Build Your Success While Other People Rest

By: Kevin Smith

The holidays are upon us and we know that some well-deserved rest and relaxation lies ahead.

I get it, I really do. You’re tired. You’re done. You’re a car that’s been burning on all cylinders for months on end and thousands of miles. You can smell the bitterness of burning rubber and there’s steam coming off your engine block; you’re road weary. Like most people, you want to end this long trip, park in the garage and cool down for a bit. And, this is what most people will do.

But, since you are reading this, you’re not most people. You’re willing to do what others won’t so you can live like others can’t. Continue reading “Build Your Success While Other People Rest”

I Play the Tuba and I Still Win in Life

There’s nothing valuable about being normal. “Normal” is easy and can be found everywhere. If you could find a diamond just by walking down the street, it wouldn’t be worth nearly as much. Same principle applies to people.

Sometimes we have to face the difficult reality that, at some point, we’re all just trying to fit in. We’re asleep at the wheel. Success comes first to those who wake themselves up.

In life, if you want to live like others can’t, you have to do what others won’t.

For me, one of those things was playing the Tuba.

If your first thought after reading that was that I’m a geek, a loser, or a fat kid with pimples, that’s OK. I’m writing this, you’re reading this, and I’m winning.

I played the tuba at request of my teacher who needed someone to fill in for a year. I said “Yes” because I loved music. The only reason I would have said “No” is for fear of being made fun of. Yet, this tuba was responsible for this first-gen college graduate. College wasn’t even in my sights until November of my senior year of high school. One last minute trip to my first Ohio State football game and the next moment I’m painting lines in my backyard, driving 400 miles a week for practice, and trying out against hundreds of other people born and bred to be there. 4 years later, I was “dotting the ‘i’” at the 2003 BCS National Championship game in Tempe, Arizona. Continue reading “I Play the Tuba and I Still Win in Life”

There’s No 4 Point O in Life

We need to change the way we prepare ourselves.

College isn’t getting any cheaper and every student and parent wants the best return on investment possible. But this cannot be the job of the university alone. We need to go all in, from every angle, and change the way we think about our own preparation.

Unfortunately, preparation for work in the “real world” is no longer limited to taking classes and getting a degree. The degree is just the price of admission, no matter what it is. Success after initial employment is defined by much different standards. Moreover, at the current pace of change, most knowledge learned anywhere is outdated within a year or two. Not to mention, the real world doesn’t operate on a graded scale. In life, you either pass or you fail. There’s no 4.0 in life. 

Because of this, employers demand a proven ability to learn, navigate barriers, and work inclusively with others. Traditional education systems of reciting facts and measuring the retention of static information doesn’t adequately prepare us. Yet, this isn’t as much our teachers’ fault as you might think. It’s ours.

We rely too much on getting A’s and/or following a linear path to success. From the time we play rec-league tee-ball, are recruited into college, to meeting with an advisor, we have come to expect a mapped out, step-by-step life. We know this is where we go wrong, but just can’t help ourselves.

Optimization is the process by which we make something (or someone) as fully functional as possible.

Universities cannot accomplish real-world preparedness alone. College Student Optimization is more than a process, it’s an attitude we should share in.

For the past decade I’ve worked with thousands of executives, professionals, and even young, 3-5 years-out-of-school employees, from highly regarded companies like Apple, Google, Cox Media, Virgin Galactic, Amazon, you name them. Here are 3 things to do to begin optimizing the real-world-prep experience now:

1. Dig for Gold in the Right Places

People have this illusion that the brand name behind their education will make all the difference. While it is true that the Top 25 schools have clout, there are still 4000 other schools and plenty of amazing jobs and ways to contribute.

