On High School: What I’d Tell Myself If I Could Do It All Again

This post has also been published by The Odyssey!

May 28th 2015

If keeping a 4.0 requires you to lower the rigor of your classes, don’t. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get good grades, but you definitely shouldn’t compromise your learning opportunities just to maintain a number.

There will always be people who seem to have or get more than you. It’s because the world is full to bursting with all kinds of talent and sometimes it’s hard to recognize all of it. It’s not fair, but it’s true. Don’t get down on yourself.

There aren’t scholarships for making the most people smile or for being nice to the substitute teacher or for only saying positive things about your peers, but these things are infinitely more important than your test scores and GPA. Remember that.

No one really cares about prom queen ten years down the road, or honestly even just a month later. Popularity is an illusion – everyone has something to offer, and no one is the end-all-be-all of perfection.

Jealousy will hurt you more than anything anyone can do to you. It’s hard to overcome it, but try to realize that you don’t know enough to judge who deserves what. Someone is always better off than you, but someone is always less fortunate, too.

Get to know your teachers beyond how they grade your work or insist on teaching class up until the second the bell rings. They’re human too – vast, fascinating, flawed, wonderful. They have stories to tell far beyond the breadth of their subjects and it’s these stories that you really ought to learn.

Don’t run away when you mess up. Learn to turn and face your mistakes head on, because it’s better to fix them all at once than it is to let them shadow you for days or months or years. Be the person who apologizes right away instead of the one who slinks off into a corner to hide.

You’re going to cry, and you’re going to make people cry. It might be because of a boy or a girl or something silly like a failed group project, or it might be because your life is literally crashing down around you. The reason doesn’t matter so much as the recovery, and the recovery doesn’t matter nearly as much as those who help you with it.

There will be favorites in high school and you may not be one of them. There will be kids who don’t even have to work to get the same things you have to fight so hard for. Don’t think that this is your fault or that it makes you any less of an important member of your school; people are flawed, sometimes even those in charge. Be anything but bitter. Be understanding.

No one cares about your ACT score once you’re actually in college. It may feel amazing to score highly or awful to scrape the barrel, but it doesn’t matter to anybody else nearly as much as it matters to you. This is both good and bad – accept it.

Participate in every damn thing you can fit into your schedule, because the people you meet and the friendships you build and the experiences you gain are worth so much more than the time you invest in them. Sing your heart out on your school song, paint your face for homecoming, stop being afraid of what you look like or what people think. Just jump in. You only get this once.

Stay home with your parents once in a while. Talk to them. Vent to them. Listen to what they have to say. While you are growing up, they are growing old. It’s easy to forget how important they are in the rush of these four years, but remember that they are the biggest thing you’ll be leaving behind.

You are not better than anybody. I don’t care if you run faster or score higher or sing more on key. You are not better, you are different. You will surpass your peers in some areas and fall far behind in others and you need to be okay with this.

The first time you really struggle in a class, it will feel awful. It will feel useless and impossible and you will become convinced that you’re the stupidest person to ever walk your school’s hallways. Remember that none of these things are true. The truth is that sometimes it seems like not even the hardest work pays off like you want it to, but you can’t forget the value of your effort.

Watch your words, always. You never know who is around you or who they know or what kind of horrible day they might be having. Never say anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable justifying to someone’s face, and if you do, don’t wait to acknowledge it and try to make it right.

First impressions will kill you. They’re impossible to shake and you’re going to have to deal with whatever initial thoughts popped into someone’s head regarding you for the next four years. You might never fully change someone’s mind, but you can still always focus on being who you really want people to perceive.

This is it. You don’t get to come back and slink into your old homeroom desk like it’s a second home ever again after you graduate. You’re going to hate high school, and you’re going to love it. There will be days you can’t wait to graduate and nights where you want everything to freeze – but it won’t. Know this. Learn to soak up every single experience. You are choosing who you are and who you will be day in and day out. This is a beginning… but it, too, is going to come to an end.

Photo credits to the Wausau Daily Herald.

Creating Competition

I struggle day in and day out with comparing myself to others. A habit born out of a desperate desire to always be “good enough” in every context, it’s a dangerous pattern that consistently erodes my happiness. I can’t seem to look at any accomplishment outside the lens of how it stacks up to what others are doing.

I’ve known for a long time that this isn’t an ideal way to live, but I’ve never quite been able to shake the pattern. To a degree, it’s natural – standardized tests put you on a spectrum with your peers, curved classes force you to compete, and society as a whole often encourages a cutthroat, be-the-best sort of mindset. But while hard work is well and good, pitting yourself against others definitely isn’t.

I realized the magnitude of my problem over the past year after my grade graduated high school and began our collegiate lives. I didn’t intend to, but I found myself comparing my college choice with those of my classmates. I found myself comparing my direct admit BBA status with the pre-business standing of other students from my school. I found myself comparing my GPA, my extracurricular involvement, the number of parties I attended, the time I spent studying, the clothes I wore… honestly, I couldn’t do anything without fretting that it didn’t match up with those around me. And what’s worse, every time I achieved something I felt proud of, that pride seemed to stem from my comparisons with others as opposed to a genuine sense of self-satisfaction.

