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Difference between revisions of "High school: opening message"

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Revision as of 10:27, 13 February 2014

This page provides a brief introduction to why high school is a critical phase of your life, and a few big ideas to keep in mind. Read it, and then proceed to explore our range of advice offerings.

You here will refer to a high school student, typically an early high school student.

How high school matters

High school is a critical phase for reasons to do both with biology and the structure of academic systems, because of the juxtaposition of two facts:

  • You are still officially a minor (a child) so that you do not have any of the responsibilites associated with adulthood to weigh you down, and your mental capacity is still growing and malleable.
  • You have entered a period of life where you are sufficiently mature to do important activities, and others expect you to act responsibly. Your actions have consequences for yourself and others.

The negative: getting into trouble

In high school, you can get into trouble in ways that could radically alter your future life trajectory in ways that are (for the most part) bad. Examples:

  • Drugs, alcohol, or smoking, both the activities themselves, and getting caught doing them.
  • Getting pregnant, as well as other problems related to sexual activity, such as getting in trouble with your school for sexual activity, getting a sexually transmitted disease, etc.
  • Getting a police record due to violent or property crime or gang activity.

As a general rule, we recommend avoiding these while in high school. A couple additional points:

  • Some of these activities are not unsafe or undesirable in principle but they can be started later. Delaying parenthood (and sexual activity) to after high school is better both biologically and socio-economically. Moderate alcohol consumption is claimed to have health benefits, but that too can be begun later.
  • In some cases, it is not the activity itself but the implicit social context and the maturity level of the other people around you that makes it dangerous. The examples of drugs, sex, and alcohol are particularly noteworthy.
  • While it may be the case that some people are unwilling to be friends with you if you don't engage in these activities, you should weigh this downside based on the probability (generally low) that you'll need to rely on their friendship or being part of their social circle over the long term. There may be ways of navigating these issues while minimizing social friction.

The good news is that avoiding trouble of the above sorts is generally easy if you put your mind to it -- the hard part is just deciding to avoid them.

Some people gravitate toward trouble because the day-to-day academics and school activities feel boring, and they do not have an outlet for their creativity and sense of adventure. if that describes you, then look below at the section The positive.

There are also somewhat more mild forms of getting into trouble, that do not leave a permanent black mark, but can still be a big liability in the short term. These generally center around relationships with your teachers and fellow students and your academic performance in specific subjects. We go into these in some detail.

The neutral: your high school academic record

A strong academic record in high school is critical for college admissions, scholarships, and summer internship opportunities. In addition, college applications typically require letters of recommendation, at least one of which comes from a high school teacher. Therefore, in addition to doing well in the courses, you also need to have good relationships with teachers. Maintaining a good high school academic record and maintaining good relations with teachers (and, to a lesser extent, peers) can be quite important for your future.

The positive: combine deep exploration and impressive accomplishment

If you use your high school years wisely, you might be able to rack up impressive accomplishments and build a huge amount of knowledge and skills, valuable both directly (so-called human capital) and in terms of convincing colleges and others of your potential (so-called signaling). And in the process, also experience the consumption benefit of accomplishing something impressive.

A number of people who find school boring gravitate towards dangerous activities. Others overdo studying their existing school subjects to the point of diminishing returns. Yet others tune out completely. By focusing on something different to do that is both important and interesting, you can avoid all these depressing fates.

Start early with our advice

We urge you to start thinking about our advice and incorporating it as early as possible. Why? Chances are, even if you don't read what we have to say, you'll turn out fine. But "fine" isn't good enough to settle for, particularly if that means high levels of stress, persistent dissatisfaction with life, being a grind, getting into trouble, and not accomplishing your life goals. We don't offer a recipe for sure success, but we offer a way to start incorporating long-term optimization into your day-to-day activities, and reduce stress.

Further, particularly if you want to get on the Positive side by having impressive accomplishments, then you need time to identify your area to work on, and then a lot of time, and energy, to prepare for it. That will mean making sure that your other activities are not much of a time sink. And that relies on getting through them efficiently. (Complete neglect won't work, because then you risk defying the Neutral).

Some starting things to remember

You can't just rely on "the system"

If you set a low bar, "the system" works well. You learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, and these skills alone enable a wide range of social, cultural, and economic activity. You learn many other facts and ideas in school that help you make sense of the world. Compared to living alone in a tropical savannah, it looks pretty good.

But compared to what you can achieve by consciously thinking of your goals, following "the system" fares poorly. For reasons beyond the scope of this article, the system is far from optimized at helping people accomplish their best. Even if it were optimized on average, the one-size-fits-all approach it takes means that it wouldn't be optimized for people who differ in any relevant respect from average. It makes sense for you to think carefully about your goals and how to optimize for them. It may so happen that the path of least resistance within the system is your best path, but don't assume that a priori.

KEEP IN MIND: Doing well within the system should be treated as a constraint within which you need to operate, rather than a defining feature of your life.

Some subjects are more important than others

Further information: Learn ahead in high school

High school can give an illusion of democracy between the different subjects you study: they all seem to get equal weight in class time and in grades, so you may believe that all subjects are equally important to study. This is not true even in general: some subjects are more important to study overall, and within each subject, some topics may be more important than what school seems to suggest.

Because the method of exposition and choice of topics in school is likey suboptimal, it generally makes sense to learn the important topics well ahead of time, and deal with the others as needed to do well on the courses.

Consider alternatives to high school

Further information: Alternatives to high school

Consider:

Pick your extracurriculars well

Further information: High school extracurricular activities