Escaping High School
A guide for fourteen-year-olds and fourteen-year-olds at heart
Lots of people are arguing about whether college is good, or whether it should be the default, or whether it should look different than it looks now, or whether it’s even a worthwhile institution in the first place. This is no doubt a worthy and important line of inquiry, and yet I am sometimes tempted to bonk such people in the face with the juicy, swollen, succulent, painfully ripe fruit hanging much lower right in front of them: high school.
As a bare minimum, high school is supposed to give kids somewhere to go while their parents are at work and keep them from ending up pregnant, in jail, or dead. Unlike college, which trades off against starting your career immediately, you have to go to high school (or the homeschool equivalent) regardless. And by the time you’re in your mid-teens, you’re probably as smart as you’re going to be – not as worldly or wise as you will be later, but the raw brainpower is mostly there. So you’ve got a four-year chunk during which you’re smart enough to learn anything a novice adult version of you could; don’t have to support yourself with a salary; and have access to a space with lots of peers and shared materials for free. This is absolutely tantalizing, and yet the default model of high school is something we sleepwalked into and thus are utterly wasting.
The thing we’ve landed on, at least in richer areas, is for high school to be used for getting most of its students into college and a few of them into elite colleges, which means teaching them enough to get high standardized test scores and offering them a wide slate of organized activities that they can join and then list on their applications. But if high school is supposed to prepare you for college, and college is supposed to prepare you for the real world, then it’s suspicious that high school looks so little like the real world. So at least one of three things is true: high school isn’t doing a good job of preparing you to get admitted to college; or college admissions officers aren’t doing a good job of picking students who will succeed in college; or college isn’t doing a good job of setting you up to succeed in real life. Regardless of which it is, the best strategy to set yourself on the path toward a successful, happy life as a teenager is to spend your high school years directly trying to create such a life. If this prepares you for college, great; if it doesn’t, then there’s probably something wrong with college.
What follows is not an entire model for alternative ways to run a high school, though this would certainly be valuable (and perhaps forthcoming); but rather a guide for how to flourish against all odds within the existing system: how to skip all the tedious red herrings of participation and passivity, and instead start your real life, immediately, at age fourteen.
Table of Contents
1. Creating, Not Participating A. Embrace Just-in-Time Learning B. Watch Out For Programs C. Produce Instead Of Consuming D. Do Real Things, Not Fake Things E. Convince Competent People To Let You Work With Them i. Your advantages a. Charm b. PR potential c. Low expectations d. Freedom ii. How to get your foot in the door a. Learn to write a professional email b. Provide “proof of work” c. Ask for something concrete and manageable iii. What to do once you’re in a. Prioritize consistency over competence b. Handle mishaps c. Show appreciation F. Run Up Against The Real World G. Consider Making Money 2. Operating Within the Constraints of Systems A. Age Restrictions B. Dealing With Your School and Your Parents C. College 3. Setting Your Body Up For Real Life A. Muscle Strength B. Aerobic Fitness C. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) D. Flexibility E. Important Ways Not to Die or Cause Permanent Damage 4. Caveats and Notes A. What About The Non-Geniuses? B. If You’re Underresourced C. Friends D. Positive-Sum Gains E. Competition F. Speaking of Gaming: Productivity and Willpower G. Things You Specifically Shouldn’t Worry Too Much About i. Reading books ii. Thinking the right thoughts iii. Learning anything in particular iv. Resisting peer pressure, staying out of trouble, avoiding drama 5. Final Thoughts Appendix
1. Creating, Not Participating
A. Embrace Just-in-Time Learning
The standard model of learning is that you should take lots of information and shove it into your head, so that later on when you finally start doing things, maybe some piece of information you learned earlier will be helpful. This is a recipe for information to go in one ear and out the other. It’s simply not, at all, how people learn.
Sometimes educators recognize this and try to be more enlightened. “Students shouldn’t just learn by rote memorization,” they say. “They should learn by doing.” The problem is that the objective is still the same: to take lots of information and shove it into your head, but in a more effective way. Often, the thing a curriculum has you do in order to learn is very far from the thing you’re learning in order to do (e.g., your teacher has you make a poster illustrating the mechanisms that cause ocean pollution, whereas in reality, you should be off patrolling the beach and seeing what kinds of trash wash up, or calling up some conservationists or marine scientists and helping them carry their equipment around as you ask them questions about the biggest bottlenecks of their latest project.
The reason the naive learn-by-doing approach is wrong is because it fails to recognize the reason your brain bounds after and easily retains the information relevant to a task you’re working on, and has to be dragged kicking and screaming into remembering information that isn’t of immediate use. The brain does this as a favor to you, so that you spend as much time as possible learning information you’ll need and as little time as possible learning information you won’t. So creating a bunch of artificial fake tasks, like tests and projects whose only purpose is to show off your learning, will help you learn, but it won’t help you learn what’s actually worth knowing, and besides, it still won’t help you learn nearly as much as doing work you actually care about will. These sorts of made-up tasks-for-tasks’-sake are called “busywork”; notice them coming and avoid them whenever you can (see 2. Operating Within the Constraints of Systems for more on how).
B. Watch Out For Programs
The biggest category of busywork-generator to watch out for is programs: anything where you sign up or apply to get in, then complete a series of preset activities over a set time with a cohort of other people. (Classes are a special case of programs.) Some of them are good and probably worthwhile, the same way that classes can be useful – it’s helpful to learn with other people, with a syllabus developed by someone who knows the material better than you do, in a way that ensures you aren’t responsible for holding yourself to a commitment or a schedule. The danger is in seeing so many programs all over the place, seeing everyone you know your age hopping from program to program to program, that you assume the world is just a series of signing up for programs and dutifully completing them. In fact, your first thought whenever you want to do something should be to try to just do it directly – only if you run into some issue should you consider finding a program that will allow you to do it.
Sometimes people will tell you that you shouldn’t be a “joiner” – you shouldn’t just go around joining things, you should be a leader, not a follower. This is a good start, but then they’ll tell you that the alternative is to be the one who gets other people to join, by becoming the leader of a school club or founding your own. That’s putting lipstick on a Ponzi. You’re still participating in programs, and not only that, but you’re roping other people in too! Being the president of a club is the ultimate “filling a role”. Your job is to get out of the mindset of applying for slots.