To be blunt: I was an emotional, competitive mess. And it was scary.

I know the kind of person that I want to be, and I know it’s not someone who’s obsessed with comparisons. I know that I value diversity and usually embrace differences. I know that two of my top strengths are empathy and inclusion. I know I’m a feeler on the MBTI, a person who deeply appreciates relationships and people. So why was I experiencing such an intense desire to outperform the world around me? It didn’t make sense, and it quite frankly made me worried that I was succumbing to negative personality traits.

After some painful self-reflection and more than a few moments of uncomfortable honesty, I realized the problem was entirely on me. Sure, western society builds us to be individualistic and competitive – but I was the one who allowed my insecurities to take it too far. I’ve always doubted myself and my lack of self-confidence caused me to grow dependent on outside comparisons to affirm my own value. I couldn’t just do something cool and be proud of it; I had to know that it was up to par with the cool things my peers were also doing.

Looking back, it’s such a ridiculous notion.

Don’t get me wrong – a healthy level of comparison with the world around you is good. There’s a reason that developmental benchmarks and averages exist, and I believe they can be really helpful tools for self-improvement. But it’s not healthy to judge every single thing you do against the actions of the world around you. It’s not healthy to only ascribe value to something you love when it’s also valued by your peers. More than anything, it’s not healthy to create competition where competition doesn’t exist.

I need to reframe the way I think about achievement and success. Instead of seeing my peers’ accomplishments as threats to my own, I need to see them for what they are: wonderful. Instead of looking at the awesome thing my old classmate is doing and being jealous that I didn’t do it first, I need to be proud that someone I know is out there crushing their dreams. I need to realize that my peers and I are different people with different goals who will succeed in different ways. Just because I’m not conquering the same experiences that they are doesn’t mean we aren’t both doing valuable things… it just means we’re not doing the same things. And what’s wrong with that?

Answer: not a thing.

I’ve come to accept that I might always struggle with insecurity and comparisons; I know that one of my biggest weaknesses is my need for external approval. But I also know that being aware of our flaws is one of the first steps to remedying them. It’s as simple as catching myself when I start to make a comparison and reframing my thought process to be healthier. It’s as simple as reminding myself that I’m not a failure just because I haven’t done the same things as others my age… and that no one else is a failure because they haven’t done the things I have. It’s as simple as making a commitment, day in and day out, to be better in all the ways that really count: kindness, compassion, acceptance, love.

As hard as it is for me to tame my feelings of jealousy and fear, it’s a lot harder to deal with a life full of miserable comparisons. My success does not come at the expense of others, and vice versa. No one is my competition except the person I was yesterday.

Owning Confidence

I have a bad habit of picking at the skin around my fingers. An undesirable response to both anxiety and boredom, I can easily pull at a hangnail throughout an entire lecture without thinking twice about it.

It’s been pretty embarrassing over the years to have fingers covered in bandaids or showing raw skin. It used to be that whenever someone asked “what did you do to your finger?” I’d feel compelled to make up some excuse, like burning it on my hair straightener or getting a paper cut. I didn’t want people to know that it was something I was doing to myself; I felt weird, gross, and awkward. (A valid question is why I don’t just kick the habit once and for all… but that’s a topic for another reflection).

As I got older and realized the importance of openly owning my mistakes and flaws, I started answering honestly. Instead of sheepishly lying about my shutting my finger in a door, I would just say “oh, I have a bad habit of picking at my fingernails,” like it was no big deal. After all, it really isn’t – there are far worse things in which I could engage.

Every time I own this part of myself, I feel stronger. I feel capable. It’s such a little thing, but I feel overwhelmingly that if I’m willing to present my quirks in an honest way, they become less of an elephant in the room and more of a piece of everyday information. I’ve come to believe that attempting to hide parts of yourself only makes them more evident; the awkwardness of someone knowing you’re lying is far worse than the slightly weird look you might get if you tell the truth. Sure, I’m not proud of all of my bad habits – but I do feel proud when I take responsibility for them.

My journey to overcoming my insecurities has been strongly rooted in this idea of self-ownership. I touched on this in another piece, but the idea is worth reiterating: I don’t have to justify myself to anyone. I don’t have to explain every last part of my being. I find immense value in explaining my actions and thought processes, but even so, I don’t feel that I have to. If I don’t want to make the world understand why I pick at my fingers, I don’t need to. If I don’t want to explain why I’m so insecure, I don’t need to. My feelings, emotions, and qualities are valid – whether I justify them to the world or not.

I’ve become immensely more confident in the past years as I’ve processed the concept of owning my life. The truth is that I am flawed and broken and a million other awful things, but I don’t owe anyone an explanation for these traits. I absolutely owe myself the effort to continuously improve – but I don’t owe the people around me a justification for why improvement is still needed.

Countless experiences have molded me into who I am today and countless experiences will continue to do so. I am capable of taking control of my path in life, of changing the things I don’t like, of becoming a better person each and every day. But in order to be someone greater in the future, I have to first take ownership of who I am right now.

