception isn’t unique. You’re not the only student who’s poured a can of soda into their laptop the night before a deadline. You’re not the only student who’s working a part time job. You’re not the only student who’s ended a long-term romantic relationship. You’re not the only student who left town for the weekend before an exam only to discover their car wouldn’t start for the return drive.

How do I know? Because all of those things happened to me. Sometimes if affected my grade. My life turned out alright.

Two types of exceptions

  1. The genuine ones: you’ve been working hard all semester, turning things in on time, attending class, doing well on exams and learning from your experience. Then something hits you out of the blue and threatens to destroy that hard-won progress.
  2. The inevitable ones: you’ve been doing the opposite of (1) all semester, leaving yourself vulnerable to emergencies. Something hits you out of the blue but in reality it’s just the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

If you’re in group 1, then the exception probably isn’t going to hurt either way. But go ahead and talk it over with your instructor.

If you’re in group 2, you have reflecting to do. You may feel that this latest thing is the issue, but it’s not. You’ve been living all semester on the brink (think Jenga, one block before the tower collapses. Or Kerplunk one stick away from loosing all the marbles). Go ahead and talk it over with your instructor, but ask yourself what you could have done to stay out of this position in future courses.

You may think that your circumstances are different from everyone else’s.

You’re right. Except that the one thing we have in common is that none of us are learning under “ideal conditions”. We all have some mayhem.

Your life is always going to be messy. One of the big lessons you’re learning is how to be productive in the midst of this wonderful chaos. Learn to perform even when the circumstances aren’t ideal.

How?

By never asking for an exception.

Is College Worth It?

$100. The typical college student pays $100 per lecture. As a professor, I feel this burden every time I walk into a classroom: what am I going to do in class on a random Monday in November that gives 160 people their money’s worth?

There is a difference between an expense and an investment.

Expenses are a one-way flow of money. You hand over cash in exchange for a product or service. You’ll be a satisfied customer if you perceive that the product or service added value to your life equal to the money you gave up. College as an “in the moment” experience is an expense.

Investments come with a greater expectation: you’re wanting MORE money back than you put in. It’s not free: you’re being paid for patience (among other things). You are letting someone else use your money now, which means you can’t. College as a focused time to grow skills and mindsets is an investment.

It’s easy for me, as a professor, to become obsessed with improving my courses (and I am!). But it would be incredibly short-sighted to think that everyone taking my course would see a return on investment, if only I did a better job as a teacher. If that were true, we would all go watch the Feinman lectures and be expert physicists. No need for someone like me at every university on the planet to deliver the same content.

So why do we professors have jobs? What changes from one school to the next, one semester to the next?

You.

You get to decide whether college is an expense or an investment. You get to decide if the $100 you spent on my lecture today becomes more than $100 in the future.

Bouncing Back After a Loss

In college football, one loss keeps a team out of the National Championship. When an undefeated team loses their first game of the season, they tend to fall apart. My team lost a game this season, and followed it with 2 more losses. I’m hoping they dont extend that to a fourth straight loss this week!

When teams realize it’s too late to be perfect, they often throw in the towel.

Students tend to do the same thing. One bad score, and it becomes difficult to find motivation to keep going. Students revert to syllabus math and trying to get points instead of just playing their best game to learn the content.

Or worse, the give up completely and check out.

Two reasons people tend to give up after their first loss:

  1. The death of a goal.
  2. The validation of their insecurities.

The Death of a Goal:

When you realize that you actually can’t hit what you were aiming at, you suffer an emotional loss and enter mourning. If you get a terrible grade on the wrong assignment, it may be numerically impossible to earn an ‘A’ in the course. Ditto if you think you have no chance of earning a passing grade.

That loss hurts. You had your heart and motivation set on an accomplishment, now it is out of reach. You don’t get another chance. It’s just not going to happen for you. Your life won’t be as good as someone who made it. People slip into this mindset and mourn the loss of a life they wanted.

The Validation of Your Insecurities.

