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The Art of Activity Innovation: How to Be Impressive Without an Impressive Amount of Work

The Power of InnovationImpressive

At the core of the Zen Valedictorian philosophy is the idea that if you really understand the psychology of impressiveness, you can, in effect, hack your image — making yourself outrageously impressive without having to become outrageously hard working.

I introduced two techniques for achieving this goal. The first, focus, stated that becoming very good at one thing was more impressive (and less time consuming) than becoming kind of good at many. The second technique, innovate, was more difficult to parse. It stated that any activity that made someone think “how did he do that!?” would yield rewards that were disproportionately large compared to the effort put in.

In this post, I dive into the details of this idea and describe both why the innovate factor is so strong and how you can achieve it.

Some Innovative Examples

Let’s begin with some examples. Below are three activities that generate the “how did he do that!?” response. Each is based, loosely, off of real students:

  1. A high school student who designed a technology-based curriculum recently adopted by several states.
  2. A college student who setup the U.N.’s first youth advisory council and led the effort to write a youth rights constitution adopted by the Arab League.
  3. A high school student who ran a web design company that involved the managing of a dozen contract employees and servicing 5-figure corporate contracts.

Each of these examples, most will agree, are impressive. These students, no doubt, will have many interesting opportunities afforded to them: they’ll get accepted to good colleges (relative to their grades) and have their pick of cool jobs. Lurking behind this reality, however, is an insistent question: why, exactly, do these activities command so much respect?

Some Non-Innovative Examples

To help answer this question, consider, as a point of comparison, the following list of more standard activities:

  1. A high school student who was the president of two student clubs and was a member of the varsity tennis team.
  2. A college student who did well in a double-major and also sat on two different student activity councils.
  3. A high school student who played trumpet in her state’s regional orchestra.

Compared to the previous list, these three activities probably did not elicit the same level of admiration. Certainly, these students are more impressive than the average schlub, but, on the other hand, we don’t imagine them necessarily breezing into top colleges or having their pick of post graduation jobs. Whereas the students in the first list might be called superstars, these latter students might be stuck with the moniker of “grind,” “hardworking,” or, pronounced, no doubt, with a note of disdain: “ambitious.”

Why do we judge these two student groups so differently?

If pressed, you would likely guess that impressiveness is a function of talent and hard work. The above examples, however, falsify this hypothesis. The activities of the second list require just as much hard work, and, in many cases, such as varsity tennis and regional orchestra, more natural talent than the activities of the first list. Yet, the first list strikes us as much, much more impressive.

Indeed, the real reason the first list is so much more impressive can be attributed to a little understood phenomenon…

The Failed Simulation Effect

When presented with a student biography we tend to oblige our instinct to mentally simulate the path that led to that student’s achievements. For example, when we hear about a student holding down two different club presidencies and a spot on the tennis team, we imagine the hectic, running from meeting to meeting lifestyle that supports that volume of tasks. We have no problem with this simulation. We know students like this. We feel that, with a high enough tolerance for pain, we too could be that busy. It’s hard work. But it’s not mysterious.

What happens, however, when presented with the story of a student who works with the U.N. and drafted a constitution for the Arab League? Our simulation apparatus fails. We don’t know how, exactly, one becomes a player in major international organizations.

The effect of this failed simulation: a sense of novelty and wonder.

And it is exactly this feeling that we end up interpreting as the sensation of being “really damn impressed.” In other words: The first three sample students elicit great admiration not because they are harder working or more talented than the second list, but because we cannot simulate the path they took to their achievements. This failure intrigues us. We don’t feel like we could have done the same. We don’t feel threatened. A sense of novelty and wonder sluices through our synapses.

Leveraging the Failed Simulation Effect

Understanding this subtle mental effect allows you to maximize the impressiveness you reap from the effort you expend in activities. The key, we now understand, is to push activities into a realm where most people cannot easily imagine the steps that got you to your destination. Here’s the good news: such pushes are a function more of planning and creativity than of hard work.