Programs are also liabilities in that they give other people a lot of leverage over you in the form of kicking you out or limiting your participation. Athletics can be especially problematic: team sports are great, but lots of schools use withholding sports as their default punishment, which makes it harder for you to take a principled stand if you need to and makes you more beholden to institutional rules. Consider devising some arrangement with your school such that you’re officially homeschooled but can do things like take some classes and play on sports teams. Remember that mostly school administrators just want to keep everyone alive, unpregnant, not in jail, etc. On a higher level, their incentive is not to get mired in scandal. Be as well-behaved as you need to in order not to mire them in scandal if they let you have your way, and offer them some excuse, even if flimsy, for why your case is different from other people’s, so they don’t have to feel like they’re making an arbitrary exception to a rule.
C. Produce Instead Of Consuming
Get a computer – a real one, not an iPad, and not a Chromebook if you can help it. There’s a reason every productive adult knowledge worker has one, because if you’re going to be consuming Internet stuff, you had better be using a tool that actually lets you produce it too. Explain to your parents some productive things you’d like to do and see if they’ll buy one for you or help you buy it. If they can’t or won’t, get a job and buy one for yourself. To keep the costs down, you can
not get the newest Macbook - a Thinkpad running Linux should work fine
see if you know anyone offloading an old one for cheap
get a used one off Craigslist, eBay, Facebook Marketplace, or whatever other such marketplaces spring up
build a PC yourself (it’s not as complicated as it sounds, you’re not wiring the circuit board from scratch – it’s mostly a matter of buying parts according to your preferences and then hooking them up to each other)
Get access to as many creative tools as possible: musical instruments, woodworking tools, electronics parts, design software, watercolors. Your high school might have quite a few, depending on how large and well-heeled it is; see if you can borrow or use them even if you aren’t taking the relevant classes. Alternatively, try a library, community center, or makerspace. Poke around on Craigslist, especially the “free” section.
D. Do Real Things, Not Fake Things
Whatever your interests are, do the real version of them: get as close to the version that adults do as possible. Instead of submitting the story you wrote to your teacher or even to a contest, try submitting to some literary journals. Instead of writing a program for AP Computer Science, contribute to an open-source software project. Instead of studying for your biology test in preparation for pre-med, learn first aid and volunteer as a paramedic. Instead of playing in the school orchestra, busk on the street with your friends. Basically, make a bunch of stuff, no matter how bad it is – again, people’s expectations are low – and put it out there where people can see it.
Often, after three and a half years of high school, seniors will be suddenly tasked at the last minute with trying to do some real thing, typically in the form of community service or job shadowing. This is an admirable shot at getting kids to dip their toes into the real world just before they enter it, but most of what actually ends up getting done is much smaller-scale and less satisfying than it could be. You spend the weekend painting a shed, or a few days following a doctor around to their appointments, and that’s about it. Partly this is because initiatives like these are tiny, isolated islands in the vast sea of educational busywork. But much of it is also because if you don’t make a regular habit of bumping up against the real world, take it seriously, devote chunks of time to it, then you’ll only scratch the surface and never actually get to do anything cool. You’ll always start out on the surface; the way you get deeper is to paint the shed, then come back the next weekend to fix the fence, then chat during your breaks with the old man who maintains the community garden and learn about how he’d love to have a chicken coop but just never got the time, and then three months later you’re running a small farm. Or to follow the doctor around, notice how many of her patients complain about back problems, ask the doctor to introduce you to a chiropractor and a physical therapist, learn that people are having trouble sitting comfortably for long stretches, and decide to design and build a new kind of ergonomic chair that you test out on your classmates.
Here is a list of particular things you could do, which comprises about 0.01% of all the possible things you could do:
Write a blog interviewing well-known people
Ask your local community newspaper to let you write a column
Host a podcast and interview people who seem interesting
Host an event: a conference, fundraiser, yodel-a-thon, festival, hobby gathering, adventure
Record music and publish it on a streaming service
Build a robot
Perform a magic show
Make an app
Invent your own sport and get a group of people to play it
Plant a garden
Build a building
Write a bill and see if you can get the government to pass it
Play an elaborate prank
Think of a question nobody seems to know the answer to and try to come up with a good answer, then write up your findings
Start a business
Build a statue
Start a band
Write a novel
Create a board game
Start a social movement
Carry out a hoax
E. Convince Competent People To Let You Work With Them
Initially you can undertake projects on your own or with your friends or classmates, but once you start trying to expand and improve, you’ll often run up against the limits of your knowledge and skills. Here’s something you can do when that happens: Find people (usually, though not always, adults) working in an area you’re interested in, especially if they’re doing the work outside the context of an official job for a big company with lots of red tape, and ask if you can be their intern. Professors, researchers, grad students, startup founders, writers, artists, craftspeople, musicians, people running small businesses near you, retirees working on elaborate hobby projects. Ask what little tasks they don’t have time for but they’d love it if someone could take on. Be realistic about what you can deliver – if it’s something they’ll rely on you for, err toward doing things that are too easy rather than things that are too hard; once you succeed at something small, you can build up skills and trust toward helping in some larger way. But if it’s something that won’t hurt them if you say you’ll try to do, but don’t manage to, then you can shoot larger. If somebody says, “I wish someone would come up with a good answer to x question” or “I’d love a tool that does y”, you can poke around for a solution without guaranteeing that you’ll find one. Worst case, you come up with a wrong answer or a tool that doesn’t work and they’re mostly no worse off than before.
If they say no, they can’t use you, thank them for getting back to you and move on. If they say they might be able to use help but they need someone more skilled or experienced, you can ask them what skills and experience are most useful. That way, you can either come back and contact them in a year when you’ve learned those things, or even if you don’t end up working with this particular person, you’ll have some direction for what knowledge to pick up.
If they just don’t get back to you at all, it’s fine to follow up once. “Hi, just wanted to follow up in case you missed this. Thanks for your consideration!” If they’re near you and spend time at some public place (like their store, or their office hours, or a community space), you could also just find them and ask them in person.
Reaching out cold like this may sound intimidating, but you have at least four major advantages working for you.
i. Your advantages
One important resource you won’t notice if you spend all your time as a program participant is your charm as a young person. It’s easy to think that you’ve exhausted all your childhood cuteness and that now you have to go around looking mature and serious. But in fact, people still attribute tons of earnestness to a high schooler poking around in adult fields, hobbies, and industries. Some adults are too busy to help you much, but in general, everybody likes to feel like they’re helping out an ambitious young person interested in their field. It’s a signal that you have an unusual amount of inclination toward the topic and an unusual amount of agency in general, and so people will likely be impressed, as long as you’re polite and respect their time.
b. PR potential
Politicians like to be seen engaging with civic-minded young people. So do people in public-facing positions. So do companies and organizations and conferences and events, and the people in charge of them. They’ll look like they’re giving back. You’re providing them an opportunity.
c. Low expectations
People have pretty low expectations of you. You’re a random teenager. Just making anything real is impressive; even if your streetwear startup is an absolute dumpster fire or your novel is two hundred pages of pure cringe, adults will be pleasantly surprised you’re not just studying for a test or practicing your clarinet for the school orchestra.