The one thing every school has in common is an ecosystem of opportunities filled with nearly unlimited resources and people who are actually paid to make you successful. These people are singularly focused on leveraging the system and their network to put you ahead. From community colleges to small-to-midsize schools, every student has the same resources to get them to the big leagues. To be honest, most people never take advantage of them because they still think the gold is solely in the classroom. While those people miss out, others get ahead from simply showing up to claim the prize. Of all the successful students or professionals I’ve ever coached, 99% were normal people who understood this simple fact.

2. Do Improv Comedy      

The ability to communicate is essential, but it’s most critical when you have to think on your feet. Learning how to write a neater e-mail or give an orderly presentation is like learning how to hit only one type of pitch in baseball. In reality, every job interview, meeting, or formal presentation includes curve balls, sinkers, and sliders. If you want to hit it out of the park, you have to learn how to react to every pitch.

Improv comedy might sound like something only for theater majors, but the skills learned from standing in front of people and instantly improvising and communicating your thoughts on random topics is clutch. This is so true that even Carnegie Mellon University requires this from many of their masters candidates. Not to mention, presentations are seldom solo and your ability to work with a team on the spot can be developed here as well. Or, you could just wait until your job depends on it and see how well you do then.                                                            

3. Get a Cross-Cultural Grip

Globalization isn’t happening somewhere overseas, it’s happening to you. Because of this, we need the ability to collaborate cross-culturally, inclusively, and lead in complex environments…at least, that is, if you want to get hired. And, you don’t need to study abroad to get an experience like this.

While studying abroad is a highly recommended investment that will easily pay mucho dividends-o, there are other ways to demonstrate an ability to hang with others who work differently than you while showing aptitude for flexibility:

  • Attend international events, programs, or festivals – eat the food and ask questions. They’ll love you for it. Feel uncomfortable and gain an alternative perspective on what it’s like to be the only person like you.
  • Go to a part of a nearby major city where refugees live in concentration and start their own grocery stores and restaurants. In the northern section of my city, there are 6,000 refugees from Nepal. While most people consider this an lower-income part of town, I re-label it as “amazing.” I can have the same adventurous experience of shopping and dining 2 miles up the road as I can by paying thousands of $$ in developing countries in Africa or Central America.
  • Take a leadership class with the U.S. Army ROTC (you don’t have to be in the ROTC or commit to it). The Army is a different culture. They wear different clothes, speak in acronyms, have their own rules, and even wear their hair differently. My Institute runs a leadership class with these guys and gals just to get students out of their shells. It’s one of the most popular courses we have at our University.

Once you’ve had these experiences, reflect on them and figure out how you’re different because of them, not how they were simply different from you. This is what will optimize your experience.

Of Course…      

Yes, there are more than just 3 things to do to begin the optimizing of you. In a world where the number of English-speaking college graduates are tripling into the vast millions, you need to be seen as the solution to someone’s problem, not another number.

Finally, another thing all these successful people have in common is that they have a coach – someone they meet with regularly to get valuable feedback and with whom to negotiate action. Save yourself 5-10 years by listening and learning to the experience of someone who is already optimized and never stops.

Personal Success Optimization is not a beginning and it is not a means to an end. It is a continuous state, an attitude, and it’s your choice. 

Kevin Smith is a speaker with CAMPUSPEAK ( and the Director of the Institute for Leadership Advancement in the College of Business Administration at The University of Akron. Kevin is a first-gen college graduate who believes everyone is only one small decision away from changing everything. 

The Community College Advantage

If you attend a community college, you’re probably one of the smartest people I’ll ever meet.

Plain and simple, community colleges are awesome because they provide easy access to a better life. It can be as much or as little as you make it. Unfortunately, most community college students don’t maximize this potential.

As a first-generation college graduate, I know how important it is to use an education for a better life. The entire cycle of poverty for a family can be broken forever with easy access to education, a little hard work, and a willingness to set yourself apart from the rest. It all begins with simple decisions, which seem so small now, but ultimately will change everything about you for the better.

Here are some tips I share with students to give them an edge in creating the life they’ve always wanted, no matter where they choose to go to school.

