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“Fit” in Life and Education: Small Word, Huge Significance

Fit may be the most powerful, and yet largely underexplored, factor in our life, affecting our direction, relationships, work, happiness, and productivity. In education, the mantra in admissions is finding the “best fit” for students and families. In inter-personal relationships, particularly in finding the right companion, mate, or best friend, fit plays a dominant role. In business, on athletic teams, in bands or on movie sets, a good fit among members can be the difference between success and failure.

What Does “Fit” Mean?

A notable aspect of “fit” is that it has many different meanings, not all of which correlate to the others. There is “the correct size,” “suitable” or “harmonized with,” “installing an item” (think fitting a puzzle piece or prosthetic), or “make room for” (fit all the books in a box); then consider “an uncontrollable physical ailment (coughing fit),” “outburst of temper” (he threw a fit), great frustration (“fit to be tied”), and “impulsive and irregular manner” (fits and starts). And of course one of the most common definitions has different roots and centers on physical condition and “being fit.” For education, Jay Bacrania, CEO of Signet Education said it well: “From a student’s perspective, fit is a collection of the factors that give a college its own unique character.” Whew - so many descriptions to wade through. The good news is that I will be focusing on fit as the elements of suitability or harmonizing, given that these factors have the greatest impact on personal relationships and the directions taken by individuals, groups, and institutions.

Twelve Factors in Assessing “Fit”

  • Character traits and values: integrity and honesty, hard work, perseverance, loyalty, generosity, kindness, creativity, dependability

  • Cognitive and emotional capabilities: intelligence, connection and chemistry with others, resiliency and mental toughness

  • Ethics and morals

  • Appearance and personal style

  • Physical Skills: strength, speed, height, endurance

  • Activities, interests and passions

  • Spirituality/religion

  • Work and play approach: hard work, fun, detail-oriented, easy-going, team vs. individual orientation

  • Politics

  • Culture and background

  • Behaviors and habits

  • Financial status and philosophy

What other factors do you think are important?

Great Fits and Mis-Fits

The most common aspects of fit are between individuals and an individual and an organization. Many of these close relationships have carried profound resonance for our world of arts, athletics, business, education, and more. In fact, as you will see below, a tight bond between leaders and players has shaped many of the world’s greatest triumphs – while a lack of cohesion and connection has felled many a promising endeavor. Here are several examples of “great fits” that provided thrills, artistic triumphs, and historical watersheds…followed by some “mis-fits” that fell far short of expectations because the whole was much less than the sum of its parts.

Great Fits

  • FDR and Winston Churchill

These two legends saved the free world from Germany in 1940-41 – and greatly reshaped the globe. Theirs was surely the most important partnership in modern western civilization. While an important part of fit and friendship is often having a common enemy or cause, U.S. President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill had much more in common than their animosity toward the Third Reich. They shared upbringings in elite families, love of history, desire for political power, prioritization of work over their own families, and perhaps most important, unbreakable will and determination. The men became very close personal friends too, sending holiday cards and spending the war years drinking, smoking and strategizing late into the night. The bond they formed and their actions in rallying their countries and integrating rival Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union into their Grand Alliance spelled doom for Hitler and freedom for the world.

  • Bill Russell and Red Auerbach

Says the greatest athletic winner of all time, Russell, (NCAA champ, Olympic winner, 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons), “I remember when I went to the Celtics, there were questions about whether I could fit in with that group because they were known for being a very offensive team. Red Auerbach, when I got there, he says, ‘You may be worried about playing with this team. But I'm the coach, and you'll fit.’” Russell called “mutual respect” their “most important ingredient,” while observers would note their shared fanaticism for winning, commitment to team play, and their willingness to listen to the other. Asked why he didn’t give much advice to his star center, Red noted, “who could better motivate Bill Russell than Bill Russell?”

  • Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro:

The meshing of one of the top directors in Hollywood history with a much-lauded actor whose blazing reputation was in great part based on that director’s early films is as hand-in-glove as it gets. In Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, and six other major movies, the two intense scrappers created wild new perspectives in entertainment. The close fit was in part due to culture and background: two youngsters from immigrant families growing up on the dirty streets of the Lower East Side who, as Scorcese noted, “found ourselves gravitating toward themes and emotions that have obsessed both of us.” Though Scorcese used another leading actor, Leo DiCaprio, to man several of his later films and DeNiro continued to spread his magic on dozens of films without his friend, the two reunited after 24 years to create the stunning The Irishman with Al Pacino. Long live the historic partnership of Marty and Bob.