From my experience in deconstructing the paths taken by these types of students, I can identify three steps that will help you get to this impressiveness sweet spot:

  1. Enter a Closed World and Exceed Expectations. The first step is to get involved as an insider in a world that interests you. This might mean landing an internship, or shadowing someone, or joining a relevant club. Once there — and this is key — tackle the opportunities given to you with vigor. Complete them fast. Go slightly above and beyond. In such entry-level, non-full time situations, the people above you will be pleasantly surprised that you are getting things done. You will soon be rewarded for this.
  2. Package Insider Connections. After you’ve proved yourself in this world, you’ll begin to notice interesting opportunities that only an insider, like yourself, would know about. Look for an opportunity to lead a project that would be available only to someone on the inside. Leverage your insider knowledge to its fullest extent.
  3. Escalate. The solo project from (2) will defeat most people’s simulation apparatus as it was built upon connections available only to insiders. In this final step, leverage this effect, and the good job you did your past project, to shake loose an even more un-simulatable project. Repeat this process a few times, with each iteration ramping up to an even more insider-supported, harder to simulate project.

Case Studies: How The Three Example Students Applied These Steps

Let’s examine how these three steps were applied by the sample impressive students at the beginning of the article.

Case Study #1: The high school student who wrote the curriculum.
She satisfied step (1) by taking a student internship at a well-known technology company. She then satisfied (2) by getting involved — and following through — on an internal project involving the application of the company’s technology to educational settings. Finally, (3) was satisfied when she volunteered, as her main intern project, to package up these findings into a full curriculum. By doing a good job and following through, she got the company to pitch the curriculum to their school partners; several picked it up.

None of this required any more effort than the standard high school summer job. But because it leveraged opportunities only available to someone working inside the education department of a technology company, it appears, to an outsider, to be un-simulatable — “how do you get states to adopt a curriculum you wrote!?” — and thus really damn impressive.

Case Study #2: The college student who worked with the U.N. and Arab League.
Attending school in the middle east, this student met up, by coincidence, with an old friend who had started an international youth activism network. To satisfy (1), he agreed to start a chapter of the organization in his own neck of the woods. He pushed the chapter to meet regularly and grow. By doing so, he met some important contacts and identified some important youth issues in the middle east. To satisfy (2), he made a lateral move to start his own organization focused solely on middle east youth issues. By attending conferences, and making phone calls, people got to know him. Finally, to get at (3), he leveraged this status and his connections to get invitations to help lead relevant initiatives at the U.N. and the Arab League. No mystery. He ran a youth organization in an under-represented region. These international bodies wanted to work on these issues. It was a natural fit.

This was hard work. But no more so than the running of any large club. Because, however, it dealt with an insider world — a vibrant sub-culture of international youth activism — it yielded rewards — involvement with the U.N. and Arab League — that, to an outsider, seem absolutely inexplicable.

Case Study #3: The high school CEO.
I’ll come clean: this story is based on the company I started in high school with my friend Michael Simmons. Mike and I knew how to design basic web sites because we were, well, nerds. Hoping to make some money, we stumbled across a local guy who ran a business directory web site for the Princeton area where we lived. To satisfy (1), we setup a little deal to help small business he listed build simple web sites. To satisfy (2), we leveraged the portfolio and experience this provided us to strike out on our own. One of our key insights working with the business directory was that it was easy to find sub-contractors that would, for a cut of the fee, tackle most of the time-consuming tasks of designing web sites. We landed a few clients and made some money. Finally, to satisfy (3), we leveraged the fact that our company looked like a big deal to hire a CEO, print some fancy marketing materials, buy suits, build up our team of sub-contractors, and, most importantly, raise our fees.

The company was fun. We never had more than one or two clients at a time. And our responsibility was mainly keeping them posted while our sub-contractors did the work. Looking back, Mike and I estimate the time we spent was roughly equivalent to being the president of a student club. The rewards, however, were so much higher. Because we leveraged the insider knowledge gained by working with a local web portal, we were quickly able to get to a point that foiled most people’s simulation apparatus.

In Conclusion

I apologize for the length of this article, but the subject of activity innovation is tricky. It is also, I must admit, one of my favorite issues to explore. If you’re looking to make an impact in this world — and you want to do so without suffering a steady stream of stress-induced panic attacks — you need to look beyond the standard exaltations to simply “get started!” and “work hard!” and “follow your passion and it will all work out!” Instead, think carefully about how impressive achievements really come about. When you know what you’re doing, you will be surprised by how soon you can get somewhere that earns serious admiration.

53 thoughts on “The Art of Activity Innovation: How to Be Impressive Without an Impressive Amount of Work”

  1. When I read, “making yourself outrageously impressive without having to become outrageously hard working,” a disturbing thought passed through my mind. Add “or even moderately competent at your chosen career,” and you’d have Obama nailed down. All image with no substance, narcissistic and thin-skinned but devoid of genuine achievement.

