Move-In Day!

Are there many moments more exciting than move-in day at college, particularly for freshmen?

I am sure there is also a lot of stress leading up to the big day, but hopefully that stress is overwhelmed by the amount of excitement associated with such an event.

It seems as if schools have become logistics experts in terms of the way they handle move-in day. At Villanova, students are assigned a certain time slot when they can move in to their dorm. Once they arrive on campus, they can pull their car up close to their dorm, unload their car right at the curb, and then move the car to the main parking lot immediately afterwards. Such a process keeps the long line of cars moving at a fairly good pace, and I assume such a process minimizes the total amount of time required to complete move-in day.

The public safety officers seemed a bit stressed to me as I walked through the hustle and bustle, yelling at the families to speed up the unloading of their cars, and getting impatient if a driver did not immediately respond to their hand signals as to where to park their car, but all things considered, everything appeared to be going smoothly.

Fortunately it was not too hot a day, and I did not see anyone collapsing under the weight of all the stuff they were moving into their dorm rooms. I also didn’t see anyone getting upset with the public safety officers…

When I think of move-in day, I think of the classic, final Calvin and Hobbes comic strip shown below.


Hobbes: “Everything familiar has disappeared! The world looks brand new!”

Calvin: “A new year… a fresh, clean start!

Hobbes: “It’s like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on!”

Calvin: “A day full of possibilities!”

Calvin: “It’s a magical world Hobbes, Ol’ Buddy…”

Calvin: “Let’s go exploring!”

I think those words describe fairly well what the beginning of a new academic year is like for students, and it’s even more special for the freshmen.

As a faculty member I feel the same way at the beginning of each semester; it’s a fresh, clean start, full of possibilities.

My hope is that college students everywhere get to experience a magical world, one full of possibilities.

And don’t forget to go exploring…

The Decline of Standards

This is the 74th in a collection of newspaper ads written by Harry Gray, then CEO of United Technologies, that appeared in the Wall Street Journal from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Here is the text from that ad.

A big city school system requires a student in the seventh grade to be able to read as well as a fifth grader, who, by the way, must be able to read as well as a fourth grader, who, in turn, must be able to read as well as a third grader.
What’s wrong with demanding that a seventh grader be required to read like a seventh grader?
How would you like to be operated on by a brain surgeon who graduated from a school that allowed its students to be a year and a half behind in their skills?

I’m not really sure what Harry is talking about here. I can’t imagine that a school system would permit such standards. Is he suggesting that to pass seventh grade, a student only needs to be able to read at the third grade level?

I know that our public school system has some significant problems, but is it that bad? There may be isolated instances of such a situation, but on average, I would assume that when standards are set, the standards are different for each grade level. Otherwise, why have grade levels?

I wonder what Harry would say about the Common Core. The Common Core State Standards Initiative is an educational initiative in the United States that details what K–12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. The initiative is sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and seeks to establish consistent educational standards across the states as well as ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at two- or four-year college programs or to enter the workforce. While 42 states have adopted the Common Core, it remains a controversial topic.

I’m not sure how I feel about the Common Core. On the one hand, Bill Gates is a big supporter, and I usually agree with the initiatives that he supports. On the other hand, I know a couple of public school teachers who are strongly against the use of the Common Core.

I think both sides have the same goal, to improve student learning; where they differ is in terms of what approach is most effective in accomplishing such a goal.

So I think the fact that there is a common goal should make it easier for people to arrive at an approach that is effective and that the majority can agree on.

And that’s the type of solution I think would ease Harry Gray’s concerns…

*By the way, this is the penultimate ad in this series of ads that United Technologies published in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

**I look for every opportunity to use the word ‘penultimate’, it’s one of my favorites…


2016 Could Be the Year of the Accountant

After watching Gwen Jorgensen’s dominating win in the women’s Olympic triathlon, I realized that 2016 is shaping up to be a great year for accountants.

