Success Secrets You Should Have Learned in High School — But Didn't


About halfway through my sophomore year in high school, I wandered into the guidance counselor's office looking for answers. The curriculum, I explained, wasn't really doing anything for me. I was bored. And I wanted her to do something about it.

In retrospect, I realize I could have handled that a little better. But then, I was 16 and thought I knew everything, as most teenagers do. And even though my methods may have been lacking, my heart really was in the right place. I wanted to learn. I just didn't feel like I was getting anything out of school. (See also: Free Ways to Learn Something New)

My counselor's response wasn't nearly as sympathetic as I had expected:

You being bored is not our problem. That's your problem. And it's something you'll have to learn to deal with if you want to make it in the real world. Life isn't always fun and games and you don't get to pick and choose what you want to do. I suggest you stop worrying about having fun and start thinking about how you're going to make a living, because that will determine how "happy" you are in the future. The sooner you realize that, the better off you'll be.

A year later, I took her words to heart, got my GED, and quit school. If professional success was the key to happiness, I reasoned, then I was going to get a head start. At least, so I thought. (See also: Tips From a Financially Savvy Teen)

It wasn't until many years later that I realized that's probably not what she meant and even if it was, I should have never listened to that advice. Granted, she was right — it was my problem — and life isn't always fun and games, but just settling for "making a living" isn't the answer, either.

I spent years doing what I thought I was supposed to do rather than giving life to what I really wanted to do and inevitably, I'd get bored, quit, and move on to the next exciting, albeit identical opportunity. It never occurred to me that the plan itself was faulty.

If you're struggling to find your purpose or having trouble getting your groove, it could be because you're still operating under some old (and incorrect) beliefs about life and success.

So, in the spirit of busting a few of those myths and (hopefully) helping you find that groove that's eluding you, here are some other things you should have been told when you were growing up.

Keep Your Head in the Clouds

Can you imagine what our world would be like if we didn't have visionaries? If people like Einstein, the Wright Brothers, and Steve Jobs had never let their imaginations wander? (See also: Ways to Boost Creativity)

We come into this world with amazing ideas, but as we get older, we're conditioned to suppress it in favor of a more practical reality. And practical is fine. But there's a reason that you have the ability to ponder the impossible and postulate the outrageous — it's the quickest way to access your genius.

As personal development author Byron Pulsifer puts it, "Adults tend to suppress their imagination, and are too quick to give up their dreams. Don't let the child in you disappear — imagine, dream, and believe in yourself."

You Will Fail

Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade and then went on to lose every election he ran for. Until, that is, the age of 62, when Britain elected him as their Prime Minister. Columbia Pictures told Marilyn Monroe that she wasn't pretty or talented enough to be an actress. A newspaper editor fired Walt Disney because he "lacked imagination." And it took Thomas Edison some 1,000 attempts before successfully creating the light bulb. When asked about all the previous attempts, he responded, "I didn't fail 1,000 times. It was an invention with 1,000 steps."

You too, will fail... and over your lifetime, it's quite likely that you will fail often. And when you do, you're going to think about giving up. But just because you didn't succeed doesn't mean you won't succeed the next time around. In fact, that's the other half of this equation: You will fail, but you won't always fail.

Learning to embrace that idea is what allows you to learn from the experience and perhaps even conceive a better way of doing things. It's what will help you develop a resistance to other peoples' ideas about what you can and cannot do, and it's what enables you to pick yourself up, brush yourself off and try again. Because the fact that you didn't, doesn't mean that you can't. It just means that you haven't yet. (See also: How to Learn From Your Mistakes)

Success Is Subjective

And while we're on the subject of success — remember that it's different for everyone. What makes you happy might not make me happy and vice-versa, and only you can decide what "that" is.

The day I decided to become a freelancer wasn't the first time I had walked away from the corporate world. Several years prior, I got the notion that it was time to make a change and rather than sending out resumes, I applied to wait tables at a local bar. On paper, it was probably the dumbest thing I had ever done — my corporate job offered full benefits and a generous salary, complete with an expense account and a car allowance.

The waitress job on the other hand, offered none of those perks. In fact, the only guarantee I had was the $2.01 hourly wage; the rest was up to me.

But despite all that uncertainty, I felt invigorated. I was free, and for the first time in a long time, I was happy in my work again.

You have to define what happiness means to you, even if it doesn't match the blueprint that society considers to be the norm. We have this notion that with the right car, the right house, the right job or X amount of money, we'll be happy, but money and things will only take you so far. True success — and the happiness that goes with it — will come when you're doing something you love. And that's something no amount of money can buy. (See also: Defining What Financial Success Means to You)

Your Permanent File Isn't Real

That enlightening conversation with my guidance counselor wasn't the first time I had spoken without first thinking things through. Quite the contrary, it seemed I was always ruffling feathers — and each time I did, I was told the infraction was going in my permanent file.

And at the rate my teachers were writing in it, I knew that file was going to haunt me for the rest of my life.

Of course, you and I now know that file wasn't real. In fact, other than having nice transcripts when applying to college, no one really cares what you did in high school, much less junior high or grade school.

But even though we know the file doesn't really exist, the stigma of it tends to stay with us. We have a tendency to confine ourselves with all sorts of limiting labels. We were never any good at math, ergo we could never be an accountant or a scientist or teacher. English wasn't out best subject, so even though we have a great idea for a story, maybe writing a book isn't really in our future. We weren't popular or athletic or academically advanced in school, so we shouldn't expect too much success in the grown up version of reality either.

But actually, just the opposite is true.

What and who you were yesterday doesn't define you now any more than who you are now defines who you'll become tomorrow. Yes, our experiences help to shape our perceptions and beliefs but we are free — at any time — to decide to perceive something differently and believe something new. Those labels and limitations we put on ourselves aren't real and they have no bearing on your potential.

Just like that make-believe permanent file.

Forget About Fitting In

At first glance, you might think that we Americans have "being different" down. We're taught a history that's filled with rebellious ancestors who couldn't help but stand up and stand out. Our entire society is built upon the ideas of equality and freedom, specifically so that each of us can choose to define the "pursuit of happiness" for ourselves.

And this aversion to fitting in was seemingly reinforced loud and clear from day one. "Don't worry about what the other kids are doing," our grownups told us. "If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?"

But really, our grownups weren't saying "don't follow" — they were saying "follow the right people."

And to some extent, that's not bad advice. Modeling your path after those who were successful before you is never a bad place to start… the problem is, we've taken that one step further and started using those models to define — and limit — what success actually means.

As a result, we've lost our ability to adapt. We've forgotten how to think outside the box and instead of embracing the uniqueness that brought us here, we greet it with hate and fear.

But the thing is, those crowds aren't really looking for another follower… by their very definition, they're looking for a leader. And therein lies the irony: if you really want to fit in, you have to stand out and lead.

What else do you wish your guidance counselor had told you?

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Guest's picture

I like this advice. I do however think it is important to believe how you do whilst at High School in order to make sure you actually get the work done.

Guest's picture

There's a fine line between being practical and being a dreamer. For every successful genius, there are millions of failures about whom you never hear.

Following your dream is good. Ensuring body and soul stay together while doing so is even better.

Guest's picture

What a great post! So positive! Yep the trick is to find your own 'groove' and then play your own song. So often we are taught (by those surrounding us when we grow up) that life is a ABC or 123 process but in fact it is more like a dance were you are the only one who can hear the rhythm... no one else can hear your rhythm. So once you hear it you should ALWAYS follow it no matter what... after all life is a GREAT game and a fun one at that.