High schools f*ck their chance to teach kids about success

You were untouchable in high school.

You could skip from assignment to assignment, exam to exam, without risk of slipping and falling hard on your face.

It was safe. Safe from failure. From struggle. From waking up every day and realising more improvement was needed to have any real success.

You could virtually crawl under the bar of achievement if you figured out the formula to manipulating the curricula.

English assignments were a rinse and repeat job. There was a standard response the teachers looked for, and if you artfully integrated the main hitting points from the class notes you had it made.

There were simple formulae for simple, shallow successes.

And they ostensibly guaranteed you a lifetime of mechanical achievement. Press button, receive treat. Press button, receive treat. Press button…

It was a phenomenal drug. But university hit like an apocalyptic tsunami.

The formulae were encrypted. Assignments were open to interpretation. Exam questions were drawn randomly from thousand-word texts, impossible to predict. “The practice questions are a guide only,” they said, and meant it.

And like an egg timer, the sands of success started to shimmy out of sight as the real world sunk in. The button was broken. The treats stopped dropping.

And sweaty withdrawals began…


I’m now in my eleventh year post-high school. I’ve come out of university with two hard-fought degrees and survived the earliest phase of a blended career (three years as a lawyer; two years in tech growth land).

Now I can reflect.

What stands out most to me now is how little the high school experience prepared me for the pursuit of real success. The type you have to struggle for. Over-prepare for. Get frustrated for.

I spent a few years in my early twenties battling withdrawals from the dirty drug my high school sold in regal baggies on their leafy street corner.

Cheap success.

The system I described above (press button, receive treat. Press button, receive treat. Press button…) was as dopamine-inducing as any class-A drug…

…and the withdrawals from it almost killed me.

Or, at the very least, almost killed any chances I had of real success, which is a high you can neither buy nor roll out your tongue for.

Eric Barker wrote around this topic last week for Time.com (link below). So much of what he wrote is interesting. This particularly so:

…Many of the valedictorians admitted to not being the smartest kid in class, just the hardest worker. Others said that it was more an issue of giving teachers what they wanted than actually knowing the material better. Most of the subjects in the study were classified as “careerists”: they saw their job as getting good grades, not really as learning.

Respectfully, I think high schools do a terrible job of teaching kids about real success, and the pursuit of it. Perhaps it’s time to address that problem.

What high school doesn’t tell kids about success

The overworked cliché of the prom king quarterback evolving over his post-high school years into an alcoholic, balding divorcee is a nice TV-movie comparison to a sincere dilemma that needs to be addressed.

How high schools frame success is bullshit.

It may not be the case in other countries, but in Australian high schools you work towards a score assigned to you at the end of your final year.

The score determines your eligibility to university. The better the score, the ‘better’ the university and the ‘better’ the course you can enter.

Seem simple? It is. Misleadingly so.

For any student with half a mind to open their eyes, the path is clear to follow — with signs posted every ten yards with clues to moving forward.

Assignment due in 8 weeks. Here’s what we want to see in the assignment. Here’s the text we want you to read. Here are the Cliff Notes for the text. Here’s how to apply the class notes to the text and bundle it up in 800 words.

Press button, receive treat…

If you left half an eye open, you could go to sleep at 15 and wake up two years later with your whole life mapped out.

Just get the score.

What the high school experience leaves out are these salient life points:

  1. Real success is not a number. It’s not that clear cut. There aren’t many times in life where you commit to something big and are rewarded with a finite, definitive score. Most times, you won’t realize you’ve had success in an area of your life until you reflect months after you’ve conquered it.
  2. Real success has no clear path. Mostly, there are no incremental 8-week deadlines to success. There are no class notes. There are no draft submissions and feedback loops. Mostly, you scrounge around in the dark, on your own, for 10+ years, until finally a light comes on.
  3. Real success and academic success are not locked as one. A friend of mine is now objectively successful, 11 years post-high school, despite his poor academic record. That’s not a novel story, but the effect his poor high school experience had on his mindset derailed his confidence for years. Had success been framed differently, he might’ve found it earlier.
  4. Real success depends on retained knowledge & experience. I wasn’t trained to retain in high school. Knowledge came in, and went out. For exams, you could commit the patterns of the rehearsal questions to memory and get an A without learning an iota of new information. Such were the rewards for this mindless system (straight As, great score) that the brain conditioned itself to build habits to carry it out subconsciously.
  5. Real success has no cheats or shortcuts. There is an enduring pain that comes with the pursuit of it. The struggle is slow and exhausting and occasionally leaves you feeling like it’ll never come. Hopefully it does.
  6. Real success is deeply glorious. I presume.

What high school needs

I don’t know, but here are some thoughts.

In 2015, YouthTruth surveyed 165,000 U.S. high school students and found that “less than half (44.8%) of students feel positively about their college and career readiness,” even though 87% of them wanted to attend college.

It’s sad that the common wisdom here is to chalk the issue up to normality. It’s normal not to know what you want to do with your life, we were told.

That’s lazy wisdom. The type teachers and parents adopt because they were told the same thing, as their parents and teachers before them were told.

In a world addicted to problem solving, how is it still the case that 87% of students want to go to college but only half of them feel positive about their readiness for it? Surely someone would’ve stepped in to solve that by now?

Surely there’s a band of successful or near-successful 27–35 year olds that goes into schools for intensive real-world induction sessions. Not one-off “I sucked at high school, but look at me now” ego boasts (fuelled by the ego owner, not the school).

I suspect the reason for not tackling the problem head-on is born from the fear that if institutions start teaching the realities of real-world success, the institution itself, with all its warped realities surrounding the pursuit of success, will deteriorate.

That’s petty and dangerous, if it’s true.

Teachers and curriculum crafters will read to this point and throw up their arms in contempt. In their mind, real-world preparation is taken care of.

They deliver the curriculum. They offer support. They help students look at and apply for universities.

But clearly, something is missing.

What’s missing is institutionalised promulgation that the march to post high school success is war-torn, like Kokoda, not airy, like the Yellow Brick Road.

Schools should create dedicated, semester-long programs focussed on delivering kids hard truths about success, and its pursuit, in the real world.

And it should come from those battling ferociously towards their version of success- I wasn’t joking about the band of 27 – 35 years olds

Fundamentally, the ‘clear-path’ psychology needs to die, because it’s negligently inaccurate, and be replaced by the bundle of conventional realities that make up life post-18.

Until then, perhaps we millennials should ban together in a class action suit against the governments that’ve made cheap addicts of us all.


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