Before becoming a world-class triathlete, Gwen worked as a tax accountant for EY, the global professional services firm. One of the EY partners, Mark Hellmer, helped set up a flexible work arrangement so she could work part time and train and travel for triathlon. After she qualified for the 2012 Olympics, Mark helped Gwen get a leave of absence so she could train full time for triathlon over the Wisconsin winter. She had full intentions of going back to Ernst & Young after the London Olympics; however, after the race, she decided to fully invest into triathlon instead. Apparently, that investment has paid off.


In a recent interview with Forbes magazine, Gwen talks about what attracted her to the world of accounting.

I have always enjoyed numbers and learning about business, so in college, I took business courses (she earned a master’s degree in accounting). Something about the order of debits and credits really intrigued me. I love trying to figure out the tax puzzle. I find it challenging and satisfying.

I also was attracted to corporate taxation because I enjoyed searching for answers in the tax Code. Researching and finding solutions for clients is fun. And tax people are just awesome.

It sounds strange, but the solitude of preparing and checking returns gave me pleasure. I found it soothing and rewarding.”

As great as Gwen’s story is, and how wonderful it is to read about the support that EY gave her (and continues to give to women athletes – read more about the firm’s Women Athletes Business Network (WABN)), Gwen was not the first accountant to make a big splash this year.

Kevin Hart played Calvin Joyner, a tax accountant, in the hit movie Central Intelligence. Here’s the description of the movie from IMDB:

After he reconnects with an awkward pal from high school through Facebook, a mild-mannered accountant is lured into the world of international espionage.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it is entertaining, and at one point there’s mention of the need for super-sweet accounting skills (there’s also lots of exciting talk about spreadsheets). And by the way, his awkward pal from high school is one of my favorite actors – Dwayne Johnson, The Rock. (The Rock also reveals in the movie the secret to what it took to look like he does.)

But the highlight of the year for accountants will come this fall with the release of a movie titled, The Accountant.

Here’s the story line from the movie’s web site:

Christian Wolff (Affleck) is a math savant with more affinity for numbers than people. Behind the cover of a small-town CPA office, he works as a freelance accountant for some of the world’s most dangerous criminal organizations. With the Treasury Department’s Crime Enforcement Division, run by Ray King (J.K. Simmons), starting to close in, Christian takes on a legitimate client: a state-of-the-art robotics company where an accounting clerk (Kendrick) has discovered a discrepancy involving millions of dollars. But as Christian uncooks the books and gets closer to the truth, it is the body count that starts to rise.

I am guessing after this movie is released we will see a huge surge in students wanting to major in accounting, which hopefully will keep me employed for a few more years. There could also be a surge in demand for pocket protectors.

By the way, this movie was also the basis for my most recent April Fools’ Day prank, which to my delight, actually fooled some people.

So 2016 looks like it could be the year that the world finally realizes that accountants can kick butts and do your taxes at the same time.


This Will Be One of My Favorite Memories from the 2016 Olympics

The other day I wrote about what I considered one of the low points of the Rio Olympics, when Islam El Shehaby of Egypt refused to shake the extended hand of Or Sasson of Israel, after El Shehaby lost to Sasson in an opening round judoka match.

But then today I just heard about the great photo shown above. The picture shows Lee Eun-Ju from South Korea taking a picture of her and Hong Un Jong from North Korea. Even though their countries are technically still at war, and the two of them were getting ready to compete against each other, the athletes came together for a selfie on Monday. Eun-Ju is also shown making the peace sign in the photo.

I can’t imagine any picture that better depicts the Olympic spirit than this. It shows what is possible when people get to know each other.

It reminds me of John Lennon’s words from Imagine:

Imagine all the people living life in peace…

A tip of the hat to Eun-Ju and Un Jong for allowing us to imagine that such a world is possible.

Should You “Burn Your Boats”? Having a Plan B… or Not

A recent story in the Wall Street Journal shared some recent academic research that showed participants who had no backup plan associated with their primary goal performed better than those participants who did have a backup plan in addition to their primary goal.

According to Jihae Shin, the study’s co-author and assistant professor of management and human resources at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s business school, “Simply contemplating backup plans make you want to achieve the primary goal less, which makes you put less effort into it. As a result, you have lower chances of success in your primary goal.”

