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10 Life-Saving Lessons you Learned in High School (even if it was shitty)

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Most people have the same view of high school: it kind of sucked. It was boring and worthless and everybody figures out, in hindsight, that they were surrounded by losers.

Even the folks who profess their love for their high school years have reservations. It wasn’t all good.

Teachers were mean. Kids were meaner.

And it all seemed so unimportant. Just not relevant to everyday life (when the hell am I EVER going to use the Pythagorean Theorem?).

The truth, though, is that many important lessons are had in high school, and I don’t mean who fought in the French and Indian War (hint: the French and the “Indians” were on the same side).

Habits. Values. Stuff you take for granted. You picked it up in high school. A little review of some of those intangibles might help you deal with your current troubles.

So, here goes . . .

#1 Be on time.

So much of life is just being in the right place at the right time. On time. High school put you on a schedule. Made you follow the clock.

So, yeah, it was super annoying when your physics teacher locked you out of his classroom, made you get a pass (and detention) for being thirty seconds late. Thirty seconds! You were taking a leak!

But it helped you. You’re making it to those meetings now. Getting into work. Establishing a reputation for being dependable. Reliable.

Thank your physics teacher.

#2 Do the things you don’t want to do.

Is there any phrase that captures high school better than this one? No one wants to do it. No one wants to go.

If you did want to go to school, it was probably for something specific: track practice, rehearsal for the musical, or you enjoyed seeing certain friends.

But most of the experience was undesirable.

Don’t you see how this prepared you for the real world?

Waiting in line at the DMV. Going through security at the airport. Working on that pain-in-the-ass project your boss assigned you.

High school helped build up the tolerance that allows you to perform at and endure the shit you just flat don’t like.

This helps facilitate the things you do like.

#3 Collaborate.

Whenever you had a big test, or a project that was due, what did you do when you were in high school?

Speak to your class mates about what they were studying, what they thought they had to know, how they were going to answer the questions, etc.

When you had questions, you were told the first place to go was to your teacher but, come on, the first place you went was to your peer group if, for no other reason, then to determine who was going to the teacher to get the needed answers.

This was collaboration. Teamwork. You were together with people in your same situation and, as a group, problem solved.

This model is key to corporate life.

It’s key to the small business owner tasked with hiring and training a staff.

It’s key to household management.

You learned and implemented it in high school.

#4 Prioritize.

Every day you went home with a stack of books and a homework list. But how much of it did you really do?

When you sat down at the kitchen table, or at your desk in your bedroom, or on the couch in front of the television, the first thing you thought was: what really needs to be done?

What’s getting graded and what’s just an assignment?

You did the graded work first (studied for tests, written work), and put off the other stuff (reading assignments), if you did them at all.

This is what we do every day at work, home, etc.

What’s consequential? What’s important and what’s just fluff?


Work smart, not hard.

This practice allows us to live a fruitful life with (hopefully) a manageable stress level.

We learned it in high school.

#5 Respect for authority (i.e. Play the Game).

Rules suck. Nobody likes them. But they are required for an ordered, civilized society, as arbitrary as they might seem.

Respecting the clock; not throwing food in the café; minding your Geometry teacher (even if he was a prick) — these were all important lessons in survival.

It’s not about conformity.

It’s about respecting the norms and rules of society for your OWN good.

You want happiness, success, fulfillment at home and work, well, it won’t help your cause if the people around you think you unreliable, disrespectful, impossible to work with because you can’t follow simple rules.

So, the next time you see that prick of a Math teacher, you should thank him for enforcing the rules (then curse him out under your breath as you walk away).

#6 The best ways to get away with shit (i.e. Play the Game).

Now that we’ve considered the virtues of following the rules, we know that much of our time in high school was spent shortcutting those very rules. But over the course of your four years, you learned there was a way to do it that didn’t draw negative attention to yourself.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with challenging authority, especially if those in authority are sowing injustice.

But challenging authorities purely for the joy of belittling them, embarrassing them, entertaining your friends, etc., isn’t at all productive.

It’s just being a dick.

Remember that your teachers and administrators were good people trying to do their jobs. That’s it. If you treated them with respect, avoided hassling them, tried to get along with them, they, in turn, would grant you leeway.

Let you cut a few corners.

You were really hungry in art class? No problem. Your art teacher thought you a nice kid and let you eat a granola bar.