  2. Very very helpful! This article is exactly what I needed. I’m still trying to find a way to do a mindblowing activity. The “Failed Simulation Effect” really helped explain things.

    I’m at a point where I’m trying to figure out what to do activity-wise next year. More tips on how to get involved, get internships, and blow people away would be amazing.

    Also, I’m confused about preparing myself for after college. For instance, how do I learn about money. Should I worry about it now or later? What should I do?

  3. Hello Cal, awesome post! Could you go one step further and outline how your technique can be applied to a research-oriented student? I can sort of picture it in my head: I should volunteer to be an RA, do independent undergrad research projects, et cetera. But how to push undergrad research to a “wow” level is something else. I don’t know if there’s any way to do research well other than reading a lot of relevant literature and thinking hard about new questions, both of which are intense and time-consuming. Is science something in which there’s no remedy to hard work? (I’m going to be a Cognitive Science major if I can clear special major requirements next year).

    I just finished typing the above and checked out the other comments. Mine sounds rather like Mike Perry’s concern. So if you could address us both that’d be awesome. Thanks a lot!

  4. @Linh:

    Undergraduate research is a bit of a special case. I think the general three steps apply. At least, from my experience, the way good research experiences get built are as follows:

    • You get a standard undergraduate research assistant type position.
    • The initial work you get will be small, and somewhat tedious. You do it well and fast.
    • The professor is impressed because most undergraduate assistants get busy fast and start doing the bare minimum. Not you.
    • After a while, you are given a more significant role. You start ending up as a co-author on some papers.
    • The professor becomes your advisor for your undergraduate thesis. You basically end up taking some little piece of the research you had been helping on and push it through to completion. It’s good enough to publish with you as a primary author.

    Within the world of people who care about research experience, this is all very “wow”-worthy. Don’t worry about reading literature in your field or practicing; you’ll gain the practical knowledge you need and be pointed to appropriate readings as you get more involved in the work.

    • I know this is an old comment, but how would a math major go about this? I’m going to study at a Dutch university next year and aside a bachelor thesis in mu third year there doesn’t seem to be any chance to sign up for research.

  5. @Linh & Mike:

    One other note. There is no subsitute for hard work. The key of activity innovation, I think, is that you get a lot more reward for your hard work than you would for other, non-innovative activities that required the same amount of work or more. Though I don’t know him, I think Obama has done some hard things. Getting elected to be a senator, for example, is not, last time I checked, easy.

  6. I certainly can understand building up the “wow” factor using this method. Speaking at various conferences or to clients/businesses, I often hear “How’d you do this, when you’re only 15?” However, I honestly can’t figure out how you can leverage this in admissions/on paper. After all, everyone knows what being on “varsity tennis” means. They don’t know what the more “innovative” things really are.

    Impressive things are often obscure. Sure, it’s great for people to wonder “How’d they do that?” but what if they’re wondering what that even really is?

  7. Really insightful post Cal. Like someone else said above, I am also considering what activity to take part in next year and this article has helped, although I’m still relatively clueless.

    I really like the idea of starting a business, I feel like I’ve got what it takes to do it, I just don’t know whether it’s realistic… Am I likely to encounter issues with needing to be in the office during school to contact clients and clients not trusting me because of my age?

  8. Another excellent post, Cal. I think it makes the very important point that in most cases, the pathway to doing things that people find extraordinary is to do things differently, and to build on initial successes.

    I’ve talked with a ton of successful entrepreneurs, and in almost every case, what led to their success was simply following their interests off the beaten path.

  9. The first half was great… the second half was amazing. Since reading this, I have identified two possible opportunities in my own college life that I could finesse this way. Exciting stuff.

  10. @Chris and Nelsonway:

    Thanks. I’m glad it matches your experiences. For all the value we place on impressiveness, I’m always surprised by how little time people spend thinking about its underlying mechanisms.

  11. @Carl:

    With my business, we just kept things flexible. Doing most communication virtually and not using a client process that relied on too many face-to-face meetings. Occasionally I skipped class to close a deal, but, I suspect, that my teachers found that to be cool…

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  13. Unfortunately for me, the part I have a hard time with is coming up with that original idea. It would never occur to me that those examples you listed were even within the realm of possibility until you gave them.