After a loss, all of the players’ insecurities seem to have been proven. A quarterback who thinks he has no “pocket presence” never gets set. A receiver who thinks he can’t catch when matched against a taller defender avoids certain routes. One interception becomes many. One dropped pass becomes many. They underperform for several games, as they begin to believe their internal critics.

Students love to say things like “I’m bad at math.” No you’re not. You just did badly on a test. “I don’t understand symbolism in literature.” Yes you do, you just didn’t have the context for this one.

Both reasons are garbage.

You lost a game. That’s all. Maybe they were better than you. Maybe you didn’t prepare properly. Maybe your personal life got in the way.

We want to believe that we can’t do things.

It gives us permission to not do them without guilt. Ability comes with obligation: if you’re capable you should do things. Inability comes with freedom: if you’re incapable you’re excused.

You’re not a bad student. You just had a setback in the arbitrary game of keeping score. Shake it off and go learn something.

Work hard regardless of the scoreboard.

The Perfect Season

How many professional football teams have achieved a perfect season (no losses)? One. The 1972 Miami Dolphins. And even that had an asterisk: they lost 3 preseason games.

Dozens of college teams have achieved perfect seasons. Dozens. I’m sure there are lots of sport-specific reasons for this (basic statistics notwithstanding, there are many more college teams than pro), but it illustrates a point:

The best team isn’t just better than everyone else. They’re perfect. At the college level, be perfect to be champ. Be perfect to get drafted. If you’re not perfect, you’re out. We’ll find someone who is.

We’ve gotten so worried about being perfect!

There are lots of reasons students don’t earn perfect scores in classes. Unfortunately, companies looking to make a hire now have such a large pool of applicants that, much like the difference between pro and college football, they can pick people with “perfect” scores.

And many are narrow-minded enough to do it.

That’s a shame, because an imperfect GPA could indicate a lot more than “slacker.”

I know students with spouses, kids, and full-time jobs who are in the 2.5-3.0 GPA range. These are the hustlers I would want on my team.

How does a student beat this?

Ask Joe Anderson, the un-drafted wide receiver who stood outside of a pro stadium with a cardboard sign which read “Will run routes 4 food.” Was he actually starving? Not for food. He did something off-beat that helped recruiters see his entire story. And he got signed to play pro football.

But he backed it up with more hustle, more hard work, and more determination than everyone around him.

You’re more than a number. Recruiters need to see you as a person, not a number. It’s up to you to help people see it. Tell your story!

The Intentional Academy is here to help. We’re creating content that helps you focus on improving your marketable skills. If it’s helping, let us know by leaving a comment and hitting those “like” and “share” buttons!

Is this going to be on the exam?

When a student asks me, “is this going to be on the test?” I feel a twinge of sadness. Sadness that we’ve put students in a place where they have to be so worried about grades. Sadness that students who ask this question are missing the point entirely. And so I join my fellow faculty and repeat the mantra: “focus on learning the material, not just studying to pass a test.”

Experimental Design

There’s a concept called “Experimental Design” that applies here. No, it’s not just for people who study the physical sciences. In fact, the best example can be seen by watching political elections. On the last presidential election night, the polls began reporting district results after counting as little as 5% of the votes!

No, they weren’t playing wishful thinking games. They weren’t tossing out votes to rig the election. They were employing Experimental Design: when you truly understand a system, you can determine its response to a new stimulus using surprisingly few measurements.

What does a college exam do?

First, the point of every class you take: to teach you a new mindset, and new big-picture that changes the way you approach the world. The goal isn’t to fill your head with trivia, or to teach you to apply these new concepts to a few specific systems or arenas.

A well-written exam is like a policitcal poll: measure 5% to determine the overall outcome. By asking the right questions, the exam can measure the degree to which you’ve mastered the big picture mindset that this course offers.

Ok, but is this this going to be on the test?

Yes. It will be on a test that matters someday. Maybe not the written exam that earns you a grade, but maybe next semester when this concept is the foundation of another question. Maybe 10 years from now when you’re in a meeting with a client who needs a response on their idea immediately.

Your job in college isn’t to get good grades on exams. It’s to learn new mindsets that enable you to add value to the world.

