Some time back I was sitting at one of my favorite spots for getting serious work done, the Pancake House, coffee at my fingertips, papers spread across the table in my booth.  As I wrote, I was aware of a conversation going on between two college women in the booth behind me.  I was not intentionally eavesdropping, but I’m not opposed to listening in if it sounds interesting.  The one statement I heard got my attention.  One young woman said to the other, “Why would anyone run a 10K race when you can get the same t-shirt for doing the one-mile walk.”  She was referring to a fundraising event that was coming up that weekend.

I smiled and said to myself, “She doesn’t get it.”  Anyone who has run before, for competition or simply for their physical or mental health, knows that running is not about seeing how little you can do and still get the t-shirt.  It’s about seeing how much you can do in a given time or with a given distance.  It’s not about avoiding discomfort, it’s about finding out what you can do when you are tired and hot and ready to quit.

The running is not about the t-shirt.  I have a number of t-shirts from 10K runs many years ago when my knees were younger.  I like having the shirts, but it’s not because I need the t-shirts. Most of them are pretty ugly.  The reason I value those shirts is because I know what went into earning each of them.

The same kind of question I heard about the t-shirt could be asked of thousands of activities and decisions that go into being a college student.

  • Why would I want to put that much effort into this paper?  I can download a few articles, do some creative cutting and pasting and rewriting, and I’ll probably get the same grade.”
  • Why would I want to push myself in this class?  I’ll get the same diploma everyone else is getting.”
  • “Why would I volunteer to help out with Walk for Life?  It will happen whether or not I help.  My contribution won’t make that much of a difference.”

Of course, these are not just issues for college students.  These are the kinds of decisions we all make in our jobs, our families, and our time alone.

There is no shortage of things to get excited about, and no shortage of things to worry about.  There are lots of activities, opportunities, and demands competing for your time, attention, and allegiance.  It’s a real challenge to choose wisely from among them.  Yet, the bigger challenge is to decide HOW you will engage in these things.

It’s easy to get caught up in the t-shirt, in the final product.  Our culture promotes that bottom line, final product mentality.  After all, educational institution gives final grades and then a diploma.  Our jobs promise raises and promotions.

However, focusing too much on the outcome can be a real misery.

I have talked to hundreds of students who have gone through the undergraduate and graduate work feeling like an imposter, terrified that eventually someone will discover that they aren’t as smart and capable as their grades indicate.  These are students who have never really pushed themselves, but have gotten the grades anyway.  They don’t yet know what they can do, and they’re afraid of finding out.

Likewise, I have talked with hundreds of students who have ground to a halt academically, not because they aren’t smart, but because they are terrified that they won’t get the top grade or the perfect internship, or the job they hope.  They are so fixed on the final product, they can no longer engage in the work.

It’s crucial for students and for all of us to discover that we in fact cannot control the outcome.  We can’t guarantee the grade or the promotion.  There are too many factors outside our control.  The only thing we do have some control over is our effort.  We can determine how much time and effort we expend on doing the work.  And interestingly, effort is the best predictor of outcome.

The final product, the t-shirt, can create an image, but it’s the effort that produces character.