How To Be A High School Superstar Part 14

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I'll ill.u.s.trate this process with a quick example. Imagine a student name Joe who talked his way into an internship with an education nonprofit. He's been paying his dues and is starting to earn the trust of his employers. As time goes on, he's learned more about how the organization functions, and is starting to see opportunities for potential innovation. Here's one of his ideas: "The staff here is overworked and there are lots of students, like me, who are willing to volunteer. Maybe I could organize more volunteers from my school to come help at the nonprofit. Perhaps it would be nice to have a formal summer internship program that brings in the best of these students. Maybe I could even launch a Web site that students can use to apply."

Joe has homed in on the big-picture idea that his nonprofit needs a.s.sistance and there are other student volunteers who could help. His description, however, is crowded-too many little ideas jumbled together. According to the process outlined above, his first step is to strip the idea down to its core. For Joe, this might mean reducing his idea to the following: "Set up a formal internship alliance between my high school and the nonprofit."

This streamlined idea is better because it's easier to understand. It's getting closer to a sloganable endeavor, but it's not quite there yet. The next step for Joe is to inflate his ambition. What changes would he have to make to transform the idea into something twice as impressive? After some thought, he comes up with the following: "Set up a nonprofit-volunteer portal that connects students in my district to local nonprofits."

Joe realized that matching students at this school to this single nonprofit could easily be expanded to multiple schools and multiple nonprofits-once the infrastructure is set up, it's easy to scale.

Joe's final step is to apply the Jaded-Brother Test. This is subjective, but most people have a good intuitive sense as to whether a project would impress a cynical third party. Joe realizes that his confusing initial idea might have elicited an unenthusiastic response: "You did a lot of little projects for that place. Great." His final idea, however, is more inescapably impressive. The idea of a teenager setting up a nonprofit portal immediately triggers the Failed-Simulation Effect-no further description is necessary. Even a jaded brother would grudgingly admit that he was impressed. These three steps helped transform a loose collection of ideas into something sloganable. Joe has become "the student who runs the nonprofit-volunteer portal." Because of this, his efforts will return much richer rewards.

Chris Guillebeau went through a similar thought process when coming up with his own sloganable project. After college, he volunteered to work in West Africa. He returned to the States to earn a graduate degree with the goal of better understanding the African continent. As his work toward the degree neared completion, he began to think about what to do next. He knew he wanted to be connected to the world-to travel and to help people. Dozens of ideas crossed his mind. Maybe he could return to the volunteer organization in West Africa? Maybe he could raise funds to start his own organization? Maybe he could stay in academia or become a journalist who wrote about such regions? These are all interesting ideas-though none would elicit much press coverage. At some point, however, he distilled his aspirations down to a simple idea: to travel the world and write about it. He then inflated the ambition into something truly sloganable: to visit every country in the world by the age of thirty-five. Chris's patience in waiting to find this perfect idea-an idea that's inescapably innovative-fueled his rapid rise.

The same will hold for you. As you begin to prove yourself in your closed community, have the patience to sift through available opportunities, waiting for that one sharp concept that can be forged into something sloganable. Don't be deterred if you end up applying the three steps of sloganable innovation again and again in search of the right idea. Once you've found your own sloganable pursuit, you'll be in for a wild ride.

Pulling It All Together.

In late summer 2009 I signed up for sculling cla.s.ses. For the uninitiated, sculling has you row one of those narrow boats with the sliding seats, holding an oar in each hand. To my surprise, the experience provided an interesting new perspective on innovation. When you watch an expert sculler, his motions seem effortless and beautiful. Each smooth stroke glides him across the water with only the faintest ripple of wake to mark his course. Watching an expert innovator is a similar experience. When you encounter a student, like those you met in Part 3, who seems to glide effortlessly into one awe-inspiring project after another, the effect is beautiful.

But then there's the reality of trying to follow the expert's example. My first afternoon in a rowing scull taught me an important lesson: sculling is hard. Here's what they don't tell you: those narrow little boats are incredibly difficult to balance. If you don't move every part of your body in perfect synchronization, you'll flop back and forth, slapping your paddles onto the water on either side like a drunken duck failing to gain flight. The expert rowers, it turns out, first mastered a large number of small physical details before they could even approximate anything graceful.

Innovation imposes a similar requirement. It's one thing to watch the expert innovators and appreciate their practiced wielding of the Failed-Simulation Effect. It's another thing altogether to emulate them. This is where this final playbook enters the scene. I taught you about identifying the right communities to join and then paying your dues once there. With innovation maps you learned how to polish the quality of your ideas, and with the subtle art of sloganizing, you saw how to squeeze an extra kick out of your innovation. Think of these as the small details you have to master before you can achieve an overall gracefulness in your actions.

As you put these techniques into practice, I want you to remember the frustration of the first-time sculler. Innovation won't come easily at first as you're struggling to master all the moves. But once the subsidiary skills click into place, it will be like achieving that perfect balanced stroke. You'll realize that your effort was, without a doubt, worth it.

*By the time I was editing this chapter, in September 2009, the count was up to 117. By the time you read this, it will undoubtedly be much higher. You can monitor it for yourself at chrisguillebeau.com/35/.


