I screwed up my life.
At the beginning, I had so much talent. I skipped kindergarten and dominated my classes. In high school, I was a straight A student who graduated sixth in my class of over eight hundred. My parents and teachers told me I was so smart. I was easily accepted to the University of Texas as an honors biomedical engineering student with a full scholarship. My first semester GPA was a 4.0.
Then everything went to hell. I failed some classes and lost my scholarship. Engineering turned into philosophy, bringing constant questions of, “Philosophy? What on earth are you going to do with that?” After five unsuccessful years in college, I dropped out and moved back in with my parents. I started cashiering again at the same grocery store I worked at in high school. Even four years after dropping out, I have barely gotten my life on track. At age 26, still having a roommate begins to look a little pathetic.
Why did I fail so spectacularly? I would like to blame it on a mental health problem. So much of my time was wasted lying in bed, watching YouTube and Netflix, surrounded by empty fast food bags. Yet although my life was depressing, I would not say I was personally depressed. I could also blame my college missteps on choosing the wrong field of study. But if I could go back to school tomorrow (and I desperately want to), I would probably pick engineering once again.
The bottom line is I failed because I was lazy. Actually, I failed because I am lazy; that weakness still exists in my personality. And that laziness was an extension of my need to be considered smart.
Unlike many people, I do not believe American high schools focus too much on athletics. Even in the deepest parts of the South, students still spend the majority of their time in the classroom, not the football field. They are graded on their academic performance almost every day from the ages of 5 to 18. And in the final high school activity, the graduation ceremony, the student with the highest GPA, not the one who hit the most home runs, walks across the stage first.
The criterion that high school academics values most is traditional intelligence. The great responsibility and damning flaw of public schools is that they must educate a large variety of students. Most highs schools are educating students from a variety of socioeconomic and familial backgrounds. The vast majority of upper-middle class students have access to early education, parents who can support them, and an expectation of success. Many lower class students have parents whom are too busy working two jobs to help with homework, younger siblings that need to be looked after, and little hope they will be able to attend college. The education system needs to have a low enough bar where those disadvantaged students can still pass. Naturally then, high school can be too easy for someone in the privileged group, and a talented student can receive praise with very little work.
I loved being known as the “smart kid”. Even today, a part of me is pleased when someone turns to me and expects me to already have the answer to some technical question. I overvalued traditional intelligence because spending almost two decades in schools taught me to do so. Back in high school, I thought I could be an asshole so long as I was witty and right like Gregory House. My education would have been much more well-rounded if I had learnt more about emotional intelligence and work ethic (which are the values that extracurricular activities tend to promote).
The problem with being smart is you need others to keep thinking you are intelligent. There are two ways to do so: 1.) Do smart things, but that requires skill and work. 2.) Do mediocre things with minimal effort. Getting a B on that test is alright because you did not study. Your ego is protected by the idea of what could have been.
But eventually we all have to put in the work. And if you are incapable of putting forth any real effort, you fail out of college and disappoint everyone who cares about you.
That lazy screwup is still the dominant part of my personality. I have books I want to write, games I want to program, and blogs I want to build. But every time I get struck by inspiration, I work for a few hours, get disappointed by my results, give up, and destroy all traces of my work. Then I broodingly sit around and wait for the next piece of motivation to hit me.
There is a scene at the end of Bojack Horseman‘s second season that is relevant here. Bojack sets out on a run, struggles to climb the hill by his house, and collapses at the top. An elderly but fit baboon comes over to give Bojack some advice:
It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.
And that is the challenge I need to rise to. If I want to succeed with my goals, then I need to put in the work every day. My goal is to write at least 500 words a day. A little bit of work each day will help me get to where I want. And I also need to let my effort grow and build on itself. No more restarting either.
My failures are plenty in number and huge in size, but all of them can be fixed with a little work every day. I do not want to be the smart kid any more; I want to be known as the man who hustles.