    So my question to you is, how do I find the “ultimate” experience/result of my field of interest? I mean, I look at the examples and say, wow I would never have thought to do that (more so than I have no idea HOW they did that). For example, I am thinking of applying to medical school, so medicine is one of my interests, as is environmentalism.

    Although I am just starting college this fall, I am worried that I don’t have any passions for anything outside of these two areas.

  14. So my question to you is, how do I find the “ultimate” experience/result of my field of interest?

    You can’t figure this out in advance. The key is to pick a field and gain insider access by taking on projects and finishing them. Once you’ve proven yourself, then you’ll start to notice future projects you’re now allowed to take on that you never would have imagine before. If you could imagine these projects before becoming an insider in a world than they wouldn’t trigger the failed simulation effect.

  15. This aticle ‘The Art of Activity Innovation: How to Be Impressive Without an Impressive Amount of Work’ ….i must say is quite detailed and good, I know i ve also been president of student club, working with CSR club of my company..but bringing this on paper n creatin an impact is altogether different game i dunno how this cud be done….lately i n one of my frens is thinking to start a tech company(not IT company), n i know its goin to be very hectic, n i want to create a wow factor to my application wen i apply top b schools in US. How that cud be done? I wud like to talk to u in detail abt this cud u gimme ur email id?

  16. know its goin to be very hectic, n i want to create a wow factor to my application wen i apply top b schools

    As discussed in the article above, it is very to hard to figure out in advance what the “wow” factor activity will be. You have to choose something general that you like, pay your dues, and start ratcheting up your opportunities until you arrive at the surprising opp that will be most impressive. If you could figure it all out now, before you’ve done anything, than it wouldn’t, by definition, generate the failed simulation effect, and therefore not be that impressive.

  17. Mike Perry (poster #1) is a fucking retard. Obama graduated top of his class at Harvard Law School and was the editor of the Harvard review. Mike what have you done in your life?

  18. I’ve been reading successful b-school admissions essays, and every single one of them is like the first 3 scenarios you mentioned. It’s a little disheartening, but your post made even that seem attainable.

    I have a couple of prospects for innovation: 1) starting web-based business while working full-time, 2) coaching a basketball team of 3-4 year olds and 3) organize childhood cancer fundraiser in local area. I thought the business could be my wow factor, until I read a completely unimpressive application from an entrepreneur who was rejected from his b-school of choice. Now I’m not sure it’s enough. Part of what gave your CEO story the wow factor was the fact that you were high school students. Maybe all 3 of my prospects have potential, but I feel like I’m missing the part where you take it to that next level. Can you offer any advice?

    P.S. Really cool post 🙂

  19. but I feel like I’m missing the part where you take it to that next level. Can you offer any advice?

    The key is always that you *cannot* plan the full path to impressiveness in advance. The best you can do is find a closed world, exceed expectations, look for the new opportunities this creates, then repeat. Any one of the three activities you mentioned are great *starting* points to entering the closed world. Once in, keep re-applying the cycle to ratchet up your impressiveness level. You can end up somewhere a year for now that you could have never imagined today.

  20. Hi, this was a great post; I’m glad that I found it. I’m a high school sophomore planning to graduate early, and this college stuff sure is stressful.

    Anyway, I feel like I have accomplished the first step in your plan, but am not sure how steps two and three would work in my chosen field of interest (politics).

    I guess it all started when I landed an internship on Obama’s campaign. I was happy to receive this opportunity because I really wanted to be involved and fight for something I believed in. I never tried to advance during the campaign; I just did what I thought I was supposed to, and that was giving my best and doing everything I could to help Obama do well in my area, along with making lots of friends, having fun and gaining experience. I was appointed to a few leadership positions because of my hard work and dedication (a lot of interns flaked off after a while). But I never really met point two because a campaign doesn’t last forever, and I wasn’t aware of how I was “advancing”.

    Because another staffer heard about my campaign work, I have started an internship at my senator’s local office (usually these are saved for college students). I’m really looking forward to learning more about a different side of politics, as I really, really love it.

    Any advice on how to pursue new opportunities and point this out on a college application or resume? Thanks again for the great post.

  21. Any advice on how to pursue new opportunities and point this out on a college application or resume? Thanks again for the great post.

    You’re doing excellent. I would say getting the senate internship represents your first pass through the steps — you paid your dues, packaged and elevated to get the senate internship. Now you’re back to step (1). Do your job very well. After people have noted your hard work, began looking for your point of escalation. You’re definitely on track.

