I never use PowerPoint slides in my class on creativity and innovation at Stanford... except on the first day of class when I describe what we’ll cover over the ten-week quarter. The final slide lists my commitments and what I expect of the students. The last bullet point is, “Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous.” I promise to deliver my very best in each class, and I expect the same from them. I also tell the students that I have no problem giving everyone an “A,” but that the bar is set very high. This is the first and last time I mention this.

So what happens? The students consistently deliver more than I or they ever imagined. They embrace the idea of being fabulous with remarkable enthusiasm, and they raise the bar repeatedly as the quarter progresses. In fact, a couple of years ago I arrived at class a few minutes early and found one of my students sitting outside listening to her new iPod nano. I hadn’t seen one before and asked to take a look. She handed it to me and turned it over. The back was engraved with the words, “Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous!” Apparently, when she ordered it online, she had the option of having it engraved. Instead of adding her name or contact information, she chose this message, which she wanted to remember every day. She certainly didn’t do this for me; she did it for herself. I’ve been remarkably surprised by the stickiness of this message. It’s as though students are just waiting to get this instruction. They’re hungry for permission to do their very best, to hit the ball out of the park and to shine their brightest.

Unfortunately, in most situations this doesn’t happen. We’re encouraged to “satisfice.” That is, we’re subtly or not so subtly encouraged to do the least amount we can to satisfy the requirements. For example, teachers give assignments and clearly state what’s required to get specific grades. The classic question posed to a teacher is, “Will this be on the exam?” Teachers hate this question. However, students have learned through years of reinforcement that all they need to do is meet the minimum requirement to get the grade they want. This happens at work as well, when bosses outline specific objectives for their staff and create rubrics and metrics for giving bonuses and promotions.

It’s easy to meet expectations, knowing exactly what you will get in return. But amazing things happen when you remove the cap. In fact, I believe there’s a huge pent-up drive in each of us to blow off the cap. Like a soda bottle that’s been shaken, individuals who remove perceived limits achieve remarkable results.

Being fabulous implies making the decision to go beyond what’s expected at all times. On the flip side, if you do the least you can to meet a baseline expectation, then you’re cheating yourself of that opportunity. This sounds like the lecturing of a school principal, but it’s true. The collection of missed opportunities adds up, leading to a huge deficit. Imagine the difference between investing $100 with a 5 percent return versus investing the same $100 with a 105 percent return. The divergence in value continues to compound over time. This is what happens in life. You get out of life what you put in, and the results are compounded daily.

This is an edited excerpt from What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20.

About the Author

Tina Seelig

Tina Seelig, Ph.D., is a professor at the Stanford School of Engineering. Her latest book is Insight Out.

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