Shin goes on to note that when people anticipate that they’ll feel really bad if they don’t complete a task, they will work harder. But if they have thought of a contingency plan, which for most people is human nature, they might feel more comfortable slacking off. But this research suggests that people should be more strategic and understand the potential downside of formulating such a plan.

I’m not sure I can agree with the results of this research, which seemed to use a trivial task and minor reward in its experiments. The task was unscrambling sentences, with rewards ranging from a free snack bar to an extra $1.00 if the participants completed the task.

I’m not sure I would equate the importance of such a task and potential reward with the type of task one might face in the real world when developing goals and evaluating risks and rewards.

Shin and her co-author Katherine Milkman note that their results only relate to situations where there is a strong link between effort and achieving the goal. However, I think in most real-world situations, there are many factors that affect whether or not a goal is achieved.

For example, a few years ago when I was contemplating whether or not to start my own personal training studio, someone advised me that I should quit my teaching position and just concentrate on the fitness business. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be “all in”, as he put it, and that would lead to compromising my potential for success.

Such a decision would have been a disaster. While the personal training studio did not do well, I don’t think it was because I kept my teaching job. In fact, it was the money from my teaching job that enabled me to keep the studio going when it ran into some tough times. I ended up closing the business after four years, and I was fortunate that I still had my teaching job.

In the comments section of this Wall Street Journal article, one person mentions Cortes and his order to “burn all the ships” so that there was no other option but to fight, as well as Julius Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon, which implied a point of no return. Both Cortes and Caesar were successful in their exploits, but those decisions seem to be taking the “no Plan B” thing to an extreme.

I think in most situations having a backup plan is essential, and should really be considered part of your primary plan.

In finance, people are taught the value of diversification, of not putting all of their eggs in one basket. Investors can reduce risk by having a portfolio of well-diversified stocks, while still earning an acceptable return.

That’s how I view a contingency plan; it’s a way of minimizing risk while still focused on trying to maximize your goals.

I’m not sure you can really study the real-world implications of having or not having a contingency plan. Shin and Milkman note this limitation in their general discussion. Who would be willing to be part of the experimental group that had no Plan B?

It certainly wouldn’t be me…

Is the Island Life For You?

In the past month I’ve come across two separate stories of women who left successful business careers and moved to an island.

Kathleen Byars, founder of Blazers, Inc., a marketing strategy firm, recently published a post titled, “Why I Traded My Lipstick and Pinstripe Suit to Live on an Island“.

Byars write that in 2004, at the age of 34,  she retired her lipstick and executive career to live on an island. She was curious about all the people who made their living leading kayak tours and whitewater adventures whilst she swam from corporate meeting to corporate meeting in a pinstripe suit. And curious to know if a simpler life, one that had nothing to do with the American Dream, would be more satisfying than the life she was living.

In a separate story, Veronika Janeckova, tells about her recent decision to quit her job in London and move to an island in Southeast Asia and pursue her love of surfing. In her post, “Life’s better in a bikini, or is it?“, Janeckova notes that she had become a person who could no longer stay in the place she was.

After looking for the moments when she felt truly at peace and when she thrived and felt inspired, she decided to travel to a small island in order to experience a life that’s radically different from the way she lived until now. It would include wearing bikini, fighting mosquitos and working from a surf shack in over 30’C.

She notes that she is not sure if life will actually better in a bikini, but she believes that we all should take our time to listen to our inner selves. Grass may or may not be greener on the other side, but that’s not the point. It’s a trap anyway because there always will be “the other side”. The real question is: “Is the grass green right now and if not, how can you make it green for yourself again?”

I find such stories inspirational, and I admire the courage that such decisions take. To leave behind the familiar, a secure source of income, friends and family, and go into the complete unknown is a scary proposition.

You can read more about Kathleen Byars’ experience here (she will share how she finally found balance and carved out a brand-new life built on her own terms in her next post), and keep up with Veronika’s journey on her blog, Into the Reality.

Shake Hands Or Don’t Bother Showing Up

I’m a huge sports fan. Not only do I love the competitive aspect of it, but I also believe sports can teach lots of good life lessons, such as the value of hard work, how to perform under pressure, how to win and lose gracefully, how to play fairly, how to be part of a team, and how to set goals. Sports can also build positive personal characteristics like confidence, humility, and respect.

