Opportunities to be of service are everywhere

Yesterday I wrote a letter of recommendation for a student applying to graduate school. I don’t think anyone loves writing these, but a well-written letter means the world to a student. And really, isn’t that what we’re here for?

It takes me about an hour to write a quality letter. The rest of the time is spent trying to navigate the online systems that graduate schools use to submit them. In this case, there were five schools in all.

Three schools did it the exact same way. They required I create an account, which took several minutes each time. Then they asked me to rate the applicant on a bunch of subjective measures: interpersonal skills, oral communication, etc. I always rate the applicant highly — doesn’t everyone? Finally, I uploaded my recommendations in a Word document, but one school wouldn’t accept the basic Word format. I had to convert it to a PDF on my own first.

The fourth school didn’t make me register an account. I just entered some basic information, and copy and pasted the recommendation into the browser. No ratings necessary.

The fifth school only asked that I copy and paste the recommendation into the browser. Done.

Only two schools out of five showed any concern for user experience of submitting a recommendation letter. Only one chose to focus on it relentlessly.

Small opportunities to be of service like this are everywhere. Small adds up to big.

What to eat for breakfast

When asked what he eats for breakfast, the author and entrepreneur Seth Godin responded, “Breakfast is one more decision I don’t make, so it’s a frozen banana, hemp powder, almond milk, a dried plum, and some walnuts in a blender.”

The ingredients in the blender are trivial compared to the first half of that sentence: “Breakfast is one more decision I don’t make…” For him, breakfast is part of a routine, a set of habits that frees up brain space to think about more interesting things than what to eat in the morning.

So whatever you pick, pick it every day. Some ideas:

Stop it with the bagels, muffins, and 400 calorie Starbucks Frappuccinos. Keep the sugary and flower-laden snacks to a minimum, including waffles, pancakes, and most cereals. These are all treats, and should be treated as such.

Fruits, yogurt, eggs, and oatmeal are all good options, but you may need to experiment to find something you like. After you do, do it every day.

Me? My freshman year of college I had Pop-Tarts every morning before class (bad idea). By my senior year I was doing somewhat better with granola bars (less bad idea). Now I’ve settled on four scrambled eggs with green peppers. I’ve done it every day for the last four years.

A case for vegetarianism

A whole chicken from the grocery store costs $10. A whole chicken from the farmer’s market costs $35. Same size, hugely different price.

Somewhere in that $25 gap lay a host of questionable ethics. What did you feed those chickens to raise them so cheaply? Where did they have to live? How much needless suffering did they experience? How much of this did the government subsidize? What impact does cheap meat have on our health? To ask these questions is to be human.

I don’t think you have to be a vegetarian, but it’s worth pondering how much less meat you’d eat if you lived in a world where a chicken cost $35.

Is soreness good or bad?

“Any athlete knows that certain kinds of pain can be exquisitely pleasurable. The burn of lifting weights, for instance, would be excruciating if it were a symptom of terminal illness. But because it is associated with health and fitness, most people find it enjoyable. Here we see that cognition and emotion are not separate. The way we think about experience can completely determine how we feel about it.” ~ Sam Harris

Soreness is a feeling created by the brain. That sentence is worth re-reading several times.

The feeling of soreness, like the feeling of pain, goes from brain to muscle, and not the other way around. Soreness doesn’t necessarily indicate the readiness of a muscle to perform a task.

An athlete can feel sore and think he’s debilitated by it, believing he needs to do less. Another athlete can feel the same soreness and think he’s not prepared, and that he needs to do more.

Soreness isn’t good or bad, it just is. An athlete’s reaction to soreness is where all the pertinent information comes from.

Dealing with difficult people

When dealing with difficult people, you make the assumption that difficult people exist in the first place. But they don’t.

You perceive people as being difficult, you label them as difficult, but in reality, only people exist. You deal with people — no labels attached.

The difficult part is dealing with your reactions to people.

A problem in college recruiting

Say a college has 50 spots for freshmen psychology majors, and 200 apply. Theoretically, 150 of them will have to go to another college.

But consider that psychology is a broad field. It heavily overlaps with philosophy, English, sociology, anthropology, and social work. Many of the rejected applicants would have been happy in any of these other majors. Combine that with how many students will eventually change majors anyways, and it makes you think the title of your major isn’t very important.

And, with few exceptions, it’s not. The college experience is.

Consider this idea from Jeff Selingo, editor at large of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“What if we started defining colleges around a set of experiences rather than majors? There are four experiences that I think colleges should start defining themselves around:

1. Seek passionate faculty — we know from research that students who get to know faculty one-on-one over the course of their undergraduate career are going to have a much better chance of succeeding.

2. Dive deep into a research project — when you talk to employers, they really value students who did undergraduate research, mainly because it stimulates critical thinking, gives them a better understanding of what they learned from a lecture, and allows them to work in group situations with uncertain results.

3. Go on a global experience — when you look at the research on study abroad, more and more students talk about how that was a critical experience in their undergraduate career. But that fact of the matter is that it’s becoming increasingly expensive to study abroad, so can we create more cross-cultural experiences for students, whether it’s just within the United States, or even shorter experiences overseas.

4. Be creative. Take risks. Learn how to fail. — as colleges have added a lot of amenities over the last 10 or 20 years, and as they’ve added more and more people to guide students through college, there’s a lot more hand-holding now. As you talk to employers, they think that students don’t have enough creativity, they’re afraid to take risks, and they don’t know how to fail. So we should be putting this into the DNA of every institution.

As recruiters, rather than defining ourselves through a set of majors, it might be more effective to start selling the experience.

A Christmas embarrassment

Ever heard of Clement Clarke Moore? Probably not, but you might recognize his most famous poem:

“Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse / The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,” … etc.

Moore didn’t want anybody to know he wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas, so he published it anonymously in 1823. After all, he was a serious scholar and professor of literature that couldn’t be seen dabbling in nursery rhymes.

It took another 20 years for Moore to claim authorship, and by then the poem had gained enormous popularity. It’s been called, “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American,” and continues to influence how we think about Santa Claus.

Two lessons here:

1) If it’s embarrassing, it might be a good thing to try.

2) It doesn’t matter if anybody remembers you. It matters if you made a contribution.

Merry Christmas.