Wednesday, October 31, 2018

When will I know?

As I attempt to navigate through the joys/frustrations/sorrows/hangovers of parenting a teenager through the college application process I am often reminded of simpler days. The gut wrenching fear of seeing him climb to the top of the jungle gym at the age of 4 and the clear image in my mind of what would happen if he were to fall and hit his head on the corner of concrete sticking out from the base holding the pipes in the ground. The embarrassment at the parent-teacher conference in 4th grade when told that he refuses to do his writing assignment like the rest of the class. The ridiculous feelings of pride when he is the only one in his kindergarten class running around helping the teachers clean up at the end of class...

With the college application season in full force there is a feeling that I am being tested as much (or more) as he is on his capabilities and achievements up to this point. Did we (my wife and I) prepare him properly for college? Did we push him enough to study hard and get good grades? Should we have signed him up for karate and clarinet when he was 3 and then made sure that he did not quit? We look at him and can't believe the amazing young man that he has become in spite of all of our mistakes.

The same insecurities, "Are we doing a good job", that we felt when he was 17 days old are unchanged and just as present now as when he is 17 years old. A line from a classic Steve Martin movie has been replaying in my mind (Parenthood). The scene has Steve Martin as an adult and father talking to his own father about parenting and the older man says that when it comes to being a parent...

"It never ends. There is no ‘end zone.’ You never cross the goal lines, spike the ball, and do your touchdown dance. Never.”

Which neatly sums up my own question these days although perhaps not as fatalistic as the Parenthood quote. I am not looking for an end to the caring and responsibility and I wholeheartedly believe that he is a fantastic young man... but I am wondering when I will know for sure that I have done well. Is there a day in the not too distant future when Ed McMahon shows up at my door and says "Congratulations! your son is going to be OK, you did a great job". Is that what the college admissions circus is all about? When he receives his acceptance letter from Yale or Harvard or Stanford is it going to be addressed to me instead of him with a nice letter of congratulations?

Of course not, college is just another step on the trail for my son and not an end. But I can't help feeling that if now is not the time, when will I know?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Your kids know better

I mentioned this story in my article "Programmer, Lawyer, Medieval Weapons Expert, Let Them Choose" but will describe it again here. It was the early 80's and I was in my teens. My father had brought home a second hand Apple IIe computer (our first) and I had started playing with BASIC programming. It was fun, I even made a letter S ski down the screen dodging letter T's (trees). The mechanical logic appealed to me and made sense. As you conscientious readers may recall, the programming life was vetoed by my Mom at the time and I went on to become a recruiter (which also worked out well). In the previous article, I emphasized giving our kids a chance to follow their passions. I still agree with this but I want to add a new a recent epiphany.
Not only is it OK to let our kids do something they enjoy doing but they might actually know better than we do about what the future may hold. 
Regardless of my mother's reasons for telling me not to get into programming, I am convinced that if she could have looked 20 years into the future and seen the dominance of technology, she would have had a different opinion about my interests. Was I thinking about trends and predicting future markets when I said I wanted to be a programmer at 13? Absolutely not. I just wanted to make games and play with them. I liked fiddling with the keyboard and making it do stuff for me. It was new and interesting. And, I was better at it than my parents.

Maybe our kids have a better idea of what is coming up in the future than we do.  After all, it is their future. By focusing on the things they like or are interested in they are not predicting the future but actually making it. We grownups are too quick to dismiss new things and fads and push our kids to the careers we see all around us now. From age 10 to when  I was graduating from college and looking for a job was 11 years. The World Economic Forum has suggested that,
 ...65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that aren’t on our radar yet.
That is a huge change in just 16 years. Now in 2016 there are jobs that did not exist in 2006. Just consider the iPhone and all the related jobs (it arrived in 2007). Even Drone Operator has become a real job that people are paid real money to do!!!!

What could my Mom have done differently? Like with any job, research is a good next step. If you have an idea about a job that you might like, learn more about it and test that assumption. My uncle has been a computer guy since the days of the ENIAC.
Actually, I think he worked on it... Anyway, it would have been easy for my Mom to take me to see him and learn more about what he did with computers. It most likely would have been educational for both me and my Mom. She might have seen that it wasn't a dark and lonely room and that being good with people would be useful even for a programmer!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Training for Assessment Exams... at age 5

"I always tell the truth" A possible question on an assessment test when applying for a new job. Your daughter may be required to answer True or False. How does she reply if there is no middle ground? If she says True, then everyone (the people grading her assessment) will think she is lying. If she says False then they wonder if they can trust her.

