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Courage Over Competence

|“First, identify your core values. And then learn to develop the courage to make decisions that are consistent with those values.”

Can you imagine flying the First Class and spending two hours together with Michael Jordan? My friend Cathy Heller did, and he gave her some amazing advice.

His advice, it turns out, aligns with Harvard Dean of Admissions Bill Fitzsimmons' advice around admissions as well. Listen in to find out all about it!


  • Amazing story of how Cathy ended up sitting next to Michael Jordan
  • Michael’s advice to the 18 year-old on the importance of courage
  • The biggest mistake you want to avoid in your college prep journey
  • Why you should never trade your uniqueness and try to be like everyone else
  • How courage and being brave relates to college admissions
  • What I noticed about the mindset of many students at Harvard

     And so much more.


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Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep Academy Podcast. Equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back.

So I just heard the most interesting story. I felt like I had to share it with you. It's from Kathy Heller.

Kathy Heller wrote the book Don't Keep Your Day Job, and she also has a podcast, and she does some amazing work helping adults find their true passion and create businesses by aligning more closely with their core values and the things that they do well. So she just a ton of synchronicity between my program that works with teenagers and helps them really stand out in this admissions process and her program that says, look, let's take the exact same skills that you learn from creating an Impact project and from standing out in these authentic ways, and let's do them to change the world. Right? Let's do them as adults.

And so I love Kathy Heller. I've learned a lot from her. And she just told this amazing story that I had to share.

So in the late 1990s, she was actually stranded in an airport in New York City. She was trying to get to Atlanta. Her flight had been delayed or canceled, and she had been on standby three times and not gotten in.

And finally, she was the last person admitted in to a flight that had to get out of the gate right away to avoid getting canceled because of inclement weather. And so she was as this 18 year old college student going back to college. She was forced into first class.

It was the only seat available on the plane. And here she is as an 18 year old girl. She gets on the plane, and sitting right next to her is this tall man who's wearing a beanie kind of cap and dark glasses.

And it's not clear who this person is. They were kind of intentionally incognito, but they had this amazing energy about them, an amazing personality. And immediately they began talking.

They're sitting right next to each other in first class. And then at the end of the airplane ride, with just a few minutes left before they land and deboard, this person took off his glasses and hat for just a few minutes, and she realized that she had been sitting next to and chatting with Michael Jordan for the last 2 hours. So amazing, right? And what I love about this is, almost immediately when they began talking, she asked him, what do you do for a living? And he said, oh, I'm an entrepreneur.

What do you do? She said, Well, I'm I'm 18 years old. I'm I'm a college student. Well, what do you want to do? And they began to talk about her dreams and her aspirations.

He said that as an entrepreneur, he could give her advice. He told her to have courage to think differently, that that's going to make the difference in her success or failure, and that if she decides that she really wants something, she needs to think differently about it. She needs to really believe that she can go get it and et cetera, et cetera.

All this really, really cool advice when you realize that the person giving the advice was the greatest basketball player who's ever played the game. And I want you to know that that advice is perhaps even more relevant to teenagers, those of you who are listening, who are in middle school or high school. Look, I get it.

What most people want in middle school is to fit in. What most people want is to be popular, to have friends, and to be accepted among your peers. And even those students who have really lofty ambitions, who want to compete for the top universities in the world, who want to do amazing things and want to stand out oftentimes, these students are still playing a safe game.

These students are not trying to develop the courage to think and behave differently. In my opinion, this is due to a lack of understanding, perhaps bad information, bad advice around what it means to stand out in the college admissions process. Because what a lot of students do in an attempt to stand out is they hide their individuality instead of developing it, because they're trying to stand out in the exact same things, the exact same ways that everyone else is trying to stand out on.

In other words, they're trying to be just like everyone else, only better, right? They want to be a musician just like everyone else. They want to be an athlete just like everyone else. They want to be a student government leader just like everyone else, but they want to do it at a higher level.

They want to stand out by being the same as everyone else, only much better. And I think this message is really important because this isn't just my opinion. Bill Fitzsimmons was the Dean of Admissions and Financial Support at Harvard College, and I'm quoting this from the book The End of Average, which was written by Todd Rose, who you may or may not recognize as one of the deans of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

So Bill Fitzsimmons says about admissions, he says you're trading in your uniqueness to be like everyone else in the hope that you can be a little bit better at the thing that everyone else is also trying to be. But if you're just playing the averages, then on average, it won't work. Now, as an educator, I want to say, he is so right.

I see this in the classrooms, and I see this in the hallways all the time. Even the quote unquote standout students, the students who have real ambitions and really want to compete for these top spots, they're trying to be better than everyone else. At doing the exact same things.

But to really stand out requires courage. It requires that we're willing to think and behave in ways that other people haven't thought of before, because we're not interested in fitting in. We're not even interested in being better than other people.

We're just not interested in what other people are trying to do. Because anyone who has listened to my podcast, anyone who has attended my online course, the Ivy League Challenge, as all of you know, I could speak for hours, I mean, I could speak for days about how important it is for high school students to learn what their core values are. And once you identify your core values, learn to develop the courage to make decisions that are consistent with those core values.

Make decisions that are consistent with your core values. Yes, you will be weird. You will make decisions that other students don't make, and that will require courage.

So let's talk about courage and how it relates to college admissions, because choosing to be different when you're in middle school or in high school truly does require courage. And I would argue that competency is very, very important in college admissions. You want to show that you can get top grades, that you can get top test scores, that you can accomplish great things, that you are competent, that you can develop skills, especially.

Those things are very important. And yet, as important as competence is, I think that courage is even more important than competence when it comes to admissions. And getting selected for these top spots think about it for just a second.

