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.[1] 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; it's not a question people ask themselves. 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 for improving mental health.


You may be surprised by how much it is possible to accomplish out of sheer nerve. ―lsusr, Advice for High School 2

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.[2]


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've found it extremely helpful on a personal level. 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.[3] 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[4], 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, but make sure other people won't be hurt if they fail.

Some miscellaneous other recommendations:

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.[5] I highly recommend starting some form of club or meetup with people you know who would be interested in self-responsibility.[6] 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.

tl;dr: I Want To Become Stronger! x More Dakka=Self-Responsibility.

  1. 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. ↩︎

  2. 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. ↩︎

  3. 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. ↩︎

  4. Or whatever you like to do in your spare time. I don't judge. ↩︎

  5. 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. ↩︎

  6. 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. ↩︎


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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:10 PM

If you like someone, ask them out.

This is really good advice, and it took me too long to realize. I didn't realize it until last summer. I'd had an internalized "if a man asks a woman out and she isn't interested, she will resent him and think he was creepy", which... doesn't actually make sense, if the man is courteous. I asked out several people—no plausible deniability, just: "do you want to go on a date next Saturday?". 

Nothing bad happened when I was told "no thanks", and a few of them even said yes. 

Remembering my high-school days, I am happy that I followed the conventional path instead of some of my crazy ideas. There were moments when I considered quiting school and starting a company with my friends. It probably wouldn't end well... because when I actually started a company, 10 years later, it quickly went bankrupt. I lost my savings of a few years, but I already had a university diploma which helped me get some well-paying jobs later.

(The company went bankrupt partially as a result of our incompetence, and partially because of bad luck. But only in hindsight I realized that even competence and good luck often do not bring success. My more experienced friend insists that the most dangerous moment for a company is when it actually starts making profit... suddenly many co-founders realize they do not really want to share their first million with a guy who could be replaced by a moderately-paid employee. This is a situation when people often find themselves stabbed in the back, either because they signed a document where they didn't read the small print carefully, or their partner simply started another company and redirected the business to it. Do not overestimate the importance of your skills.)

The advantage of the educational system is that you only do it once, and then you have credentials for the rest of your life. This will be very useful if you end up being an employee (the prior probability is quite high). But of course, after doing the "minimum + safety margin" to secure your future membership in the educated caste, turn off Reddit (or whatever it is kids use these days) and start the self-improvement spiral, as described in the article.

I disagree with the Paul Graham quote, since most adults don't take responsibility for themselves either. :(

Interesting. In what ways?

In my experience, a lot of adults just replace their parents with their boss, partner, cult leader, etc. (assuming they don't just keep relying on their parents for everything for their entire lives).

"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)."

Strangely, when I click the link, it links me to this very post. I think this is an error.

EDIT: This is also true of the "How to Make Friends and Influence People" link.

Thank you for pointing that out--should be fixed now.

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