It is highly likely that our kids will be faced with an assessment test at some point in the job search. In fact, they may have to take one for the college they apply to in addition to the SAT or ACT tests which are more focused on reading and writing than personality and motivation.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic*, a CEO and Professor, recently wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review about improving your score on an assessment test when applying for a job. He wrote about the various traits that employers try to measure with these tests:

  • Competence: Expertise, Experience, Trainability
  • Work Ethic: Reliability, Ambition, Integrity
  • Emotional Intelligence: Self-Management, Social Skills, Political Skills

Great! So we know what they want. Wrong. It is difficult to game an assessment test unless you know what the company is specifically looking for. Some companies may score the same question differently depending on their analysis of what it takes to succeed in their firm and/or industry. And, even if you know what the company wants, does it make sense for our kids to lie about themselves to get a job that may not be right for them?

Rather than trying to cheat by climbing the walls and throwing answers to our kids when they are taking the assessment tests...
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...we can focus on giving them the tools and experiences they need now.

The three areas Tomas refers to, Competence, Work Ethic, and Emotional Intelligence align nicely with what recruiters believe are the only three interview questions employers care about: Can you do the job? Do you want the job? Can we get along with you?

At high school and college ages Tomas suggests the GRE Practice Book as a good way to prepare for verbal, numerical, and logical reasoning types of questions. This takes care of the general competence concerns. For more job specific skills it would depend on the role. For young kids there seems to be a growing use of standardized tests in the schools. I know for my own kids that they have been taking the MAP tests since elementary. While they are not learning from these tests it is probably good test taking practice.

Work Ethic is a bit more subjective. How would you want your child to answer this question:

I get the job done even if I have to break some rules. - True/False
What kind of person do you want your son to be? How do you define ambition. Follow your own principles and pass them on to your kids. Remember though, saying one thing and acting out another won't work. Our kids will follow our example for better or for worse.

How do we teach out kids to get along with other people? To manage themselves when in a group (or a team)? Emotional Intelligence is a hands on, experientially learned skill. Take your kids out in public, show them off, introduce them to your friends, let them talk with other people. There are bound to be embarrassing moments but each one of them will be a chance to teach our kids the right way to act.

In the end, the best advice is the same for any test. Get a good night's sleep, eat something (but not too heavy), go to the bathroom beforehand, take a deep breath, relax, and do your best.

*Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, and a faculty member at Columbia University. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

But Mom, I am just checking email...

I actually planned to write this article yesterday but then I received an email from a client and had to answer it right away. After sending off the email I realized my coffee mug was empty so I had to get that refilled of course. Can't function without coffee. The coffee in the pot was lukewarm which got me thinking about those fancy Nespresso machines. Each cup made to order so I guess you always get a hot cup of coffee. Sitting back down at my computer I opened up Amazon (just out of curiosity) and started checking out the prices and reviews.  $200 for the machine and 80 cents a capsule!!?? Maybe next quarter... Closing the Amazon window I noticed that it was almost noon, time for lunch.

Does any of the above sound familiar? According to a study by Dr. Piers Steel, one of the leading researchers on procrastination, 80-95% of college students procrastinate... which means that 5 to 20% of college students lie to survey takers. Everyone procrastinates. The difference is whether the procrastination is chronic or not and whether it is affecting one's job or life.

I touched on this subject in my last article about study habits. There has been some buzz in the last few years about the benefits of putting things off thanks to Frank Partnoy's book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay . He points out the possible benefits for business people and entrepreneurs of waiting until the last minute to make decisions. While there are some interesting (and appealing) ideas there, the need for students to get things done remains high. Kids who get their work done ahead of time are more likely to get better grades in school. They have more time to review, are less likely to rush through the work, and may even have a window of time when they can confirm with a teacher that they are answering the questions correctly. Better grades in high school means acceptance to a better college which increases our kid's chances of finding a job. I know what you are saying now, "Sure, we all know putting things off is bad but what can we do about it? My spouse and I still procrastinate ourselves and apart from screaming at our kids and taking away their video games, how can we teach them to do their work first and postpone playtime?"

The first and most important point is for all of us to remember that procrastinating is normal. Self-regulation is related to the actual physical development of young brains and often we just need to wait (that word again) for them to grow up. So, cut them some slack, they may actually be trying really hard to follow our instructions (if not our bad example). Here are some additional steps we can take to encourage the right habits.