So I was disappointed when I read about what happened at the conclusion of one of the judoka events at the Olympics. Israeli heavyweight Or Sasson had just defeated Islam El Shehaby of Egypt in a first-round match, and El Shehaby refused to shake Sasson’s extended hand. The crowd reacted with boos, which to me was the appropriate reaction. The 34-year-old was also “strongly reprimanded” by the International Olympic Committee for his behavior.

I think it’s one thing to not shake someone’s hand if you feel the person did not compete fairly. But to not shake an opponent’s hand because of what country he is from, or what his religion is, or what the color of his skin is, or what his sexual orientation is, seems completely wrong.

If you have such strong feelings on such issues that you know you won’t be able to shake your opponent’s hand, then you shouldn’t be at the Olympics.

The Olympics are supposed to be above such behavior, and in fact are meant to promote the exact opposite of such reactions. Sports, and the Olympics in particular, are a great way to bring a wide variety of people together so that they can learn about and appreciate such diversity.

So to me it’s simple. If you’re not willing to shake the hand of any potential competitor because that person is different from you in some way, then skip the Olympics. Let someone with a more open mind take your place. We’ll all be better for it.

By the way, if you want to see a positive example of the power of sports, here’s a great story.

The Sixth Extinction

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert isn’t the type of book I would normally have picked to read, but it was the selection as the One Book at Villanova University for this coming academic year, which enabled me to pick up a free copy, so I thought, why not.

I had just finished reading a Harlan Coben novel prior to starting the Sixth Extinction, which was a page turner, and The Sixth Extinction was quite different than that. It took a while to get into it, but then once I did, it also became a page turner and I couldn’t put it down.

The book offered explanations for the five major extinctions that our planet has experienced, and then took a look at what is happening now to our planet.

Certain parts of the book really resonated with me; here’ a couple of quotes:

“Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.”

“With the capacity to to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it. A tiny set of genetic variations divides us from the Neanderthals, but that has made all the difference.”

“We’re seeing right now that a mass extinction can be caused by human beings.”

“To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exacty; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”

At the American Museum of Natural History in the Hall of Biodiversity, there is a plaque that states: “Right now we are in the mist of the Sixth Extinction, this time caused solely by humanity’s transformation of the ecological landscape.”

Some scientists believe that “human ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion.”

The book concludes that “the Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust.”

The book has piqued my interest to learn more about the history of man, and of life on Planet Earth in general. For example, I had no idea that our current knowledge of dinosaurs only came into existence during the 1800s; I just assumed that people like Plato and Aristotle knew about the prior existence of such animals.

It has also put visiting the Great Barrier Reef at the top of my travel wish list, since there’s a chance it may not be there much longer.

All in all, a great read, and I highly recommend it.

I am also looking forward to the author’s visit to our campus in late September. I was quite impressed with the amount of research and all of the off-the-beaten path travel that was involved in putting together such a book. Kolbert’s ability to put all of that together in an informative yet entertaining way likely played a key role in the book receiving the Pulitzer Prize.


Decisions, Decisions. Featuring Freddie Fulcrum…

This is the 73rd in a collection of newspaper ads written by Harry Gray, then CEO of United Technologies, that appeared in the Wall Street Journal from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Here is the text from that ad.

Sometimes the decision to do nothing is wise.
But you can’t make a career of doing nothing.
Freddie Fulcrum weighed everything too carefully.
He would say,
“On the one hand… but then, on the other,”
and his arguments weighed out so evenly he never did anything.
When Freddie died, they carved a big zero on his tombstone.
If you decide to fish – fine.
Or, if you decide to cut bait – fine.
But if you decide to do nothing, you’re not going to have fish for dinner.

I’ve never heard of Freddie Fulcrum, but I like the alliteration.

I’ve heard of another phrase to describe this reluctance to making a decision – paralysis by analysis, and I know I’ve been guilty of it many times.

I understand the importance of making decisions, but I also like the motto, ‘Look before you leap’. So you walk a fine line between doing the analysis and making a decision. A key point to realize is that you will likely never have all of the info you need to make a decision, so you’re going to have a decision using less than perfect info.

