Throughout life, whether in school, college, or the workplace, you are part of a system. You need to meet the requirements of the system. Some of these make sense. Others don't. You may be asked to do things that:
- are extremely boring or repulsive to do,
- are unethical or borderline-unethical, or
- don't actually help anybody (for instance, you may be required to study or work on stuff that you know isn't helping you build skills and isn't helping your customers).
It can be difficult to continue to work within the system given these issues. At the same time, it is dangerous to rebel too much against the system. How does one emotionally and intellectually reconcile these requirements?
The system does not hate you; it just doesn't care about you
Systems aren't optimal
Systems are rarely designed optimally, although they may still be designed better than they look to you at times. Keep in mind:
- The design of the institutions you are dealing with is dependent on a number of accidents of history, rather than an effective optimization process.
- The institutions evolved and operate within constraints of human psychology, office politics, and human cognitive ability. Systems that are more effective on paper may not be possible in practice.
- Even to the extent that the system is optimized, it may be optimized only for a particular subset of the population. Some systems are optimized for the median (average) person, and fare poorly for people who are far above average as well as people who are far below average. The school educational system seems optimized for people who are somewhat above average (but not exceptionally so) and high in conscientiousness and conformism. It's hard to design a system that simultaneously optimizes for everybody.
It's not personal
Some individuals within the system might have personal grudges against you (for instance, a teacher, fellow student, boss, or co-worker) for reasons you may or may not be able to control. But the system as a whole isn't conspiring against you. Don't take it personally. It doesn't make sense to apply ideas such as "revenge" against the system (whether open rebellion or zoning out), even if your overall treatment by it has been bad. Take care to do well by yourself (and others you care about) and eschew attraction to ideas of taking it out on the system.
If you do feel frustrated with the system at times, enumerate your options for constructive action, and then decide what best suits your situation. If you have a strong release of emotion, feel free to scream or cry briefly in private, though over the longer term you should try to phase out such instances.
Also see our suggestions for overcoming depression.
The options for constructive action
You can choose some combination of the following options when you notice a flaw in the system:
- Work to directly remedy the flaw: This is a good strategy when you are in a position of power, but in other cases, trying to directly remedy the flaw may get you enmeshed in institutional politics that you don't understand. Avoid this if unsure; instead, stick with (2) and then come back to (1) when you're ready.
- Excel within the system to get an inside view and develop credibility, and deal with the flaw either later or never: This is the best option if your performance within the system can help develop credibility within that system or within the systems you'll move to next. It's the option we recommend for school and college.
- Engage in "civil disobedience" against the flawed nature of the system: This is a very dicey option. It's tricky to pull off, because it's hard to get people to take your refusal to engage in certain actions as civil disobedience rather than mere rebellion or incompetence. We don't recommend this option in school or college, except insofar as there are highly unethical activities going on in your institution and you want to leak information about these activities to the wider world.
- Just do enough to get by with the system, and not care about it: This option might be suited to aspects of your school, college, and work life where excellence confers no benefits in terms of human capital, signaling, or enjoyment. It's also a reasonable option if you are working on a side project that you hope will eventually enable you to exit the system (per point (5)). If you're smart and/or have good study habits, it might be possible for you to get done with school work with relatively little effort, leaving a huge amount of time for other activities.
- Leave the system: Take this option only if it is feasible. See the page stay mainstream until you have demonstrated success doing unusual stuff for more on this theme.
- High School: What You'll Wish You'd Known by Paul Graham, January 2005