I was never good at school. Even today, when I open up to friends about never being an academically successful student, they are often surprised.
Because I went to magnet middle and high schools. Places that are “known” for attracting intelligent students, because of a rigorous application process.
But there lies the true irony. I never got into schools or college because I was good at school. I got in because I was good at taking test. Especially standardized tests. Because I “got the joke”. I understood how to pick the right answer out of the 4 that I was given.
I knew how to “hack” tests. And so that’s what I continued to do in almost every arena of my life. Hack it till I made it.
There’s an immense amount of pressure on people to be traditionally smart. Getting good grades, doing well in class, and being traditionally successful are all the markers that we are told will lead us to a happy life.
But implicit in the promise of being traditionally smart is being good at following directions, meeting requirements, and focusing your energy wherever you’re told to.
I understood somewhat early on that I was never going to be a straight A student. I distinctly remember getting a “D” on my report card in social studies in 4th grade (I couldn’t have been bothered to memorize dates for our timeline test) — and I was so ashamed of it that I threw the report card away without ever showing it to my parents. They later had a serious conversation with me and my teachers when we realized where the gap had occurred.
It was from there that I decided to start hacking things. I figured out how to pay close enough attention to what the teachers were saying and what they would put on the tests. I created little memory techniques for extreme short-term memorization, so I didn’t have to spend hours remembering the “right” content. I would just remember it all for a day, regurgitate, and forget. Soon, I became good enough at school that my report cards were mostly A’s, with a few B’s here and there.
Along the way, I discovered that I had a love for extracurriculars. Nerdy things like Chess, Debate, Forensics, and Mathcounts. I also loved to read — and I would be consistently reading books wherever I went. Being involved and being a bookworm reinforced my “intelligence” (at least in some capacity).
Being overly involved became my go-to. I still remember having more significant activities to add to my college applications than I had spots available. I thrived in ambiguity and creativity. It felt more real than most of my classes did. It was the “hack” that got me into college at the University of Virginia, along with the “hack” that allowed me to perform decently in school.
It was at UVA that my high school academic hacks started to fall apart. I couldn’t bring myself to go to lectures. With the exception of a rare few professors — most of the 400+ person lecture halls I went to were lower quality deliveries of content than YouTube videos I could find on my own.
The classes I did the best in at UVA were participation required and discussion heavy (thank you School of Commerce). But my first semester was pretty mediocre. I took 16 credits (5 classes), and ended with a 3.4 GPA. A far cry from the 4.0 that it seemed like all of my friends were getting far closer to.
What followed next was a blessing in disguise — a car accident that forced me to miss my second semester of college.
When I returned to school the next semester, I enrolled in 23 credits of class. I had to make up for lost time somewhere, right?
What I discovered, however, was that the marginal effort required to get B+ to A-’s in 23 credits wasn’t that much greater for me than it was at 15 credits. I ended that semester with another 3.4. And I still hadn’t gone to more than 10% of my lectures.
Thus began my last great “hack”. I never enrolled in anything less than 20 credits during a semester. I figured out which classes to take to strike the right balance, “hacked” my way to independent studies, and continued to spent the bulk of my time outside of school.
I worked a significant amount at HackCville back when it was a gathering place for creative misfits, I ran the Virginia Consulting Group, competed nationally in Moot Court, served in Student Government, and played a variety of different club sports.
Fast forward to recruiting season and I had built an amazing profile for jobs. I was worried that my low GPA would hinder me in the application process, but I got to at least the interview stage for almost every company I wanted to.
But I faced an immense amount of imposter syndrome. I didn’t feel traditionally intelligent, and I thought I had practically cheated my way to the place I was at. Only then did I realize that what I had been calling “hacks” my whole life were truly just non-traditional skills. I embraced what I was naturally good at doing — even though it didn’t fit into the system. In doing so, I carved my own path and personal brand. A generalist with a knack for going zero to sixty somewhat quickly.
It took me 22 years, a lot of resistance, and even more obstacles than I would ever have imagined to realize that “hacks” were really just skills that I was developing.
Everyone has non-traditional skills that they should develop. It’s a natural part of understanding who you are, and charting the path to who you want to be. But we have yet to create an educational space where individuals can develop unique, personalized skills, and then leverage those skills into a unique career path for themselves.
There’s a lot of ways to start that journey — but one of the best can be asking yourself the question: “What do I lose track of time doing?”
Come up with 10 things. And if you can’t think of 10, you’re not thinking hard enough.
P.S — We’re trying to help folks navigate career uncertainty and develop their non-traditional skills in the next LifeSchool cohort. Take a look.