For younger kids, phrasing chores in more concrete terms can help. Dr. Sean McCrea found in his study that asking your daughter to pick up her legos was more effective than telling her to clean her room. This reminds me of the rules for goal setting; break a larger goal into smaller more achievable ones. Setting mini goals of either time or content can help for both toddlers and teenagers. Encourage your son to concentrate on first writing 100 words of his 450 word essay without getting up rather than yelling at him to finish it.

Remove distractions. This is good advice for all ages. It is much more difficult these days with the internet and smart phones but we can still try to make the environment more conducive to getting work done. Start with turning everything off that is not connected to the homework. TV, phone, Wifi (no email, skype, youtube, etc). Interestingly, I would have thought that working near a window would increase the chances of getting distracted. While that be true, studies of office workers showed that sitting by a window actually increased productivity.

Finally, set a good example. If you have something that needs to be done, let your kids know what it is and how important it is. Tell them how you would much rather be doing something else but that this is your job much like being a good student is their job. They watch us all the time, even (especially?) the teenagers, so give them the right model to copy.

By the way, for those readers who are counting, this is article 100.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

From 9th grade to 2nd grade - Study Habits

Today is the day. He is off to his first year of high school and therefore only 4 short years from graduation and college (hopefully!!). I am still taller than him and can do more pull ups in a row than he can but how much longer will that last? When did my little boy suddenly become a young man? Along with the emotional turbulence from pride in his growth and maturity conflicting with the wish that I could still carry him on my shoulders is the anxiety about how the next 4 years will impact his future. In the oft quoted book (at least here on my site), How Children Succeed, the author points out that success in college is very closely linked to a child's GPA in HS (regardless of the quality of that HS). This is contrary to the theory behind standardized testing which puts a premium on SAT scores. The explanation for this statistic is that a good GPA is achievable only through discipline and good study habits. Both of which are important to doing well in college and graduating. So while today is all about my growing 14 year old and his new adventures, I find myself thinking more and more about my daughter. She also starts this week but is only a 2nd grader. We have 7 more grades with her to get her ready for HS. To be completely mercenary and quantitative about goals, what can I be doing NOW with her to help her get a better GPA when she goes to HS?

As with any goal planning process, we start with the quantitative goal (in this case let's say a 4.0 GPA at the end of HS for my daughter) and then break it down. To get a 4.0 she will need an A in every class. Typically, to get one A, she will need to be able to reproduce 90% of what is required on any sort of graded work for that class (tests, reports, homework). lists 3 steps to getting the grade: 1) Be motivated. Find something that drives you to get the work done. 2) Stay organized. 3) Develop good study habits. In my view, being organized could easily fall under "good study habits" so there are really only 2 steps. Motivation is a big one so let's procrastinate like we tell our kids not to do and leave that for a future article. Study habits are much more concrete. If we include organization, the good study habit list is something like this:

  1. Be organized
  2. Attend class and be on time
  3. Review
  4. Don't procrastinate
  5. Break large projects into smaller ones
  6. Give yourself plenty of time
The common myth about habits is that it takes 21 days to make one. However, the non-anecdotal studies have shown it can take up to 8 months depending on all sorts of factors. Hopefully we can make some progress in 7 years! This buffer also allows us to break down our big project of teaching my daughter study habits into smaller projects. For example, I don't think she will be getting any multi-week homework assignments in 2nd grade requiring her to create a project plan for completion. Also, attending class and being on time are largely out of her control at age 7. Perhaps this year we can work on organization and procrastination. 

We actually started last year with some lessons in being organized mainly because my daughter wanted to be just like her big brother who has a homework pad to keep him on track. She wanted one of her own so we designed and printed one out together. Which reminds me, I need to make an updated one for my son as well! You can see last year's version below. Simple, her own design, easy to use.
Procrastination is a more difficult challenge. Number 5 on the list, piano, is easily her least favorite subject. I think it is because practicing the piano is not a chore that is easy to evaluate. Is it OK to set a time and as long as she is plunking away at the keys she can stop at the end of that time? Apparently not. As Gladwell pointed out, deliberate practice is what is needed to improve. Deliberate practice when it comes to the piano is more qualitative than quantitative so it is harder to judge when enough is enough. So, with that 7 year window in mind, maybe we can work on a better way of encouraging her to stop putting off her piano practice to the end of the day. If we can get past procrastination in the 2nd grade I have high hopes for tackling the rest of the study habits in grade 3!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Can my daughter be the next Carly? Should I want her to be?

