Cheating Is the New Normal

Pensive guyIf you’ve studied social psychology, economics, sociology, or law, you’ve probably heard of “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  The story goes like this: A long time ago, towns used to have a “common”—a shared field or piece of land—where people let their cattle graze.  In order for there to be enough grass for all the cattle, people had to take turns letting their cows graze on the common.  The tragedy occurred when some people decided to secretly bring their cows in at night to let them eat extra grass.  When only a few “cheaters” did it, they might have gotten away with it, but when enough people did it, the grass died, and the resource dried up for everyone.

I was talking to a former athlete this morning about how it’s more common for people to take a gap year in between high school and college than it used to be.  He said that people used to do it in sports to take a year to lift weights and get bigger and stronger to be more competitive in college football.  He said, back then, they called them “cheaters” and taunted them.  But today, this kind of behavior is completely normal and accepted.

Have you noticed that, today, it’s normal and accepted to use every loophole, advantage, tutor, coach, and even cross the line to exaggerate the truth or have others do the work for you to get ahead of the competition to get into college, to get a job, to get elected, or simply to get anything you want?  It’s so normal, in fact, that we don’t even flinch anymore when we see it.  We just sigh and lament how things are today.  And, if we have the resources, we tend to jump on board.  I hear over and over again, “I’m afraid if we don’t do it, we’ll be left behind.”

Today’s tragedy is coming about in a different way than the commons of yesteryear.  We are cheating the system and destroying it in the process.  Our individualism is spoiling the commons—our common resources, our communities, and our unitedness—and it’s spreading around the world.  Look at the environment for an obvious example.  It’s okay for a few people to pollute, but when many people do it, the atmosphere gets destroyed and global warming impacts us all.

This whole conversation started when the former athlete said that he overheard one affluent mother in a coffee shop telling another that her kid just got back from a college tour in Sweden.  The other affluent mother responded by saying hers had just returned from a college tour in Norway.  Now, you may have heard that studying abroad can be less expensive than attending college in the States, but, for the most part, that is not true.  Even if tuition is cheaper, the travel and living expenses can be quite high.  In any case, undergraduates from the most affluent families are up to five times more likely to go abroad as part of their degree than less privileged students, a new study says.

Why is this important?  Because so many people are trying to cheat the college system in our country that it’s become a less desirable resource.  The cost to get into college is so much higher than it used to be—both financially and because of the toll it takes on the children spending every waking hour boosting their resumes and test scores to get in.  What’s more, college students are increasingly anxious, tuition costs are skyrocketing, and, because so many people have college degrees now, the degree means less.

It’s even more tragic because the people who could benefit the most from a college degree—poor and middle-class Americans—get the least benefit because they incur so much debt.  But no worries for the rich, because as the American college system dries up, the rich increasingly use their resources to send their kids abroad to get educated.  And so it goes.

 

REAL Connected Women of Influence: Interview with Michelle Bergquist

Women Lead Radio logo  Listen to Women Lead Radio as Joanie Connell, your host of REAL Life Lessons, has a conversation with Michelle Bergquist, CEO & Co-Founder of Connected Women of Influence, on how you can be a REAL woman of influence.  Listen here.

Highlights:

Michelle acknowledges that business is competitive and gives suggestions for how we can still support each other, in spite of the fact that women haven’t been as supportive of each other as men.

Michelle talks about how she’s had to experience “epic failure” to get to success.

Michelle also talks about how to balance authenticity with confidence.

It’s a great show, listen in!

 

The key to knowing when to be right or let it go

Disagree Or Agree Directions On A SignpostWhat’s negative one squared (-12)?  If you learned math in school before 2009, you probably said “1.”  If you learned math once the Common Core was implemented, you would say the answer is “-1.”  A friend of mine spent an entire 4-day weekend visit with his family arguing about the answer to this problem, trying to prove he was right.  When he returned and I asked him how his trip was, he continued his tirade on me.  Even after I agreed with him, he persisted to prove that he was right to the point where I made up an excuse to leave because I was tired of hearing about it.