You’re not constrained by having to make a salary right now. You can work for people for free to learn the ropes of their craft. You can clear up lots of time in your schedule.
ii. How to get your foot in the door
a. Learn to write a professional email
Which actually is a misleading term, because it’s not limited to people doing official business within the context of their white-collar jobs. It just covers the form and style you use for polite emails, neither overly formal nor overly intimate, to people you might not know well, regarding something you or they are doing. You can learn in an afternoon the form – it’s not too hard because every email is saying a different thing, so there’s lots of flexibility. The trick is just to memorize the standard greetings and closings and get a feel for appropriate length and tone. There’s a little arsenal of pleasantries that people use (“Would you mind checking…” “I appreciate your help with this…” “I’m wondering whether you know of any…”).
Ask a few well-spoken adults you know: “I want to learn to write a professional email. Could you forward me a few of yours to give me a sense?” Or google “sample emails”. You don’t have to overthink it – as long as you make an effort to be polite, people will cut you some slack because you’re young. You can also ask those adults, or older friends who seem to know what they’re doing, to look over your first few messages.
Here are the basic parts of an email:
Subject line: doesn’t matter much as long as it’s specific but relatively brief, maybe seven or eight words max. It’s polite to write a subject line that gives the person a quick idea of what you’re asking (bad: “Request” or “Help” or “hi”; good: “Advice on entrepreneurship resources“ or “Potential internship for high schooler”)
Greeting: “Hi [name],” followed by a line break, is usually fine. You can call them “Mr./Ms./Dr. Lastname” if they’re a teacher or parent or adult in your community, “Professor Lastname” if they’re a college professor, usually just first name is fine if they’re just some random person you’re reaching out to. If they’re in a profession where they’d often get called by an honorific plus last name, you should probably call them that too (doctors, lawyers, professors). In most other cases, if you’re sending a cold email (ie, an unsolicited email to a person you’ve never met) in the same way an adult would, then first names are generally fine. But people will rarely be offended if you accidentally overshoot the formality. Ask your parents if you aren’t sure. If the other person replies to you and signs their message with their first name, then it’s probably fine for you to start calling them that; after several messages into the email thread, you can also get away with dropping the greeting and closing.
Introduce yourself and explain your business if you don’t already know each other. This will probably be one or two paragraphs, depending on the complexity of what you have to say, and will be the meat of the email.
A one-or-two-sentence paragraph saying some little pleasantries. “Thanks in advance” or “appreciate your help on this” or “let me know if you have any questions”, or filling in a little extra background info like “you can also text me at ______” or “I’ve attached a screenshot”. This isn’t strictly required, but many emails have it, for politeness or miscellaneous logistical detail.
Closing: “Thanks,” or “Best,” or “Best regards,” in increasing order of formality. “Best” is pretty all-purpose – it sounded too formal to me when I first heard it, but it’s really common and pretty standard for professional emails. Then sign it with your first and last name if the person doesn’t know you well; later on, you can truncate it to just your first name.
Hi Dr. Mu,
My name is Odette Oxenhandler, and I’m a junior at Central High School in Smallsville interested in bovine choreography. I really enjoyed your series of articles on teaching cows to tap-dance, and I was wondering if I could interview you about it on my podcast sometime in the next month. The interview would take a couple of hours at most, and the final product would be shared with my classmates and published online; we could arrange it either over video call or in person.
If you’re interested, I’m happy to provide more details. Thanks for your consideration!
b. Provide “proof of work”
Even busy people often like being contacted with genuine, thoughtful questions, but they don’t want to be swamped by a deluge of low-effort requests for help. So people will be more willing to help you out if you’ve put in a bit of legwork already – doesn’t have to blow them away, just has to be not nothing. Examples:
Asking questions that make it clear that you tried to research the answer on your own, but ran into some trouble spot
Making it clear you’ve put some time into becoming familiar with their work (by mentioning details you like, perhaps, that aren’t the obvious first thing everybody notices)
Attaching or linking some piece of work you’ve done that relates to their field, or to their work in particular. (Don’t expect them to read/watch/listen to anything very long, though you can provide the link to an extensive thing with the caveat “no need to [read/watch/listen to] the whole thing, but linking it in case you’re curious”)
c. Ask for something concrete and manageable
You want to make it as easy as possible for the person to help you out; it’s the equivalent of sending a self-addressed stamped envelope, like people did in the old days when they wrote their heroes asking for autographs. Even if they’d like to help you with something larger or less well-defined, it’ll be much easier for them to accidentally procrastinate (successful adults procrastinate just as much as you do!) or forget to get back to you if what they have to do feels nebulous. Who knows, they might give you even more than you asked for; but they won’t feel an obligation to, which will make it easier for you to get a response.
(In the case where you’re offering them something, the “ask” is for them to take you up on the offer of help, or look at the thing you sent them.)
It may be useful to ask one or two adults you know to look over your messages to people and give you a sanity check that your ask is polite and reasonable. As long as you give the message recipient an easy out and make smallish requests to start with, it’s hard to go very wrong.
“Are there any free or cheap [local | online] resources you recommend?”
“Do you know anybody who might be willing to [help me in such-and-such way]?”
“I enjoyed reading what you wrote about ____. What do you think about [related question]?”
“I made a _____; if you have the time, I’d really appreciate it if you could share your thoughts on how I could improve.”
“I’m interested in your paper, but it’s paywalled and I’m 14 and have no money; would it be possible for you to send me a copy?”
“I’m a 17-year-old high school student in [your city] interested in going into [your field]; I would love a chance to chat with you about [topic].”
“Could you point me to some people whose work you recommend?”
“Who else should I talk to about this?”
“I have ____ experience doing ____; here’s an example of what I’ve made before. Could I do ____ for you?”
“I’m really interested in your field; are there any small tasks you need done that I could help out with? I’m happy to work for [free | cheap].”
“Your _____ project sounds really interesting to me – is there any way for me to contribute?”