Carly Fiorina graduated from Stanford University (medieval history major!) and holds a Masters from MIT. She was CEO of HP, ran for the US Senate, chairs and supports several non-profit organizations, was diagnosed, treated for, and beat cancer, and is now running for President of the United States. At one time named the most powerful woman in business by Fortune Magazine, she is now hoping to become the most powerful woman in the world.

Whether you disagree with Carly's political views or believe that she made the wrong choices for HP while acting as CEO, it is hard not to be impressed with her achievements. HP is one of the biggest companies in the world. At the time of Carly's leadership, it was in the top 20.

Years ago, at my sister's graduation from Barnard College, the Managing Editor for the Weekend Edition of the New York Times (a prestigious position) gave the commencement speech. I remember her telling the all female graduating class that while her rise to the top of her field was rewarding, she had also made sacrifices on the way. Her message to the young women was, "You can't have everything. Along the way, everyone needs to make choices."

When I began researching more about Carly to write this article I expected to find a similar sentiment. While she certainly rose up through the ranks of business, she must have made choices that she regretted, right? Being powerful is a nice achievement but is she happy? I found myself wondering if this is a life I would wish on my own daughter? Is the price one has to pay for fame and fortune worth it?

For anyone to climb the corporate ladder, long hours, dedication, persistence, and an understanding of company politics are just the beginning. Even to be considered for the top job in a Fortune 100 company means that you have already had an impressive and successful career. Carly no doubt has proven that she is dedicated, ambitious, and intelligent. She took on challenging roles and showed that she was capable of handling them.

In her autobiography from 2006, Tough Choices: A Memoir, she talks about advising a fellow employee with the following:
You cannot sell your soul. Don’t become someone you don’t like because of the pressure. Live your life in a way that makes you happy and proud. If you sell your soul, no one can pay you back.
This does not sound like someone who wishes her life had turned out differently. She goes on to say that she has no regrets. While I don't know for sure if she is "happy", I believe that she is satisfied with her life and is confident in the choices she made. Add to that ambition and belief in herself. "Yes" I would like my daughter to be the next Carly.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

If our kids can't get jobs anyway, why bother going to college?

As a follow up to last week's article and all the accompanying statistics about the challenges our kids will face finding a job after college, I began to think that it might make more sense to put it off for a few years. I still think that college is important (necessary). If our kids are not qualified to flip burgers now without a degree then they better get one. But, does it have to be right after high school?

There is a reasonable period of floating around after college before settling into a job that requires a degree anyway. According to the Fed research, the unemployment rate drops steadily for college grads from a high at 22 years old to level off around 27 years old*. Would it be more valuable and less depressing for our kids to get the coffee shop job after high school and start college later when they are 23 or 24?

Consider two identical applicants: Bill and Bob. Both young men graduated from college this year with a 3.5 GPA and a BA in Business from the University of Arizona (acceptance rate of 77%). Both men finished their degrees in four years but that is where the similarity ends. Bill is 22 and he went directly from high school into college. Bob is 27*. Bob finished high school and went to work as a Barista at the local Starbucks for 5 years working his way up to Shift Supervisor before leaving to go to college. If you were screening resumes, which one would you wish to meet? Or, more importantly, is there any difference at all? What if we add a 3rd candidate? Bryan is 27 and went to high school with Bob but then went straight to college. When he graduated he found a job as a Barista and has worked his way up to Shift Supervisor in the 5 years on the job. Bryan is applying for the same corporate, entry level position as Bob and Bill.

Age College Graduation Current Status Experience
Bill 22 2015 Recent Grad none
Bob 27 2015 Recent Grad Shift Supervisor
Bryan 27 2010 Shift Supervisor Shift Supervisor

Of the three "recent college grad" applicants described above, Bryan is probably the least attractive applicant in my opinion. As a recruiter, there is always the question for applicants like him, "Why didn't you get a real job sooner?" or "Is there something wrong with this applicant?" The same thinking does not apply to Bob who had his coffee job before college. The sad thing about this result is that Bryan may be the the most likely archetype for our own kids.

Of course, the potential danger for our Bob candidate who started college late is that he may also require another 5 years of floating around "after" college before he finds a job that requires a college degree which puts him at 32 years old before his career gets started. I don't believe this will be the case though. My educated guess about the reason behind the "floating years" is a lack of focus and career goals for most 22 year old grads. Something our Bob and Bryan candidates will have worked through already.

Starting college late may not be the right choice for all kids but given the job market and (probable) lack of stigma for late grads I think it is a reasonable alternative to consider.

*According to the powers that be in people statistics (U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), "...recent college graduates are those aged 22 to 27 with a bachelor’s degree or higher".

