Why Effort Does Not Guarantee Success

The most difficult conversations instructors have with their students normally involve their grades. I clearly remember one technical communication student who came into my office during the week before finals and asked how he could increase his current B into an A for his cumulative GPA. Hunched over my laptop so we could see the screen, we reviewed the grade-book for thirty minutes and eventually calculated that he could not raise his grade unless I waived two penalties that he had previously received for late assignments and scored 100% on his final project. Then the student abruptly changed his argument: instead of asking how he could improve his grade, the student claimed he simply “deserved” an A because of the time and energy he had put into the course. “Well, you won’t let me have an A,” he said, “so I guess my GPA is ruined.” He left my office without another word.

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Students and professionals often believe their success depends only upon their effort. The student who visited my office assumed he could earn an A days before the end of the semester because he could still submit one more project; then he concluded his effort mattered more than his actual performance. Carol Dweck and other theorists have demonstrated how growth mindsets, where people associate their successes and failures with their actions instead of their innate abilities, improve how students learn and apply new skills and content-knowledge, but we cannot neglect the importance of results. Educators and executives can and should reward their students and employees for effort, but effort alone does not produce successful essays, lesson-plans, software, and business plans. Grade inflation and professional complacency have made us confuse effort with success and lowered the bars for satisfactory and exemplary work.

Success arises from three separate factors:

  1. Effort: The time and commitment we devote towards our objectives.
  2. Skill: The natural talents which help us achieve our objectives.
  3. Experience: The relevant practice we can apply for our objectives.

If we define success using the academic and professional outcomes of any project, then success normally requires at least two of these factors. Consider the following example: my professor assigns a ten-page essay about the contemporary reception of The Origin of Species for my history-of-science class. If I barely spend any time on the project, cannot write clearly, and have minimal experience with academic research, then I will most likely fail the assignment. Even spending days on the project, having exceptional writing skills, or knowing the proper structure for historical essays may not fix the problem: the other two factors will outweigh the third. Without the benefit of skill or experience, my essay will improve with increased effort but probably will not receive an A.

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How to Increase Your LinkedIn Traffic

Online social networks have become increasingly significant for professionals searching for employment opportunities and accruing social capital, but the recent graduates and young professionals who need these networks the most usually receive the least traffic from potential employers. I have compiled eight recommendations for the content of LinkedIn profiles and the activities of highly-visible users that can help you increase the amount of visitors you receive and the quality of the matches between your own objectives and those of your viewers.

LinkedIn Profile

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Why We Never Read Mass Emails

My last post discussed the characteristics of successful emails, and my comments helped me recognize why students and employees seldom read organization-wide messages. If we briefly review the principal criteria for audience-centered emails, we learn useful emails should:

  1. Provide clear subject lines.
  2. Include the expected conventions.
  3. Use short paragraphs and minimize length.
  4. Quickly summarize their objectives.

Mass emails, particularly company newsletters and university event messages, do not satisfy any of these requirements. Because mass messages usually supply information from multiple sources, including different employee teams and campus organizations, these emails generally provide generic (ex. “OU Mass Message” or “Hewlett Packard October Newsletter”) or overlong subject lines. Those who receive mass emails often cannot anticipate their content from reading these subject lines and accordingly either scan any relevant information too quickly or discard the email altogether.

These emails also reject most expected conventions; mass messages rarely have clear senders and recipients and often leave out the salutation and polite close expected from other online correspondence. This impersonal style makes the audience of these emails review their content even less carefully, and mass messages worsen these problems with unclear subject lines and disorganized first paragraphs. Students and employees will read most emails with relevant content, but mass messages bury their information inside several unstructured paragraphs with different intended audiences.

Perhaps organizations should invest the infrastructure, personnel, and time so students and employees can filter the content of their mass emails. While this plan would reduce the coverage of these emails, more of their recipients would probably read and hopefully act upon their content. Sometimes, especially with business correspondence, fewer words and fewer readers means improved communication.

Writing Professional Emails

We write and send emails more frequently than any other document, but I still receive messages from students, coworkers, and executives with unclear and unprofessional content. While we can and should write emails quickly (particularly when we receive hundreds of them every week), we should make sure our emails politely achieve their practical objectives.

