The High School Years: The Worst Four, or Best Four?

I recently exchanged a couple emails with two different adults who recalled two different views on childhood/adolesence. The first was on Amy Batchelor’s post where a book reminded her of "the deep and real sadness of childhood, and how much I really like being an adult." A day later I got an email from a really successful late 30’s entrepreneur/investor: "Are you enjoying still being 17? I’ll trade you."

This is pretty representative. It seems some adults look back at their high school years as utterly wrenching – "the worst four years of my life" – while others recall it more fondly. I have to say, if these have been the worst four years of my life, then I’m going to have a good life, but that’s because I’ve had oodles of good luck.

High school – or, more generally, being a teenager – has been neither one big happy party nor one depressing nightmare. Most days I am extremely happy, excited, engaged in the world of ideas. I wake up and bound out of bed ready to tackle an impossible to-do list. A few days ago I took the Authentic Happiness test run by UPenn and soon stopped after taking the first few quizzes. It was a slam dunk. I’m a happy person – I get it – especially when compared to other people my age.

But on those rare days, I sometimes get that splash of cold water that so many of my peers endure regularly.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger
of IBM who maintains an excellent blog, recently posted on diversity and how certain groups of people need to mask their natural tendencies. He concluded, "The freedom to be who I am.  I can’t remember when I last encountered words that so succinctly captured our deepest aspirations."

I think this is an excellent summation. Only problem: most teenagers’ malaise comes from the fact you can’t just be yourself if you don’t know what "yourself" means. This doesn’t just mean one’s most natural personality. It means deeper things, like one’s sexuality, one’s relationship to the material world and religion, one’s life expectations vs. parental expectations. It is amazing how much angst these questions can cause teens – and it appears the angst has increased, as more and more teens are being diagnosed as depressed.

I’m blessed to be very "grounded" in who I am, what I believe, and the life I’m choosing to live. I, fortunately, haven’t had to struggle with these identity issues as much as my peers may have to. I haven’t had to see shrinks, cry to my friends on the phone, etc etc. This doesn’t mean I have it all figured out, or that I don’t have those random days of depressive introspection (hormonal, of course!).

Among the hundreds of comments I’ve gotten on this blog, one anonymous one has always resonated:

Oh please, Ben.  You’ve got an incredible mind, and most of your blog entries are truly engaging and interesting to read, but this sentence is just a veiled form of self-affirmation.  It has nothing to do with truly asking a question of the reader, and really only makes you come off as seeming insecure about yourself and whether reading so many books is truly a good thing to be doing with your time.  If you truly were comfortable with being told by people to "break out of your shell", you wouldn’t have to constantly keep defending just how "big and worldly" your shell is.  You would just move on, knowing full well who you are, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and why your actions will speak for themselves in the long run.  You don’t need to keep defending who you are.

There is some truth in this.

OK, enough sharing for now. Back to work.

2 comments on “The High School Years: The Worst Four, or Best Four?
  • Everyone’s experience is very different.

    I had a great childhood, despite the usual run ins with bullying and whatnot, and I have very clear memories of my family and friends from that time.

    My wife had a very different upbringing, and can barely remember most of her life before the age of 10.

    Whether or not you believe that you’ve just gone through the best four years of your life is completely irrelevant. You should treasure all of the years you have, since soon enough they will seem all too few.

    On a side note, I think Yeh’s Theory of Attractiveness applies here. One of the things I am going to explain to my son when he gets older is that girls of different ages find different things attractive.

    Just take a look at who the homecoming queen dates in high school versus whom the model marries later on in life.

    And don’t tell me that Donald Trump is a handsome man.

    If you fit into the right categories in your high school years (athletic, popular, outgoing), then you’ll probably have a good time.

    But those same characteristics help you less and less as you get older, in comparison to certain other ones (rich, powerful, famous).

    The shy, unathletic guy who grows up to be a billionaire probably considers his adulthood happier than his high school years.

    Similarly, the captain of the football team who grows up to be an insurance salesman probably looks back fondly on his high school years.

    What category do you fit into?

  • I agree with your Theory of Attractiveness, and I think I fit in both categories, actually.

    The thornier part of this is the search for an identity which plagues many teens (and many adults). You can’t “be yourself” if you don’t know yourself.

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