Thursday, June 11, 2015

More kids, same number of jobs...

In the year 2000 (when the economy was booming) 36 percent of employed college graduates age 22–27 worked in jobs that did not require a college degree. In 2014 that number was up to 46% (source).

Some kids do need time to adjust and to find a good job after school and this statistic includes those grads. However, can our kids (or the parents paying) afford to cover student loans, food, rent, gas, beer money on minimum wage (roughly $8 in most states)?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, from 2001 to 2012 the number of degrees earned increased by 39%, more college students competing for jobs. But that is OK since the number of available jobs increased as well, right? During the same period, the number of jobs increased 1.9%...(yes, I found that stat on wikipedia). So we have more grads competing for essentially the same number of jobs.

I am particularly critical of the number of business undergrads these days as I tend to believe that specializing makes our kids more employable so I searched for data to back up my hypothesis that the number of business grads had also increased as a percentage of total college graduates. I was wrong, the percentage of business degrees in 2012 was identical to those in 2001. In fact, the only degree with a major change in this time period is Education, which was 8.5% in 2001 and dropped to 6% in 2012. Interestingly, in a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of NY in 2014, students majoring in Education were among the most likely to get a degree related job after college. The only degree that beat Education was Engineering and the difference was too small to matter.

The increase in competitors (other kids with college degrees) has not kept up with the increase in jobs. The excerpt below from the Federal Reserve article sums it up:

What can students do to increase their chances of finding a good job upon graduation? It does appear that one’s college major matters: unemployment and underemployment rates differ markedly across majors. In particular, those who choose majors that provide technical training, such as engineering or math and computers, or majors that are geared toward growing parts of the economy, such as education and health, have tended to do relatively well. At the other end of the spectrum, those with majors that provide less technical and more general training, such as leisure and hospitality,  communications, the liberal arts, and even the social sciences and business, have not tended to fare particularly well in recent years.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Why does 2 hours of homework take 8 hours to finish!?!

My 8th grade son has a MacBook for school. It is required for all middle schoolers so he has had it now for 3 years. Since he is going to be using a computer in his future career I think it is OK that he has a head start although, to be fair,there is research to the contrary. Being able to type, find one's way around an excel spreadsheet, and create a PowerPoint presentation are skills that will help in school as well as work. This view was reinforced recently by my friend who teaches at a public school in the US. His students had to take a standardized assessment test. Unlike the tests I took as a kid with little circles and a number 2 pencil, these tests were administered via computers in the school computer lab. It certainly makes it easier to grade the tests but as several of his students were from poorer households, they had never used a mouse before. There were questions on the test that required the students to rotate drawings and drag items from one part of the screen to another. If your kid's entire experience with technology has been limited to swiping on a 4 inch screen, then he is going to be at a disadvantage when taking this test. The resulting low scores were not surprising. But I digress, this article is about distraction. For my son, the computer is both a boon and a constant distraction. He has become so adept at swiping between screens that I can no longer catch him when he is playing games instead of doing his homework. With those quick fingers he may have a career as a magician (or pickpocket!) ahead of him.

Aside from my frustration with his playing games when he should be doing his homework (we never played minesweeper or solitaire when we  were supposed to be working...) there is also the delay that occurs when humans switch between tasks. Unfortunately, that fraction of a second for the swipe on the touch pad is not the total time lost.

Multitasking is a hoax. There is enough research now to suggest that when we are multitasking, we are actually doing one task, then moving to another task rather than doing both simultaneously. In addition, there is a lag with each switch before we become productive again. According to this study, if my daughter has an hour of math homework and an hour of history homework, it could take her 2 hours and 10 minutes to complete IF she completes one subject before starting on the other. The 10 minute addition is the switching time her brain needs to adjust to the new subject and become productive. If she tries to do both, switching back and forth, each change could cost her another 10 minutes or more quickly adding up to a lot of wasted time. Now add in Facebook, Instagram, text messages, email, etc. In my son's case, 2 hours of homework unbelievably becomes 8 hours!

Based on this research, the kid's learning how to navigate a computer screen at the same time (not really the "same" time since there is no such thing as multitasking) they are taking a timed assessment test are always going to do worse than the kids who handle the mouse without thinking.