I remember when I was in the midst of evaluating whether or not to open my own personal training studio. I was trying to gather as much info as I could, and since I was looking at a franchise opportunity, I decided to reach out to existing franchise owners around the country and ask them a few questions.

I still clearly remember one phone call, it was probably about my tenth one, and in the middle of asking about my fifth question, the person on the other end, a young woman who owned a franchise out in California, stopped me and said,

‘Jim, how many of these phone calls have you made?’

When I replied that I had made several, she said, “So do you think you are going to learn anything new from making another phone call? At some point you just have to say yes or no to this opportunity.”

She was right, at some point I had to stop gathering and analyzing the data and make a decision. I think it was about two days later that I signed the franchise agreement.

I also remember, as part of running the franchise, I decided to hire a sales coach for a year. As part of the sales training process, I learned that the number one mistake that most salespeople make is that they never ask for the sale.

Most salespeople are great at schmoozing, and can make killer presentations. That’s the easy part, there’s no rejection when you do those things.

It’s when you ask for the sale that you encounter a strong likelihood of the prospect saying no, and most people don’t like rejection, so they avoid it by never getting comfortable with actually trying to close the sale.

As Alec Baldwin said in Glengarry Glen Ross, “ABC – Always Be Closing”.

It’s the same with decision making. At some point you have to make a decision (doing nothing is also a decision), and that’s when you face the possibility of making a bad decision. There’s no risk of making a mistake when analyzing data, so people just keep analyzing data.

It’s when you make a decision, when you put your neck on the line, that there is the possibility of failure, and no one likes failure.

But it’s usually through failure that we learn our best lessons, and as a result, we learn to become better decision makers.

So if you want some practice with making a decision:

Enter your email address at the top left of this page and hit subscribe. It may turn out be a bad decision, but at least you’ll learn from it…

P.S. In a nice bit of serendipity, there’s a story in today’s New York Times that looks at this same issue: Hesitant to Make That Big Life Change? Permission Granted

Why Doesn’t This Happen More Often?

Katie Ledecky set a world record in the women’s 800 meter freestyle, and beat her closest competitor by more than 11 seconds. Katie now has the 13 fastest times in the history of the 800 free.

Almaz Ayana set a world record in the women’s 10,000 meter run, and beat her closest competitor by more than 15 seconds.

Simone Biles won the women’s gymnastics all around, and beat her closest competitor by more than 2 points. To put her victory in perspective, that’s bigger than the margin of victory from 1980 to 2012—combined. Put another way, Simone score 3.38 percent more points than anyone in the field. While that might not seem like much, it’s nearly double the margin any other gold medal winner.

Other examples of such epic performances are Usain Bolt’s winning margin in the 100 meters, and Bob Beamon’s long jump record from 1968, which lasted for 22 years.

These performances were epic, and the athletes have been rightly praised for such results.

And while I certainly agree with how amazing these women did, it also confirms something I have thought about for a long time.

I have often wondered why so many athletic competitions, such as the Olympics, which bring together athletes from all over the world, who have different DNA makeups and different training approaches, end up being decided by the slightest of margins.

It seems to me, on a  planet of seven billion people, there should be more of these types of performances, where someone is just on a different level than everyone else.

No one has ever broken two hours in the men’s marathon, but there are several people getting close. Why isn’t there someone that can run it in 1:55?

Is there someone out there capable of breaking nine seconds in the 100 meter dash; what about doing a 35 foot long jump?

I think there are people capable of such performances

But I think that part of the reason why this does not happen as frequently as I think it should comes back to one of my theories about the luck of birth.

All of the people mentioned above happened to be in the right place at the right time. They had access to the right coaches and the right opportunities. I am sure there are thousands, if not millions of people out there, who could be capable of such performances if they were, to borrow Chelsea Clinton’s phrase, blessed by fate, like these other athletes have been.

In the meantime. I’ll continue to be impressed by all of these world-class athletes I’m watching during the Olympics, but in the back of my mind I’ll also be thinking that there’s people out there just as good, if not better…