Be Proactive (Focus on What You Can Change, And Not What You Can't)

As a senior in high school I belonged to a group of self-proclaimed conscientious students called PALS, which stood for Peer Assistant Listeners. We were trained in how to listen and how to mediate between people. But all I really wanted was to sit in the PAL office for one hour each day and take a nap.

During the PAL course, our instructor gave us each a copy of Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Pearls to pigs. I thumbed through it exactly once before deciding that it was the self-help book du jour.

I rediscovered 7 Habits through a pair of nerdy white guys who have a financial planning podcast called "The Money Guy." They kept referring to Stephen Covey as though his book had significantly changed their perspective. After the twentieth reference I ordered a copy.

I saw that it had sold over 10,000,000 copies. Self-help book of the millennium? 

I read the entire thing during a weekend of traveling. It is the kind of book that is best read beside an empty notebook so you can apply the principles as you're reading them. This is the first in a series dedicated to those habits. 

Habit 1: Be Proactive

The first habit is so simple that you might think you're missing something. It is a reminder to focus on those things that you have control over--things that you can actually impact. For example, you cannot control the weather, but you can control whether or not you bring along an umbrella.

My university has an abysmal retention rate. Only about 35% of students who enroll during their first year will ever make it across the stage during commencement. A big question on the minds of admin and faculty is "how can we help students make it all the way through their degree programs?"

I decided to ask this question to my students who were about to graduate. "What do you wish you had been told during your first semester as a college student?" The group of 15 students discussed their answers for three hours while I took notes. Here are some of those notes:
  • Be proactive rather than reactive. Instead of waiting for others to solve problems on your behalf, you will have to be the one to get the ball rolling for you. If you stand still or wait around, then you are falling behind. You can only be accountable to yourself.
  • Be resilient. Set-backs are set-backs, not failures. If you keep getting up, then you will finish. If you want it bad enough, then you will get it done. 
  • What is your plan? Do you have a plan? Whose plan is it? Set goals and then follow through on them. 
  • Join the social club for your major. Surround yourself with people you want to be like. Get mentorship and insight into expectations for you.
I was blown away by the insights that my students shared, and I told them as much. It quickly became clear to me that these students--who represented the 35% who had made it to the end--had taken the responsibility for their success. They only wished that they had done so sooner.

During the discussion, a few common problems came up: "my advisor told me the wrong class;" "don't take professor so-and-so for statistics;" "the financial aid department is a giant headache;" and so on. In the diagram, these are all the stuff that affect students. But it is also the stuff that they don't have any control over. By focusing on the financial aid department, which, like any bureaucratic system, is nearly impossible to change, these students would quickly give up. However, none of the students in the classroom did give up. They figured out what was in the smaller blue circle--the circle that represents the things that they have control over. One student shared, "Financial aid wasn't going to solve my problem for me. I needed to tell them to. I spent two hours on the phone until it was finished."

As an advisor, I have seen these and other problems become the roadblock that prevents a student from finishing their degree. "I just can't pass this class" or "my financial aid didn't come through" or "they put me in a dorm that was awful" or "the party scene was too tempting." These students are focusing on the big things they have no control over. They are waiting for the gears of the universe to magically begin turning in their favor. But here is the advice from the college students who made those gears turn: "be proactive."

Of course I wish that students didn't have to sit on the phone for two hours because a financial aid application got misplaced. And of course I wish that some faculty were more clear about their course expectations. And of course I wish that all dorms and roommates were hospitable. I also sincerely believe that people in the university are working diligently to correct these problems. It doesn't all fall on the students. If, however, you want to succeed; if you want to be part of the 35% who finishes what you've started, then you need to be willing to go to bat for yourself.


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