Thursday, June 04, 2009

What You'll Wish You'd Known in High School

I'd like to share this graduation-speech-that-wasn't by someone called Paul Graham. It gets a bit long-winded but I think our kids should read this. These are snippets from the speech that I liked, for the whole speech, go here.

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When I said I was speaking at a high school, my friends were curious. What will you say to high school students? So I asked them, what do you wish someone had told you in high school? Their answers were remarkably similar. So I'm going to tell you what we all wish someone had told us.

I'll start by telling you something you don't have to know in high school: what you want to do with your life.


If I were back in high school and someone asked about my plans, I'd say that my first priority was to learn what the options were. You don't need to be in a rush to choose your life's work.

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If you'd asked me in high school what the difference was between high school kids and adults, I'd have said it was that adults had to earn a living. Wrong. It's that adults take responsibility for themselves. Making a living is only a small part of it. Far more important is to take intellectual responsibility for oneself.

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.

When I ask people what they regret most about high school, they nearly all say the same thing: that they wasted so much time. If you're wondering what you're doing now that you'll regret most later, that's probably it.

Some people say this is inevitable-- that high school students aren't capable of getting anything done yet. But I don't think this is true. And the proof is that you're bored.

You may be thinking, we have to do more than get good grades. We have to have extracurricular activities. But you know perfectly well how bogus most of these are. Collecting donations for a charity is an admirable thing to do, but it's not hard. It's not getting something done. What I mean by getting something done is learning how to write well, or how to program computers, or what life was really like in preindustrial societies, or how to draw the human face from life. This sort of thing rarely translates into a line item on a college application.


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It's dangerous to design your life around getting into college, because the people you have to impress to get into college are not a very discerning audience. At most colleges, it's not the professors who decide whether you get in, but admissions officers, and they are nowhere near as smart. They're the NCOs of the intellectual world. They can't tell how smart you are. The mere existence of prep schools is proof of that.

Few parents would pay so much for their kids to go to a school that didn't improve their admissions prospects. Prep schools openly say this is one of their aims. But what that means, if you stop to think about it, is that they can hack the admissions process: that they can take the very same kid and make him seem a more appealing candidate than he would if he went to the local public school.

Right now most of you feel your job in life is to be a promising college applicant. But that means you're designing your life to satisfy a process so mindless that there's a whole industry devoted to subverting it. No wonder you become cynical. The malaise you feel is the same that a producer of reality TV shows or a tobacco industry executive feels. And you don't even get paid a lot.

So what do you do? What you should not do is rebel. That's what I did, and it was a mistake. I didn't realize exactly what was happening to us, but I smelled a major rat. And so I just gave up. Obviously the world sucked, so why bother?

Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. In either case you let yourself be defined by what they tell you to do. The best plan, I think, is to step onto an orthogonal vector. Don't just do what they tell you, and don't just refuse to. Instead treat school as a day job. As day jobs go, it's pretty sweet. You're done at 3 o'clock, and you can even work on your own stuff while you're there.

Your life doesn't have to be shaped by admissions officers. It could be shaped by your own curiosity. It is for all ambitious adults. And you don't have to wait to start. In fact, you don't have to wait to be an adult. There's no switch inside you that magically flips when you turn a certain age or graduate from some institution. You start being an adult when you decide to take responsibility for your life. You can do that at any age.

This may sound like bullshit. I'm just a minor, you may think, I have no money, I have to live at home, I have to do what adults tell me all day long. Well, most adults labor under restrictions just as cumbersome, and they manage to get things done. If you think it's restrictive being a kid, imagine having kids.

The only real difference between adults and high school kids is that adults realize they need to get things done, and high school kids don't. That realization hits most people around 23. But I'm letting you in on the secret early. So get to work. Maybe you can be the first generation whose greatest regret from high school isn't how much time you wasted.

2 comments:

Baoying said...

I think as adults, we need to read something like this to wake us up and make us stop wasting time. Thanks for this!

Lilian said...

I know Bao...when I read this I felt that even as an adult, I'm still wasting time, and I'm expecting my kid to learn not to when they're still in school!

You're definitely not wasting time, you wrote a book!