“Can I volunteer at the event you’re organizing?”
iii. What to do once you’re in
a. Prioritize consistency over competence
One important thing, when you’re convincing adults to let you work for them, is to be consistent. You shouldn’t try too hard to be competent. If they really cared about the thing getting done impeccably, they wouldn’t have enlisted a random teenager. And if you’re too much of a perfectionist about things getting done well, they won’t get done at all. You want to look reliable. There are two aspects to this. One, like I said, lower your standards. The other is time management – this is something else school and programs will stunt you with regard to, because all your time is plotted out for you. What you want to do is use a calendar – Apple or Google or whatever, you could even use a physical planner if you can actually stick to carrying it around and remembering to write in it – and write down all your appointments and commitments in it. (Ideally you get notified of these things on your phone or computer, too). Then, think of all the other stuff you want or have to do, and slot in some time for it. Overestimate. Ideally, you pick some unique and consistent spot – a room at school, or Starbucks, or the library, or your friend’s house – to work on this, always, for a few hours once or twice a week.
b. Handle mishaps
Unless you’re very organized, you’ll probably screw up at least once or twice and overpromise, communicate poorly, whatever. You just have to accept that you’ll take the L from time to time, try to think about where you went wrong and improve (or start smaller) in the future, and apologize if it’s warranted but don’t beat yourself up over it. One smart thing to do might be to draft in advance an email for the case where you realize you bit off more than you could chew (or forgot a deadline, or misunderstood what they were asking for). As soon as you realize you’re not going to be able to deliver, eat a bit of humble pie and send the email. Then pick one thing to improve about how you organize your time and try again with somebody else.
c. Show appreciation
If someone agrees to do you a favor, set yourself a reminder to thank them. Then do it. Again, don’t beat yourself up if you forget, but draft a message in advance in case you do: “I’m sorry, I forgot to tell you at the time, but thank you very much for your help with _____. I really appreciate it!” Ideally you mention one or two results that came out of them helping you, but if you get writer’s block and start avoiding sending the message, just send a simple thanks. Physical thank-you notes are even better, if someone really goes out of their way for you, but again, it’s much better to send your pre-drafted email than nothing.
F. Run Up Against The Real World
Even when you’re not actively doing any kind of work, it’s beneficial to go gallivanting about in the wide world around you to understand what’s going on and how you can contribute.
If there’s a good college or university near you, hang around it. Drop into lectures on topics you’re interested in. Go to talks. Chat with the speaker afterward. See what catches your fancy. Alternatively, see out places where groups of people are learning skills or working on projects together just because they want to: a makerspace, an art studio, a model train society, a skate park. Don’t assume too quickly that you won’t like some field or pursuit – it’s quite possible that you just don’t like the framing of it you’ve gotten, but in fact there’s a better framing through which it’s actually great. (When I was fourteen I thought economics and computer science sounded horrifically dull; then I realized economics wasn’t about money and computer science wasn’t the science of how to build computers, and now I think they’re two of the neatest things in the world.) Or maybe one part of it sucks, but another part is cool, and you can just focus solely on that part. Meeting lots of different practitioners of each field is a good way to get a sense for this.
If you spend all your time in school, you won’t realize how much you’re missing out on by exploring the larger world. For many high schoolers, the biggest obstacle to this is transportation. If you’re in a city well-connected by trains or buses, you’re probably all right – get a pass and go on your merry way. But if you aren’t, your milieu will expand drastically if you can maneuver yourself independently to the nearest city, or at least culturally dense town.
If you have a car, great. But driving is often more trouble than it’s worth – you have to wait till you’re old enough to get your license, go through driver’s ed, pass the test, possibly buy a car, get gas all the time, worry about repairs, find parking. If you’re borrowing your parents’ car, you have to ask permission, make sure nobody else is using it, and be subject to their scrutiny. Probably the best thing is to get a bike (though depending on how far you have to go, a skateboard or even rollerblades can suffice). Do the following:
Get a helmet (the self-folding ones are very convenient).
Get the bike checked out at a shop (or google how to do it yourself) to make sure it’s in good condition; learn basic repairs.
Get a pump and inflate the tires when you need to.
Learn the basics of road etiquette – hand signals, lanes, right of way, etc. – so you feel comfortable riding on main roads and city streets.
Get lights for the front and back.
Finally, make a website for yourself. Post the things you make, write, compose, or do on it. Consider writing a blog – that way, when people ask you your thoughts on a topic, you can just point them to the appropriate blog post. And the website will let people stumble across you, increasing your surface of serendipity.
G. Consider Making Money
Assuming you don’t need to help provide for your family (see 4B. If You’re Underresourced for that case), having a lot of your own spending money may not be all that important, even if that would make it easier for you to produce things. Fundraising for a project is a useful skill to learn, and doing it publicly adds to the visibility of whatever you’re up to. And constraints, such as a tight budget, introduce creativity. Besides, if you ask for things for free or cheap, it’s easier to get them when you’re young, because no one expects you to have much money. In many domains, the currency of a thank-you note can take you a long way.
However, it can be useful to make some money, partly to get practice making it and a sense of what people will trade their money for; and partly so that you can use it to quickly bootstrap bigger and better things: buy parts or tools for your projects, run a small social-media ad campaign, travel to another city for a weekend. (If you make enough, you may even be able to pay other people to work for you, which will accelerate your ability to make stuff and also your sense of what people will trade money for.)
The easiest way is to get a job, which you can do most places starting at sixteen. But there are a bunch of informal (and sometimes formal) ways to get paid for things at fourteen. See if you can do freelance contract work and get paid via Venmo or Cashapp, for instance. Look at the postings on a freelance website like Upwork, pick the first one that sounds interesting, and learn how to do it. (They probably won’t you actually sign up for the site until you’re 18, but you can get a good sense of the market that way, and then find people to sell to via other channels, like asking around or posting flyers in coffee shops.) Or start a small business of your own. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking – it could be as little as moving something people want to the place where they want it (eg, selling food on the street), or resale (buy a bunch of something for cheap on AliExpress and sell it to your classmates at a markup). Knit hats and sell them at craft fairs, build websites for local businesses, grill burgers in the park.
Anything people need done and might not want to do themselves, someone will be willing to pay you for. Just put flyers in the neighbors’ mailboxes advertising that you’ll do chores for them. It doesn’t really matter what - just list a few: mowing lawns, shoveling snow, cleaning houses, watching kids, raking leaves, walking dogs. If there’s one you missed, people might just ask if you can do that thing too. If you have the right transportation (again, bikes are handy!), you could get people to pay you to run errands for them. Everybody always has errands they need doing, and you can undercut the prices of delivery drivers or other such adult task-doers. If you don’t get any customers, lower your rates; then you can raise them later when you have several people who can vouch for you consistently doing the thing. (Also, you can learn to do it well, and then they’ll be able to vouch for your quality too.) And people can recommend you to their friends.