I RESISTED writing a book about college admissions for a long time. It wasn't due to a lack of material. As my first two books became cult hits on college campuses, they began to find their way into the hands of high school students, who would then discover my blog and write me for guidance. Many of their questions concerned college admissions. Unwilling to turn away any student needing help, I applied to their issues the same investigative strategy that had worked so well for undergraduates: I found examples of students who had sidestepped the problem in question and then asked them how they did it. This quest soon led me to the relaxed superstars, and it wasn't long before I had decoded their three laws. With this information secured, I could offer strong advice to the high school students who wrote me, and then use their feedback to strengthen my understanding even more. After a while, it became clear that I had stumbled onto an entirely new approach to the college admissions process-an approach that was proving to be incredibly effective.

Even after I recognized the power of the relaxed superstar philosophy, however, I still resisted the idea of writing a book on the topic. My reason was the emotional heat that surrounds the topic of college admissions. High school students and their parents instinctively bristle when the subject is mentioned, ranting about the underhanded tactics adopted by their cla.s.smates or shaking a fist against the arbitrary nature of the decisions. I don't blame them for this reaction. The modern admissions process has imposed an impossible strain on families. On the one hand, as much as we don't like to admit it out loud, it does matter where you go to college. A better inst.i.tution will surround you with better peers and professors, and reputation alone can open doors shut to graduates of most other colleges. At the same time, the battle to gain acceptance at one of the better colleges can be brutal, exposing students to unhealthy amounts of stress. Parents may feel they are forced to choose between the student's future and the student's health-a gut-wrenching choice. I completely understand, therefore, why the very mention of college admissions can arouse hostility.

No single event eliminated my resistance to entering this fray. Instead, it was the steady drip of students' testimonials about their experience with my philosophy that eroded my mental barriers. The standard approach for tackling admissions stress is twofold: first, argue that there's more to life than Harvard; second, emphasize the negative effects of overwork and stress. I noticed, however, that the students who need this advice the most are also the most likely to ignore it; they have too much invested in the idea of getting into a good school to give up now. "I can make it," they think. "Just a couple more years and then I'll earn my rewards." Their parents often tacitly agree. "I know this can be rough for some students," they justify, "but my kid's different, he can get through it."

The relaxed superstar philosophy penetrates this resolve. Because it couples stress reduction with impressiveness inflation, these students were willing to hear me out. As more of them reported back about the dramatic improvements to their life (and admissions prospects) generated by the relaxed superstar approach, I realized that this advice might be their only shot at achieving a sustainable and healthy lifestyle. The realization spurred me into action. It was time to add a new voice to the college admissions conversation-one that avoids demonizing ambition yet still aims to reduce the negative effects such ambition can create.

I hope this book changed your thinking about this difficult process. Getting into a good college doesn't have to be a reward for extreme sacrifice; it can be, instead, a side effect of the much grander goal of building a meaningful and engaging life. As I hope my case studies have convinced you, the relaxed superstar strategy works. It will make you a better applicant at the same time that it makes you a better person. If you can muster the courage to ignore the poisonous conventional wisdom on "the art of getting in," and embrace the approach outlined in the pages you've just read, stress-free college admissions can become a reality of your student life.


Chapter 2.

Linda Caldwell, Cheryl Baldwin, Theodore Walls, and Ed Smith. "Preliminary Effects of a Leisure Education Program to Promote Healthy Use of Free Time among Middle School Adolescents." Journal of Leisure Research 36.3 (2004): 310335.

Shari Melman, Steven G. Little, and K. Angeleque Akin-Little. "Adolescent Overscheduling: The Relationship Between Levels of Partic.i.p.ation in Scheduled Activities and Self-Reported Clinical Symptomology." The High School Journal 90.3 (2007): 1830.

Chapter 7.

Sherwin Rosen. "The Economics of Superstars." The American Economic Review 71.5 (1981): 845858.

Chapter 8.

Robert K. Merton. "The Matthew Effect in Science: The Reward and Communication Systems of Science Are Considered." Science 159.3810 (1968): 5663.

Chapter 9.

Nick Feltovich, Rich Harbaugh, and Ted To. "Too Cool for School? Signalling and Countersignalling." RAND Journal of Economics 33 (2002): 630649.

Chapter 12.

Mark D. Alicke, Frank M. LoSchiavo, Jennifer Zerbst, and Shaobo Zhang. "The Person Who Outperforms Me Is a Genius: Maintaining Perceived Competence in Upward Social Comparison." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73.4 (1997): 781789.

G. Daniel La.s.siter and Patrick J. Munhall. "The Genius Effect: Evidence for a Nonmotivational Interpretation." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 37.4 (2001): 349355.


MY THANKS must go first and foremost to my wife, Julie, for both her tolerance and her insight during the writing of this book. Not only does she accept my monastic writing sessions with good cheer, but her comments make my work better than I could ever achieve on my own. In the same spirit, I tip my hat to my indefatigable agent, Laurie Abkemeier, who, as always, demonstrated her uncanny ability to take my high-volume spray of esoteric ideas and extract crisp, focused topics that are understandable to normal human beings. I must also thank Becky Cole for her faith in this project, Laura Swerdloff for her help in shaping the book's structure, and, of course, my editor, Hallie Falquet, for her tireless efforts in polishing the ma.n.u.script into something special.

Finally, it's hard to fully express my grat.i.tude to the dozens of relaxed superstars who took the time to answer my endless questions. I'm inspired by their willingness to help other students find stress-free paths through high school and the college admissions process, and I can only hope that this book lives up to their expectations.

Copyright 2010 by Calvin C. Newport.


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