How on earth are the admissions officers at these top universities supposed to choose the most competent, the most qualified applicants in a sea of valedictorians and perfect test scores where there are more valedictorians with perfect test scores than there are spots available in the incoming class? How does an admissions officer choose who is more qualified or who is more competent? They don't. At some point and you've heard me say this before at some point, they have to choose based on who is more memorable. Well, how do you become more memorable? I would argue that it's your courage.

What are you doing that is different, that truly is different from other students your age. How do you stand out? How do you demonstrate that courage over time? Now, what is courage? I love what Mark Twain said about this. This might not be an exact quote, but he said courage isn't the absence of fear, it's acting in spite of fear.

Right? And what he's saying here is that courage means that your values, your core values are more important than the safety that you think you're going to get by choosing what everyone else is doing. All right? We get this false sense of security, this false sense of safety that if we try to fit in, if we try to do what everyone else is doing. And if we do it the same way that other people are doing it, we're going to gain their approval and we're going to feel safe and everything's going to be okay.

And I get that. But courage is saying, I know what my core values are and I'm going to choose to act consistently with those core values, even if it's a bit scary, even if it does not fit the standards or it does not fit the mindset and the culture that my peers expect from their friends and from me. I'm going to choose my core values.

I'm going to have the courage to choose my core values because that's who I am. And we only do this when we value something. We value our values more than we value that sense of safety that we also want.

Now, I want to say that sometimes courage is misunderstood. It's easy to see courage as facing your fear and doing something heroic in the moment, and sometimes that's exactly what it is. But oftentimes it's important to realize that courage is often a long game, right? There are not always going to be immediate consequences that appear right away when we act out of courage, when we act consistently with our core values, that doesn't mean that the consequences are not important.

Just like the consequences of getting enough sleep every single night, right? It doesn't show up in the short run. I guess it does. It shows up in the short run too, but many of those consequences are going to show up in the long game.

The fact that you're able to think more clearly and more consistently, that you're able to perform at a more consistent high level because you're doing something consistently, you're consistently getting enough sleep and other habits and routines are going to fit the same idea. So courage and developing the routine or the habit of choosing to act consistently with your core values is going to have some immediate consequences. But I think it's really important to realize that a lot of these consequences are long term and you're going to see them when you develop yourself into the kind of person that honestly is a role model that other people want to emulate.

Because you don't care. You don't care what other people think is safe. You don't try to live your life based on those false assumptions.

You live your life based on what is important to you and your core values and that is attractive to other people. That is compelling. There's going to be an energy that just resonates from you because you live your life that way.

And those are the long term consequences that lead to amazing opportunities as a young adult and as an adult. And some of those opportunities are around college admissions. You are going to attract people that are going to be interested in your Impact project, that are going to want to work with you, that are going to want to help support you.

And some of those people are going to be if you do it right, they're going to be business professionals, they're going to be media professionals, or they're going to be college professors who are doing research in your area. Any number of these types of support can make a huge difference. And you just resonate this confidence and this energy when you develop the courage to continue making choices that are consistent with your core values.

And so these people come out and they want to support you. They'll also write the best letters of recommendation for you, and you will have the best stories that represent authentic, challenging choices that you have made when you write your essays and when you submit your application. So all of this is going to help you stand out when you apply to university.

But the even bigger deal is what I say over and over and over again. Look, the classmates that I studied with at Harvard, these were people who did not need Harvard to become successful. Their success plan was not contingent on being admitted to a top university.

They were going to be successful whether they went to Harvard or another university or even if they never went to any university at all. They were doing amazing things and changing their communities at a very young age. And they were going to continue developing those skills and becoming that kind of game changer throughout adulthood.

They were going to be successful with or without Harvard University. And that's why they stuck out when they applied. That's why Harvard wanted them.

The implications of this are tremendous. If you don't need a top tier university to be successful, you're far more likely to be admitted to a top tier university. But guess what else? You may decide, just like Bill Gates and others before you, you may decide that your thing is more important than your university, and you may decide that it's a waste of your time to continue studying at Harvard University because you've got bigger things on your mind that you need to do.

Just like Bill Gates and others, right? And so these are people who dropped out of Harvard because their businesses were too important to them. That's the type of courage that we're talking about here. That's what Michael Jordan was talking about with Kathy Heller.

And that's the kind of courage that you can begin developing as a teenager. How do you do this? I want you to know that it's not automatic. It's not something that's going to come naturally to you.

But developing the courage to live your values is realistic. And I want you to know that it happens in five to 32nd increments. You just need to make courageous choices during these 32nd or less intervals.

So that's all you need, 30 seconds of courage. And oftentimes it's less than that. It's 5 seconds.

It's 10 seconds. It's 20 seconds up to 30 seconds of courage. You just need 30 seconds of courage.

A few times a day when you're faced with choices about safety or your core values, you need 30 seconds of courage to make the choice that is consistent with what you think is most important to you. Of course, those 30 seconds of courage happen when we have higher levels of emotional intelligence, higher levels of self awareness, higher levels of self efficacy, and those are all things that we can begin developing. And you develop those things in the same way, 30 seconds at a time.

You choose to think before reacting. You choose to be proactive rather than reactive. You choose to manage your energy, manage your time, manage your thoughts, manage your behavior.

And as you do that, you become more and more self aware. You develop this emotional intelligence, and ultimately that courage to do what is right and to live according to your values helps you develop into this rock star applicant, the kind of person that colleges want, the kind of person that businesses want, the kind of person that you want to be the role model. So let's take the advice that Michael Jordan gave our friend kathy Heller and choose to have the courage to think differently.

Trust bill Fitzsimmons, the harvard of dean admissions, when he says that trying to fit in and just be better than everyone else at what everyone else is already trying to do is not the ticket to elite admissions. Develop the courage to be consistent with your core values. Perhaps nothing is more important in admissions or in life.