As a leadership professor at New York University, I see some of the world's top students. A recent conversation reminded me that our university's culture still misguides them.

Our corporate worlds suffer the same problem as my student. The more elite the institution, the more I see it.

My student was asking career advice--in particular, how to feature different parts of his school experience for a job search. He had a double major and a double minor. Plus he had led a couple student groups.

Impressive, right?

Well, yes, but not necessarily effective.

I'll give you the challenge I gave him. Quick, think of a role model--a personal hero you'd like to emulate.

How many major life accomplishments did he or she achieve?

Almost everyone answers, "one major thing." Rarely do I hear a one-every-few-centuries name like Leonardo Da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin who has done a few major things. Even then, they usually did one thing at a time.

The problem with doing too many things

Doing too many things means not finishing any one of them to your potential. Not many employers or team want generalists who don't show interest specifically in what they are looking for. Even if one or two of your majors and minors align with a potential employer's interests, if the others don't, they may make you look distracted.

You might be distracted.

Warren Buffet has a way to get things done that flies in the face of today's elite university and corporate culture. He suggests listing your top 25 priorities. Divide that list into the top 5 and bottom 20. Most people presume you work mostly on the top 5 and occasionally on the bottom 20.

On the contrary, he instructs working on the top 5 and avoiding the bottom 20 at all costs. Like the plague. They are the vampires of success, sucking your time and resources. Mainly your time, leaving you lifeless.

They are the path to mediocrity.

In other words...

You have to say no to a lot of good things to have a great life.

We all have said "yes" to too many things sometime, not realizing that time doing one thing meant time not doing another. I still do, but less than before.

What does "too many things" mean? It means saying yes to mediocre or good things that crowd out great things. We all do it. Something seems great in the moment. We want it.

We don't think about the resources it will take. Then when we do it we realize we can't do something else we wanted to.

We make ourselves mediocre, ironically by chasing what we imagine is greatness.

When I can magically create more time and other resources, I'll say yes to more things. Until then, I've learned to decline good things to have a great life.

Values and emotions

It's a matter of values. Your values determine "good" and "great" for you.

The less you know your values--your emotional responses to things--the less you know how to decide where to allocate your resources, especially time, but also money, connections, relationships, energy, and so on.

The more you know your values, the more you can choose to improve your life--that is, to have more things in your life you like and less that you don't.

Having limited time and finite resources means saying "no" isn't declining one thing, but saying "yes" to something better, or at least enabling it.

It takes discipline, but also builds it.

My student's solution

So what do you do with achievements that could distract? You've said yes to too many things.

I recommend deciding what part of yourself you portray based on the other person's interests, if there's a fit.

After we spoke, my student concluded what made information important depended on the employer's needs and interests. Instead of trying to figure out what achievements to highlight at interviews on his own, he would use the occasion to contact someone at the place he was interviewing to learn what they valued. Active listening, in other words.

Then, after talking with that person, he would craft how to present a relevant focus to the job (assuming there was a fit).

Now he has focus.

Published on: Jan 31, 2018