It is always difficult trying to teach my kids something that I have yet to master myself. Avoiding distractions and focusing on a task until it is completed is extremely difficult. Fast Company published a survey on workplace distractions back in 2011. The estimate of up to one lost hour per day due to these distractions seems likely to be higher in reality. I can only assume that the number of things competing for my attention has increased since then. So what can I do about my kids? The physical actions are easy enough, take away the iPhone, make him sit where I can see his computer screen, check on him every now and then (in a non-distracting way). But I also want them to have the discipline to stick to their work and the understanding of why they should not multitask when I am not around to look over their shoulders. Teaching by example and explaining how our brains work will hopefully do the trick. Perhaps when he is sitting at his desk in college and knows he has a long night ahead of him, he will remember Dad's explanation about the myth of multitasking. He will then turn off his phone, close whatever social media site is popular at the time, pick one subject to plow through, and finish his work in time to get a couple hours sleep.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ten books your kids should read to help them with their career.

I could not resist. Growing up with David Letterman's weekly top ten lists combined with what seems to be the increasing number of websites and articles devoted to lists of all lengths and topics I decided to share my own.

I limited my choices to books that I read when I was a kid. There are certainly newer ones available (see Lawn Boy) but then I would be evaluating them based on reading them as an adult and I wanted to come up with a list of books that had an impact on me earlier in life. I tried to limit my choices to books that encourage the attributes employers and colleges are looking for in our kids. Things like: problem-solving skills, confidence, teamwork, motivation, communication skills, and discipline.

I realized as I was trying to recall all the books from my childhood that the memories of the preschool level and early elementary books had more to do with feelings about Mom or Dad who read them too me rather than the books themselves. Reading to our kids (regardless of which book) is worth the effort.

It was too difficult to choose which of the following books was better than any other book so I have not prioritized them.

The List
  • The Mad Scientists' Club and The Three Investigators - These two series had much in common. Both involved groups of kids working together (teamwork) to either solve mysteries, build cool things, or help people. Nobody had any super powers and there was not a single magic wand to be seen. This made it seem that achieving great things was possible, even for a normal kid (a muggle?). 
  • Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective - Similar to the Scientist and Investigator books, Encyclopedia also was based in reality and solved mysteries that even the grown ups could not figure out. He was analytical, confident, and was cool because he was smart. He occasionally had help but he often succeeded on his own.
  • Why Are There More Questions Than Answers, Grandad? - This one is out of print but a few years after my first child was born I found a used version and bought it for him. I love this book. By the end, you get the message that it is OK to ask questions when you do not know something but also that even a little kid can sometimes solve his own problems.
  • Treasure Island - Work is called work for a reason. Even jobs we like can sometimes require discipline and even courage to get through a tough day. 
  • Horton Hatches the Egg - Trust, responsibility, commitment. What employer would not want to hire Horton after his achievement and impressive display of loyalty to his job? 
  • What Do People Do All Day? - Sometimes I think that this book should be required reading for all High School seniors. At least they would have a broader view of what jobs exist in the world before they head off to college to "find themselves".
  • Where the Wild Things Are - You can always come home. Taking risks is easier when you know that there is a safety net.
  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit - Listen to your mother!
  • White Fang (Great Illustrated Classics) - I must have read this one a hundred times. It had all the right ingredients; adventure, fighting, camping, dogs and wolves. Since it was also in comic form it was more accessible to me at a younger age. There was a happy ending but it did not come easy and similar to Treasure Island, the message that life can be hard and persistence and hard work are necessary is a good one.
Which books would you add to this list?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Kids who play outside are more likely to get a job right out of college, or are they?
A friend recently posted on Facebook a picture of her son climbing a tree with the caption, "I rather want him playing outside." It got me thinking about whether it makes a difference in our kid's future career if they spend more time in the trees, grass, ocean, etc.

I should say first that I think playing outside is great for kids. But, if I look at the benefits strictly from a Headhunter Dad perspective it is not so clear that swinging and jumping and running is going to help them get into college or get a better job.

So, what are the benefits from playing outside?
  • Exercise and health are certainly linked to physical activity. This is based on the assumption that kids will naturally move around more outside as opposed to inside. Looking at my own kids they seem to move around an awful lot inside as well!
  • Vitamin D (sunlight). Can't argue with the body's need for this critical ingredient.
  • Interaction with the natural world. Maybe only if you live out in the country as opposed to the center of Manhattan or Tokyo.
  • Distance vision is better for kids who spend more time outdoors (see study).
  • Another study seems to indicate that playing outside (in green spaces) increases your child's attention span. Also related to getting out in the woods and on the grass is lowered stress.
What are the detriments from playing outside?
  • If our kids are outside, then they are not likely to be doing homework (reading, math, history) or working in internships, or playing piano, or practicing for their upcoming SAT exams.
  • While it is healthy to run around, it is less healthy to break an arm falling off a swing; potential injury could be considered a downside.
  • Sunlight (skin cancer, sunburn...)
I also came across several suggested benefits that I could not entirely agree were exclusive to being outside:

  • More opportunities for creativity and free play. I don't think our kids need to be outside to be creative. I spent hours and hours building mutant football stadiums with legos when I was a kid and think that the 6 arm wide receiver I came up with was pretty creative.
  • More social interaction with their peers and therefore more opportunities to learn social skills. I guess this applies if you are not allowed to have friends inside the house. Does online gaming count as interaction with peers?