Businesses where you have to eat some upfront costs are riskier than straightforwardly exchanging your labor for payment, but these sorts of endeavors are educational even if they go completely bust, because then you’ll learn both what caused your demise, which you can fix, and what didn’t cause your demise, which you can reuse next time.
2. Operating Within the Constraints of Systems
A. Age Restrictions
There are various places, events, and activities you might have trouble getting into because of your age. If this happens, try to figure out whether it’s forced by insurance or corporate policies, or whether they just arbitrarily decided on 18 or 21 as a cutoff; if there seems to be flexibility, you can see if you can win over the gatekeeper enough that they’ll look the other way, or even just cold-ask nicely if they’ll make an exception, or ask forgiveness not permission (if they don’t check your age). If your parents are amenable, you can ask them to help you circumvent certain barriers, like being the one to receive payment or sign some official paperwork, or book travel for you.
B. Dealing With Your School and Your Parents
Paul Graham recommends the following:
If I had to go through high school again, I'd treat it like a day job. I don't mean that I'd slack in school. Working at something as a day job doesn't mean doing it badly. It means not being defined by it. I mean I wouldn't think of myself as a high school student, just as a musician with a day job as a waiter doesn't think of himself as a waiter. And when I wasn't working at my day job I'd start trying to do real work.
I would go even farther and say that you should do what you can to get out of all the busywork entirely. This might mean officially registering yourself as a homeschooler; often you can still take some classes in school anyway, or at least be allowed to hang around the building. If you must graduate normally from a regular school, consider doing the minimum coursework required to graduate, then including a note in your college applications briefly explaining that in lieu of taking electives, you undertook x, y and z projects. You might also consider taking lower-level classes than you qualify for (i.e., if you can take honors or AP classes, just take the regular ones), putting in the minimum possible effort to get As, and then self-studying for a few AP or IB exams (and getting good SAT scores), just enough to prove to colleges you’re smart and well-prepared enough to succeed at their coursework. (In this case, you’ll also want to include a similar note explaining that you intentionally did this to free up time for such-and-such projects, so they don’t think you were just lazy. This might be a harder sell, but if you think you can pull it off and you can talk your parents into it, go for it.)
This approach carries risks, though: you might end up coasting into an unchallenging, unfulfilling lifestyle without intending to. So if you try it, give it a shot for a semester and then evaluate how it’s going. You’ll need to make sure you can organize yourself enough to see independent work through to the finish – see 4F. Speaking of Gaming: Productivity and Willpower for more on why this is necessary and how to accomplish it.
If you really have an appetite for risk and you’re already good at devising and carrying out independent projects, you could try even more hardcore approaches, like cutting all your classes or doing the bare minimum to slide by with Cs. But for most people, the downside is probably higher than the upside, relative to the closest alternatives.
Many schools have some way of giving you credits for “independent study” – max this out if you can. You might even be able to petition your school administrators to let you organize a class yourself (and sometimes you can get extra credit for it, compared to a regular class). The benefits of running your own class are threefold. One, you can design the class the way you want to, which means you can structure it entirely around letting people do projects that are meaningful to them. Two, you get built-in structure, because everyone in the class is counting on you to tell them what to do; and you probably want to set it up so that you’re doing a project too, which you can collaborate on with classmates. And three, a whole group of people will now be able to replace busywork with meaningful work, not just you. Partly this is good for its own altruistic sake, and partly it’s good because if you do it well, your cause will gain a cadre of supporters and an effective proof of concept.
You might also see if you can speedrun high school and graduate in three years (again, by doing the minimum), and then take a gap year to make things.
Find wiggle room where you can get it: if your parents are more rigid, bargain with your school; if your school is more rigid, bargain with your parents. Mostly, what adults care about seeing is that you’re up to something that seems educational. So it’s often easiest to plan your projects in advance, then explain to the powers that be that you’d like to spend your semester building your own solar power generator, and could they please work with you to figure out how to fit it into your school schedule.
College has a few purposes: to meet smart, creative, and interesting people; to signal to potential employers, grad schools, investors, and collaborators that you are smart and impressive; and to teach you technical skills and information that will be useful for you to produce things in the future. If you can get into a school with a single-digit acceptance rate, you should probably go unless you have a much better idea of what to do. If you can get into a school with an acceptance rate under twenty percent, it’s probably still worth going for at least a year, after which you can drop out, especially if it’s expensive. (You could transfer from one of these schools to a state school to save money, but it might be hard to get yourself to actually do it, and it might look weird on your résumé, like you couldn’t cut it at the better school.) And if you don’t actually enjoy college at all, compared to your alternatives, then you can drop out after a year and still enjoy almost all the signaling power of “I got into _____.”
You can also go to a less selective but still reputable school with a good program in a technical field, like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Washington, or the University of Texas at Austin. You might also consider going to art or music school, although I don’t have as good a sense of how much the reputation of the school matters and how much the cost is worth it.
You might wonder, isn’t it elitist or conformist to go to the snooty big-name school just because of its big name? Kind of. The teaching might not necessarily be better. But there are two concrete advantages: to be around a smart, capable cohort, and to signal that you got in. The signaling part isn’t just bragging for bragging’s sake; if a job application or a random message or whatever comes from a stanford.edu email versus a podunk.edu email, statistically it’s much more likely that the stanford.edu one will be promising. (There are probably fifty brilliant students at Podunk University, too, and two hundred who are highly impressive in other ways, but they’re maybe 1% of the students, whereas they’re a quarter of the students at the most selective schools.) And the being-around-strong-peers part can be skewed a little, in that you don’t want to be around a big swath of conformists or elitists, but even if you do get some conformists and elitists, Ivy Leagues and similar schools are still a Schelling point for smart people: everybody figures the highest density of other smart people will end up there, so lots of them go there too. (By the same vein, as an alternative to college you might consider heading to the biggest hub of a field that interests you: San Francisco for tech, Los Angeles for entertainment, New York for things like economics and the arts, Berlin for certain kinds of music.) If you end up hating it, you can always transfer to somewhere quirky like Reed or New College of Florida or Harvey Mudd or Olin; it’s harder to go the other direction. Plus, if you’re eligible for financial aid, the rich big-name schools will probably give you more of it.
Consider also that the resources at a liberal arts school might be better quality, but a university will have a much larger diversity of resources total. Some counselor or book will tell you that you should consider whether you’re better suited to a small, intimate learning environment than a large, university-wide one; ignore them. Some people will feel stifled at a small college, but almost everyone, unless college in general isn’t suited to them, will be okay at a large one. All of Europe does it this way and they turn out fine.