  • Bill Hewlett and David Packer

Hewlett and Packard graduated in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1935 before each earned a Master’s and reunited at their alma mater. By then close friends with a shared love of camping and outdoor activities as well as a burning curiosity about electronics, they were encouraged to start their own business (in Bill’s legendary garage, later designated a California landmark and dubbed “the birthplace of Silicon Valley”) by their mentor Fred Terman. The men were closely aligned on engineering, product design, customer needs, and quality for test equipment, networking, and gradually computers, printers, and much more. Just as important, the men shared similar values about society and treating people. In 1940, they gave bonuses to their staff, were among the first providers of blanket health coverage, and started contributing to charitable organizations. Their ideas were not only generous but also wise, resulting in the company’s management style and culture being dubbed “The HP Way.”

  • Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

The first woman to conduct a leading American orchestra was Marin Alsop in 2007, a distinction she still holds 13 years later (though she will be leaving the famed but struggling orchestra at the end of 2021 to focus on OrchKids, her remarkable cause that provides music education, meals, and more to needy children in Baltimore). While she has been the conductor and musical director for many leading American symphonies and guest-conducted at several the world’s greatest orchestras, her close fit with the city and the BSO stands out. The maestro is beloved in Baltimore for her talents as well as her commitment to in-need children, the local community and adult amateur classical musicians. Alsop notes “The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is one of the world’s great orchestras and I have been proud to have served as its artistic leader for the past 14 years." A classic(al) fit for sure.

  • Honorable mention: Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman (swimming), Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (dancing and movies), Pep Guardiola and Manchester City (world soccer), U2 (rock music).


  • Los Angeles Lakers 2012 – ‘13

One of two Lakers squads to make the list of underachieving “super teams” (the other being 2003 – ‘04), this version started with legend Koby Bryant and top center Paul Gasol supported by defensive whiz Metta World Peace, then tacked on two-time MVP Steve Nash and defensive monster Dwight Howard. The fit of a powerful offense and stifling defense led to high expectations – but the cultural fit failed, as Howard sulked throughout the year and coach Mike Brown was fired after only five games (and 11-time championship coach Phil Jackson was rebuffed as his replacement). The Lakers fell in the first round of the playoffs to San Antonio.

  • Blind Faith

While super teams became more common starting in in the 2000s , musical “super groups” had their heyday decades earlier. In the late ‘60s, Cream and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were products of highly successful bands that had splintered. Blind Faith combined guitarist extraordinaire Eric Clapton, with Traffic founder Steve Winwood, ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Rick Grech. Despite brilliant talent and a fine first album, there was tension, differing visions, and stylistic mis-matches given Ginger’s frenetic drumming style. Also, Clapton in effect chose husband and wife Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett and their musical friends (a blazing but short-lived passion) over Steve Winwood, though he and Steve remained a close fit and periodically collaborated. Blind Faith’s promising career started and ended in 1969.

  • John Sculley

Sculley been a very successful CEO and marketer, at Pepsi, gaining special acclaim (though not all earned) for his “Pepsi Challenge” taste test. He fancied himself a technologist, but for the tech-driven world of Apple, he did not have the chops or creativity of Jobs (perhaps no one did). It was a poor match exacerbated by the fiasco of his pet project, the Apple Newton. Sculley had a few triumphs at Apple, such as the introduction of the Mac and the legendary “1984” ad campaign, and a well-respected career as an entrepreneur and investor after Apple - but he will always be tied to Jobs and the decision to force out a man now revered as one of the greatest tech leaders ever. In many respects, it was a simple case of a very poor fit.

  • Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

Oh my. What can be said about perhaps the most legendary pair of lovers and fighters in the grand history of Hollywood? Liz and Dick married twice, had hundreds of epic battles, and captured the imagination of the press, royalty, and millions of fans worldwide. Meeting in 1953, the already-famous Taylor found the ambitious Welsh upstart coarse and rude. But when they co-starred in Cleopatra almost a decade later, they embarked on a lifelong journey of passion and scandal fueled by worldwide accolades, massive diamond rings, and shattered dishes and dreams. Though Taylor and Burton had incredible talents, an insatiable attraction and joint lust for the limelight, their relationship was in fact unsuitable and mis-fitted, two super-novas who burned each other out.

Honorable mention: New York Yankees (baseball), 2004; Michael Cimino, director of Heaven’s Gate (1980); Westfield State University and Evan Dobelle, deposed President.

How Does Fit Evolve?

