Uncovering genius in the aftermath of a mistake

There are countless stories of product development errors that resulted in brilliant inventions: penicillin, Post-it notes, Coca-Cola, and the color mauve. What about human error; when a group of high school seniors is offered admission to college by mistake? Can an administrative blunder result in undiscovered genius?

I’ve been thinking about those students who received letters of admission from Vassar, UCLA and the University of Ulster in the spring of 2012, only to learn later that they hadn’t made the cut. What happened to those students who planned to attend college as members of Class of 2016 at these schools?

I’m sure there is a grad student in search of a thesis topic, who will one day interview the admitted/rejected cohort and determine the long-term impact on success. I guarantee a significant number of these students used the experience to excel at an alternate institution.

What if these schools had honored their offer of admission?

Let’s imagine a freshman class at Vassar College that included the 76 students who had been sent a letter of admission by mistake.

I can hear the opposition preparing for debate.

In some instances, this would be impractical if the numbers of mistakenly accepted students exceeded the capacity of classroom and living space. There’s probably an argument that admitting a ‘second tier’ roster would impact national rankings.

At the top of the higher education pyramid, selectivity is the guiding principle. It’s no different at the most competitive corporations. Employers want folks who have the highest GPA, and go to war with one another over the same pool of candidates.

This is what they both miss; students who could thrive in a challenging academic environment, and employees who would contribute over the long term rather than continually fend off offers to join the competition.

Alexander W. Astin, professor emeritus at UCLA and author of a new book, ‘Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession With Smartness Shortchanges Students’ describes the focus on ‘acquiring’ vs.’developing’ students.

“When the entire system of higher education gives favored status to the smartest students, even average students are denied equal opportunities,” he writes. “If colleges were instead to be judged on what they added to each student’s talents and capacities, then applicants at every level of academic preparation might be equally valued.”

The next time the admission office makes a mistake; I hope they take a minute to consider the alternative.

It’s the undiscovered genius among the rejected that are the true ‘opportunity cost’.



Happy Groundhog Day! A day immortalized in the 1993 Bill Murray movie, as our national holiday of second chances.

I launched ‘workthoughts’ a year ago, on Groundhog Day, because I believed a blog about work should consider career evolution, lifelong learning and several second chances. It was never meant to be a place to find a job, rather a place to consider choices, share ideas and reconnect with dreams.

‘Workthoughts’ had its origin in a Tuesday afternoon course I taught for college students who were employed as interns for the semester. Most arrived thinking it was a waste of time, an added commitment to an already crowded schedule of classes, commuting and work.

As the semester progressed we dealt with the situations that develop in any workplace: disconnect in expectations, dysfunctional communications, poor leadership, lack of meaningful assignments, and recognition. We also talked about the bigger picture: global trends, leadership, teamwork, generations in the workplace, diversity and gender issues, work/life balance. It was about the humanities and social sciences, and building relationships with mentors, colleagues and clients.

“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and everything was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” (Bill Murray, Groundhog Day)

Success@work begins with a clear understanding of self and a broad knowledge of the world@work. How can you connect the dots if you’re stuck in one place, everything is exactly the same and nothing you do matters?

‘Workthoughts’ provides weekly supplements in the humanities with the ‘Friday Poem’, sampling a variety of lyrical interpretations of work, and ‘The Saturday Read’, a book or long form article recommendation to illuminate the work experience and offer alternate views to problem solving. The ‘week@work’ summarizes selected stories from a variety of journalists and experts. And in-between are the conversations about fun, joy, success, and failure @work.

Work is about relationships. We build them, not on the technical aspects of the work to be accomplished, but on the human connections that grow beyond, in shared interests and experience.

Thank you to all who have connected and shared your ‘workthoughts’ this year. And thank you to all the alumni of MDA 250 – who stay connected, continue to inspire, and know the value of second chances.



