Note: This is meant to be legible to high school students who are not LessWrong regulars.
If you'd asked me in high school what the difference was between high school kids and adults, I'd have said it was that adults had to earn a living. Wrong. It's that adults take responsibility for themselves. Making a living is only a small part of it. Far more important is to take intellectual responsibility for oneself.
―Paul Graham, What You'll Wish You'd Known
I go to a public high school. I've observed the same things Paul Graham has. Students typically allow themselves to follow the system wherever it takes them, without pausing to think about whether their goals are best achieved by exclusively putting energy into a college application for four years. Because of this, it is rare to see people pursue self-responsibility. This post is meant to sketch out the details of what being self-responsible looks like, why highschoolers should start being self-responsible, and what to do once you've taken responsibility for yourself.
Self-responsibility is understanding that you are the only person who can give you the life you want. Self-responsibility looks like spending time writing down what you want to fix in your life, and then brainstorming how you can make positive changes. Self-responsibility looks like having the audacity to ask people for what you want. Self-responsibility looks like realizing that it takes effort to improve yourself, and creating a plan to learn skills and develop character traits you want to have. Tony Stark in a cave. Mark Watney trapped on Mars. This is the type of self-responsibility I'm talking about. Unlike those two, failing to become self-responsible probably won't kill you. There just won't be anyone trying to help you reach your goals in life.
When I ask people what they want to change in their life, they usually have to think about it. We don't often consider how our routines or situations may fall short of what we want. Self-awareness is crucial to self-responsibility. When I started keeping a journal to write about how I felt about my life, I ended up becoming much more driven to make changes. I highly recommend journaling as a tool for self-awareness. Being aware of what you want is a necessary prerequisite to getting what you want. This is also extremely effective if the thing you wanted to improve was your mental health.
Being willing to take risks and be bold works out. People will respect you for it, and it works out much more often than you'd think. Audacity also involves coming up with weird ideas and attempting to follow them through. An easy one is contacting people who you respect to ask for advice. From the three times I did this, lsusr was very helpful, Paul Graham recommended a book on calculus, and a librarian at George Mason linked me to Marginal Revolution University. The other audacious things I've done have led me to many of my best friends and role models. You should try this. Be willing to bother people a little bit. Most of the time, they won't mind. Try doing the other things you think of. You won't regret it.
High school does not teach much in the way of concrete, helpful skills. The main two things that people should learn but aren't well taught are social skills and rationality. If you want to become better with people(and in turn make friends and connections), start conversations. Read How to Make Friends and Influence People; it's the classic book on being a good conversationalist and getting to know people. Read Sorry I'm Late, I didn't want to come; it will make you laugh, it might make you cry, and it will make you a better person (and a better friend). Rationality can be summarized as a reliable tool for understanding the world and accomplishing your goals. I cannot overstate how helpful it is. To understand rationality, read Rationality: From AI to Zombies; it's the rationality community's founding text.
Why be self-responsible?
Blindly following the system will not get you what you want. The system is a mix of good intentions and bad incentives, and we're unfortunate enough to be stuck in it. Read Paul Graham's The Lesson To Unlearn and What You'll Wish You'd Known to understand what school really is. Not everyone wants to dedicate time to learning calculus on their own, but the majority of people want to be happy, have good relationships with friends, and learn on their own. In order for highschoolers to accomplish this, they will have to be self-responsible. Becoming self-responsible is hard. It's much easier to just coast through these stages of your life doing the bare minimum; that's what other people in your life are directing you to do. Instead of putting as much energy into the system as possible, treat the system as a constraint.
"Okay, so I understand I need to take responsibility for myself. What now?"
Any recommendations I give may not work for you; reverse advice as necessary.
Read Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism. Follow his advice, and do a digital detox. Time spent on Reddit/Discord/TikTok makes people unhappy. Unless you enjoy scrolling through Reddit or sending memes on Discord as much as you enjoy spending quality time with friends or reading a good book, it's worthwhile to find ways to spend less time on the addictive, low-quality attention grabbers that most people spend time on.
Exercise is the best physical and mental health intervention out there. Run or bike daily, or join a sports team. Your body and your mind will thank you.
Start conversations with other people. If you like someone, ask them out. Don't be afraid to try weird things (like earrings or eyeliner for guys), but make sure to stay aware of your weirdness points.
Some miscellaneous other recommendations:
- Want to help others? Look into effective altruism
- Want to learn about life, people, and startups? Read Paul Graham's essays.
- Want to understand how the world actually works? Read Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics.
The hard part
So, you've resolved to change your behavior, and take your self-improvement into your own hands. Great! That's really important! But, it's difficult to implement change. If you want to be able to work on improving yourself for a prolonged period of time, you'll need commitment mechanisms. First, make a habit of doing the activity. If you're exercising, try having exercise be the first thing you do each day. Setting aside the two hours before I go to bed for reading and writing in my room without my phone helped me consistently read and journal. Adjust to your schedule as needed. The most powerful commitment mechanisms, though, are social. Find a friend to join you on your self-improvement journey; you can hold each other accountable. Having the threat of embarrassment or disappointment tied to falling short of your goals is an excellent motivator. I highly recommend starting some form of club or meetup with people you know who would be interested in self-responsibility. I didn't start writing this post until after lsusr reminded me that I had promised to start writing weekly blogposts six months ago. Probably a coincidence. If going it alone, Beeminder can be a very helpful tool. Good luck on your journey of self improvement.
I have a lot of respect for the friends of mine who are the exception to this rule. They've figured out what they want from life, how they plan to get it, and are doing a good job of actually carrying through with the plan. ↩︎
Important caveat: If something you're about to try is likely to hurt others, hurt yourself, or seriously limit your future options(e.g. doing something illegal, dropping out of school, joining the military), spend at least a day thinking about it and get a second opinion. ↩︎
I don't necessarily mean that people do the bare minimum in school. I mean that people do the bare minimum that they need to do to continue their life on its current path, without looking for third alternatives. If people stopped to think for a while about what would legitimately bring them the most happiness/growth/utility, high school(and the rest of the world) would look very different. Humans are not automatically strategic, after all. ↩︎
Or whatever you like to do in your spare time. I don't judge. ↩︎
Yes, ideally one would not have their mental state dependent on whether others approve of them or not. When I figure out how to achieve that, I'll write a guide. ↩︎
I plan to do this at my high school. If any student rationalists reading this are in the Northern Virginia area, PM me and I'll see if I can set something up. ↩︎