  22. I am applying to business schools. I graduated from University of South Carolina with a 2.6 gpa in 1999. I have since then worked primarily in pharmaceuticals and been very successful. I am now part of a start up company that sells a service to medical office staff.
    I feel that if I am going to put the time and sweat into an mba program, it needs to be a top b school. Do you have any suggestions in overcoming the obstacles I am facing in obtaining admission to a good program?

  23. I feel that if I am going to put the time and sweat into an mba program, it needs to be a top b school. Do you have any suggestions in overcoming the obstacles I am facing in obtaining admission to a good program?

    Do a google search for “Ask the Harvard MBA.” It’s the blog of Chris Yeh, a former HMBA guy, he talks a lot about b-school admissions and knows more than me!

  24. Nice piece. Gonna get all 3 of my kids to read it. I keep telling them to try to be different but when everybody looks like a wood duck, looking like a ring tail duck seems different. I want them to see a condor.

  25. This article is fascinating!

    There’s just one problem: On the Common Application, there isn’t much room to describe the projects in detail. If I “designed a technology-based curriculum recently adopted by several states”, I would have to write Internship at a Technology Company instead. I can still attach a resume but the reader would obviously be able to simulate the steps that led to the achievement. Is there any way to get around this?


  26. this is a great article, but how can you ensure that higher opportunities will present themselves for someone who is college age? what if adults aren’t willing to give young people positions of high responsibility and influence?

    i would probably start off with something education-related when i start college this fall (teaching, curriculum development, anything with ideas and strategies), but i feel like that’s not exactly “closed” enough…

  27. There’s just one problem: On the Common Application, there isn’t much room to describe the projects in detail.

    An innovative project will shine, regardless of limitations on the application. It will come through in essays, recommendations, interviews, etc.

    this is a great article, but how can you ensure that higher opportunities will present themselves for someone who is college age?

    Start small and earn more responsibilities by proving yourself, again and again.

  28. Thank you so much for posting this.
    But could I trouble you to apply this to how an aspiring actor might use such advise in his field? I understand that building contacts and getting the inside know-how is an obvious fact of life for an actor, but I just want to make sure I haven’t missed anything from this article.

  29. This is great advice! I’ve been following this path for a while. I’m currently a high school senior. Like one of the above commenters, I did an internship for Obama’s campaign (the 2012 one). I really went above and beyond–most of the interns barely showed up, and quit after a few months. I was there over a year, I was always the one who volunteered to do extra stuff, whether it was helping at an event no one else wanted to do or staying at the office until 2 am to finish entering data. And wow, did it pay off! Every time a special opportunity came up, I was the one chosen. I got to go to all kinds of events, I met the President, I volunteered at one of the debates, and I got to go to the Inauguration, and I was selected to go to a special conference/training in DC.

    Plus, it was a great thing to put on a resume. I was chosen for a summer program in government and after the campaign was over, I got an internship at my Congresswoman’s local office. Maybe if I’m lucky, it will lead to something in DC!

  30. Is convincing your district to support Robotics teams a step in this direction? Our robotics team gave a presentation to the school district board about STEM, and the district responded positively. Indirectly because of us, every school’s robotics team was given support and they supported the Hour of Code event.

    I don’t know if this is impressive.

  31. Can anyone explain what Cal means by a “closed world” ? I sort of get it by context but it would help me to get a definition and maybe a couple of examples. Thanks!

  32. @Heidi,
    I think by “closed” world, Cal meant any place/group that you don’t know much about and you’ve always thought “I wonder what happens …/How do they make it?” Anything can be a closed world depending on the person (e.g. if you don’t keep up with the latest movies, music, TV, then this is a closed world to you; or the mind of the person next to you on a bus; or if you wanted to learn an instrument, you’d have to do more research). However, since the instrument idea goes in the second list, you’d have to do more than just play the instrument (unless you come close to mastering it), you’d have to do something extra, maybe compose, join an orchestra and do activities with them to spread the love of music (e.g. fundraisers).

    So I think in short, this article is saying that we should enter into closed worlds we’re interested in, go help around with 110% effort, gain insider knowledge, do more related things in this world, repeat till awesomeness.

  33. Hi Cal,
    I’m actually interested in doing writing contests. What are some connections I should make as an insider, and given the contest rules, is there any room for innovation in this pursuit?


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