While many aspects of fit are rooted in a person’s core beliefs and background and resistant to change, the concept of fit is not immutable. Over time, most every person will learn and grow, gain new skills, be influenced by new people and information, and change some philosophies, viewpoints or interests. In addition, institutions from education to business to athletic and artistic teams may also shift their goals, strategies and approaches. Therefore, it’s safe to say that many cases of good- or poor-fitting relationships will change, often dramatically. Let’s explore three cases in which the fit evolved for both the entity and its audience – with varying results.

  • Southern New Hampshire University

The former New Hampshire Accounting and Secretarial School was founded in 1932 as a tiny, private school that expanded over several decades, moving into online education in 1995. Paul LeBlanc stepped in as President in 2003 and saw that SNHU’s offerings did not meet the fast-evolving needs of students seeking a robust online experience without the drawbacks of a for-profit university. He pushed his team toward many innovations, using near-instant follow-up to an application, millions of dollars in television ads (a total anomaly in higher ed), and extensive student support. The resulting fit of SNHU service and the needs of its diverse student base has transformed what SNHU offers, what students expect, the culture of the institution – oh, and the100,000+ students it teaches versus 2,800 when LeBlanc started.

  • The Rolling Stones

English rock legends by 1969, the band dismissed former leader Brian Jones when his drinking and drug abuse jeopardized a U.S. tour. Jones’s initially close fit with the band’s culture had frayed, and he was replaced by guitar wiz Mick Taylor from the Bluesbreakers. Despite being part of what many Stones aficionados feel was the band’s high point, Taylor was discontent. He resented Jagger not acknowledging Taylor’s songwriting and did not get along well with Richards. Feeling overshadowed and rebuffed by the “Glimmer Twins,” he left in 1969, prompting a search that selected ex-Faces guitarist Ron Wood. While Jagger and Richards decided Jones was no longer a fit for the band, Taylor felt the Stones weren’t a fit for him. Many fans criticized the choice, noting Wood lacked the bluesy brilliance of Taylor…and while it’s reasonable to ask if Keith and Mick erred, it’s hard to agree. The Stones are still playing after 56 years (!) and have been known as the world’s greatest rock band for decades. Seems to me that Mick and Keith found the perfect fit, for their audience and (mostly) the band itself… quite the feat.

  • Kay Whitmore, CEO of Kodak

From the 1960s to mid-1980s, Eastman Kodak was the dominant leader of the film and camera industries and an American business icon. The company hit #44 on the Fortune 500, anticipated the needs of the rapidly-growing camera and film consumers, and saw its share price quintuple. But the users’ need – the fit – was evolving fast, and Kay Whitmore made two grievous mis-steps for Kodak: allowing Fuji to greatly undercut its film prices, and then failing to fully commit to the digital camera revolution (that it pioneered!). Despite success with the instant camera, Whitmore’s failure to capitalize on the digital disruption cost him his job and eventually put Kodak in bankruptcy, from which they did recover, but as a shell of their past success. Here, failing to match customer needs with Kodak’s many strengths led to the tarnishing of one of America’s greatest brands.

Take-Aways for Education Leaders and Admissions and Marketing Pros

3. For advancement/fundraising, assess key interests of your donors and prospects and tie appeals to that personalized data. This is based off of tracking which way they prefer to hear from you (especially direct mail vs. email) and what time of year they like to give, and only using those marketing approaches. Here “fit” is treating the donor with the media and timing they prefer, while also improving your ROI. Why send a loyal donor seven or eight mailings during the year when that person gives reliably every June and just needs an email reminder

4. Because fit evolves and you support dozens, hundreds, or thousands of rapidly-evolving individuals, are you including fit in your evaluations of students at risk for leaving your institution? While some matches, such as John Sculley at Apple, are better off ending, there are many others where a new perspective may be a win-win. For example, a student may have fallen in with the wrong crowd and changed the positive fit he or she had in your culture; would you support efforts to change that dynamic? And how about a student whose choice of academic concentration, arts programs, or athletic teams seems to be at odds with that person’s strengths and interests – could an advisor offer a listening ear and candid advice to help realign the fit

5. Be prepared to look deeper at your application of fit, say, for a prospective student or family. Are you focused on high-level criteria such as the family’s income, location, sports, or background and not enough at the student’s passions, activities outside the mainstream, spirituality, or morals? In an increasingly micro-targeted world, the ability to understand and utilize these highly personalized factors may make a big difference.

6. Colleges, universities, and independent schools can also strengthen their support, services, marketing, and more by recognizing the critical importance of recruiting and supporting colleagues who fit the culture and climate of your institution – and reassessing the process periodically as that fit naturally evolves.

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