The Saturday Read – J.K. Rowling and Anna Quindlen

When the jacaranda trees are in bloom in Los Angeles you know spring has arrived in this seemingly seasonless place. You notice SIG Alerts on the freeways at odd times of the day until you see groups of folks in gowns and mortarboards being trailed by family bearing great loads of floral bouquets. Commencement time has come and with it, the famous, to deliver advice and receive honorary degrees.

And sometimes, the words spoken at these events are shared across social media, eventually catching the eye of a publisher. In 2000, it was the speech that was never delivered to the Villanova University graduating class by Anna Quindlen that found its’ way onto book shelves two years later as ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’. Last month J. K. Rowling‘s 2008 Harvard speech, ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination’ has been published as ‘Very Good Lives’.

There was a time in my career when I worked in a building just north of Coney Island in Brooklyn. My favorite part of Ms. Quindlan’s book is the story at the end:

“I found one of my best teachers on the boardwalk at Coney Island many years ago, it was December and I was doing a story about how the homeless suffer in the winter months. He and I sat on the edge of the wooden supports, dangling our feet over the side, and he told me about his schedule, panhandling the boulevard when summer crowds were gone, sleeping in a church when the temperature went below freezing, hiding from the police amid the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Cyclone and some of the other seasonal rides. 

But he told me most of the time he stayed on the boardwalk, facing the water, just the way we were sitting now, even when it got cold and he had to wear his newspapers after he read them. And I asked him why. Why didn’t he go to one of the shelters? Why didn’t he check himself into the hospital for detox?

And he stared out at the ocean and said, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.”

And every day, in some little way, I try to do what he said. I try to look at the view. That’s all. Words of wisdom from a man with not a dime in his pocket, no place to go, nowhere to be. Look at the view. When I do what he said, I am never disappointed.”

I first saw a video of J.K. Rowling’s address with a group of students one evening at a black women’s sorority event. These were Ms. Rowling’s first readers, the women who waited in long lines with their parents, some in costume in anticipation of the newest Harry Potter release. Here was J.K.Rowling who appeared on lists of the wealthiest and most successful. On that spring morning in Cambridge she shared her personal story of failure and imagination.

“I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Most of us don’t remember who spoke at our graduation. Some of us didn’t attend. But all of us can reflect on the words in both speeches and find a kernel to motivate and inspire. For me, it’s paying attention and never closing a door to a conversation that could resonate for a lifetime. It’s the thing that makes us different, empathy. And it’s the stories, always the life stories, where we find wisdom.

An important question to ask in an interview

The interview is coming to an end, all has been going well and then they ask: Do you have any questions for me? There are a number of questions you may ask at this point. The key is to ask a question that will help you figure out if this is a place where you will succeed. My question is a bit of a ‘turnabout is fair play’: Can you describe a time you failed and how did the organization respond?

Every survey I have ever read lists who you will work for as the most important determinant in accepting a position. And your immediate supervisor will be key to your decision to stay. It’s not money. It’s not the nature of the work. It’s the relationship.

Why the question about failure? An interviewer will ask you some version of the question to determine how you deal with setbacks. It’s just as important for you to understand how they deal with failure. You don’t want to work for someone who was valedictorian of their high school graduating class, and who has since progressed in their career by managing not to fail. It will limit your freedom to take risks and you may be micromanaged to the point where your hair catches fire.

The opportunity to ask questions at the end of the interview gives you the chance to have the conversation about the potential for professional growth and success.

As the economy improves, there is opportunity for mobility at all levels. There is always the possibility that your boss may move on within a few months of your arrival. And it may be that the opportunity for advancement is the component that attracts you to the position. You may want to work for the person who is moving on in six months.

Can you make an impact during his/her tenure? What happened to the last person who held the position?

Many candidates miss the opportunity to have this conversation about success and failure with a potential employer. Often time is limited at the end of the interview. Be prepared with the questions that will help you differentiate this offer from the others. And take a chance to ask about failure and its’ consequences.