I never tried in high school. I worked hard on my extracurriculars, but in class, I had always improvised and coasted, getting A’s through a combination of natural intelligence and grade inflation. Then I got to college, and actually had to confront real academic challenges. I couldn’t just bullshit last-second papers, I couldn’t get away with not studying. But I thought everything would be okay.
It was the night before finals, and all I was doing was playing a pirate video game. “I’ll be fine,” I thought. “I’ll just bullshit my tests. School always works out for me.”
Then I got my report card back: F’s and D’s. I had never even gotten a B before in my life. My parents got a letter informing them that I was on academic probation, and that if I didn’t pass next semester, I’d be kicked out of school.
I eventually pulled my shit together, not by thinking harder, but by actually studying and turning in papers. And that was just my experience—a lot of times, people achieve success as kids, and expect that it will keep coming for the rest of their lives. Popular kids in high school freak out when their baseline attractiveness and athleticism doesn’t get them any farther in life. Kids who finish last in a race get a medal just for participating.
People grow up thinking they’re more special than they really are.
Your parents might have said it. Your girlfriend might have said that you had a beautiful soul. Your friends could have read your journal or heard you sing and said that you were talented. You might have gotten good grades and your teachers said that you were “going places.” You might listen to obscure music, or watch art films, or read books on your own, and use that as a predictor of your success, via you being different than the “average” person. You might think you see the world differently than everyone else, that you’re realer, that you see past society’s arbitrary and fucked social norms.
Of course this is all bullshit. It’s not what you know or like, but what you do. If you consider yourself special because you like different music, or movies, or books—no, you just consume different art. There are millions of kids with good grades who get told that they are “going places.”
Growing up among the success of previous generations—the houses, the achievements, the pensions—make those kind of comforts seem easy, a given. And coupled with the well-intentioned, but soft, encouragement of the previous generation, a lot of kids, I think, grow up feeling entitled to more.
Recently, I was talking to one of my friends. “I just need to get my shit together,” He said. “Things will work out for me.
“What if they don’t?” I said.
He stopped chewing his nails, let out a nervous laugh, and looked at me. “How could they not?” He said.
The truth of the matter is, things don’t work out for people. Sure, if you live in America, and are hirable and willing to work, then you won’t starve, you’ll have a place to sleep at night. But in terms of happiness—a lot of people end up with a job they hate, going home to a family they never wanted, trapped and unhappy and afraid. A lot of kids in the suburbs, who swore against their parents’ dysfunction and aborted dreams, become those same type of people. They gave up. I’m sorry but it’s true.
I work every day because I’m scared of that. I see my dad aging, and how he can’t do certain things anymore. There’s a championship window for dreams, and it’s when you’re young. I try to control my future while I still can. One day, I won’t be 20 anymore. I won’t have the opportunities that I have now.
Maybe I’m just paranoid and anxious, but I try to channel it all into ambition. Life is meaningless, and you only have one, so why not make it everything you ever wanted. I want to become the kind of person my 16-year-old self would look up to. That’s what never giving up is.
The late rapper Slim Dunkin said something like, “If you want to be a rapper, you got to rap every day. If you want to be a doctor, read a book a day.” If you want to be an doctor, artist, or any one of the coveted professions in American society, you need to put in the insane amount of work to get it.
People are “working on novels” who don’t write every day. People are “entrepreneurs” after they create a Facebook page for their company. Plato talked about this, about the “the lazy people do who feast on their thoughts…instead of finding out how something they desire might actually come about, these people pass that over, so as to avoid tiring deliberations about what’s possible.”
Don’t tell yourself a story. Ryan Holiday calls this the “narrative fallacy.” Don’t rationalize your unproductivity and lack of success as, being a “starving artist.” Don’t rationalize your laziness in college as, everyone does it, these years are for partying. Get to fucking work. Nothing will happen if you place all your belief in your individuality, “special-ness” or the fact that deep down, inside of you, you have a great novel or album or invention that will just magically produce itself when the time’s right.
No one is successful because they’re special on the inside. People are successful because they do special, real-world things. That requires hard work, and maybe actually dealing with the fact that initially, in the real world, compared to everyone else, you’re not all that different. Don’t be delusional. You’re not special, until you prove that you are. Sorry but it’s true.