Speaking with the Headhunter Dad's Dad the other day about this topic he commented that his normal routine after school was to rush through his chores and then head outside to play with his friends until it was time to wash up for dinner. He will be 80 next year so that puts him at 18 years old in 1954. He went on to earn a Phd and had a very successful career in a multinational company without worrying about internships in HS, volunteer activities, AP classes, SAT scores, or extracurriculars. I have my suspicions that the competition to get into good colleges in 1954 was... well, less competitive. Harvard received a record number of applications that year, 4,000 of which they accepted more than 25%. In 2014, Harvard received 34,295 applications for their freshman class. They admitted, 2,023 a drop down to 5.9%! If it has gotten more competitive to get into the top schools and and top companies are we hurting our kid's chances by encouraging them to play at the park?

Colleges and companies are (generally) not judging our kids by their physical health or how tan they are. Even the jobs related to natural sciences will prefer the bookworm with a published research paper as opposed to the kid who spent her time running through the woods.

Should I be relenting more often to my daughter's pleas to take her to the park? Will it help her get into the college of her choice and subsequently result in a job offer?

Just playing outside does not seem to offer any particular career benefits for our kids. However, if we add a few parameters to their outside adventures, we do start to see results. Playing outside with lots of other kids helps them to develop better social skills. These skills are valuable for both the college and job interviews. Creativity and problem-solving are both high on the list of requirements for new grads with most companies. Our kids can develop these outside but we parents need to step back and give them some room (like pretending you don't notice when they walk past the window with a shovel and hose towards your flower beds). However, I believe that the world has changed from when my Dad was a kid and an understanding of the current college requirements requires some balance. So by all means, send your kids out to the playground but make sure they have time to practice that violin as well!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

"Tell me about a time when you did your work WITHOUT BOTHERING ME!"

Job descriptions are not always the best examples of creative writing. Hiring managers the world over follow the example of those who came before them by cutting and pasting previously used job description content. It is interesting to me that those same hiring managers will complain about the student candidates for the "cut and paste job" who have used a form cover letter to apply. But, regardless of how the job description is put together, there are common requirements that appear time and time again regardless of the function, industry, or level of the position. "Problem Solving" may be at the top of the list.

A quick review of the top companies to work for in 2015 according to Fortune Magazine (see the 2011 list in my other article), shows that they are all looking for this ability in our kids (well, the top 3 are at least...).

  1. Google: Strong problem-solving and analytical skills, with an ability to see both detail and big picture issues.
  2. Boston Consulting Group: The objective of the interview is for us to learn about your approach to solving business problems...
  3. Acuity: Analytical problem solving skills

The quotes for all 3 companies above come from job descriptions for new graduate roles. I did not look too deeply into the mid-career opportunities at these companies but I suspect that we would find similar requirements all the way up to the CEO job. Great, this is the kind of thing our kids can get into. They like puzzles and games and if they are given/assigned a problem they can usually come up with a solution or answer. But is this what the hiring managers are really asking for? Maybe for some situations that are clearly labeled, "THIS IS A PROBLEM, SOLVE ME" but how often does that happen? Perhaps I should step back a second and explain how the hiring manager likely came up with this requirement in the first place. We are talking about the very first one who wrote it down to then be later copied by countless managers into the future. Imagine that it is the 2nd year of hiring at Big Company and the hiring manager is thinking of all the challenges she had with the new recruits from the 1st year. High on her stress list is the fact that she spent 90% of her day running around telling them what to do. Determined not to make the same mistake again she writes as the first requirement on the job description:

  • Able to get their job done on their own without bothering me!