Fear of Feedback

Recently an article I wrote about my summer internship experience garnered over three thousand shares on social media as it was passed around an online community of journalists. Though this may not seem like expansive reach in the grand scheme of the internet, it was by far the largest audience any of my pieces had ever received.

My mom, being the overwhelmingly encouraging woman that she is, texted me a variety screenshots of posts made by strangers where they shared and complimented my perspective. I realized while sifting through their comments that though I should have felt thrilled with the magnitude of responses, I was actually quite terrified. My stomach turned as I read through share after share, fearing that my next scroll down the screen would reveal a horrible truth: that someone hated what I had to say.

I felt silly being surrounded by such a multitude of positive feedback and still fearing potential negativity. I wrote that particular piece with the best intentions and in the most honest way possible, and I knew I could be proud of my work. I did not claim to know everything but instead sought to turn my summer experience into a learning opportunity for anyone who would take the time to read it. I felt good about what I had written… so why did I feel so scared when the world began passing it around?

Part of it is who I am. I’m vastly insecure, extremely uncomfortable with conflict, and I desperately want to be well-liked. These are not necessarily desirable traits, but they are deeply rooted facets of my being. I grew up receiving almost exclusively positive feedback from authority figures and developed a genuine fear of making a mistake. Though the rational part of me understands that mistakes are important learning opportunities, the part of me powered by feelings tries to avoid failing in any way at pretty much all costs.

I was so scared that someone would find an error when my article began to be shared (and indeed, a few people did). I wrote my reflection after only three months in a news room and knew that I couldn’t be expected to get every single fact right. The message of my piece was supposed to transcend minute details – yet I still stressed over every last thing that could potentially be corrected. Fear of my words being dissected and taken out of context overshadowed my joy that so many people were relating to my work. I found this fact immensely sad.

While I will be the first to acknowledge that my sometimes paper-thin skin makes receiving criticism hard, I also believe part of my fear stemmed from valid observations of society as a whole. When something is put in the spotlight it’s extremely easy to pick it apart. Statistically it makes sense that the wider something reaches, the more varying the responses to it will be – but I also think that we as a society often focus too much on the negatives.

I feared cruel responses to my work because I have witnessed cruel responses to the work of others. In fact, I have sometimes been the one supplying those cruel responses. I am not proud of it, but it’s easy to fixate on one component of a thing that you dislike as opposed to acknowledging the intent or impact of the thing as a whole. For me personally, I think part of it is jealousy: when I see someone or something being very successful (in this case garnering a wide social media reach) sometimes I yearn to find flaws in it just to bring it back down to my level in my mind. It’s warped logic, but I notice it all the time.

The biggest thing I thought about while all of these thoughts and fears were swimming in my head was how to fix my mindset. I was saddened that my knotting stomach distracted from the pride of having my work shared, and in the future I want to be much more joy-centric. I know I can’t suddenly make society more positive… but there are some things I can do.

First, I can alter the way I personally interact with the world, especially on social media. I can consciously strive to be more positive in my observations and responses, and when I do give feedback, I can make sure it’s the kind I would feel comfortable and valued receiving. Though it’s cliched, it’s true: change starts with one person.

Second, I can work to grow my own confidence. This is an endeavor I’ve been pursuing for a while and I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s a constant work in progress. I doubt myself to the point that it sometimes squashes my creativity, and while it’s important to be self-aware of your flaws, I definitely take it too far. At the end of the day I need to remind myself that my feelings and thoughts are valid and that I am allowed to have errors to my name. After all, your mistakes don’t define you – the way you react to them does.

Third, I can actively try to ask for feedback and respond maturely. My natural inclination is to curl up in a ball when someone says something negative about me, but I need to make an effort to hear them out and evaluate their statements. Though some criticisms (especially on social media) are unnecessarily harsh, many pieces of feedback can be extremely valuable to the growing process. I can’t improve myself all on my own, and sometimes I’m going to have to participate in uncomfortable conversations. Sometimes I’m going to make people mad. Sometimes I’m going to be insensitive or inaccurate. I need to be okay with these things and all of the consequences that come with them. When someone critiques something I’ve done, it’s not an insult to my character – it’s a chance to be better for the next time.

And finally, I can focus on the positive. I can look a little closer into the good things people are saying and move on from the bad. I can be proud of the fact that at least someone, somewhere, is getting something out of what I’ve written. If my work can make even one person feel more understood or appreciated or inspired, then I really shouldn’t care if a thousand other people hate it. I can take criticisms seriously and I can welcome feedback with open arms, but I can also remind myself that sometimes our triumphs need a little more attention than our failures.

I am only nineteen. I am flawed, and scared, and a million other undesirable things. But I’ve come to realize that feedback doesn’t have to be frightening; when approached with the right attitude, it can be exciting and educational all at once. I may not want to be a famous author living in the spotlight like I once dreamed when I was younger – but I definitely don’t want to let a fear of negativity stop me from connecting with others by sharing my work.