The Intentional Academy is here to help. We’re creating content that helps you focus on improving your marketable skills. If it’s helping, let us know by leaving a comment and hitting those “like” and “share” buttons!

Nobody Cares About Your Grades (but you still need to earn good ones)

What did it take to get into college? A high GPA, and high SAT score, and a few extra-curriculars thrown in for good measure. That’s the screening process. Yet, only 40-70% of students (depending on socioeconomic factors) graduate college. If the goal is to admit only the students who will succeed, then the screening process isn’t very effective.
Consider this: Colleges use the GPA/SAT to filter out which customers they will allow to come GIVE them money. That’s right. College admissions is the process by which the education business screens customers. Why not let everyone in? Because colleges can’t produce a quality product for an unlimited number of customers.
Other businesses screen customers by pricing: they set the price of the product to match the number they can produce to the number of people willing to pay. It takes more effort to produce a Ferrari, so they can’t make as many cars each year as Ford can. So how do we decide who gets to drive a Ferrari? By pricing it in a way that only the people who REALLY want one will buy.
I digress.

The GPA is used to filter College Customers.

The investment in you by the college is minimal, and so that’s all they need. If you leave school, you don’t cost the college much (any?) money. GPA and SAT, that’s the screening process for you to be allowed to spend your money at their business.
Now think about the fact that your future employer is going to invest in you!
At a minimum, you’re going to cost your employers DOUBLE what they pay you the first year. There are taxes, benefits, recruiting, and training costs. If you turn out to be a bad fit, they will lose money on you. Lots of it.
Don’t you think the screening process should be a bit more in-depth? Well, it is. That’s why there’s several rounds of interviews. That’s why they call you on the phone to talk. Then they bring you in person to their facility for a day or two. They’re trying to get to know the real you.

The point:

To get into college, you used a GPA.

It didn’t really matter if you were good at anything, they just assumed you were if you had a high GPA. But the stakes were low. No investment on the part of the school.

To get into a job, you have to actually be good at something.

You can’t hide behind that GPA this time. You can game the system through 4+ years of college and leave with a shiny GPA. But that doesn’t mean anyone will let you past their “admissions process” to land a job.
Instead of gaming the system to get good grades, invest in your future by learning to add incredible value.
The Intentional Academy is here to help. We’re creating content that helps you focus on improving your marketable skills. If it’s helping, let us know by leaving a comment and hitting those “like” and “share” buttons!

The Two Meanings of “I’ll Do Better Next Time”

“I am an Intentional Learner. I know that I will perform as I practice, and so I practice well. I am not waiting for certification. My results are my certification.”

“I’ll do better next time.”

I have an image in my head of what it looks like to do an amazing job. If I did my homework with excellence it would look a certain way. If I studied for an exam with excellence I’d be able to do certain things with the material. If I completed this class project with excellence I’d be proud of the result.

But we don’t always work with excellence. Sometimes we’re tired. Sometimes we’re lazy. Sometimes life gets in the way. And so we chase the outcome (good grade) without focusing on the process (learning something new, mastering a skill).

It turns out that you won’t do any better next time.

You can’t just visualize doing amazing things, you have to practice doing them. I can visualize dodging Floyd Mayweather’s right hook and countering with an uppercut for the knock-out… but we know what would actually happen.

If you practice mediocre, you will perform mediocre.

Meaning 1 (for wimps): “I’ll do better next time because this time I didn’t give my best effort and I knew it.”

“I’ll do better next time.”

I did everything I could to execute this job according to the image of excellence in my head. I saw this assignment as an opportunity to practice the skills related to a course, as well as to practice the art of learning. I saw this exam as an opportunity to test my skill at using the material in a new situation. I saw this project as an opportunity to create something amazing that I would tell stories about during job interviews.

But it didn’t come out as amazing as I was picturing. I know what I hoped it would be. But after giving it my best I have discovered that I need to improve my technique. I see the difference between what I made and what I hoped to make, and I can make a plan to close that gap.

Meaning 2 (for winners): “I’ll do better next time because this time my best wasn’t good enough. I will improve my best.”