Already she feels better about the future as she imagines all the time she will have to focus on her own overdue projects. Re-reading the bullet point though, she realizes that perhaps it does not sound attractive to students who might be interested in her company. How to make it more appealing...? Since most of the interruptions to her work day come from problems the new employees are facing while trying to complete their jobs, she adds "problem solving". Still, it is not exciting enough so remembering her own college life and how "analysis" was fun and sounded professional, she also throws in "analytical". Thus, the age of problem solving as a specific bullet point in the job description is born:

  • Strong analytical and problem solving skills

What does this mean for our kids? Well, when the various questions related to problem solving come up in the interview, if we can advise our sons and daughters how to answer them they will be a step ahead of the pack. The stock answer to any question related to problem solving is to bring up the assignment (school or work) and explain how they succeeded. However, the better answer, the answer that gets to the real concern of the interviewer, is the story of how our son or daughter not only solved a problem, but also identified it and took care of it without pestering their boss! Identification of the issue is half the problem and if your daughter's boss has to point them all out then she is wasting the boss' time. The nice thing about a problem solving question is that it does not require our kids to have work experience. Everyone deals with problems growing up and we can help our kids to remember and categorize these experiences for use in the job hunt.

By the way, not all the companies on the Fortune list hide what they really want to say in common job description jargon. I think Wegmans, at #7 on the list, states it the clearest:
Able to problem solve, anticipating, analyzing, and identifying problems, responding quickly when situations arise and preventing problems when possible.
My previous article on problem- solving discusses a method for helping our kids develop and apply this skill .

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Can I play SimCity as a job?"

Did you know that SimCity first came out in 1989? Yes, I know, it is hard to believe that computers were capable of advanced environmental simulation back then (26 years ago!!!).  While the computers of the 80s might be less powerful than your smartphone today, they were still up to the task of offering kids and adults alike the chance to play with being city planning gods.

It seems that the game has lost little of it's popularity over the years and iterations of it keep popping up.  Most recently, I caught my 14 year old playing on his iPhone (when he was supposed to be doing his homework!). After showing a suitable amount of outrage at his lack of focus and poor attitude about school I asked him to show me what he was doing on the game. I won't go into the gameplay here as you can find out all you need to know on wikipedia. What struck me was the level of detail in the game and the intensity of concentration my son seemed to be dedicating to it.  Kids love games you say? Why should I be surprised? Well, sure it is a game but there are no explosions, guns, semi-nudity, racing, or monsters... basically nothing fun. Why the interest and more importantly, is there a career for our kids hidden in there somewhere?

SimCity is about city planning so I started there. Apparently there is an organization in the US called the American Planning Association (APA). The APA is all about community planning and fortunately they also have a job site on their webpage.  Most of the employers were city governments.  Positions were all planning related (obviously) but covered a variety of disciplines like: transportation planning, wastewater planning, housing. Besides the government jobs there were also related positions with consulting firms (fiscal/economic analyst) and architectural firms (urban designer).

Looking at the requirements listed on pretty much every job on the APA site, applicants must have a "Bachelor's or Master's Degree in Regional/Urban Planning". MIT and UCLA seem to be at the top for graduate degrees in urban planning but there are fewer options at the undergrad level.  Cornell offers a Bachelor of Science in Urban and Regional Studies so let's look at that one and what is necessary for our kids to get in. They state on their admissions page for this degree:
...successful applicants to the urban and regional studies program demonstrate intellectual potential and commitment, and a combination of ability, achievement, motivation, diligence, and use of educational and social opportunities. Above all, the department seeks students with a high level of enthusiasm and depth of interest in the study of urban and regional issues.
To me, the words commitment, enthusiasm, and depth of interest stand out. Intellectual potential and the rest seem like they would be required for any major at a school like Cornell. How do 17 year old kids show that they are committed, enthusiastic and deeply interested in urban planning? While SimCity is a good start, I believe that colleges are looking for some growth and maturity beyond just the game. Internships or volunteer work connected with city development would be good, especially if our kids have more than one summer of it. Consistent interest is usually a good indicator of commitment. Maybe something like volunteering to dig holes for a new playground? Looking at the sample requirements at the bottom of this article, a graphic program seems to be one of the tools of the trade so having early knowledge, use and ideally a portfolio to share will impress.

Is it all worth it? Should I be encouraging my son to focus on a field that might be irrelevant by the time he enters the real world (2023)? Not likely. Based on my extensive research (one website), demand for Urban Planners will increase 16% by 2020. That is good enough for me. More SimCity anyone?


  • Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree in Regional/Urban Planning, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, or a closely related field
  • Five to 10 years of experience in a planning capacity
  • Well organized, detail oriented, and highly motivated
  • Strong writing skills
  • Comfortable with public speaking
  • Has knowledge of computer programs (GIS, Adobe Creative Suite, and Microsoft Office programs) and the ability to produce attractive maps, graphics, and documents