If you don’t have the test scores to get in somewhere very selective, then unless you can get a good scholarship or money is no object, it’s probably better to go to your state school than to pay lots of money to go somewhere a little more selective. But there are a million particularities of different people’s cases; maybe the best path for you includes college, maybe it doesn’t, maybe you take a gap year, maybe you take semesters off to work, maybe you run off to a monastery or the circus, maybe you go to school to be a nurse or a hairstylist or a mechanic, maybe you gun it all the way from kindergarten to postdoc. If you’ve followed the advice in the rest of this guide and have come to treat high school as real life, as a step directly toward the life you want to have as an adult rather than a staging ground whose sole purpose is setting you up for college, then your choices around college won’t be laden with the job of serving as vindication for how you spent every minute of your time in high school. Instead, you’ll be free to decide honestly for yourself what path seems most promising.
3. Setting Your Body Up For Real Life
This section might seem odd to include, but no one would bat an eye if I’d swapped out the word “mind” for “body”. And your brain is only 2% of your total mass. So really, this section should have been 98% of the piece; it’s only because my brain is doing most of the writing work that it’s decided to privilege itself. But you and I are whole people, not free-floating minds, and the only way you can perceive and affect the outside world is with your body: if you neglect that body, its joy will shrivel up and turn into a big sack of blah dragging behind you.
This guide is about tipping you off to broad principles that you might not necessarily figure out independently until much later on, and quite a few such principles relate to bodily well-being. High school will give you the chance to participate in team sports, which are excellent for motivating you to get strong, fast, skilled, flexible, and robust, not to mention being a boatload of fun if you like your teammates or competition or endorphins or any of that. But there are a few lessons they often don’t manage to teach you about the right way to optimize your individual progress, which I want to explain here partly because knowing the principles of making yourself more fit on your own will improve your physical condition quite a bit, and partly because there’s an exact analogy between training with a team versus on your own and studying in a class versus with a go-at-your-own-pace approach.
Athletic improvement, like intellectual improvement, can be achieved by just about anyone; but, like, intellectual improvement, there’s no use in sticking to a rigid set of achievement benchmarks. You go as fast as you can go, and add a little bit of difficulty each time; there’s no magic alternative way to improve. In weightlifting, this is called progressive overload. In fact, progressive overload is key to basically all skills. The idea is that you practice several times a week, so that you have time to recover but not enough time to backslide; you increase the difficulty at least a little each time; and you increase the difficulty at most a little each time. If you try too inconsistently to improve, like by mounting an intense last-minute effort, your results won’t build on each other. If you stick entirely within your comfort zone, nothing will ever change. If you ramp up too fast, you might feel noble at first, but the trick is that you actually don’t have to do this to yourself; in fact, it’s counterproductive. If you overload the squat bar, for instance, you’ll either injure yourself, reinforce bad form, or just be unable to lift the bar entirely after one or two reps, giving you less improvement than you would have if you had just stuck to consistent small ramp-ups.
A. Muscle Strength
Your performance in almost any sport, as well as your overall posture and balance, will improve if you make your muscles larger and stronger, which you can do enough of to notice results in just a month. You’ll be able to run faster, move heavier objects and people, shoot harder, and throw longer. The easiest way to do this is by lifting weights; any well-known beginner program will do. If you don’t have access to free weights (i.e., weights like dumbbells and bars and plates, which aren’t fixed in some track), you can use machines, but they aren’t as good because they undertrain your various small stabilizer muscles. If you don’t have access to either of those, you can piece together a bodyweight setup and supplement it with dumbbells and kettlebells. Most people lift two to six times a week for thirty minutes to an hour each time; forty-five minutes three days a week should be enough to get good results. Eat lots of protein afterwards.
B. Aerobic Fitness
Weekly mileage generally matters more than daily mileage or speed. Just about any healthy person between 12 and 60 can get aerobically fit enough to run a half-marathon (or perform the equivalent biking, swimming, Nordic skiing) in under six months. You just have to train consistently, several days a week. Once you’re in decent shape, after three or four miles of warm-up your lungs stop feeling stressed and your legs become the bottleneck, so propelling yourself long distances isn’t as agonizing as it sounds; for significant stretches it’s actually quite pleasant.
C. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
Another way to exercise is a series of short intervals where you switch between high effort (like sprinting) and low effort (like jogging). (This is what you naturally do while playing sports like hockey or soccer, which is why they’re so good for getting you into shape, not to mention fun.) The main thing to know about interval training is that it’s one of the most time-efficient ways to exercise, usually doesn’t require too much equipment, and studies keep coming out gushing about it. So if you can’t easily do the rest, do this.
Lots of pain and injuries are caused by some muscle somewhere a little ways away being too tight, which causes it to pull other muscles and tendons out of place. For instance, if your knees are giving you trouble, it might be because your quads or hamstrings are too tight or not strong enough, or because you’re landing in an overly-taxing way when you run, which can be caused by your hips and groin being tight. Dynamic stretching, where you move your muscles so you’re using them as you stretch them, is generally considered more effective than static stretching, where you just stretch without moving. Rolling your muscles out can also relieve pain and tightness; use a foam roller for blunter rolling and a rubber lacrosse ball for more intense, targeted rolling. People seem to like massage guns these days, too.
If your school has an athletic trainer, see if you can help them out with their tasks in exchange for them telling you everything they know.
E. Important Ways Not to Die or Cause Permanent Damage
Don’t dive into shallow water headfirst. Try not to do too much headfirst diving anywhere if you can help it, unless you’re positive the water is very deep. Drink, if you want, but ramp up slowly, and never drive drunk or get a ride with anyone who might have been drinking. Say no to every category of thing offered to you at least once, so you know you can if you need to. Try not to tear your ACL; having strong quadriceps helps. Don’t try anything highly addictive (I’ve heard this can include disordered eating). Don’t consume any powders without testing them. Probably stay away from any substance that was invented within the past forty years, and don’t do anything to reduce the oxygen flow to your brain. If you get caught breaking the rules, suck it up, you’ll live. Wear a helmet until you’re very confident on whatever set of wheels you’re riding, and also when you’re gunning it down a hill or are in any scenario where you could get hit by a car. Be a little wary around cars in general; the consequences of screwups involving them are more life-changing than you should saddle yourself with. Basically, don’t get a major head injury, don’t get paralyzed, don’t overdose, and don’t get too addicted to anything. Anything less dangerous than skiing should be fine.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie, then make sure to get it out of your system regularly so you continue to feel alive while in fact remaining alive – seek out activities that will give you a genuine thrill without killing you. Ideally, pick risks that will make you sore if you mess up, but not seriously injured. And see if you can use this personality trait to your advantage by facing any fears that might be holding you back: get your kicks by performing in public, risking making a fool of yourself; or asking someone out, risking getting turned down; or publishing your work, risking post-hoc cringe. Mountain biking seems pretty good, too.
