Bill Gates said, “Headlines, in a way, are what mislead you because bad news is a headline, and gradual improvement is not.” Whether a headline is good or bad news, Gates is right. You won’t buy a newspaper or click the link to a story about a company’s marginally noticeable process improvement, or about an athlete’s long and arduous journey in daily detail from underdog to middle of the pack.
Here are five headlines won’t generate clicks, or sell books or newspapers.
How To Succeed In One Million(or More) Difficult Steps
Work Up To Average, and Keep On Going: A Slowcooker’s Guide to Progress
Exercise More, Eat Less & Stop Expecting a Miracle to Happen: The Realist’s Guide to Slow Weight Management Over the Long Haul
Reduce Debt Over the Long Haul By Living Within Your Means and Not Buying Stuff You Can’t Afford
The Zero-Guarantees Parenting Method: Even if you Parent Right, Things Can Still Go Horribly Wrong
Perseverance isn’t sexy, but it’s the only thing I’ve found that actually works (most of the time).
There is no magic pill.
High school students come to OnCampus College Planning to raise their ACT scores, find the right college or write a great essay for a college application. We coach them, teach critical strategies, share information, equip them with an action plan and send them out with new skills and whatever motivation we can offer. I wish we had a magic pill that would eliminate the hard work, perseverance and commitment it will take on their part to put those insights to work.
Ultimately, though, they have to really work at it on their own, or it’s just going through the motions. There is no magic pill.
Getting better is better than just getting done.
Around here, we often say, “Getting better is better than just getting done.”
I perform my best when I’m invested in the process (and not just the product) of continual improvement. I must embrace the reality that achieving my goals is about discipline over time, not about finding the right shortcut.
I’ve done too many things in life where I’m doing it just to check off the box, but I haven’t really pushed myself to get better. When I’m tired and tempted to get into check-box mode, I try to dig down and think “What can I do right now to get me one inch closer to where I want to be?” I try to share this philosophy with our students. My hope is that the lessons we share during the college planning process are lessons students can apply in other areas of their life.
When it comes to college planning, I want students to give every little step of the process their all — not for me — for THEM. The work is not for my benefit. It’s for their benefit. Participation in sports, music, theater, clubs, academics, friendships, part-time jobs…all of these things present opportunities to build a part of you that adds up to something bigger.
Each student is on a journey.
We as the adults who love them tend to get focused on all the individual assignments, events, games and tasks. We lose sight of how everything should and could be part of a journey…from the person they are now to the person they want to be.
I could have easily skipped the long walk I penciled in for early this morning. That one walk didn’t really change anything, but it felt good. I know if I keep at it, it will begin to add up as I do more and more. I’m not focused on crossing the finish line. I’m just focused on getting better.
Parents, too, have to focus on getting better — not just getting done.
As parents, it requires discipline to stick to this. Especially when it comes to tough lessons in life, like perseverance, patience, long-suffering or managing expectations. Especially when our child’s in pain. MOSTLY when things aren’t going according to “PLAN” — ours or theirs — and we want to “fix it”. But sometimes if we rush in to fix it or join our kids in the goal to simply “be done”, we miss the lessons of the process. As a dad, I can relate to the desire to rush my sons through tough spots, because being done with the tough stuff is way less painful and more comfortable (for them and for me) than slogging through it and accepting our current reality. Sometimes when I find the strongest urges to “just be done” is precisely the moment that if I pause and resist that urge, I’ll gain the most from working on “just getting better”. Life’s funny that way. It sucks sometimes, too. But hindsight’s taught me this is true both for me and for my kids.
I’m trying to be kinder and gentler with myself as I work on getting better at things that are important to me in life. I’m trying to do the same with our two sons.
I take great joy in watching a student say, as one junior did recently, “Hey this is still hard, but it’s not as hard as it was yesterday. I’m not perfect, but I’m getting better.” To me, that IS a headline.
Barack Obama once said, “If you’re walking down the right path, and you’re willing to keep on walking, eventually you’ll make progress.” Wise words from someone who knows.
I’ve been at this college planning gig for more than 10 years, and I continue to see the same themes over and over again. I find this reassuring because it means that sometimes, what feels uncomfortable and worrisome, and maybe even hopeless, is actually normal. I also have two sons of my own, one in college and one a senior in high school. I’m experiencing firsthand the “messy middle” of being a college-bound student and parent.