You ran late and ended up at homeroom a minute after the bell rang? Well, no problem. You never gave your homeroom teacher any trouble so he let you in.

In short, you learned how to play the game. Think of how often we apply this tactic to our everyday lives.

Quite a bit.

#7 You must read. Books.

So boring. Just think of all the books you had to slog through in your English class. Or the textbooks you had to consume in every other class.

Dry. Nebulous. Confusing. Didn’t say anything worth remembering.

But you had to do it if you wanted to pass the quizzes. The tests. The class.

As adults, we are asked to fill an assortment of roles: spouse, parent, business owners or employees. Some or most of these roles don’t come naturally to us. In order to better ourselves, increase our effectiveness in these roles, we read about them.

In books.

There are books on everything.

Parenting. Owning a business. Running a law office. How to write effectively. How to be a stage actor. How to be happy.

You learned to read in grade school, but you learned the discipline of reading in high school. You developed reading muscles that allowed you to push through hundreds of pages on a topic.

And you learned how to read efficiently. You figured out which parts of the readings were important and which parts could get skipped.

You learned how to absorb information and make it useful.

Maybe you never realized it, but this skill is crucial to your present and future success.

#8 Making friends.

Again, you can say this is really a kindergarten/grade school lesson, but it was refined in high school when the stakes were much higher.

High school is a time of great social anxiety.

Navigating the various peer groups, seeing where you fit, avoiding the bullets and arrows of those who think you an urchin — this would be a treacherous, daily experience for the average adult, let alone a 15-year-old kid.

But you did it. Chances are you found that circle of people that provided you comfort. (You should realize that your presence was equally comforting to them.)

Maybe it wasn’t a circle. Maybe it was only one or two people. But that was probably enough.

This survival skill of locating like-minded people and establishing a network is vital to your social confidence, psychological health and economic effectiveness.

Just because you left high school doesn’t mean you left the minefield of personal interaction. You just know how to navigate it.

#9 Tolerating assholes.

It’s a strange time in your life: adolescence. Brings out the worst in you. In others.

High school is kind of a fake kingdom and certain personality types jostle for titles and honors in that kingdom. They do so by placing themselves above everyone else, demanding adoration from their friends and followers and punishing the weak and non-compliant with bullying and ostracism.

The popular girl who made everyone around her suffer potential social disgrace, whether they were friend or foe (or just minding their own business).

The jock whose head expanded well past his body and wouldn’t stoop to talk to anyone who was a non-athlete or had a grade point average over 90 (unless he needed answers to the morning quiz).

The dirtbag who couldn’t measure up with anyone else and decided to take it out on his peers. Physically.

Unfortunately, these personalities persist after high school. But you learned how to survive them.

More, now that you’re out of the fake kingdom, you can avoid or surpass them with some ease.

Thank you, high school.

#10 Enduring a hellish situation.

For some, high school was a great experience.

For others, it was OK. Nothing special.

For many, though, high school was hell on earth.

You didn’t really know who you were or what you wanted. You trusted the wrong people. You were bullied, left out, ignored.

The chosen paths of achievement (traditional academics and athletics) really didn’t apply to you and trapped you in your marginal status.

But it ended. You got through it.

It, too, passed.

Terrible things — hellish situations — befall you in your adult life, too. Death, divorce, bankruptcy: at least one (all three?) of these will happen to you.

But it, too, shall pass.

Bad times aren’t always avoidable. But they are temporary. They end.

Just like high school.

Bonus #11 Remember your favorite teacher.

You must have had one.

Your sophomore English teacher who taught you how to write, equipped you with a skill you use today.

Your U.S. History teacher who made the material come alive in class. Made it interesting.

Your Calculus teacher who was gentle and understanding and helped you through math, a subject you thought you’d never understand.

Or simply that teacher who cared, who asked you about your day, your classes, your future.

Teachers have a great impact on all of us. Good ones are precious oracles who help form us, guide us, point the way for us.

Think of your favorite teacher and recall what you learned from her. Contact her some time and express your appreciation. You’ll make her day.

Maybe your high school experience was Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Maybe it was The Breakfast Club.

Maybe it was Carrie.

Whatever it was, you gained valuable lessons from those years. Review those lessons. Brush up on them.

Make your time in high school matter.

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