1) Provide a clear subject line. Your subject line should immediately inform your reader about the contents and purposes of your message. Compare these examples: “Security Warning” vs. “Security Warning: Do Not Open Messages from Sender X.” I have occasionally received emails from students and full-time professionals without any subject line at all, and these messages not only require unnecessary time and effort from their readers but also prevent their recipients from easily processing their included information. We expect headlines from newspaper articles for the same reason; these synopses help us decide whether we should read the text and frame its content.

2) Include the expected conventions. Whenever we write emails without salutations (Dear Mr. Rochester), polite closes (sincerely, respectfully, etc.),  and signatures, our messages may feel hurried and impolite. While you can certainly remove these formalities when you correspond with your friends and family, you should always choose the most polite approach when you address your professors, managers, clients, and anyone else who directly impacts your long-term success. This default approach can and should change if your correspondents indicate that they would prefer more familiar conversations.

3) Use short paragraphs. If your email lasts more than 200 words, than you should almost always subdivide your message into paragraphs with different requests, arguments, and information. Emails, like other business documents, should let your coworkers and managers easily scan the included content without reading every word of your message. Even if some of your recipients carefully review the whole email, most of them will briefly skim the message for relevant details and action-items.

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How to Write Successful Resumes

We probably spend more time writing and revising our resumes than any other document, and I have listed ten recommendations for successful audience-centered resumes below. I hope you find this guide useful and will gladly offer advice for other technical and professional documents at your request. Without further ado:

  1. Use 20+ font for your name. Most of us remember John Lee Hancock because of the unrivaled size of his signature on the Declaration of Independence. If you use 20+ font for your name, you increase the chance that recruiters will remember you when they decide who should receive a first-round interview.
  2. Outline your main qualifications with a summary. Do not start your resumes with an objective: recruiters already know you are searching for opportunities with their companies and will expect more details from your cover letter. You should, however, summarize your qualifications and field-specific interests before you present your experience so recruiters can scan your document more efficiently.
  3. Quantify your value-addedWhenever possible, you should explain how you have contributed towards the success of your past and current employers. Compare these two examples: “Managed the quality-control division of the product-development branch.” “Managed a team of ten employees for the quality-control division of the product development branch and reduced the number of defective sprockets by 15%.” Make sure you supplement your general descriptions of your work with your achievements, which might include promotions, management and budget experience, completed projects, awards, revenue estimates, etc. You should consider how you can favorably compare yourself with an “average employee” with the same position. Continue reading

Are College Students Customers?

Over the past few decades, the increased cost of higher education and the decreased opportunities for recent graduates have left students uncertain whether their degrees provide acceptable returns for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public and private colleges have recognized these anxieties and responded with fewer distribution requirements, student evaluations of university programs and resources, grade inflation, pre-professional courses, and other means of attracting and retaining customers who hope their educations will help them transition directly into the workforce. While I agree that universities should hold themselves accountable for the success of their students and applaud the recent shift away from conventional exams and towards applied research projects, we should ask ourselves whether the supplier-client model of modern universities actually fulfills their stated objectives.

I submit that the university has four purposes:

  1. Prepare students for their careers.
  2. Teach students how they can solve complex problems.
  3. Inform students about the world around them.
  4. Help students interact with people from different backgrounds.

The corporate university, where the student becomes the client of the higher education system, addresses only the first of these objectives. If we reduce or remove distribution requirements so students can focus entirely upon their expected careers, for example, they may lose their connections with other disciplines and become detached from their broader social and political responsibilities. Similarly, if colleges use their resources exclusively for professional development, then students may learn the field-specific facts and skills necessary for their work but never hone the analytical and communication skills associated with long-term advancement.

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New Technology from Google EDU

This article discusses four recently-released technologies from Google EDU, whose Google Classroom already has over ten million active users. The Expeditions application lets students and instructors visit virtual locations with relevant information about each site using their cell-phones and cardboard binoculars. I personally hope this project will help schools with increasingly-limited resources provide their students with more meaningful hands-on experiences “outside” the classroom.

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