Your degree doesn’t certify you.

Your results do. And results don’t happen overnight. You don’t go to bed mediocre one day and wake up excellent the next. Go practice! Go get results!

If you practice with excellence, you will perform with excellence.

The Intentional Academy is here to help. We’re creating content that helps you focus on improving your practice. If it’s helping, let us know by leaving a comment and hitting those “like” and “share” buttons!

Opening Doors

“I am an Intentional Learner. I may not know my dream yet, but I know where my current path leads. I am not burying my head in the sand, hoping that if I follow the herd good things will happen. I embrace the future I see for myself, but I hold it loosely. I am in the business of opening doors.”

The pressure to find and pursue a dream has gotten out of hand. Everyone loves to remind students about their “amazing opportunities.” We love to tell students “they can be anything,” and that “they shouldn’t squander their chances.”

Great points, and true. But it’s pretty hard to identify a dream worth going all-in on. Right now, can you name a thing you hope to do for the rest of your career? I can’t, and I am (statistically) a quarter of the way through mine.

The wrong response:

Throwing up your hands at the pressure to decide and just picking something based on what “they” say. “They” say that it’s hard to make a living as a math major. “They” say that engineering pays great and that an MBA will make you a success. “They” say that studying film is risky.

We live in unconventional times.

So stop following conventional wisdom. It’s pretty easy to pick a major actually. Open up a search engine and find out what people who have these degrees are up to 5 and 10 years after graduation. Can you see yourself doing that?

Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. You’re not deciding the rest of your life. Just the next part of it.

I always had a plan.

It never worked out. Every time, something much better came along. What I realize, looking back, is that my plans were what led to my success. Working towards something inevitably opened the doors I ultimately walked through.

So. Open lots of doors.

Try things. Make a plan, and work hard towards it. When you make a decision, do some research about where it COULD take you, but realize that “could” and “will” aren’t the same. Most importantly, be open to changing your plan in a heartbeat.

The Intentional Academy is here to help. We’re creating content that helps you take action and open as many doors as possible. If it’s helping, let us know by leaving a comment and hitting those “like” and “share” buttons!

Punching the Clock

“I am an Intentional Learner. I affirm that my ability to breathe does not entitle me to an income. My ability to create something that changes a person’s life leads to payment proportional to the impact. I am not paid by the hour, I am paid by the outcome.”

One of the greatest inventions of all time is the assembly line. Prior to its invention, products were made by skilled craftsmen and artisans. Every product was custom. Every product was (relatively) expensive.

The industrial revolution brought about a new paradigm that trained people in one process, one step in producing a product. A person can do a repetitive task quickly, with much lower error rates. The result is that things became less expensive to produce. While people remain skilled, few know the entire process. The goal is replaceable parts in a system: no product relies on a single person showing up today.

You’ve worked in a factory

Ever have a job that involved clocking in and doing the same few tasks over and over? Ever have a job that, after a few weeks of training, you knew what to do in most situations? Maybe you worked as a bag boy in s grocery store, or a cashier in a book store, or changing oil at a service station, or in the kitchen of the dining hall, or in an actual factory (all jobs I’ve had). All jobs that, once you learn the basics, required no further instructions and no real decision making on your part.

Did they go out of business when you left?

Of course not. You were a cog. An easily trained and easily replaced part of a big machine that was rigorously designed to eliminate waste and produce a product as efficiently as possible.

The problem is the lesson you learned.

In a job like that, you learn to do as your told. Follow the standard work procedure. Stay in your lane. Clock in, check the list, clock out.

Our world is changing.

We’re finding ourselves in need of artisans again. There is room now for you to work without instructions, to create something that impacts.

But you can’t do it with the “clock-puncher” mindset. And so the cry of the Intentional Learner: “My goal is to learn to add value, to create impact, and to expect payment in response. I don’t get paid for showing up, I get paid for delivering.”

The Intentional Academy is here to help. We’re creating content that helps you rethink your approach to work. If it’s helping, let us know by leaving a comment and hitting those “like” and “share” buttons!