It’s the Little Things That Make the Big Difference

As you prepare for graduate school, keep this important piece of advice in mind: It’s the little things that happen along the way that make the difference in your path to becoming an academic. Yes, it’s true, those seemingly little things you do in your interactions with people often make a big difference down the road. Tina Seelig, the Chong Moon Lee Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, offers this advice in the book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World.

Seelig argues that showing appreciation for the things others do for you has a profound effect on how you’re perceived. Keep in mind that everything someone does for you has an opportunity cost. If someone takes time out of his or her day to attend to you, there’s something they haven’t done for themselves or for someone else. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking your request is small. But when someone is busy there are no small requests. Always assume a thank-you note is in order and look at situations when you don’t send one as the exception to the rule. Because so few people actually do this (unfortunately), you will certainly stand out from the crowd.

Seelig offers a few additional “little things” that can make a big difference:

Remember that there are only fifty people in the world. Of course, this isn’t true literally, but it often feels that way; the person sitting next to you might become your boss, your employee, your customer, or your sister-in-law. Over the course of your life, the same people will quite likely play many different roles. I’ve had many occasions where individuals who were once my superiors later came to me for help, and I’ve found myself going to people who were once my subordinates for guidance. The roles we play continue to change in surprising ways over time, and you will be amazed by the people who keep showing up in your life.

Don’t burn bridges, no matter how tempted you might be. You aren’t going to like everyone and everyone isn’t going to like you, but there’s no need to make enemies. Your reputation precedes you everywhere you go. Imagine you’re interviewing for a job that has dozens of candidates. The interview goes well and you appear to be a great match for the position. During the meeting, the interviewer looks at your résumé and realizes that you used to work with an old friend of hers. After the interview, she makes a quick call to her friend to ask about you. A casual comment about your past performance can seal the deal or cut you off at the knees.

Your reputation is your most valuable asset–so guard it well. Every experience we have with others is important, whether they are friends, family, co-workers, or service providers. In fact, some organizations actually capture information about how you treat them, and that influences how they treat you. For example, at some well- known business schools, every interaction a candidate has with the school or its personnel is noted. If a candidate is rude to the receptionist, this is recorded in his or her file and comes into play when admissions decisions are made. This also happens at major companies such as JetBlue. If you’re consistently rude to JetBlue’s staff, you will get blacklisted and find it strangely impossible to get a seat on their planes.

The point is this: you can’t make everyone happy all the time, but consider how you want to handle difficult situations and how possible outcomes might affect you in the future. Seelig suggests that you “imagine how you will describe events later, when the dust has cleared.” She notes, “How you want to tell the story in the future is a great way to assess your response to dilemmas in general. Craft the story now so you’ll be proud to tell it later.” The road to graduate school may be a long one, but in the end, your reputation and relationships with others follow you wherever you go—make sure the impression you leave is a good one!

*Reprinted with permission from Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter by Rick Reis (reis@stanford.edu); adapted from Chapter 8 of What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World by Tina Seelig. Copyright © 2009 Harper Collins Publishers.

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