  1. Never Say “Just.”

The first step to success at a community college begins with not defeating yourself and setting the right attitude. When asked where they go to school, most community college students unfortunately say, “I just go to…” For some reason, they buy into the myths that they are “less-than” a student with similar credentials who chose to go somewhere else.

Warren Buffett said, “I don’t care where someone went to school…that never caused me to hire anyone or buy a business.” I’d listen to him. He’s a multi-billionaire and a good human being.

Instead, take a minute and write down all the reasons why this was the best decision you ever made. Do this so you can articulate these reasons well. Then, believe in your message and go out and capitalize on it. It is up to you to discover and frame them so you can sell it. Eliminate this word – “just” – from your vocabulary; it only causes failure.

Remember, anywhere you want to go you can get there from here. Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Calvin Klein, Clint Eastwood, George Lucas, Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, multi-billionaire Ross Perot, and Queen Latifah all went to a Community College. I think they’re doing just fine.
2. Your Degree Is Just The Price of Admission

Your degree – no matter which school you attend – takes up about 5% of your resume, the remaining is all about the experiences you gain along the way. The biggest mistake I see community college students making is that they reverse this and believe that the degree is going to be the game-changer.

The world is too competitive now. Yes, you will probably need the academic credentials, but you’re not going to school to get into the “Maybe Pile for a job interview.. Getting into the “Yes Pile” will have everything to do with your experiences and your personal skills and the way you communicate them. Those come from outside the classroom. Community colleges are investing heavily into these outside-the-classroom experiences. Go find them.

  1. Show Up

More than likely, you’re used to going to class and then leaving. Instead, pay attention to those posters and events you see everywhere. If you don’t see them, open your eyes because they are there. Every community college has them and they are full of resources and contact information.

Show up to some of these things. Apart from what you will learn, you’ll meet administrators, high-achieving students who get it, and maybe even people like me who can all help you navigate yourself to anywhere you want to be. Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future. Don’t be a loner.

Remember, these two-to-four years are the last years of your life where people are literally paid to make you successful.

  1. Get An Internship

I don’t care if you have to make coffee and clean the fridge, go get an internship.

Students from ANY college who take an internship are almost 80% more likely to get a job out of college those who don’t, and they typically make nearly $5000 a year more starting. If you work for 30 years, that one internship translates into a $150,000 signing bonus paid out over your career. 

Most internships are very meaningful and many of them are paid. Talk to your internship coordinator at your school. If this is not a position your college has then take your resume to some places you’d like to learn more about and to tell them you’re a college student looking for a chance to learn and make a contribution in return for experience. 

  1. Brand Yourself As Someone Who Is Work-Ready

I have a degree in English and I had only two choices, either limit myself to teaching and/or editing textbooks, or I could decide to promote my ability to solve problems. I chose the latter and to this day, I’ve never worked in a job which I didn’t create myself, even my current one. It’s worked out very well.

As a community college student in this economy, you have the advantage to brand yourself differently from others, and this is a great thing. Employers are beginning to perceive large Universities as mazes for the masses where students graduate with no real-world experience. As a community college student, you can make the case that you have what they are really looking for – experience and a working knowledge of the real-world.

Don’t label yourself as a one-dimensional  college major or by where you attended  school. Most employers are looking for two simple things: proof of an ability to learn and an ability to solve problems.

The latter will all be accentuated by the experiences you have listed under the remaining 95% of your resume. Brand yourself as a problem-solver, everyone needs one of these no matter what their industry.

Now is the time to attend a community college and now is the time to realize how much of an advantage this can give you. Choose your attitude, seeks outside-the-classroom experiences, show up, get an internship, and make it count.

Kevin Smith is the Director of the Institute for Leadership Advancement in the College of Business at The University of Akron and a keynote speaker to large corporations, MBA programs and universities across the United States. Kevin is a first-generation college graduate and holds degrees from The Ohio State University and Ohio University.