Do you ever find yourself so caught up in proving that you’re right that you end up alienating everyone around you?  I hear this a lot when I’m coaching technical people.  Of course, they don’t use those words.  They say things like, “people don’t understand my enthusiasm” or “I don’t understand why people are so sensitive” or “some of the people on my team are not that smart.”  Those who are more forgiving to the people around them say something like, “I just can’t help myself” or “I have to be right; I mean, it’s so important to be right in your work, isn’t it?”

Let’s stop right there because that brings up a very important question.  When is it essential to be right and when is it better to let it go?  We all know that with family or with a significant other, we have to let it go sometimes to keep peace in the relationship.  The same holds true at work.  Yet, sometimes it’s harder to do it there.  Why is that?

Usually we argue for our position at work because we feel we’re hired for our knowledge or expertise and we need to prove that we’re right to prove our value to the team.  But sometimes, the relationship is more important.  In fact, quite often, that’s true.  Research shows better work relationships lead to greater employee engagement, organizational loyalty, job satisfaction, productivity, and prosocial behavior.  Strong relationships also help people get things done faster, more efficiently, and more collaboratively.

You can still be right, but do it in a diplomatic fashion, and don’t keep telling people you’re right.  It’s also okay to disagree sometimes.  There are many ways to disagree without damaging a relationship.  You can say “I can see how you’d see things differently from your perspective” or “I don’t think we’re going to come to an agreement right now so let’s agree to disagree” or “you have some really good points and I’d like for us both to give this some more thought before making a decision.”

happy school girl on math classesSometimes there is no right answer, like with the Common Core math example.  We all learned in school that (-1) x (-1) = +1.  The difference is, that with Common Core math, they follow a different order of operations than people did previously.  Whereas older people were taught to keep the negative number intact and break up (-12) into (-1) x (-1), younger people were taught to break up “-1” into (-1) x (1).  They use the PEMDAS order of operations, which is parentheses-exponents-multiplication-division-addition-subtraction and, since exponents come before multiplication, the problem becomes 12 x (-1) which equals “-1.” So that’s how you get the difference and the answer is there are two correct answers.

For most technical people, it’s hard to believe there can be two opposing correct answers to a math problem.  We, engineers, for example, are used to thinking in binary, in black and white, right and wrong.  But there are two right answers out there and we have to find a way to mutually respect that we can solve things in different ways and it still works.  And there’s no sense in arguing about it.

 

The Missing Component that Nerds Need to Succeed

woman it engineer in network server roomAs an engineering student, I missed out on certain parts of the education that my friends seemed to get in college.  I took the requisite number of core courses, like English and social studies, but my curriculum was mostly filled with science, math, and engineering classes.  While my friends were writing papers, I was working on problem sets and computer programs.  I received a great education in engineering and science, but I didn’t get as much training in writing and speaking.  When I graduated I had to play catch-up.  Does this sound familiar to you?

Honestly, I can’t blame college for my stunted developmentStudent in glasses with books in communication.  It was my own doing.  I wasn’t interested in reading the mind-numbing classics or writing tedious papers.  I wanted to learn how to make things that were useful and solve problems that mattered.  After graduation, I achieved my dream and went to straight to work as a design engineer in Silicon Valley.

But when I got there, I realized that completing problem sets and computer programs didn’t teach me how to communicate with other team members, manage my visibility, interact with sales and marketing, or see the end-user’s perspective.  These were all skills I had to learn to be successful at work.  I had graduated from Harvard and my education was lacking.  How could that be?

It turns out, I’m not alone.  This is very typical of people in STEM.  We become technical experts at the expense of learning people skills.  There’s no blame there.  It’s hard—impossible, in fact—to be good at everything.  We all have to choose what to specialize in.  Some focus on the people at the expense of technical skills.  It works both ways.

Businesswoman talking on cell phone in officeBut we’re finding that we all need to have some skills outside of our expertise.  People-people need to learn technology to survive in today’s world just as technical people need to learn people skills.  We don’t have to be masters at everything.  But we do need to learn just enough to get by.

That’s why I developed the Reinventing Nerds program specifically to help technical people develop communication skills.  I get it that you don’t want to be smooth-talking, manipulative, or touchy-feely.  You just want to be able to work effectively in a team, manage your manager, and understand the end-user’s perspective to get your product designs right.  I know.  I’m a nerd too.