4. Caveats and Notes
A. What About The Non-Geniuses?
Does this just apply to the top 1% smartest or most resourceful teenagers? I don’t think so. If your personality type didn’t have useful strengths, you would have been wiped out of the gene pool by now. Even if you are a big dumb lunk, probably the worst thing you can do is sit around trying to go from a C to a C+ in a high school English class! You should be exploring your interests, to see if you’re good at anything else; cultivating your other personality traits; expanding on your strengths (learning proper lifting form, learning anatomy and injury prevention, getting good at some physical task); exploring what kind of life you’d like to lead (rural or urban, surrounded by a large circle of friends or a few close confidantes, grind hard then chill out or work at a steady pace, etc.); and exploring what combinations might be your comparative advantage: if you’re also coordinated, you might be good at certain kinds of skilled manual labor, or if you’re unusually empathetic, you might be good at massage, or if you can motivate a group of people, you could be a coach or trainer or influencer. You should also explore how much of your time you prefer to spend working for pay and how much you prefer to spend saving money by doing and making lots of things for yourself.
This advice is particularly likely to be relevant to you if you’re good at things that don’t relate to the core skills that schools base grades and test scores on: reading quickly and picking up vocabulary easily; writing in an academic-sounding style; symbolic reasoning, like math and logic; and memorizing information. To name a few: music, tinkering, winning people over, art of any kind, entertaining people, computer programming, hand-eye coordination, making people laugh. Resourcefulness is also one of these skills, though if you have it, you’ll probably figure that out and turn out fine.
B. If You’re Underresourced
Maybe you go to a school in a poor area, or with a lot of violence, or far too many students for the teachers to pay any individual attention to; or, relatedly, maybe you’re required to spend a lot of time caring for siblings or parents, working a low-skill job, or holding your family together or preserving your safety in some way. The disadvantages of this case are obvious, but there are a few advantages too; the strategy, as with everything, is to mitigate the impact of your disadvantages while using your advantages to the maximum. I don’t know enough to say what the best tactics are for these cases, but I have a few theories.
One advantage is that you’re less likely to get oversocialized. You have to run up against the real world a lot, and school will have a hard time forcing you to do anything you don’t want to, so you won’t have to unlearn as many wrong ideas about the world. And you’ll learn more quickly what real people want and what they’re willing to pay for, which is half of all career advice. Relatedly, less of your time will be wasted on doing artificial busywork; without as much accountability, it’s easier for you to get away with just blowing off the useless stuff. It might be easier to talk teachers into letting you off the busywork for their classes; they might just be glad you’re not creating any extra trouble for them. The downside is that you might get caught up in activities that are needed for survival and basic needs but that will just leave you swimming in place, rather than making progress toward your future and developing skills that will compound. So you have to see how little of that you can get away with. Wherever you find slack, take it and invest it in something that won’t necessarily pay off immediately but might offer a bigger reward later, like sinking time into practicing skills that won’t pay off until you’re decent at them.
Your charm advantage gets increased a little bit in this situation; if you reach out to an adult doing some sort of interesting work, you’re already intriguing enough as a teenager, but if you mention that you’re working with difficult circumstances, people will be especially impressed and inclined to help either to feel good or to generate good PR or both. It’s not that you have to really milk anything; just explain simply the facts of your situation: “I’m fifteen, I go to a school in such-and-such neighborhood with no budget for a _____ class, would you be willing to give me any advice on how to pick up basic _____ skills for cheap?” (Or “do you have any old/extra _____ supplies you might be willing to donate”, or do you know any good means of finding them, or anyone who might have extras, etc. Or “I don’t know any adults who do _____, could you point me toward some I should talk to?”)
Do your best to make some friends whom you can rope into undertaking fun little projects with you. It’s much more fun this way: you can bounce ideas off each other, you can give each other sanity checks, you can split up the work and go twice as fast. If you can’t find anybody like this, just start making something neat and if people are interested in it, enlist them to help.
I’m not going to tell you what particular kind of friend to make, because it entirely depends on what kind of person you are. But in general, act in the ways that come most naturally to you, and of the people who gravitate toward you because of that, gravitate toward the ones who are most down to do stuff. (In fact, this is many if not most people’s natural inclination, but some have had it beaten out of them more than others.)
But keep in mind also: your goal in high school is to start living your real life right away. And much of a real life comes from producing meaningful work. But another significant part comes from simply enjoying yourself and basking in your surroundings. E.B. White once said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” So apart from projects and work and the whirlwind of activity that will occupy much of your days, chill out with your friends, old and new. Wear out dumb inside jokes until they’re not funny anymore. Sunbathe side by side at the lake. Get McFlurries in a larger size than is responsible and squeeze ten people into a booth. Sneak into your buddy’s cousin’s school for a day. Drive around in circles talking about absolutely nothing. Watch The Room three times in a row. Load up on Mountain Dew and play Smash all night. Get chased out of somewhere.
D. Positive-Sum Gains
I’ve said that asserting agency over how you spend your time, starting right away, will impress people because so few high schoolers manage to do it. But what if everyone started taking their teenage years by the reins, and you couldn’t stand out anymore? That’s still much better than the status quo, because then everybody including you is working on things that really matter to them, rather than fake busywork. Only a certain percent can go to elite colleges, otherwise those places wouldn’t be called elite; but arbitrarily many people can lead productive, joyful, fulfilling lives, and if they can start pursuing those lives from a young age, going to an elite college, or even any college, becomes much less important.
Is competition worthwhile? It’s probably better than busywork and worse than making real projects. For instance, it’s probably the most fun way to exercise. It can be a good incentive to make things, too – for instance, robotics club. And it’s a good way to impose external deadlines. The important thing is to keep an eye on the judging process, if there is one. Make sure you aren’t just doing a glorified version of trying to earn good grades. Sports are actually pretty good for this because for most of them, there is no judging – the winner is purely determined by the rules of the sport. So nobody is messing with your incentives. But watch out for things like quiz bowl. They can be a fun way to hang out with your friends and make new ones, but think of them in the same category as gaming. You’re entertaining yourself, not creating. Which is fine in moderation, but don’t get too carried away.
