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Avoid trouble during high school

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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:

  • Getting into big fights (not necessarily physical) with authority figures in your school.
  • Cheating and plagiarism.
  • Engaging in vandalism of school property, hacking into computer networks, or other forms of destruction in the neighborhood.
  • 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.

If you've led a comfortable, law-abiding and rules-compliant life so far, you may dismiss the above possibilities as things you're highly unlikely to get involved with. However, complacency on these fronts is best avoided, because it may lead you to be less on guard against small steps in that direction. Keep in mind the following two points:

  • Globally, the rates of substance abuse, pregnancy, and crime or gang activity among teenagers is sufficiently nontrivial.
  • There are some reasons specific to the challenges of such people that attract them to some activities (substance abuse, hacking into computer networks, getting into fights with authority figures). It's unclear whether their overall rates are higher than the general population, but they're still high enough to be cause for concern.

General points on avoiding the activities

  • 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. Some forms of drug consumption have been reported to give considerable hedonic value to their consumers, and this could be an argument for having drugs in a context where you can be relatively sure you won't get addicted and (in case the drug is illegal) you won't get caught.
  • 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 early signs: what attracts smart, curious kids into these activities?

Boring work, insufficient stimulation, and an authoritarian environment

A significant fraction (though not all or even a majority) of students identified as gifted need a lot more intellectual stimulation than what school and learning provide them. The authoritative and coercive nature of school, combined with the bad fit of school activities for their intellectual level, makes them resent school. Most people in this position are able to handle things without major incidents. But this sets up a situation where the following become more attractive:

  • Most common -- open (confrontational) rebellion: The student might get into confrontations with teachers or school administrators, including some who have fragile egos. This could involve direct face-to-face confrontation in the classroom (for instance, correcting a teacher about a factual error, or loudly complaining about having to do an exercise that seems pointless). It could also involve comments that students make on Facebook, Twitter, or in other forums that are critical of teachers or school administrators.
  • Silent (zone-out) rebellion: Students zone out of it, such as by failing class, refusing to study, etc. Unlike open rebellion, in the case of silent rebellion, the student may pass under the radar of teachers. Whereas students engaged in open rebellion may get the label of "smart but badly behaved" those engaged in silent rebellion may simply be considered unpromising, and their intellectual abilities may be unrecognized by them or by others.
  • The student might turn to drugs to dull the pain of school or for external stimulation.
  • If the student experiences bullying for being too smart or nerdy, the student may try to overcome the problem by becoming part of a group of bullies or other people with high stature within the school power dynamic. A disproportionate fraction of these may be involved with drugs, alcohol, or underage sex.

Natural curiosity

People with high intellectual curiosity may also have a lot of curiosity in terms of physical experiences (i.e., high openness to experience). This might attract them to experiment with vandalism, hacking computer networks, pranks, drugs, smoking, alcohol, underage sex, and many other activities. Whether or not this counterbalances the fact that smarter people are generally more likely to avoid activities with long-term harms is unclear. The following are some tentative conclusions:

  • People who are high in curiosity but low in delayed gratification and long-term planning are particularly susceptible to the lure of the above mentioned activities.
  • In general, smart people do seem to try out some (but not all) of the above at a greater rate than the general population, but are generally more likely to stop before getting into serious trouble. But in general, it seems better to avoid the activities entirely while in high school given the authoritarian nature of zero-tolerance policies at this stage.

Inexperience with getting in trouble with the system

Smart people who've generally stayed on the right side of the rules may not have enough firsthand experience of the consequences of getting on the wrong side of the rules to understand, at an instinctive or emotional level, just how damaging it can be to them and to others in their life. Therefore, the first time that they are tempted to engage in such activities, they may be overconfident that they can do so undetected, or that they can pull out before things get too bad. And many of them do manage to go undetected or pull out the first time, but once they have started down the path, they are somewhat more likely to go further down the path next time.

Cheating and plagiarism

People at all ability levels find themselves somewhat attracted to cheating. There are some particular reasons why people at the high end of the achievement spectrum might be more prone to cheating, although the overall balance of evidence is unclear:

  • After several years in school of being able to do well without much study, they find themselves dealing with difficult subjects. Since their identity is tied in with doing well, they are willing to cheat to maintain their image.
  • High school grades and standardized tests are major inputs to their college prospects, and the prospects of people at the upper end of academic achievement are generally much more sensitive to small differences in scores.
  • They think they are more likely to be able to get away with it.

Again, while it's possible to get away with cheating, we warn against it both for ethical reasons and to avoid getting into trouble: the consequences of being caught cheating on a standardized test are pretty bad. Even if it's easy to get away with cheating in high school, the consequences of being caught cheating in college are pretty bad too, and successful cheating in high school sets a precedent for cheating in college.

Overall remedies

Find better outlets for your creative talents and curiosity

Consider, for instance, our core reading recommendations. Consider building an online presence. Learn high school mathematics or programming. Get into useful extracurricular activities. Expand your mind in other ways that simultaneously build human capital and send positive signals to the people around you as well as to colleges.

Understand and internalize the consequences of getting into trouble

You and the people around you are probably bombarded with messaging highlighting the dangers of doing drugs, cheating, or overdosing on alcohol. So what more is needed to help you understand the consequences of getting into trouble?

Part of the problem with existing messaging is that it is targeted at the average student, and may not deal with some of the specific issues that cause people of different types to be attracted to particular activities. It might therefore be helpful to read written accounts from people that you can identify with, and who have gotten in trouble with the system. For intellectually talented and curious people, the anecdotes found in the book Gifted Grownups are particularly helpful.

Develop the right attitude to the system

Further information: treat the system like a constraint

This is relatively tricky, because the "right attitude" includes a mix of not caring about the system and caring enough about it to do well by its standards. Read the link treat the system like a constraint for more information.

Treat others with kindness and respect

Further information: treat others with kindness and respect

One problem that unusual people have is that they find the ordinary people around them unimpressive, and might see through the hypocrisy and shoddiness of the actions of people around them. This can make it hard for them to be kind and respectful to those other people. Read the link treat others with kindness and respect for pragmatic and ethical reasons to treat others nicely despite lacking respect for their abilities or character traits.