What It Takes to Be Great

I am lucky.   At my school, students register for classes early and the professors can receive their email addresses almost immediately.   I have talked before on this blog about patterning student behavior (what do I want my students to do and how do I go about getting them to do that?).   I usually start sending emails to my students pretty quickly to set the tone that I want for the semester.   I don’t want to wait until the first day of class to start patterning their behavior.  

What tone am I trying to set in these emails:   (1) I am serious about this class so you better be as well and (2) there is a lot of challenging work to be done but the benefits are amazing.   If I can get those two points across before I meet the students in the fall, the battle is already half won.  It helps that I believe both points.

Consequently, I sent out an email to my junior level students this afternoon.   All I am asking is for them to take 10-15 minutes of their time to read a fairly interesting article.  But, I already know that if I just send them an email and suggest that they read the article, my chances of success are not high.   So, I use this as a chance to make my point:   There is a benefit here and that alone is a good reason to do the work.   I want them to approach this assignment and this class as an adult and not as a child.

Will all the students do the assignment?   I think most will.   More importantly, when they finish, I think they’ll say “Well, that was interesting and worth my time” which makes it so much more likely that they will follow up when I give them their next assignment.   I want to pattern their behavior in a positive direction.

Letter to my students:


To: Accounting 302 Students

From: JH

I realize our first class is not for more than three months but I have an assignment for you. And, I will begin by telling you several important things:

--I am not going to grade you on this assignment.
--I am not going to take anything up.
--I am not going to quiz you on it.
--I am not going to give you a few bonus points because you read it.
--I doubt that I will mention it to you ever again.

Well, why the heck should you do this assignment then?  Because I believe it will be good for you and you should long for assignments like that.

And, because you are no longer a teenage high school student who has to be bribed into doing work. You are an adult getting ready to enter the business world and compete against some very knowledgeable (and ambitious) people. When you walk into Intermediate Accounting II, it is time to stop thinking “I’m just a kid” and start thinking “I’m an adult preparing myself to compete in a challenging adult world.”

So, here is the assignment: I want you to read a Fortune magazine article that I read about 7 years ago that has impacted much of what I have done in this world since that time. The article is titled “What It Takes to Be Great.” It can be found at:

I have long argued that most students (most human beings) are entirely satisfied to be good (or at least average) but I rarely meet people who have a driving ambition to be great at anything at all. I think that’s a real shame. The world needs more bright people to push themselves to be great and then go out and change the world for the better.

I usually give about 15 percent A’s in my classes. I rarely find that much more than 15 percent of the students actually shoot to make an A. A vast majority are more than happy to shoot for a B. 100 percent of my students are capable of outstanding work. About 15 percent do outstanding work. Which group will you be in?

I think the problem is that most school courses (from kindergarten on) train students to shoot to be good but rarely push people to be great. How do you become great? That’s what this assignment talks about.

I want you to focus specifically on two sentences that come from the 4th or 5th paragraph:

“In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.”

That last sentence describes what I want for you.

Those sentences describe two groups of people. One group that settles for good and the other group that continues to improve and push forward and finally achieves greatness. You are capable of being in that second group. It is not easy. I will be glad to help but, in the end, greatness requires work. You have a world of talent in that head of yours but greatness requires a serious investment of time and effort.

I was watching the pro basketball playoffs last week and one of the coaches was wearing a microphone. The game was close and there was a real question as to which team was going to win. The coach looked at his players and told them one thing: “At the end of the game, don’t let anyone be able to say that the other team played smarter or played harder than you did.”

I like to steal from the best so: At the end of Intermediate Accounting II in the fall of 2014, don’t let anyone say that the other students in the class worked smarter or worked harder than you did.

Now, go do your assignment: Read the article and think about what it tells you about making an A in Intermediate Accounting II.

Let me know if you have questions or thoughts (but that is not a requirement).



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