Avoid honor societies like the plague, unless you’re academically borderline and getting accepted might materially boost your ability to get into your state school. If you do get accepted, definitely minimize the time you spend doing any related activities.
F. Speaking of Gaming: Productivity and Willpower
The most common argument against letting teenagers do whatever they want at school is, “Won’t they just play Fortnite all day?”. This question actually holds the key to what you should be doing, and how you should constrain yourself. What’s wrong with gaming day in and day out? You learn some skills – how to get good at the game itself, general stuff like reflexes and strategy and cooperation and problem-solving. Probably e-sports cultivate some of the same virtues as regular sports, like tenacity. The problem is that, one, the bulk of the skill you pick up is still specific to the game itself; it would be much more efficient to learn all those virtues in another context where you’ll also learn domain-specific knowledge. And two, you’re not producing. Unless you’re a successful Twitch streamer or are writing strategy guides or organizing competitions or otherwise building something outside of the game itself, you’re just consuming, entertaining yourself without building anything that will compound. But those are also the two biggest problems with regular school! Recognize that if you follow the default path, you’re already gaming.
What’s the solution? If you get off that default path, you’ll get freed from consuming material that isn’t directly relevant to what you’re producing, and from producing things you don’t care about and that don’t matter. But you have to be careful not to fill that freed-up time with more consumption. Often, you can get into a flow state where the thing you’re making just “flows” right out of you. But there are slogs, like at the beginning when you’re just not sure where to start, or when your taste outstrips your ability, or when you haven’t gotten the hang of using your tools yet, or when your project seems to be going down a dead end and you need to reorient. To power through these slogs, it’s useful to introduce constraints that aren’t just you trying to exert willpower, which never works. On the bright side, this is a hugely important meta-skill to learn; might as well learn it now.
A few tactics:
Work with someone else who’s also motivated to see the project through.
Commit to someone external, like a teacher or a collaborator or a person you’ve promised to show the final product to. It’s usually better to commit to chunks of a project by certain deadlines, rather than just to promise the entire project by some date; otherwise, you’ll find yourself procrastinating until the last minute.
Create natural deadlines for yourself, like the date of a competition you’ve signed up for or a performance you’ve advertised you’ll be giving.
This is one area where it is useful to carry the weight of your parents’ and teachers’ expectations. You want to be able to show some output that proves you blew off all the busywork not because you weren’t hardworking enough, but because you cared about making meaningful things. The trap you can fall into is caring about making meaningful things, but not having the capabilities yet to see projects through. So you should be especially careful to set up enough structure for yourself that you won’t need to rely on these capabilities before you’ve developed them. Your parents and school are generally forces pushing you toward greater structure, so use this to your advantage. Offer them a set of goals, deadlines, and rough outlines for how you’ll spend your time; this will 1) help reassure them that you aren’t just slacking off, and 2) help reassure you that you won’t just slack off.
G. Things You Specifically Shouldn’t Worry Too Much About
i. Reading books
If you like them already, by all means read anything that sparks your interest. But if not, you’ll naturally end up reading them if the information in them becomes pertinent to your schemes; and if you can find the information elsewhere, that works fine too.
ii. Thinking the right thoughts
If you run up against the real world enough, a workable set of beliefs will form itself.
iii. Learning anything in particular
The purpose of knowing information and skills is to use them for something. Even if you disagree with that last sentence – some people are pure intellectuals and care much more for theory than for practice – it turns out that the best way to acquire knowledge is by chasing down the information required to produce some particular output, like an essay or a podcast.
iv. Resisting peer pressure, staying out of trouble, avoiding drama
These are the spices of life, and even if they go horribly awry you’ll learn important lessons. Just make sure you act honorably, meaning in a way that you can justify to your best self. Don’t backstab, take opportunities to be kind when it costs you nothing, have tough conversations if they’re necessary even if they’re scary, and don’t snitch unless somebody’s likely to get hurt – no, I’m already telling you too much. You’ll learn the important lessons from experience. But pay attention to your conscience, so you learn as fast as possible.
5. Final Thoughts
In general, most of the important lessons from your teenage years – not just social ones – you’ll figure out by trial and error when you need them (that’s just-in-time learning again!). The purpose of the guide is to tip you off about the others: the ones whose feedback loops might be as long as a decade, so that you won’t necessarily realize right away when something is wrong. If you dutifully use high school to get the best grades, scores, and extracurricular résumé, in order to get yourself into college, in order to get yourself into professional school or grad school or a good starter job at a good company, then you might not realize until your mid-twenties that you haven’t gotten around to designing the kind of life you actually want to live in the long-term, and you might have become stunted in the skill of making things happen.
When you’re a young child, you actually do get to achieve real accomplishments. You learn to walk and talk, then to throw a ball, to write, to draw, to build a sandcastle or a fort in the woods. Once the tasks of basic interaction with the world become too easy, though, you get assigned years of fake work in a sequestered environment: instead of getting progressively harder real tasks, you get switched over to made-up ones until you’re eighteen. But an education designed by people rather than by what the world demands is like a city designed by central planners instead of growing out of the contours of its citizens’ daily lives. This may be why kid stuff (“play”) is fun and school stuff usually isn’t, even though you’re learning at the same rate (maybe even faster through play). Your brain is trying to tell you that you were supposed to be playing all along. The playing was just supposed to get harder – but not less fun, and it certainly wasn’t meant to transfigure into a whole different non-play thing!
High school, in my opinion, is the peak inefficiency of this centrally-planned learning system. But if you’re eleven, there’s no reason you can’t start acting on this alternative mindset in middle school. And if you’re twenty-five, then in some ways you have more obstacles – the necessity of supporting yourself, maybe student loans or a half-finished PhD or a job it would be inconvenient to leave or even a child of your own. But in other ways, you’re in an advantageous position to act in the spirit of this advice: you have freedom to travel, money to access resources, no age restrictions, no obligation to attend school, freedom to act independently from your parents, some existing skills, tastes, and preferences. And you’ve already learned lots of object-level lessons the hard way.
Aaaaa! Aaaaaaaahhhh! Stop reading this! What are you waiting for! Go arrange some of the atoms in your sphere of influence into a different configuration! I’m rooting for you.
this is a blog called Skunk Ledger. sometimes you get manifestos and sometimes you get a story about a guy with a pig for a head.
Related writing I think about often:
Nate Soares on why roaming around executing bad plans is better than waiting around for a good plan
Paul Graham on the advice he would give if he got to give a talk at a high school
the adventures of my friend Noah, who is a paragon of the approach described in this guide
the story of Kevin Cooper, who died at age 14 having accomplished more than many adults do in their entire lifetimes