I’m learning to be grateful in the middle, both at home and with each and every amazing student I get to work with on the college planning process. Often the difference between gratitude and frustration isn’t a change in circumstances, but a change in perspective. Have you noticed that sometimes the circumstance doesn’t change, but you change and that changes everything? It’s kind of like that.
In my line of work, I have the privilege of getting to peer behind the curtain and get a glimpse into the rather messy, humbling and chaotic parts of a college-bound student’s life. And that is truly a gift. When I have the privilege of seeing the beginning and middle of the process, I can truly appreciate the glorious final outcome. The struggle bears gifts of its own, regardless of the result. It just takes time to recognize what those gifts were. As they say, hindsight’s 20/20.
My In-The-Middle Gratitude List as a College Planner
I’m grateful for Authenticity.
When students come to me, it’s because they don’t have it all figured out. Guess what. No one does! But not everyone will admit it to themselves. Even fewer will admit it to another person. It’s a blessed person who can openly say “I don’t get it.” I’m grateful that I get to be the guy who says, “No one does. It’s confusing. That’s why you’re confused.” Or “It’s hard. That’s why you’re struggling.” And then, “But I can help you. Together we can do this.” And I get to watch the relief wash over their faces because now that we’ve been Authentic and we know what we don’t know, we can make some forward progress.
I’m grateful for first drafts.
We’ve helped students with hundreds of college essays, and here’s what I know. No one goes straight from concept to final, single-spaced, typed and polished final product without a few messy first drafts. The benefit of first drafts is that they reveal where work is needed. They’re about getting a sketchy view of your story, and then stepping back for a few minutes and pondering what the real story behind the story is. Usually, students discover something about themselves between first draft and final essay that they didn’t know before, or that wasn’t as clear as it is now. And it is a privilege and a joy to witness that discovery process. If all of us could learn to appreciate first drafts or first attempts for the messy, sketchy teachers they are, we’d probably all be a lot better off.
I’m grateful for getting off topic.
Typically our ACT Test Prep or College Search sessions with students are incredibly focused and productive. They’re jam-packed with tasks we’ve both agreed are priority number one. But some days we get off topic. On more than one occasion, I’ve had the experience where I can tell a student’s had a particularly rough day, or they’re feeling stuck, or they’re feeling inept. Or the whole big jumbled process of planning for college is weighing them down. And then we take a break, and we get off topic. I share some relatively inane story about when I was a high school student and felt the same way. Or we watch a funny YouTube video as a mental breather. Or I ask them about something they’re passionate about that has nothing to do with college. And in these moments, we meet each other, human-to-human, and we truly connect. Perhaps we didn’t clip through the agenda as quickly as we will the next meeting, but the off-topic moments build trust and build relationship. They’re just as critical to the process as checking things off the to do list. This is true for all of us in all of our relationships. When I can let go of my agenda and let the conversation go off topic, there’s no telling what I’ll learn in those unplanned, “unproductive” moments.
I’m grateful for failure.
Sometimes students forget appointments. Sometimes they fall short of their goal ACT score. Sometimes they forget to do the assignment I gave them. Sometimes they give me some pitiful excuse for why they didn’t have time to study or write that essay or do that research. Sometimes students just come up short. Don’t we all? My usual approach in these instances is honesty combined with grace. I don’t let them off the hook, but I don’t beat them up about it either. Because I know from my own failures in life that failure is its own best teacher. The worse the failure, the less likely I am to let that happen again. So I try harder next time. In working with students, nothing gives me greater joy than watching kids learn from their own mistakes, on their own time. I work with kids in their formative years, when they’re making huge strides in maturity, responsibility, intelligence, independence. BIG STUFF. I’ve learned that if I can stand failure and not shrink away from it, I can learn from it. And my students are learning the same thing. It is a joy to get to witness this lesson in real life.
These are just a few of the things I’m grateful for about the messy middle.
I can’t believe I get to wake every morning and do what I do, and work with the amazing people I work with. And be part of one of the most important phases of a young adult’s life. How did I get to be so blessed? To those of you who’ve entrusted your college planning process to my help, thank you for making me one of the luckiest men alive. Can’t wait to get up tomorrow and do it all over again.
Blessings to you and yours this Thanksgiving. If your middle is particularly messy right now and kind of uncomfortable, and not altogether pleasant, may you take comfort in knowing you’re more normal than you think you are. One day, the gifts of the struggle you’re in will become clear. I truly believe that. I’ve seen it over and over again, in my work and in my life.