On becoming a superstar

I recently stumbled on an intriguing book entitled: “How to be a high school superstar: A revolutionary plan to get into college by standing out (without burning out)” by Cal Newport. As a homeschool parent, I find that I think about how to equip my daughter to “sell herself” more effectively to admissions committees earlier than I would if I didn’t. After all, we have no one else to rely on; our family is almost entirely of our own making.

The thesis is simple. Most high school students attempt to stand out by competing on quantity and in the process they either burn themselves out or they lose sight of the very attributes that would make them more appealing to admission committees. Or sometimes they get lucky and win at the numbers game.

The most successful kids are those who are, in a word, interesting. Any reasonably endowed kid can load up his schedule with AP classes, sign up for a bunch of clubs, reluctantly volunteer at Habitat for Humanity, and half-heartedly play the clarinet in the band. But if you’re playing the numbers game with this, you’re already at a disadvantage because that what everyone else is doing. And what do you say when the interviewers asks you about any of these activities? If you’re only half-engaged, then the child ends up giving a rehearsed boring answer to the question.

This book takes a contrarian approach - which to a contrarian like me always sounds appealing. Instead of trying to win on quantity, Newport urges kids to compete on “interestingness”. When I was a more active Flickr user, there was an “Interestingness” score that the service assigned to photographs. Maybe it’s still the same. No one ever knew exactly what made one photograph more interesting than any other; but there was a certain “je ne sais quoi” about images that achieved that status. Maybe kids are like Flickr images and admission committees are looking for capable kids with a quality of interestingness.

Newport encourages kids to follow three laws of being what he describes as a “relaxed superstar”:

  • The law of underscheduling. Give yourself plenty of time to explore things that are interesting to you. (Remember when people had hobbies?)

  • The law of focus. Be the master of one area of interest. Don’t cover the waterfront with activities that fail to tell a coherent story about who you are. I always think about good ideas as being those that you can describe in a 15 second elevator pitch. Maybe the best kids are that way. Unrelated activities don’t add up to anything coherent. I wrote about this not long ago[1].

  • The law of innovation. Newport describes this law as the pursuit of “accomplishments that are hard to explain [but] not hard to do.” For me, this was the hardest bit to understand and agree with because there are so many worthwhile pursuits that kids can follow that aren’t necessarily innovative. Perhaps one way that students can be innovative without necessarily abandoning their passion is to find an innovative “angle” on their pursuit. If you are a musician, for example, how can you find something unique to do with music that complements your interest?

This is an area where homeschool parents may have an advantage. It’s easier to have unscheduled time when the entire schedule is up for discussion.

  1. Duncan, A. “Hoping something sticks”, October 9, 2014. Link